Ancient Egyptian Wisdom: The Maxims of Ptahhotep

This post is part of the ‘Ancient Egyptian Wisdom’ series, please read the following first part: Ancient Egyptian Wisdom: Egypt – Source of All Knowledge and Wisdom?

Ptahhotep, (flourished 2400 bce), vizier of ancient Egypt who attained high repute in wisdom literature. His treatise “The Maxims of Ptahhotep,” probably the earliest large piece of Egyptian wisdom literature available to modern scholars, was written primarily for young men of influential families who would soon assume one of the higher civil offices. Ptahhotep’s proverbial sayings upheld obedience to a father and a superior as the highest virtue, but they also emphasized humility, faithfulness in performing one’s own duties, and the ability to keep silence when necessary.

Following are the first ten instructions given by the vizier Ptahhotep to his successor, his son:

Maxim 1: ‘‘Do not be haughty because of your knowledge, But take counsel / with the unlearned man as well as with the learned,For no one has ever attained perfection of competence, And there is no craftsman who has acquired (full) mastery. Good advice is rarer than emeralds, But yet it may be found even among women at the grindstones.

Maxim 2: If you come up against an aggressive adversary (in court), One who has influence and is more excellent than you, Lower your arms and bend your back, For if you stand up to him, he will not give in to you. You should disparage his belligerent speechBy not opposing him in his vehemence. The result will be that he will be called boorish, And your control of temper will have equaled / his babble.

Maxim 3: If you come up against an aggressive adversary, Your equal, one who is of your own social standing, You will prove yourself more upright than he by remaining silent, While he speaks vengefully. The deliberation by the judges will be somber, But your name will be vindicated in the decision of the magistrates.

Maxim 4: If you come up against an aggressive adversary, A man of low standing, one who is not your equal, Do not assail him in accordance with his lowly estate. Leave him be, and he will confound himself. Do not answer him in order to vent your frustration; Do not alleviate your anger at the expense of your adversary. Wretched is he / who persecutes one who is inept. Things will turn out in accordance with your will, And you will defeat him through the censure of the magistrates.

Maxim 5: If you are a ruler responsible for the concerns of the populace, Search for every opportunity to do good, So that there may be no shortcoming in your actions. Great is Ma’at, and its foundation is firmly established; It has not been shaken since the time of Osiris, And he who violates the laws must be punished. In the eyes of the covetous man it goes unnoticed That wealth can be lost through dishonesty, And that wrongdoing does not result in success. He says, / ‘I will procure (wealth) for myself.’ He does not say, ‘I will procure (wealth) through my diligence.’ But in the long run it is Ma’at which endures, And an (honest) man may state: ‘This is my ancestral property.’

Maxim 6: Do not stir up fear in people, Or God will punish in equal measure. A man may determine to live thereby, But he will (eventually) be lacking in bread for his mouth. A man may decide to become / rich, And he may say, ‘I will snatch for myself whatever I see.’ A man may decide to cheat another, But he will end up by giving (his gains) to a total stranger. It is not what men devise that comes to pass, But what God determines comes to pass. Live, therefore, contentedly, And let what they give come of its own accord.

Maxim 7: If you should be one of those sitting (as guests) At the table of someone who is greater than you, Accept what he serves when it is placed in front of you. Look only at what is right in front of you, And do not stare at him constantly, For to force yourself upon him is an irritation to his spirit. Do not speak to him until he invites you (to do so), For one never knows what may be annoying. You should speak only when he addresses you, And (then) what you say will be of interest. You should laugh only when he laughs, And (this) will be very pleasant to his heart. As for a nobleman when he is at the table, His demeanor is determined by his mood.

He will be generous to the one whom he favors, For such is the way once night has come. It is his mood which prompts him to be generous; A nobleman may give, but an (ordinary) man should not presume uponhim. The eating of bread is under / the governance of God, And it is only a churl who complains about it.

Maxim 8: If you are a man entrusted with responsibility, One whom one nobleman sends to another, Be meticulous in your duty when he sends you,And deliver his message exactly as he dictates it.Resist (doing) anything offensive by (making) a comment Which could cause one nobleman to be annoyed with the other.Observe the truth; do not surpass it, Although one should not repeat an angry speech. Do not speak against any person, be he great or small, For this serves only to arouse the temper.

Maxim 9: If you engage in agriculture, and (your) field prospers, And God causes it to increase under your hand, Do not talk (about it) incessantly around your neighborhood, For it is important that one should practice the discretion appropriate tothe prudent man. It is the man of integrity who is the possessor of (true) wealth, And in the court he conquers like a crocodile. Do not praise him who has no children, Neither speak ill nor boast about it, For it is common that a father may be in misery, And as for a mother who has given birth, another may be happier than she. It is the lone man / of whom God takes care, And the head of a family may pray for someone to succeed him.

Maxim 10: If you are humble and the servant of a well-to-do man, Let all your behavior be flawless before God. If you should learn that he was once of low estate, Do not be disdainful toward him Because you have learned about his past. Respect him in accordance with what he has made of himself, For wealth does not come of its own accord, But it is the ordinance of the gods for one whom they favor. As for his possessions, he has gathered them himself, But it is God who has made him respectable And watches over him even when he sleeps.

This chapter, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, was taken from the book The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions and Poetry


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