Reasonings on Ptahhotep’s Maxims, Part I

Kindness is man’s memorial. – Maxims of Ptahhotep II.34

Ptahhotep (whose name means “the Peace of the god Ptah”) is the most prominent philosopher and sage that we have record of from Ancient Egypt. He was believed to have lived to a ripe old age (according to the text, of over 100 years old) and his wisdom is collected in his Maxims, which are divided into three parts: the Prologue, the Teaching and the Epilogue, and seem to have constituted advise that he was giving for the profit of his son.

The Maxims contain religious teachings and some religious ideas, together with prohibitions against greed (II.20), theft (II.31), and other crimes, and a small bit of what may be considered today anti-women and anti-gay speech. The text also prescribes roles according to one’s social class and place in the social hierarchy, and in this it’s a bit reminiscent of Confucius. We should not be surprised about this: the entire religious and ethical system of the Egyptians was based on the belief in their Emperor-God and in the preservation of a certain cosmic order.

Before we delve into the reasonings, I wish to remind the reader that this is an extremely ancient document, and is somewhat sophisticated for its day. I know of no other society of its day that was producing this kind of literature. It’s believed to be over 4,200 years old. Although I consider the duty-based system of philosophy taught by Ptahhotep as flawed, I am amazed at how early in history this was written and am particularly interested in ancient Egyptians notions related to the physicality of the soul, a theme which is also prominent in Epicurean therapy and philosophy, and in a few of the other parallel texts.

Ma’at

A complex religious, cosmological, and ethical concept, Ma’at usually translates as righteousness or propriety, order, harmony, and the pleasure we derive from it. Ma’at is also a Goddess, the measurer of our good or evil deeds.

The curious thing about Ma’at is that she is said to confer imperturbability (ataraxia) to great men, where isfet (the quality of evil, chaos, turmoil, trouble: that is, perturbances) is said to take it away. As we see when we read A Few Days in Athens, there is a connection between virtue and pleasure and imperturbability, where virtue (or Ma’at, to use Egyptian terminology) is that which leads to pleasure and isfet is that which leads to pain or disturbance. This is made plain in Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines, where evil is described as it is felt and experienced by the evil man: as a perturbation, a pang from our conscience, and a fear of being discovered.

17. The just man is most free from disturbance, while the unjust is full of the utmost disturbance.

34. Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which is associated with the apprehension of being discovered by those appointed to punish such actions.

35. It is impossible for a man who secretly violates the terms of the agreement not to harm or be harmed to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for until his death he is never sure that he will not be detected.

In other words, insofar as a man is evil, he can not experience pure imperturbability. Ptahhotep explains this by saying that the “criminal has no peace” (II.5).

On Speech

Protocol for disputes varies according to social standing, which again is of  huge importance in hierarchical society: with inferiors we are advised to have distance and to display no aggression.

In a section that warns against punishing the messenger instead of the one who sends the message, II.15, we are told that we are responsible (only) for what we say. Prudent silence is highly valued. Those who know when to be silent are said to get more respect in society.

II.23-24 teaches that haters will be hated, that we should use words only if they’re useful, and that silence is best.

We are advised to restrain speech before evil speakers. Ptahhotep advises that we give imprudent people the silent treatment as a way to “belittle evil speech” saying of the opponent that “he will be called a know-nothing”.

Do not boast about it at your neighbour’s side, for one has great respect for the silent man. (II.9)

In II.8, it says that “the ka abhors when we speak ill of others“, and here the ka is not just our soul or double, but a kind of conscience, a moral authority. II.14 says that we can gain trust and power by good speech, which produces good reputation.

All of these teachings resonate with ancient Egyptian belief in the power of words, or heka. Heka are not just words of power in the social and political sense: they can also be incantations, conjuring spirits and hidden powers. This belief was deeply embedded in Egyptian culture. It explains the authority of scribe-priests and of hieroglyphs as pockets of magical power, and it explains practices related to using people’s names, as it was believed that using a name implied power over the spirit or person being named. This taboo made its way into the Biblical commandment against using God’s name in vain and helps to explain the folk beliefs behind it.

But heka is not the only thing that holds power in this wisdom tradition. There’s also, as we have seen, a certain power in silence.

On Listening

The epilogue of the work concerns itself primarily with the virtues of being a good listener, particularly as this concerns the son or the hearer of the maxims. As for the speaker, the words of the father must profit the son.

Honoring the sages is a great benefit to the one who does the honoring. – Hermarchus

As for the listener, he must be a “master of listening”, and if so he is “adjusted in his inner beings”, which is an honor to his father. As we saw in Confucius, making a mentor proud is an achievement and a source of satisfaction. If he does not listen, he will end up treating evil and its ill effects as good.

 Further Reading:

Enumeration used in these reasonings is from this translation of Ptahhotep’s Maxims

The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, from the translation by Battiscombe G. Gunn

The Maxims, from humanistictexts.org

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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