Reasonings on Ptahhotep’s Maxims, Part III

On the Physical Nature of the Soul

That the soul is either physical, or has a physical component, according to Ptahhotep and as understood by him, is attested in his assertion that a man’s son is the “seed of his ka“, which translates as soul, and not just the seed of his body (II.12).

Consistent with this view, a son would inherit both physical and spiritual or mental/psychological qualities from his parents. Both free will and determinism are affirmed, using as an example the chance we take every time we have a child. We do not know what will be the nature of his character and skills. In other words, we inherit the nature of our soul and not just physical traits, and insofar as we inherit certain physical and spiritual attributes, nature places limits on our freedom.

This is a complex concept, one which has some interesting philosophical repercussions, however I am here more insterested in exploring the notion of the physicality and nature of the soul, as this is a subject that is very underdeveloped in Epicurean and materialist philosophical discourse.

There are a few concrete examples of the physicality of the soul and of soul phenomena in Ptahhotep’s Maxims. In II.14 we learn of his belief that the belly is where great anger, raw passions, evils, take place in the body; it is the region of Seth, the evil god who betrayed and murdered his own brother Osiris and abused his nephew Horus.

Later, in II.17 the philosopher argues that the one who pleads is “purging his body”. It’s possible that this was just an expression, just as we attach physicality to the soul with expressions like carrying a heavy burden or load (worries), tense relations (the stress and tension are felt in the muscles), etc. However, these expressions are no less intuitively accurate, and in fact when we open up about things that have been bothering us for a long time, we may feel cleansed, less tense, purged, afterwards.

In Spanish, the term for when someone therapeutically lets it all out and speaks his mind, releasing his emotions, is “desahogarse“, which literally translate as un-drowning-oneself. Presumably, a person who is going through emotional turmoil feels like he or she is drowning and must speak his mind. A similar intuitive verbal cue is given in these Ancient Egyptian expressions: the body must be purged, cleansed. Research by William Frey cited in PsychCentral demonstrates that tears are full of the toxins that we release when we cry.

A man in distress wants to wash his heart more than win the case. Not all pleas can be granted, but a good hearing calms the heart. – Maxims of Ptahhotep II.17

It is therefore understood that listening to another human being is, in itself, an act of kindness and compassion.

On Coolness and Heat

In II.25, Ptahhotep speaks about the flames of the hot of heart. This is a complex religious and metaphysical subject that is also present in other African traditions that warn against hot-headedness and advise specific ceremonies meant to “cool the head”. In the Tablet of Yays and Nays I discussed this briefly while making the point that we should make philosophy tangible in physical reality.

But heat is not always and entirely bad: there’s a natural measure of warmth that humans need. Our closest ape relatives are very tactile, particularly during their first two years of life, and need constant physical and tactile reassurance from others. Vesta, the deity of the hearth and home, is symbolized by a sacred flame, a sacred warmth that is at the core of what it means to have a home. While doing research for my book, I stumbled upon research by Dr. Zhong which demonstrates that loneliness feels literally cold.

The Soul in Therapy and in Psychological Immunity

The near universality of notions about the soul or spirit seems to indicate an archetype. In other words, in addition to our physical traits, we are also born with instincts or psychological traits which find expression in religious concepts such as this one.

Just as humans engage in a victory dance that is similar to expressions of power that are universally seen in greater apes, similarly humans engage in a spiritual technique of reaching out for what the ancient Egyptians called the double (which they called the Ba), raising our arms to heaven in prayer. One rarely orients oneself towards the floor in prayer. This behavior may be archetypal, as it is seen in many cultures.

Do we have an instinct to seek the better, wiser part of ourselves through communication? Epicurus seemed to believe we did. He plainly stated: “To pray is natural“. This says nothing about the supernatural beings or higher self that we may envision, but it does say something about human nature and about our natural and instinctive use of therapeutic means. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert suggested that humans have a psychological immune system in addition to a physical one.

The Egyptian notion of Ba finds its highest scriptural expression in Berlin Papyrus 3024, known as The Discussion between a man and his Ba, where the Ba or double clearly takes on the role of preserving the life of man. The best English translation of this papyrus is the book Rebel in the Soul, by Egyptologist Bika Reed. It includes very interesting clarifying comments. In this document we see all the subtleties of Ba as well as the very sophisticated metaphysical concepts that the Ancient Egyptians used to entertain.

The papyrus relates that a man is depressed and considering suicide, and argues with his Ba – which Bika Reed translates as ‘destiny’, but in the papyrus, this Ba is clearly personified and even has marked differences of opinion with the mortal ego, so that it is more appropriate to translate Ba as the ‘Spirit of destiny’, or maybe ‘the Future Self’. It is far beyond the scope of this article to relate this to Nietzsche’s Ubermansch, but because the Overman acted as Nietzsche’s euphemism for man’s destiny, I must at least mention that there seems to be a parallel concept here.

The responsibility of Ba in the papyrus account is to ensure that the man fulfils ALL of his destiny until the day of his death, which is appointed from heaven (or by nature), and so Ba must not allow suicide to take place. It is Ba who decides the time of death, not the mortal ego: and so, there is a distinction between ego and Ba where Ba is wiser and superior and acts as the Guardian of man’s destiny. In the papyrus, the poor man contemplating suicide says:

Dying for me today
is health to the sick;
as liberation from slavery.

Dying for me today
is myrrh;
as a refuge from a windy day.

Dying for me today
is smelling a lotus;
like being on the shores of ecstasy.

Dying for me today
flood is coming;
as returning home from the war.

In reply to these lamentations, the Ba exhibits compassion and tries to console and reason with the mortal, offering numerous arguments against suicide.

While you’re conscious,
you belong to life.

It is interesting to consider the possibility that this Ba may be, not a spirit or Guardian angel, but an instinct, an immune function of a normal human psyche, that we may access this part of our psyche through some of the techniques that religion proposes, and that these techniques might be empirically evaluated through experiments. Their usefulness does not prove the supernatural claims of religions, which are often mutually contradictory, but non-religious people might use these techniques to relate to themselves instead of relating with gods or spirits.

Inasmuch as humans exhibit a universal natural tendency to fortify themselves mentally and to self-medicate through prayer and other instinctive forms of therapy in support of their mental health, a case can probably be made in favor of exploring therapeutic methods of this sort, and incorporating them as part of what ancient Epicureans would have called techne biou, an art of living.

 Further Reading:

Rebel in the Soul: An Ancient Egyptian Dialogue Between a Man and His Destiny, by Bika Reed

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


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of 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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2 Responses to Reasonings on Ptahhotep’s Maxims, Part III

  1. Pingback: Religion as Play | The Autarkist

  2. Pingback: Religion as Play | The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog

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