Kwasi Konadu

The Instructions of Ptahhotep, Kmt/Ancient Egypt

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment
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Ptahhotep (ptāħ ħwtp) was a sage, city administrator, royal official and oldest son of Djedkare Isesi, the fifth dynasty ruler (r. 2414-2375 BCE) under which the “Instructions of Ptahhotep” were recorded. The instructions of Ptahhotep are one of several “wisdom” texts found in ancient Egypt. They are typically composed in narrative form. In this text, a father and famous sage instructs his son. This particular set of precepts, however, stands out because they touch upon the most important aspects of human relations and yet the most central ideals for which members of this African kingdom held in high regard. In that kingdom, members of society were measured by the principles of self-control, moderation, kindness, generosity, justice, and truthfulness (used with discretion), which suggests not harmony but a way of guarding against the excesses of power, ruthlessness, and untruth. These virtues, then, tell us the ideal person was thoughtful, calm, and paid attention to the divine—in fact, the ordered world created by humans in ancient Egypt was a mirror image of the order that governed the cosmos. These virtues also suggest the “instructions” were composed at a time when society was prosperous, ordered, and secure, signalling social ideals were propagated not only in times of war--as a function of nationalism--but also in times of peace and prosperity. Djedkare’s reign tends to support this contention, because the ruler ushered in administrative reforms as well as fostered trade relations with Nubia for its gold.

The Instruction of the [mayor] of [the] city, the vizier Ptahhotep, in the reign of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, [Djedkare Isesi], [who lives] forever, to the end of time.[1]

The [mayor] of [the] city, the vizier Ptahhotep, [said…]

…Let me speak unto [my son] the words of [those] that [heard] the ways of the [ancestors] of old time; those that once [listened to] the [ancient divinities]. I pray [that such a] thing be done [for you], [so] that [strife] may be banished from among [the people… and] that [you] may enlighten the [two shores of this land].

Said the majesty of this [divinity, Ptahhotep]: “Instruct him, then, in the words of [the past]; may he be a [model for] the children of [the great], that [obedience] may enter and [listen] with him. Make straight all their hearts; and discourse with him, [for no one is born wise].”

Here begins the [formulations] of [excellent] speech, spoken by the hereditary [leader], the holy father, beloved of the [divine], the eldest son of the king, the [mayor] of [the] city, the vizier Ptahhotep, [in] instructing the ignorant in the knowledge [and in the standard] of [excellent speech]; [as] glory [to] him [who will hear], [as woe to] him that [neglects] them. He [spoke to] his son:

[Do] not [be] proud [of your knowledge…]; [seek advise from] the ignorant man [and from] the [wise]. For no limit can be set to skill, neither is there any [artisan’s skill] that [are perfect…]. [Good] speech is more rare than the emerald, [yet may be] found [among the maidens at] the [grindstones].

If [you come across] an arguer talking, one that is more powerful and wiser than [you], [fold your] arms [and] bend [your] back, [to] be angry with him [will not make him] agree… with [you]. Refrain from [speech by not opposing] him [while… he speaks]. [He will be called an ignoramus and your self-control will surpass…] his contentions.

If [you come across] an arguer talking, [who is your equal, on your level, keep silent…] when he [speaks evilly, you shall…] be wiser than he. Great will be the applause on the part of the listeners, and [your] name shall be good in the minds of [the judges].

If [you come across] an arguer talking, a poor man that is… not [your] equal, [do] not [be] scornful toward him because he is [weak]. Let him alone; then [he will invalidate] himself. [Do not answer] him… to please [your] heart, neither [vent yourself against your opponent…]; it is shameful to [injure] a [poor man]. [One will wish] to do that which [is] in [their] heart, overcome [him through the judges’ rebuke].

If [you] have ploughed [and] gather [your] harvest in the field, and the [divine allows…] it [to prosper] under [your] hand. [Do] not [boast…] at your neighbors’ [side; one has respect for the silent man: a man of character possesses…] wealth, [if] he steals, [he is] like a crocodile [in the court. Do] not… be envious [of one who is without] children; let him [neither decry nor be boastful because] of it….

If [you want your…] actions [to] be [perfect], [to be free] from all malice, and beware of the [vice] of [greed], which is a grievous inner [sickness]. Let it not [fall onto you because there is no cure]. It [puts] at [odds fathers, mothers] and the relatives of the [mothers….]; it [parts] the wife and the husband. It [is a compound of] all evils; it is the [bundle] of all wickedness. But the [person] that is just flourishes, [who walks in line with] truth [and that person will make a will by it], not in the dwelling of [greed].

Sources: Battiscombe George Gunn, The Instruction of Ptahhotep and the Instruction of Ke’gemni: The Oldest Books in the World (London: John Murray, 1908), 41-43, 45-46, 50. See also Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, volume 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 61-76; Charles F. Horne, The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), 2: 62-78.

[1] The vizier was a royal official, usually the ruler’s relative.