The Maxims of Good Discourse
or the
Wisdom of Ptahhotep
ca.2200 BCE

the art of hearing, listening & excellent discourse
the plumb-line of the scales & the state of veneration

by Wim van den Dungen

the Scribe of Saqqara
IVth or Vth Dynasty (ca.2600 - 2348 BCE)

Adjacent Pages :

plain text of the Maxims
notes on the translation
lexicon of special concepts
hieroglyphic text of the Maxims

The translation of The Maxims of Good Discourse is part of my Ancient Egyptian Readings (2016), a POD publication in paperback format of all translations available at These readings span a period of thirteen centuries, covering all important stages of Ancient Egyptian literature. Translated from Egyptian originals, they are ordered chronologically and were considered by the Egyptians as part of the core of their vast literature.

The study of the sources, hieroglyphs, commentaries and pictures situating the text itself remain on the website at no cost.

A new translation with commentary.


1 Did the historical Ptahhotep write the Maxims of Good Discourse ?

2 Philological & Historical remarks and options.

2.1 Papyrus Prisse, the British Museum Papyri and the Carnarvon Tablet.
lexicon of major concepts, notes to the text, plain text, hieroglyphic text
2.2 Hermeneutics of Ancient Egyptian.
2.3 A few points of importance concerning the Memphite Kingdom.

3 The Memphite Philosophy of Order through Just Speech.

3.1 Various perspectives on Maat.
3.2 The hermeneutics of the Weighing Scene.
3.3 Hearing versus listening, ignorance versus wisdom.



The Maxims of Good Discourse, named after the 37 wisdom sayings which make out the bulk of this ancient text, is indeed a literary composition, i.e. a text which shows deliberate cognitive design beyond that of a record, list or collection of moral ideas. This ancient text (ca. 4400 years old), written by a man called "Ptahhotep" ("ptH-Htp"), has been labelled a "moral" text which does not "amount to a comprehensive moral code", nor are its precepts "strung together in any logical order" (Lichtheim, 1975, vol 1, p.62) ... 

Is the category "logical order" (in its Greek sense) applicable to the context of Ancient Egyptian thought, writing and verbalisation ? Besides morality, Ptahhotep also teaches, by example, anthropology, politics and the emancipation of everyman. Indeed, he touches "upon the most important aspects of human relations" (Lichtheim, 1975, vol 1, p.62). Moreover, the compositional backbone of this remarkable text, written as early as the late VIth Dynasty (ca.2200 BCE), is "discourse" and its dynamics, which is suggestive of the verbal philosophy of Memphis. Furthermore, an "ascetical" approach to divinity is present, for none of the gods (except for his Majesty the Pharaoh, Osiris, Maat and the "Followers of Horus") are mentioned by name. "Netjer" ("nTr", "god") is mentioned as one flagpole without determinative. The "netjeru" ("nTrw", the plural of "god" or "the gods") are invoked by that word only once (line 24), and are next referred to as "they". 

This absence of constellational elements contrasts with the contemporay royal texts, such as the Unis-Texts and will remain typical for didactical literature as a whole. There we read that "gods" (like Pharaoh) "fly" and ordinary men "hide" (Sethe, 1908/1960,
Utterance 302, § 459a, vol.1, p.236). Ptahhotep thus also offers the Old Kingdom solution to the soteriology of the non-royal officials and commoners. The teaching itself however, can be recommended to everybody, Pharaoh and non-royals alike.

In the expression "tjesu en medjet neferet" (line 33 - "Tsw n md.t nfr.t"), usually translated as "the maxims of good discourse", the word "tjes" ("Ts"), "maxim" can also mean "speech, utterance" or "phrase, sentence" (Faulkner, 1999, p.308). The determinative of a papyrus roll (writing and thinking) is added. 

The word "nefer" ("nfr") has a complex field of semantical connotations, being of use in more than one context. It shares this characteristic with other important Egyptian words, such as "hearing", "truth", "justice", "becoming" etc. These "special" coordinated schemes, pre-concepts and concrete concepts define the fundamental semantics of the edifice of Egyptian philosophy was construed, i.e. notions & (pre-)concepts which elucidate the origin & the continuity of creation and humanity in it. Other meanings of "nefer" are "beautiful of appearence, kind of face, good, fine of quality, necessary, happy of condition" (Faulkner, 1999, p.131). So a broader context is suggested. The maxims describe a kind of discourse which produces a happy life. Although actions are important, proper speech is even more. An element of necessity is invoked, so that one may say that if a "good" discourse is made, the enduring effects will be generated "de opere operato". Morality (good or evil actions) is hence rooted in thought & speech (good or bad speech), and this in accord with the theology of Memphis).

In the mythical, neolithic mind, stability and order were sacred. Natural cycles manifested the enduring as part of creation. Cycles related to birth, growth, death & rebirth became the domain of the "great goddess" of the sacred (in Ancient Egypt, ca. 4000 BCE). The notion that the human skeleton represents the enduring within man is (still) part of Shamanism, the natural, unorganized, religious culture of the hunters & early settlers, so prominent in the Neolithic. Mummification takes the conservation of the ephemeral a step further, for here that which is meant to disappear (flesh & blood), is sustained, to allow for an everlasting existence of the personality ("Ka") and the soul ("Ba") with its mummy, i.e. a "second birth" in the kingdom of Osiris. To challenge the process of decay was one of the essential features of funerary preoccupations, indeed, characteristic of the Ancient Egyptian mentality as a whole. The mummified viscera prove the point.

The message of Ptahhotep seeks to transmit that which endures in the realm of the heart, the abode of consciousness, free will, conscience, thought and speech (in short, the "mind"). The maxims exemplify Maat. By truly understanding each "example", the "son" (pupil, disciple), who heard and listened, acquires rectitude of mind, affect and action, the proper balance and steering capacities to navigate the heart in such a way that efficient and luminous results ensue and evil, injustice and irrationality flee. As a true Memphite, Ptahhotep puts all his trust in the cognitive capacities, especially in speech. The wise acquires just speech. The hierarchy of justice typical for the Old Kingdom is of course presupposed :

Order of Creation
deities ONLY
Re creates Maat the state of the spirits
immortal & eternal
Order of Pharaoh
Pharaoh returns Maat the divine soul
deified & immortal
Order of Society
Egypt circulates Maat the state of veneration
justified & surviving

Besides Pharaoh, nobody addressed the spirits (of the gods & goddesses who abide in the sky) directly. He alone mediated between heaven and earth because he was the only god on earth. In particular, his voice-offerings were the performance of rectitude, so that through them Pharaoh returned Maat to its creator, his father Re and by doing so guaranteed an order which could at any time be disrupted. He (and his representatives) were the only one able to do so. Pharaoh embodied Egypt and the Nile embodied Egypt. This grand river, flowing from South to North, yearly fed Egypt by inundating the Two Lands. The circulation of goods along it, had been essential in the process of unification of the land, and the establishment in the "House of Ptah" at Memphis ("Men-nefer") of the "Balance of the Two Lands", as the Memphis Theology claims : 

"Then Heru stood over the land. He is the uniter of this land, proclaimed in the great name : Tanen, South-of-his-Wall, lord of eternity. Then sprouted (14c) the two Great in Magic upon his head. He is Heru who arose as king of Upper and Lower Egypt, who united the Two Lands in the Nome of the (White) Wall, the place in which the Two Lands were united. (15c) Reed (heraldic plant for Upper Egypt) and papyrus (heraldic plant for Lower Egypt) were placed on the double door of the House of Ptah. That means : Heru and Seth, pacified and united. They fraternized so as to cease quarreling (16c) wherever they may be, being united in the House of Ptah, the 'Balance of the Two Lands' in which Upper and Lower Egypt had been weighed."
Memphis Theology : lines 13c - 16c

Endurance was also the motivation behind inscribing the divine words in stone (another activity ruled by Ptah). To writing was attributed the capacity to abolish the temporal limitations of speech and to extend the latter infinitely. The texts were inscribed on the walls of the tomb, the sarcophagus (coffin) and the mummy (in the form of amulets & talismans). The deceased was not supposed to "read" these words, but he or she remained in the vincinity of their sacramental "sekhem" (power), eternalized through writing & ritual.

Old Kingdom religion envisaged two ways to explain the world. Either through self-creation or as a product of divine cognition & speech. 

The Heliopolitans (Heliopolis, "Iunu") taught that order (creation) was self-caused ("kheper" - "xpr") in the midst of undifferentiated chaos, darkness and oblivion (the "Nun", or primordial water, a cultless deity). Chaos continued to lurk in the darkness of the deep, and might be encountered during sleep (bad dreams) or in the netherworld (when born again like Osiris). Its most horrible manifestation in creation was the annihilation of a person's name ("ren"), which might happen to the deceased if judgement was negative and the person was not justified (its heart eaten by the monsterous devouress of the dead or "am mwt", which had the head and the jaws of a crocodile, the hind quaters of a hippopotamus and the middle part of a lion).

In the beginning, creation unfolded out of a point of absolute singularity. This alternation-point ("Atum", "tm", suggestive of completion, totality) was conceived by the Heliopolitans (the dominant royal theology of the Old Kingdom) as "causa sui" and fugal. Atum created himself by masturbating, taking his own seed into his mouth and spitting out (sneezing) the constituents of creation (the nine basic elements of creation, Atum -the monadic principle- included). Together with Pharaoh (the 10th element or pyramideon), the sacred decad of order was realized, both in the sky (the Ennead) as on earth (the Residence of Pharaoh).

This primordial creative activity was imagined to "happen" in a realm which existed in-between pre-creation and creation, situated as the "first time", the "beginning" ("zep tepy" - "zp tpii"), absolute time (or no-time). Creation was the ejection (cf. Big Bang) out of this point of singularity (Atum and his mythical deed of self-impregnation). This Crown of creation permanently oscillated between the order of creation and the mythical "first time". This monad simultaneously split into two fundamental creative principles (space -Shu- and time -Tefnut-), out of which the multitudes orderly emerged.

The Memphites taught that Ptah was the creator of the universe. He was the creator of chaos and of Atum. In their theology, the whole Heliopolitan process happens in the "form" or "image" of events in the heart and on the tongue of Ptah. "Atum" is a creative verb, image, scheme or model. Its functionality (and that of other important deities such as Horus and Thoth) is not denied, but seen as an outward manifestation (theophany) of the all-encompassing cognitive activity of the speaking Ptah (cf. the creative verb). This focus on manifestation through speech can also be found in the royal funerary texts (largely Heliopolitan) and in "Khemenu" (Hermopolis, the city of Thoth & magic), were the sacred Ibis dropped the creative word in the primordial ocean, therewith creating the universe.

These cosmogonic speculations, essential to understand the broader context of any discourse on wisdom, belong to the order of creation (the deities) and to the order of Egypt (Pharaoh). Ptahhotep's work, adhering to the Memphite accent on discourse, aims to propose a "way of life" valid for everybody. Although the base of the pyramid offers no panorama, its fundamental role is unmistaken, for it carries everything above it. What can be said of the situation of everybody ? Ptahhotep does not deny the existence of higher types of rectitudes. The deities ("god" and "the gods") and Pharaoh are mentioned by name, but are not aimed at in the maxims, although the proper circulation of Maat depends on them. But what can be done by someone with no divine soul ("Ba") ? How far does wisdom alone take such a person ?

The Weighing Scene
Papyrus of Ani - XIXth Dynasty

One of the motivations behind these studies is the clarification of the distinction between Egyptian and Greek philosophy, between ante-rationality (and its irrational foundation in mythical thought) and rationality. Indeed, Greek philosophy emerged as a culture of rational debate at the heart of the "polis", the city-state. The conflicts between systems of thought were much like political differences : they needed to be solved in public through argument & dialogue, and logic and/or rhetorics were the means to realize this. By realizing that pre-Greek, ante-rational speculation existed and by investigating these philosophical strands, one may disentangle the polemic nature of Greek philosophy from general philosophy, which is the persuit of wisdom by all possible means (i.e. it is not exclusively rational, although never irrational, i.e. purely mythical).

In Egypt's Old Kingdom, the wisdom of the didactical texts dealt with the continuity of truth and justice. These wisdom texts can and should be distinguished from schemata, pre-concepts & concepts related to natural philosophy (the origin of the world - cosmogony, which mainly flourished in the New Kingdom - cf. Amun-Re & the Aten) and verbal philosophy (the idea that words are creative). Although Marxist, atheist and humanist philosophers claimed that Ancient Egypt only produced a "cosmic" moral code unable to separate "is" from "ought", the difference between the natural (descriptive - how things are) and moral (normative - how thing should be) order was indeed part of Ancient Egyptian philosophy (cf. infra). That their moral theory was in accord with their cosmology, does not reduce the Ancient Egyptian sense of justice to their ontological scheme of how things are. It is thanks to the hard work of post-war egyptologists of all disciplines and nationalities that philosophers today may try to understand the cognitive, philosophical, spiritual, religious & theological implications of the Ancient Egyptian heritage and its profound, complex influence on all cultures of the Mediterranean.

Hence, the words "wisdom" and "philosophy", although applicable in the general sense as a conceptualized, practical investigation of the being of creation and man, do not have dialogal & polemic associations. And of course, pre-Greek philosophies never worked with the "tabula rasa" principle, neither with the Razor of Ockham, but rather with a multiplicity (complementarity) of approaches (as evidenced by the different cosmogonies). Different answers were as it were put on top of each other. Wisdom was tradition embedded in context. This absence of debate and lively discussions does not imply the absence of philosophy, i.e. the quest for a comprehensive understanding (within the limitations of the given modes of cognition) of the universe and the situation of humanity, as shown by the Maxims of Good Discourse. That proto-rational thought is not a priori devoid of philosophical inclinations, may well a discovery which balances the Hellenocentric approach of wisdom, so fashionable in the West since the Renaissance.

In what follows, Ptahhotep and his text are highlighted. My translation was inspired by the work of Dévaud (1916), Zába (1956), Lichtheim (1975), Lalouette (1984), Brunner (1991) & Jacq (1993) and distances itself from an approach which deviates too much from the original text, such as the questionable translation of Laffont (1979), or which limits itself to the translation of only a few maxims.

1 Did the historical Ptahhotep
write the Maxims of Good Discourse ?

Ptahhotep (I) was the vizier of king Djedkare Isesi of the Vth Dynasty. His son was Akhethotep, who was also a vizier. He and his family were buried at Saqqara. His tomb is a mastaba located in North Saqqara (D62), where he was to laid rest by himself. His grandson was Ptahhotep Tshefi (or Ptahhotep II), who lived under king Unis and who was buried in the mastaba of his father Akhethotep. Their double mastaba (D64) is famous for its outstanding depictions. While the grandfather of Ptahhotep II is credited with authoring the Maxims, Ptahhotep II is traditionally credited to be the author.

At the end of the corridor to the right of a pillard hall and then left is Ptahhotep's burial chamber. The reliefs there are the best preserved of the Old Kingdom. The ceilings are imitations of the trunks of palm trees.

The mastaba of Ptahhotep II is a double mastaba which he shared with his father, Akhethotep. His room is quite similar to Ptahhotep's, although less decorated.

The tomb suggests that Ptahhotep must have held a very important position during the reign of Pharaoh Djedkare (ca. 2411 - 2378 BCE), the predecessor of Unis (cf. the Cannibal Hymn). 

In his tomb, Ptahhotep describes himself as a priest of Maat. He was also the vizier, the chief of the treasury and the granary, as well as a judge. The reliefs found inside are not all completed.

The main corridor has reliefs on both sides. On the left are what appear to be preliminary drawings in red. Over the red are corrections in black made by the master artist.

Other reliefs show fowl being carried by servants to Ptahhotep.
Mastaba of Ptahhotep - Saqqara

Back into the pillard hall and to the left is the chamber of Akhethotep. Through a passageway to the left is a chamber that contains a mummy that has not been identified. The passageway leads to the pillard hall and the entrance corridor.

Dyn. Pharaoh Vizier
2 Ninetjer (?) Menka
3 Djoser Imhotep
Huni Kagemni
4 Snefru
DjeKhufu Hemiunu
Khafre Menkhaf
5 Nyuserre Ptahshepses
Isesi Ptahhotep
6 Teti Mereruka
Pepi II Djau
11 Mentuhotep IV Amenemhat
12 Amenemhat I Iyotefoker
18 Hatshepsut Senmut
Thutmose III Rekhmire
Amenhotep III Aper-el
Akhenaten Ramose
20 Ramesses IX Khaemwaset
Ramesses XI Herihor
26 Psamtik I Sisobek
33 Cleopatra VII Yuya Amenhotep
WbnRaMPt Horemheb

Within the courtiers ("Sniit") surrounding Pharaoh, the most favoured persons were called "friends" ("smrw"). The most important dignitary bore the title "tjati" ("TAti"), translated as "vizier", who in the IVth Dynasty, was regularly one of the royal princes. Later the office passed into the hands of some outstanding noble, and then it tended to become hereditary. 

In the titularies of the early viziers, we find the title : "superintendent of all the works of the king" ("amii-r kAt nbt nt nsw"). He was also the supreme judge, and bore the epithet "prophet of Maat".

The earliest attested reference to this highest administrative office was written in ink on a stone vessel from the Step Pyramid of Netjerikhet at Saqqara (the vizier Menka of the middle of the IIth Dynasty). In the beginning of the Early Dynastic period, the vizier bore the titles "Tt". The fuller form : "tAitti zAb TAti" is of later periods.

And official called "Tt" is depicted on the Narmer palette. He walks in front of Pharaoh and carries his regalia. The tripartite title held by the vizier may indicate his threefold nature (Wilkinson, 2001, p.138) : 

  • "tAitti" or "he of the curtain" is an epithet indicating the courtly aspect of the office ;

  • "zAb" or "noble" is a general designation for an official ;

  • "Tati", untranslatable and suggestive of the administrative aspect.

The word "vizier" is the French spelling of the Turkish "vezir", which was the title of the Sultan's prime minister. This in turn comes from the Arabic "wazir", or "porter". In Ancient Egypt, the vizier wore a special garment which remained unchanged for thousands of years. It was a plain smock made of pure white cotton which symbolized his impartiality.

The mastaba of Ptahhotep, East Wall, drawing Davies, N. de G., 1900.
Notice above the young Ptahhotep the cartouche of Pharaoh Izezi (top of second column),
whereas above the older Ptahhotep we read "in front of Maat" (third column).

The vizier was the head of the administration, but at various times, and particularly at Thebes, the vizier might also be the chief priest. In the Old Kingdom, the role of the Egyptian state was organizational : preventing local famines by bringing in the surplus, lessening the effect of calamities (irregular inundations), arbitration and security. Irrigation works were the responsibility of the local responsible. Viziers heard all domestic territorial disputes, maintained a cattle and herd census, controlled the reservoirs and the food supply, supervised industries and conservation programs, and were also required to repair all dikes. The bi-annual census of the population came under their authority, as did the records of rainfall and the varying levels of the Nile during its inundation. All government documents used in Ancient Egypt had to bear the seal of the vizier in order to be considered authentic and binding. Tax records, storehouse receipts, crop assessments and other necessary agricultural statistics were kept in the offices of the viziers. In addition, young members of the royal family often served under the vizier. In this capacity, they received training in government affairs.

It is probable that throughout Egyptian history, the viziers were some of Pharaoh's most trusted allies. The vizier was usually in constant contact with him, consulting him on many important matters. Family members, particularly those who might hold a claim to kingship, could often not be trusted. But viziers, even though at times did elevate themselves to kingship, were probably most often selected not only for their skills, but because Pharaoh could trust them to carry out his will without the fear they might overthrow his rule.

In the tombs of viziers we see various crafts at work in different tasks. His responsibility was not little. In the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire (XVIIIth Dynasty), the latter is installed by Pharaoh Thutmose III with the words :

"His Majesty said to him : 'Look to the office of vizier. Watch over all that is done in it. Lo, it is the pillar for the whole land. Lo, being vizier, Lo, it is not sweet, Lo, it is bitter as gall. Lo, he is the copper that shields the gold of his master's house, Lo, he is not one who bends his face to magistrates and councillors, not one who makes of anyone his client."
The Installation of Rekhmire, his tomb at Thebes ( G.Davies, 1944, pp.84-88 & plates xiv - xv).

Was Ptahhotep, besides vizier, also a teacher of wisdom ?

Papyrus Prisse, belonging to the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris), contains the only complete version of the Maxims we currently possess. It is in Middle Egyptian, the language of the Middle Kingdom, and was probably manifactured in the XIth Dynasty (in this First Intermediate Period, between ca. 2198 and 1938 BCE, another interesting work of literature saw the light : the Discourse of a Man with his Ba). The text itself situates the wisdom-teaching in the late Vth Dynasty, when Old Egyptian was still in use. If the teachings were indeed Ptahhotep's and he originally wrote them in Old Egyptian, then we are forced to assume considerable linguistic alterations to explain how the Old Egyptian text became a Middle Egyptian one. For Miriam Lichtheim, this is one of the strong arguments in favour of the idea that the Maxims are pseudo-epigraphic (Lichtheim, 1975, vol.1, p.6).

Interestingly, these wisdom-teachings do not stand alone. The "earliest" instruction is the Teaching of Prince Hordedef (son of Pharaoh Khufu, IVth Dynasty, ca. 2571 - 2548). Only a fragment of the text has survived (namely the beginning - Lichtheim, 1975, pp.58-59). It has been pieced together using relatively late copies, namely 9 ostraca of the New Kingdom and one wooden tablet of the Late Period (Brunner-Traut, 1940). The text is archaic enough to be (late) Old Egyptian, i.e. a text supposedly transmitted (copied) without major alterations. If compared with the language of the monumental record, scholars situate its composition in the Vth Dynasty. The tomb of Hardjedef, as he is also known, has been located at Giza, to the east of the pyramid of his father Khufu. Hardjedef also appears later in stories compiled during the Middle Kingdom. A lot of wisdom-teachings are attributed to him, but time has left us nothing but a few ostraca.

München 3400

The text of the Teaching of¨Prince Hordedef had to be reconstructed out of nine ostraca of the New Kingdom and one wooden tablet of the Late Period. The hieroglyphs of the Munich ostracon bought by Emma Brunner-Traut in Thebes are given below. Parts of the translation based on other sources are italized.

The reconstructed fragment (Lichtheim, 1975, pp.58-59) reads :

Fragment : The Instruction of Hordedef
(Vth Dynasty - reconstructed)

Beginning of the written teaching made by the hereditary prince, count, King's son, Hordedef ("Hrddf"), for his son, his nursling, whose name is Au-ib-re. 

He says : 

"Cleanse yourself before your own eyes, lest another cleanse you.
When you prosper, found your household, take a mistress of heart,
(2) a son will be born to You. It is for the son that you build a house when you make a place for yourself.(3)

Make a good dwelling in the graveyard, make worthy your station in the West.
Accept that death humbles us, accept that life exalts us, the house of death is for life.

Seek for yourself well-watered fields.
Choose for him
(7) a plot among your fields, well-watered every year. He profits you more than your own son, (8) prefer him even to your (...) ---  "

(1) also in the Maxims, we find a warning at the start (line 43). But here, the Hordedef instructs his son to purify himself, for otherwise someone else will wash off the unnecessary before he does. It is better to criticize oneself and do something about it, than to wait until another points to the defect and starts taking it away ;
(2) a woman who is hearthy & jovial ;
(3) what a man erects is for posterity (the "son") - what one does for oneself has only value if it also benefits posterity - actions are always based on what has been given by the ancestors ; 
(4) this advice also recurs in the Instruction of Merikare - the "venerated place" (Maxims, line 537) is this "station in the West", the "tomb" which the greedy lacks (line 248)- this "place" was was also called the "place of silence" ;
(5) the worthy station in the West is acquired by a good tomb because the offerings presented to the Ka gratified the Ba. As a result, the Ka (the energetical double of the personality) endured (otherwise it perished) and the Ba (the soul) was gratified (vitalized by the Ka) and beatified. The spiritual principle in touch with the Ba, namely the "Khu" or "spirit", was considered immortal and eternal. But it seems likely that the Ba could be depleted (lacking its Ka by absence of offerings) ;
(6) yearly inundated by the Nile (both physical as metaphorical) ; 
(7) the funerary priest ;
(8) the son will continue the tradition and draw his own vignettes of good examples. However, the (magical) power which will truly benefit the father, is the continuity of the offerings made to his Ka when his physical body has died and has been mummified & entombed. So the priest(s) must be well provided.

The third Old Kingdom instruction is that to Kagemni (serving under Huni & Snefru, IIIth to IVth Dynasty). Of this Instructions of Kagemni only the final portion is preserved and the name of the sage is lost. But, the text is part also of Papyrus Prisse and (after a blank stretch) it is followed by the Maxims of Ptahhotep. Clearly, the fact that Papyrus Prisse contains both texts makes it the oldest compendium of wisdom teachings extant on papyrus. Although the context of the teaching (to Kagemni) claims to be late IIIth Dynasty, its language is characterized by the schematics of Middle Egyptian encountered in the text of the Maxims, which claims to be late Vth Dynasty. As the record makes the point of the difference between late IIIth Dynasty and late Vth Dynasty literature, the "tangibly fictional nature of this attribution" (Lichtheim, 1975, vol 1, p.67) must be acknowledged. As only the wisdom teachings were transmitted in the name of a famous sage (all other literature being anonymous), we may presume that this name is indicative of a school of thought initiated by a historical figure of importance (another excellent example is Imhotep and later Amenhotep).

"Aus der in die Lehre genannten Zeit, den Regierungen des Königs Snofru, ist ein Wesir mit Namen Kagemni nicht bekannt, dagegen existiert in Saqqara das Grab eines solchen aus der frühen 6.Dynastie, und es ist sehr wahrscheinlich, dass dieser Mann mit dem Empfänger der Lehre gemeint ist, zumal sich am Grab Spuren seiner Verehrung gefunden haben. Die Lehre wäre dann, wie mache ägyptischen Literaturwerke, in eine berühmde Vergangenheit zurückdatiert worden. Dass sie noch im Alten Reich, wenn auch gegen dessen Ende, verfasst worden ist, dürfen wir nach Inhalt und Sprache annehmen."
Brunner (1991, p.133).

Because we know : (a) many of the forms characteristic of Middle Egyptian can already be found in the biographical inscriptions from VIth Dynasty tombs and (b) the Maxims (together with the Instructions of Kagemni) fit "into the ambiance of the late Old Kingdom" (Lichtheim, 1975, vol 1, p.7) and its monumental inscriptions, the author of the Maxims was most likely at work ca.150 years after vizier Ptahhotep, who indeed worked at the court of Pharaoh Djedkare Izez or Issa, died (namely after Pepi II). And as the period between the probable first redaction in the late VIth Dynasty and the extant Middle Kingdom versions is rather small (the end of the VIth and the beginning of the XIth are only a century apart), only minor textual alterations have to be conjectured to bridge the gap between the first redaction and the extant copy. The other line of thought, which suggests a Vth Dynasty original (composed before the Unis Texts !), has to cope with the difficulty of explaining how an Old Egyptian text got copied and was altered to become the early Middle Egyptian text of Papyrus Prisse ?

Fragment : The Instructions of Kagemni
(VIth Dynasty - Papyrus Prisse I & II)

Papyrus Prisse I & II : The Instructions of Kagemni - Gardiner, 1946.

"(...) the timid man prospers,
praised is the fitting,
open (is) the tent to the silent,
spacious is the seat of the satisfied.

Speak not (too much) !
Sharp are the knives against he who transgresses the road,
(he is) without speedy advance, except when he faults.

When you sit with company,
shun the food you like.
Restraint of heart is (only) a brief moment !
Gluttony is base and one points the finger at it.
A cup of water quenches thirst,
a moutful of herbs strengthens the heart.
A single good thing stands for goodness as a whole,
a little something stands for much.
Vile is he whose belly is voracious ;
time passes and he forgets
in whose house the belly strides.

When you sit with a glutton,
eat when his appetite has passed.
When you drink with a drunkard,
partake when his heart is happy.
Do not grab (your) meat by the side of a glutton,
(but) take when he gives You, do not refuse it, then it will soothe.
He who is blameless in matters of food,
no word can prevail against him.
The shy of face, even impassive of heart,
the harsh is kinder to him than to his (own) mother,
all people are his servants.

Let your name go forth,
while you are silent with your mouth.
When you are summoned, 
be not great of heart,
(10) because of your strength
among those your age, lest you be opposed.
One knows not what may happen,
and what god does when he punishes.

The vizier had his children summoned, after he had gained a complete knowledge of the ways of men, their character having come upon him.

In the end he said to them : 

'All that is written in this book, heed it as I said it. Do not go beyond what has been set down.' 

Then they placed themselves on their bellies. They recited it aloud as it was written. It was good in their hearts beyond anything in this entire land. They stood and sat accordingly.

Then the Majesty of King Huni of Upper and Lower Egypt died. The Majesty of King Snefru of Upper and Lower Egypt was raised up as beneficient King in this entire land. Kagemni was (then) made overseer of the city and vizier.

It is finished."

(01) these four sentences describe how to be among the "satisfied" : the quiet, silent attitude is well received. In the Maxims we read : "spacious the seat of him who has been called" (line 179). In the Pyramid Texts, Teti's seat is spacious with Geb (Utterance 402, § 698a). Those who speak little are not likely to reveal what they hear.
(02) "Nn Hn nn is Hr sp.f" is difficult. I take "Hn" for "run, haste", and "sp" as "fault". 
(03) only a moment's effort is required ;
(04) makes one feel stronger, vitalized and envigorated ;
(05) the more one eats, the more one forgets that the food was given - i.e. the voracious is ungrateful ;
(06) feast not with a bad-tempered drunk ;
(07) the crocodile snaps its meat voraciously and without consideration - if one attacks one's meat in the vincinity of the glutton, he will feel disadvantaged and spoil the meal ;
(08) "Hrr (amended to "Htr") n Hr r dfA-ib" is difficult and probably corrupt - "dfA" is the problem. Most scholars agree with "stolid", i.e. having or expressing little or no emotions, unemotional, but I prefer impassive, which has no pejorative connotations and fits better in the context of the "silent" timid, whereas "stolid" retains negative associations, as does "slow-wittedness", which is totally inappropriate ;
(09) the actions which are sealed by your name are better than your words in the wind ;
(10) an inflated sense of personhood - the same advise is found in the Maxims ;
(11) having become apparent, clear, evident ; 
(12) they conducted themselves, or lived, accordingly.

Although at present no consensus among scholars exists, I agree with Lichtheim that the texts of Kagemni & Ptahhotep are pseudo-epigraphic. This does not exclude the possibility of a line of transmission going back to the historical author. In the case of Ptahhotep, this would be suggestive of a "Memphite school" or a community of scribes working in the House of Life of the temple of Ptah at Memphis. Of this however, we only have circumstancial evidence and no direct proof.

The actual redaction of this age old wisdom at the end of the Old Kingdom, could also point to an attempt to exorcise the fortcoming collapse of the Memphite Kingdom under the pressure of the provinces and their enriched nomarchs. Was it the aim of the unknown author to summarize the best of what the past had given, because of the crisis of today, which needed to be solved so that the generations of tomorrow might endure ? The same method would be used, much later, by Pharaoh Shabaka when he rescued the "worm-eaten" Memphite theology

In the Maxims, Pharaoh and pantheon play a passive part in the literary setting of the teaching, whereas the discourse of the commoners was elucidated in the context of the avoidance of the collapse of the natural order and its rectitude by doing Maat for Pharaoh (who offered it for creation). 

We shall treat the Maxims of Good Discourse as a pseudo-epigraphic wisdom-text written by an unknown author who, by means of a set of literary devices (such as a pseudo-epigraphic attribution, a compositional context, a narrative structure, a "count" of good examples, etc.), tried to impart the non-polemic, moral philosophy of the Old Kingdom. This author saw in the historical vizier Ptahhotep a recent, grand example of Maat everybody still knew, would recognize and might adhere to.

These considerations point to the following redactional levels :

  • extant text : to be found on the oldest papyrus extant, dating XIth Dynasty (ca. 2081 - 1938 BCE) ;

  • original text : probably written in early Middle Egyptian in the late VIth Dynasty (ca. 2348 - 2198 BCE) ;

  • original ideas : not later as the period proposed in the extant text ? Pharaoh Djedkare of the late Vth Dynasty, reigned between ca. 2411 and 2378 BCE. The legend of wisdom-teachers goes back to Imhotep, the architect of Pharaoh Djoser of the IIIth Dynasty, ca.2654 - 2635 BCE.

But is remains difficult to establish how far these wisdom teachings really go back. For example, in the early days of research, egyptologists dated the Pyramid Texts as early as possible. For Sethe they were Predynastic ! Most contemporary egyptologists go to the other extreme, and date the origin of texts close to the time of their extant textualization (even if the assumption of earlier copies of the same text is not unreasonable or even mentioned in the copy). The more we study the Predynastic Period (i.e. before 3000 BCE), the more it can be shown that important elements of the Egyptian cultural form were already present before the Dynasties started. But the introduction, in the Early Dynastic Period (Dynasty I and II, ca. 3000 - 2670 BCE), of Pharaoh (the "Followers of Horus") was essential to the process of consolidating the elements of the unification of the Two Lands and its various deities. The advancement of language ran parallel with Pharaoh's outstanding achievements. By the IVth Dynasty, Old Egyptian was written down.

As the language of the Maxims is indeed suggestive of the VIth Dynasty, the most reasonable earliest date is the one proposed by the extant text itself, namely de reign of Pharaoh Djedkare. Indeed, these instructions embody teachings on justice & truth (Maat) which must have existed long before the VIth Dynasty. On the walls of the tomb of the pyramid of Pharaoh Unis (Vth Dynasty) and the rulers of the VIth, we read : 

"To say : 'May you shine as Re, repress wrongdoing, cause Maat to stand behind Re, shine every day for him who is in the horizon of the sky. Open the gates which are in the Abyss."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 586 (§ 1582), translated by Faulkner (1969, p.238). 

"Collect what belongs to Maat, for Maat is what the King says."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 758 (§ 2290), translated by Faulkner (1969, p.318). 

Wisdom as a literary genre is the fruit of a society which knows leisure, peace & prosperity. When cultures are only surviving, no higher, less material and more spiritual values concerning life and oneself are possible. That this profound literary genre emerged more than 4000 years ago, is highly remarkable and should mobilize more attention than it has. So the wisest sages of Ancient Egypt were pre-philosophers ? True, they did not argue in abstract, discursive categories. Their schemes, pre-concepts and concrete conceptualizations allow us to understand thought from an unexpected, ante-rational perspective, so that the aim of cognitive philosophy is realized : an integrated rationality in harmony with ante-rationalist (and its instincts) & intellectual perception (and its intuitions). This is a rationality with a global perspective, working in the local context of everyday. It fosters sustainable harmonization instead of sustainable development, for enduring growth is an illusion. Only the balance itself endures, not what lies in its scales.

Wisdom-literature remained a genre in Ancient Egypt from its legendary start (Imhotep of the IIIth Dynasty who allegedly wrote the first "wisdom-teaching") untill the advent of the Christian era.

2 Philological & Historical remarks and options.

2.1 Papyrus Prisse, the British Museum Papyri and the Carnarvon Tablet.

It is impossible to say, how early the Egyptians began to cut and press the stalks of the papyrus plant in order to make a material for the use of the scribe. But we know that papyrus was already employed for literary purposes in the time of the IIIth Dynasty (ca. 2670 - 2600 BCE), whereas uninscribed papyrus has been found in tombs of the first Dynasty (ca. 3000 BCE) ! We also know that it was used for cursive hieroglyphs (reserving stone for the lasting constructions of Pharaoh).

The Maxims have survived in four copies :

  • Papyrus Prisse (P) : this is the most precious & oldest papyrus known (XIth Dynasty - ca. 2081 - 1938 BCE). It has been well styled "the oldest book in the world" (Chabas, 1858). It was bought by E.Prisse d'Avennes (1807 - 1879), a French engineer, painter and master draughtsman who lived in Luxor. He was passionate about Arabic and Egyptian Art (cf. Histoire de l'Art Égyptien, 1878) and also a distinguished scholar who, with the documentation collected during his many travels in the Middle East, gave a decisive contribution to the knowledge of Arabian Art. On the East side of the Nile (ancient Thebes - Drah Abou'l Negga), he acquired the papyrus which would immortalize his name. It contained the end of the "teaching" of Kagemni and a complete version of that of Ptahhotep. It clearly appeared to be a Middle Kingdom copy of earlier copies. For Jéquier (1911), this was "le texte littéraire égyptien le plus difficule à traduire". Breasted, Erman & Gardiner agreed ;

  • Papyri BM (L1) : British Museum Papyri nos 10371 - 10435 (published by Jéquier, 1911) of the XIIth Dynasty - it consists of two series of fragments and is incomplete (no beginning) ;

  • Papyrus BM (L2) : British Museum Papyrus n° 10409 (Budge, 1910), bought at Thebes of the XVIIIth Dynasty - New Kingdom, is incomplete (only the beginning), but gives some clues as to punctuation ;

  • Carnarvon Tablet (C) : found in 1908 by Lord Carnarvon (Cairo Museum N° 41790, published by Jéquier, 1911) is of the XVIIth or XVIIIth Dynasty - New Kingdom and also incomplete (only the beginning).

In 1956, Zába realized a decisive translation and also reproduced the hieroglyphs of these four sources in a comprehensive and clear way (which was absent in the work of Dévaud, 1916). It is this publication which I used and reproduced, i.e. Zába's hieroglyphs published more than 40 years ago by the "Academie Tchécoslovatique des Sciences" of Prague (under the academician Lexa), i.e. in former Czechoslovakia.

The translation of the American egyptologist Wilson, published by Prichard (1950 & 1958) made use of all extant copies and as a result he worked from a text of his own. Recently, Brunner (1991) followed a comparative course. Other scholars like Lichtheim (1975) use Papyrus Prisse only, which is logical, for it is the oldest as well as a complete version. 

The present translation follows Papyrus Prisse and takes Papyrus L1 in account (for both are Middle Egyptian). L2 is used to understand punctuation, not contents. C is helpful to analyze the linguistic evolution of the text (being the extant terminus). My translation was directly influenced by the work of Zába (French), Lichtheim (English), Brunner (German) & Jacq (French), but always returned to the hieroglyphs.

plain text
lexicon of major concepts
notes to the text
hieroglyphic text

2.2 Hermeneutics of Ancient Egyptian.

Besides the general principles developed in the context of my study of Flemish mysticism (cf. the Seven Ways of Holy Love of Beatrice of Nazareth (1200 - 1268), and the last part of the Spiritual Espousals by Jan of Ruusbroec (1293 – 1381), called The Third Life), Ancient Egyptian literature calls for special considerations :

  1. semantic circumscription (Gardiner) : to those unaware of the semantical problem in mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational thought and its literary products, the differences between various translations may be disconcerting. Ancient Egyptian literature is a treasure-house of this ante-rational cognitive activity, and its "logic" is entirely contextual, pictoral, artistic and practical. The meaning or conception of the sense of certain words, especially in sophisticated literary context, is prone to large discrepancies. Gardiner spoke of "interpretative preferences" (Gardiner, 1946). Furthermore, despite major grammatical discoveries, Egyptian writing is ambiguous qua grammatical form. Some of its defects can not be overcome and so a "consensus omnium" among all sign interpreters is unlikely. The notion of "semantic circumscription" was derived from this quote by Gardiner : "If the uncertainty involved in such tenuous distinctions awake despondency in the minds of some students, to them I would reply that our translations, though very liable to error in detail, nevertheless at the worst give a roughly adequate idea of what the ancient author intended ; we may not grasp his exact thought, indeed at times we may go seriously astray, but at least we shall have circumscribed the area within which his meaning lay, and with that achievement we must rest content." (Gardiner, 1946, pp.72-73, my italics). To the latter, more attention to lexicography (a discussion of individual words) and the rule that at least one certain example of the sense of a word must be given were considered as crucial. Personally I would add the rule that one has to take into consideration all hieroglyphs (also the determinatives) and try to circumscribe the meaning by assessing the context in which words and sentences appears ;

  2. the benefit of the doubt (Zába) : amendments should be introduced with great caution and for very good reasons. Indeed, some egyptologists change the original text with great ease, and consider that Egyptian scribes were careless and prone to mistakes. This is not correct. Zába (1956, p.11)) prompted us to respect the original text and made it his principle. He wrote : "Pour ce qui est la traduction d'un texte égyptien dans une langue moderne, l'étude de divers textes (...) m'a amené au principe dont je me suis fait une règle, à savoir de considérer a priori un texte égyptien comme correct et de m'en expliquer chaque difficulté tout d'abord par l'aveu de ne pas connaître la grammaire ou le vocabulaire égyptien aussi bien qu'un Egyptien. (...) et ce n'est donc qu'après avoir longement, mais en vain, consulté d'autres textes et ne pouvant expliquer la difficulté autrement, que je suis enclin à croire que le texte est altéré."

  3. multiple approaches (Frankfort) : this notion implies that one has to assimilate the Egyptian way of thinking before engaging in explaining anything. Their "method" being not linear, axiomatic (definitions & theorema) or linea recta. Frankfort (1961, pp.16-20) explains : "... the coexistence of different correlation of problems and phenomena presents no difficulties. It is in the concrete imagery of the Egyptian texts and designs that they become disturbing to us ; there lies the main source of the inconsistencies which have baffled and exasperated modern students of Egyptian religion. (...) Here then we find an abrupt juxtaposition of views which we should consider mutually exclusive. This is what I have called a multiplicity of approaches : the avenue of preoccupation with life and death leads to one imaginative conception, that with the origin of the existing world to another. Each image, each concept was valid within its own context. (...) And yet such quasi-conflicting images, whether encountered in paintaings or in texts, should not be dismissed in the usual derogatory manner. They display a meaningful inconsistency, and not poverty but superabundance of imagination. (...) This discussion of the multiplicity of approaches to a single cosmic god requires a complement ; we must consider the converse situation in which one single problem is correlated with several natural phenomena. We might call it a 'multiplicity of answers'."

  4. integral acceptation (Zimmer) : in his study of Eastern religions and exegesis of Hindu thought, the German scholar Heinrich Zimmer introduced a principle which implies that before one studies a culture one has to accept that it exists or existed as it does and claims. One should approach and interprete its cultural forms as little as possible using standards which does not fit in, which focus on subjects which were of no interest to it (like the colour of the hair of royal mummies) or which reduces it to what is already known. This means that one, as does comparative cultural anthropology with its methodology of participant observation, accepts the culture at hand without prejudices and projections. Zimmer (1972, p.3) explains himself : "La méthode -ou, plutôt, l'habitude- qui consists à ramener ce qui n'est pas familier à ce que l'on connaît bien, a de tout temps mené à la frustration intellectuelle. (....) Faute d'avoir adopté une attitude d'acceptation, nous ne recevons rien ; nous nous voyons refuser la faveur d'un entretien avec les dieux. Ce n'est point notre sort d'être submergés, comme le sol d'Egypte, par les eaux divines et fécondantes du Nil. C'est parce qu'elles sont vivantes, possédant le pouvoir de faire revivre, capables d'exercer une influence effective, toujours revouvelée, indéfinissable et pourtant logique avec elle-même, sur le plan de la destinée humaine, que les images du folklore et du mythe défient toute tentative de systématisation. Elles ne sont pas des cadavres, mais bien des esprits possesseurs. Avec un rire soudain, et un brusque saut de côté, elles se jouent du spécialiste qui s'imagine les avoir épinglées sur son tableau synoptique. Ce qu'elles exigent de nous ce n'est pas de monologue d'un officier de police judiciaire, mais le dialogue d'une conversation vivante."

  5. non-abstraction : egyptologists are aware that the cognitive abilities of the Ancient Egyptians were not the same as the Greeks. Thanks to Piaget's description of the genesis of cognition, we can assess the Egyptian heritage with the standards of ante-rational thought, to wit : the mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational modes of thoughts, which each have their specific modus operandi. Hence, when we try to interprete a text, the question before us is : in what mode or modes of thought was this written (which kind of text is this) ? Indeed, because of the multiplicity of approaches, the Ancient Egyptians left old strands of thought intact, with an amalgam of approaches placed next to each other without interference as a result ;

  6. spatial semantics : Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was more than a way to convey well-formed meaning (i.e. language), but tried to invoke the magic of the "numen praesens", involving the use of space (a contemporary equivalent is the Zen garden) as a additional element in the composition of meaning. The Shabaka Stone, discussed earlier, is only one (late) example of the principles of spatial organization which governed Egyptian from the start (besides honorific or graphic transpositions). Unsightly gaps and disharmonious distributions were rejected. Groupings always involved the use of imaginary squares or rectangles ensuring the proportioned arrangement. This allowed for slight imperfections. Furthermore, important hieroglyphs were given their architectonic, monumental or ornamental equivalent. Spatial semantics was at work in large monumental constructions as well as in small stela or tiny juwelery and important tools (for Maat is at work in both the big and the small) ... Egyptologists have not given this aspect of Egyptian "sacred geometry" the attention it deserves (besides Schwaller de Lubicz), leaving the horizon wide opened to wild stellar, historical & anthropological speculations.

  7. metaphorical inclination : Ancient Egyptians "spoke in images". This holds true in a linguistic sense (namely their use of pictograms), but also with regard to their literary inclinations. When somebody grabbed his meat violently, the Egyptian thought of the voracious crocodile who has no tongue and who has to grab his food with his teeth and swallow it in one piece. When they saw the Sun rise and heared the baboons sing, they associated this activity with praise and the glorification of light, etc. Some hymns speak in images, poetical phrases, metaphors and other sophisticated literary devices. Literary and metaphorical meaning overlapped and interpenetrated (for example : "He who spits to heaven sees his spittle fall back on his face.) ... The epithets of the deities too are full of visual elements. Some egyptologists tend to rewrite this to comfort the contemporary readers. This offends the fluid nature of the texts and makes them dry and gray. The contrary (leaving these images intact) works confusing when Egyptian literature is new. As a function of their intention to try to really grasp the sense, translators make a compromize between literal and analogical renderings. I myself tend towards the analogical (which was closer to the Egyptian way of life), leaving room for explicative notes and comments.

It goes without saying, that all the hermeneutical rules-of-tumb in the world will not guarantee a perfect translation, which simply does not exist. The Italian dictum "traduttore traditore" (the translator is a traitor), is especially true for Egyptian. As with all texts of antiquity, large scale comparison is the best option. Not only has the text to be contextualized, but one has to acquire the habit of looking up the same word or expression in various contexts across time (lexicography). But even then, one should be content with Gardiner's view that to circumscribe sense is the best one can do. At times, my guess is as good as any other ...

"Although we can approach its grammar in an orderly fashion (...) we are often puzzled and even frustrated by the continual appearance of exceptions to the rules. Middle Egyptian can be especially difficult in this regard ..."
Allen (2001, p.389).

So the best one can do, given these difficulties -which can not be taken away- is to publish the original hieroglyphic text along with new translations, influenced as they are by consulting the original texts along with those of the most published specialists at work in the field for the last century, i.e. people like Breasted, Sethe, Gardiner, Faulkner, Lichtheim, Allen, Hornung, Assmann, Grimal and other dedicated contemporary scholars. In this way, alternative translations can be made by the competent sign interpreter. This process is unending. I wholeheartedly admit to be an amateur compared with professional linguists like Gardiner, Lichtheim or Allen. The scope & intention of my work is however different. Genuine philosophical hermeneutics tries to make use of authentic, historical texts, which makes serious studies of the original languages at hand unavoidable (cf. my Seven Ways of Holy Love and The Third Life, based on Middle Dutch, the Yoga-sûtra, based on Sanskrit, and Q1, The Gospel of Thomas, the Didache and The Mystical Theology based on Greek & Latin sources). Next, the various ideas expressed in these texts serve as references in a philosophical inquiry for its own sake. The philosopher has to be able to read the original text to the point of a good understanding of the signs present. This is not the same as to have an overall, detailed view of all grammatical rules with their exceptions and examples. But to gain a good understanding of the context and its problem (the reason why the original text had to be invoked), the amateur has to know all available linguistic tools well enough to identify a possible rule at work, and he must have the time to think all possible solutions over many times to "untie the knot" ...

2.3. A few points of importance concerning the Memphite Kingdom.

approximative, all dates BCE

Predynastic Period

  • earliest communities - 5000
  • Badarian culture - 4000
  • Naqada I - 4000 - 3600 or Amratian culture 
  • Naqada II - 3600 - 3300 or Gerzean culture
  • Terminal Predynastic Period : 3300 - 3000

Dynastic Period

  • Early Dynastic Period : 3000 - 2600
  • Old Kingdom : 2600 - 2200
  • First Intermediate Period : 2200 - 1940
  • Middle Kingdom 1940 - 1760
  • Second Intermediate Period : 1760 - 1500
  • New Kingdom : 1500 - 1000
  • Third Intermediate Period : 1000 - 650
  • Late Period : 650 - 343

The following points should be kept in mind regarding the Old Kingdom :

  • population : Hassan (1993) estimated the population about 1.2 million persons - the earlier semi-autonomous villages lost their independence and all land was owned by royal estates ;

  • cultural density : the great edifices of cultural life were all erected in or near Memphis - the major centres of population became capitals of administrative districs or provinces (nomes), with the capital of the country at the vertex of the Delta ;

  • royal residence : at the center of Egyptian civilization stood the "great house", an expression which referred to the monumental presence of the rule of the kings of Egypt, but which is also suggestive of the "great household" which characterized the Old Kingdom, i.e. the corporate organization & administration - the precise location of the White Wall ("Ineb-hedj"), on the west bank of the Nile, south of modern Cairo, the capital founded by Menes, has not yet been established (scholars suggest Abusir in the Nile Valley, north-east of Djoser's complex) - during the Old Kingdom, the royal residence did not move away from Memphis ("Men-netjeret" was a stone building south-west of Djoser's pyramid).

A culture (or a sustained meaningful form) consists of social formations, an economy, common values, beliefs & practices, art, philosophy and religion. To faithfully recreate the picture of any culture of antiquity, we must know the shape of every layer. For this, we depend on physical evidence, ranging from archaeological, monumental & funerary evidence to linguistic, hermeneutical & philosophical studies of the available texts. 

Linguistically, several stages may be discerned in Ancient Egyptian :

  • schematic : as economy changes from hunting and gathering to communal agriculture, humans make a much deeper impact on their environments. They leave much more artefacts (deliberate, because they are sedentary & as waste). Gerzean ware-design revealed the activity of mythical schemata (Czerwinski, 1995). The "great cow-goddess" (Hathor) dominated (Hassan, 1992). We can consider this to be the beginning of our understanding of Egypt's earliest myths. In Predynastic Egypt, the first communities start between 5000 and 4100 BCE (cf. Merimda Beni Salama) ;

  • archaic : political unification & literacy (a written script) are achieved 3000 BCE, although there are few extant literary sources for the first 4 or 5 centuries - the scarcity of texts from these earliest times seems to indicate that the written language (the script) was not yet widely used ;

  • early Old Egyptian : the first statues of scribes appear during the IVth Dynasty, possibly indicating that the ability to write was still something reserved to the very limited few. Hence, the vast stratum of scribes that later formed a social class in Egyptian society did not yet exist - this early Old Egyptian gives expression to the pre-rational mode of thought ;

  • Old Egyptian : in a few generations time, the script evolved considerably - extant since the end of the Vth Dynasty (Pyramid Texts, i.e. ca. 650 years after the unification), it confronts pre-rationality with early proto-rationality, leaving however the contradictions intact ;

  • Classical Egyptian : manifesting on papyri of the XIth Dynasty (Prisse), but probably emerging at the end of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2200 BCE), Middle Egyptian develops and becomes the standard of literacy (Middle Kingdom) - it continued to be the language of the monumental, funerary & priestly record.

The long period of economical stability enjoyed by Egypt in the Old Kingdom, unassailed and living in plenty, explains why a considerable number of people could be taken out of the production of food, housed, fed and -if necessary- healed to erect the pyramids. It is clear that this must have pressured the slaveless and moneyless Egyptian economy. 

"The treasury and its functions. The chart shows the principal operations carried out by the treasury in the Early Dynastic period (based upon information from contemporary sources : seal-impressions, inscribed stone vessels, and the Third Dynasty tomb inscription of Pehernefer)."
Wilkinson, 2001, pp.126-127.

Three factors were of important in the Memphite economy :

  • it was slaveless, so it had to be workable (rotation-system, chain-labour, unit labour) ;

  • Pharaoh owned everything and could give parts of his land away (and so loose its surplus) ;

  • there was no money : economical transactions involved commerce "in natura".

The fact these formidable Old Kingdom constructions were built, can only be explained by a yearly overall surplus large & varied enough to compensate for these "great works", and this without emptying the reserves needed for eventual local shortages, protection and administration (for production-techniques remained largely the same). These ongoing activities of Pharaoh and his court changed Egypt profoundly. Finally, they heralded the end of the "old" Memphite system, for as soon as the yearly overall surplus was smaller than the actual losses (and/or not varied enough), local shortages & famines could cause uprise and civil disorder ... As, by the end of the VIth Dynasty, Pharaoh had given away too much of his own surplus (to his representatives, the temples and the nobles), direct means to compensate were lacking and the overall good distribution of goods was lost, as well as Pharaoh's power to act as a "deus ex machina" (he was bound by his own contracts). The end of the Old Kingdom would thus prove to be the outcome of a negative economical balance-sheet hand in hand with a commanding bureaucracy dominating an economically weakened Pharaoh. A falling apart caused by loosening the cords and avoiding the standard of the plumb-line, spoiling the equilibrium of the scales ? Add to this a world-wide climate change, causing drought and extremely low Nile floods for several decades, and the collapse of the Old Kingdom was at hand.

The Maxims of Good Discourse
by vizier Ptahhotep (ca. 2400 BCE)
after two Middle Kingdom copies

This translation is based on the two oldest extant sources (Middle Kingdom). Technical elements (in teal) have been added to the text (in black) :

  • sources : the sources of the text are given as : P, L1, L2 and C ;

  • general composition : in 3 parts : I.Prologue, II.Teachings : 37 maxims and III.Epilogue with Colophon ;

  • numbering : numbers of verses are new - the number of Dévaud (1916) is indicated as : <bold>(D+number)</bold> ;

  • hieroglyphs : the numbers of the 37 maxims are hyperlinked with the corresponding section of the hieroglyphic text of Zába (1956) ;

  • notes : the hyperlinked notes refer to a separate webpage

  • special words : the word "heart" has been italized to indicate that the passage in question figures in the lexicon of heart, wisdom & religious concepts ;

  • theological concepts : all religious concepts (god, gods, etc.) are in bold ;

  • plain text : to read the text without most technical elements : click here ;

  • (...) : words added to clarify the text and allow for more fluency ;

  • {...} : explanatory remarks ;


(01)  Written teachings of
(02)  the overseer of the city, the vizier Ptahhotep,(1)
(03)  under the Majesty of Pharaoh Izezi, 
(04)  King of Upper and Lower Egypt, may he live for ever and ever !

(05)  The overseer of the city, the vizier Ptahhotep, he says :

(06)  "Sovereign, my Lord !
(07)  Old age is here, old age arrives !
(08)  Exhaustion comes, weakness is made new.
(09)  One lies down in discomfort all day,
(10)  eyes are dim, ears deaf,
(11)  strength wanes, the heart is weary.
(12)  The mouth, silent, speaks not,
(13)  the heart, ended, recalls not the past,
(14)  the bones ache throughout.
(15)  Good becomes evil,
(16)  all taste is gone.
(17)  What age does to people
(18)  is evil in everything.
(19)  The nose clogged, breathes not,
(20)  difficult are standing and sitting.(2)

May this servant be commanded to make a 'Staff of Old Age' !(3)
(22)  so as to speak to him the words of the judges,(4)
(23)  the ways of those before,
(24)  who listened to the gods.(5)
(25)  May the like be done for You,
(26)  so that strife may be removed from the people,
(27)  and the Two Shores (6) may serve You."

(28)  The Majesty of this god said :

(29)  "As for You, teach him then the sayings of the past,
(30)  so that he may become a good example for the children of the great.(7)
(31)  May hearing enter him and 
(32)  the exactness of every heart that speaks to him.(8)
(33)  No one is born wise."


(34)  Beginning of the maxims of good discourse,(9)
(35)  spoken by the prince, count, god's father, beloved of god,
(36)  eldest son of the King, of his body,(10)
(37)  overseer of the city, vizier Ptahhotep,
(38)  teaching the ignorant in knowledge,
(39)  and in the standard of good discourse,(11)
(40)  beneficial to him who hears,
(41)  but woe to him who neglects it.                                end of C

The Maxims of Good Discourse (P and L2)

(42) So he spoke to his son :


(43)      "Don't let your heart get big because of your knowledge.
(44)      Take counsel with the ignorant as well as with the scholar.
      (For) the limits of art are not brought,
      (and) no artisan is equipped with perfection.(12)
      Good discourse is more hidden than green stone,(13)
      yet may be found among the maids at the grindstones.(14)


(49)      If You meet a disputant in his moment (of action),(15)
      one who directs his heart, superior to You,
      fold your arms (16) and bend your back.
      Do not seize your heart against him,
      (for) he will never agree with You.
      Belittle the evil speech,
      by not opposing him while he is in his moment.
      He will be called a know-nothing,
      when your control of heart will match his piles (of words).


(58)      If You meet a disputant in his moment (of action)
      who is your equal, your peer,
      You will make your excellence exceed his by silence,
      (even) while he is speaking wrongly.
      Great (then) is the discussion among the hearers, (and)
      the knowledge the magistrates have of your name will be good.(17)


(64)      If You meet a disputant in his moment (of action),
      a man of little, not at all your equal,
      do not be aggressive of heart because he is weak,
      give him land (for) he refutes himself.(18)
      Do not answer him to relieve your heart.
      Do not wash the heart against your opponent. 
(70)      Wretched is he who injures a man of little heart.
(71)      One will wish to do what your heart desires.
(72)      You will strike him with the reproof of the magistrates.


(73)      If You are a man who leads,
(74)      charged to direct the affairs of a great number,
(75)      seek out every well adjusted deed,
(76)      so that your conduct may be blameless.
(77)      Great is Maat, lasting in effect. 
(78)      Undisturbed since the time of Osiris.
(79)      One punishes the transgressor of laws, 
(80)      though the heart that robs overlooks this.
      Baseness may seize riches,
(82)      yet crime never lands its wares.(19)
(83)        He (20)  says : 'I acquire for myself.'
(84)      He does not say : 'I acquire for my function.'
(85)      In the end, it is Maat that lasts, (and)
(86)        man (21) says : 'It is my father's domain.'


(87)      Do not scheme against people,
(88)      (for) god punishes accordingly.
(89)      If a man (nevertheless) says : 'I shall live that way.',
(90)      he will lack bread for his mouth.
(91)      If a man says : 'I shall be rich.'
(92)      He will have to say : 'My cleverness has snared me.' (22)
(93)      If a man says : 'I will rob someone.',
(94)      he will, in the end, make a gift to a stranger !(23)
      People's schemes do not prevail.
(96)      God's command is what prevails.
      Live then in the midst of peace (with what You have),
(98)      (for) what they give comes by itself.


(99)       If You get to be among guests,
(100)     at the dining table of one greater than You,
(101)     accept what he gives, in the way it is set before your nose.
(102)     Look at what is before You,
(103)     do not pierce it with lots of glances.
(104)     It offends the Ka to be molested.(24)
(105)     Do not speak until he summons,
     (since) one does not know whether he has evil on his heart.
     Speak when he addresses You, 
(108)     and may your words please the heart.
     The nobleman, sitting behind the breads,
(110)     behaves as his Ka commands him.(25)
(111)     He will give to him whom he favors,
(112)     (for) that is the custom when the night has come.(26)
     It is the Ka that makes his hands reach out.(27)
     The great man gives to the lucky man.
(115)     Thus the breads are eaten under the plan of god,
     a fool is who complains of it.


(117)     If You are a man of trust,
(118)     sent by one great man to another,
(119)     be exact when he sends You.
     Give his message as he said it.
(121)     Guard against slanderous speech,
(122)     which embroils one great with another.
(123)     Keep to Maat, do not exceed it.
     But the washing of the heart should not be repeated.
     Do not speak against anyone,
(126)     great or small, the Ka abhors it.


(127)     If You plow and there is growth in the field,
     (because) god lets it prosper in your hand,
(129)     do not boast about it at your neighbour's side,
(130)     for one has great respect for the silent man.
(131)     If a man of good character is a man of wealth,
     he takes possession like a crocodile,(28) even in court.
(133)     Do not impose on one who is childless :
(134)     neither criticize, nor boast of it.(29)
(135)     There is many a father who has grief,
     and a mother of children less content than another (without).
(137)     It is the lonely whom god fosters,
(138)     while the family man prays for a follower.(30)


(139)     If You are a weakling, serve a man of quality, worthy of trust,
     (so) that all your conduct may be well with god.
(141)     Do not recall if once he was of humble condition,
(142)     do not let your heart become big towards him,
(143)     for knowing his former state.
     Respect him for what has accrued to him,
(145)     for surely goods do not come by themselves.
(146)     They are their laws for him whom they love.
(147)     His gain, he gathered it himself,
     (but) it is god who makes him worthy,
(149)     and protects him while he sleeps.


(150)     Follow your heart as long as You live.
     Do no more than is required.
(152)     Do not shorten the time of 'follow-the-heart',
(153)     (for) trimming its moment offends the Ka.
(154)     Do not waste time on daily cares
     beyond providing for your household.
(156)     When wealth has come, follow your heart !
(157)     Wealth does no good if one is annoyed !


(158)     If You are a man of quality, worthy of trust,
     may You produce a son, by the favour of god.
(160)     If he is straight, turns around your character,
(161)     takes care of your possessions in good order,
(162)     (then) accomplish for him all that is good.
     He is your son, belonging to the seed of your Ka,(31)
(164)     (so) do not withdraw your heart from him.
(165)     But an offspring can make trouble :
     if he goes into the wrong direction, neglects your counsel,
(167)     with insolence disobeys all that is said,
(168)     if his mouth sprouts evil speech,
(169)     (then) put him to work for the totality of his talk !
     They disfavour him who crosses You, 
     (for) his obstacle was fated in the womb.
(172)     He whom they guide can not go astray,
(173)     (but) whom they make boatless can not cross.(32)


(174)     If You are in a court of justice,
     stand or sit as fits your rank,
(176)     assigned to You on the first day.(33)
     Do not force your way in, (for) You will be turned back.
(178)     Keen is the face of him who enters announced,
     spacious the seat of him who has been called.(34)
(180)     The court of justice has a correct method,
(181)     all behavior is by the plumb-line.(35)
     It is god who gives the seat.
(183)     He who uses elbows (36) is not helped.


(184)     If You are among the people,
     gain allies through being trustful of heart.
(186)     The trustful of heart does not vent his belly's speech.(37)
     He will himself become a man who commands,
(188)     a man of means thanks to his behavior.
     May your name be good without You talking about it. 
     You body is sleek, your face turns towards your people,
(191)     and one praises You without You knowing (it).
     (But) him whose heart obeys his belly disappears ; (38)
(193)     he raises contempt of himself in place of love.
(194)     His heart is denuded, his body unanointed.
     The great of heart is a gift of god.
(196)     He who obeys his belly, obeys the enemy.(39)


(197)     Report your commission without swallowing the heart,
(198)     and give your advise in your master's council.
     If he is fluent in his speech,
(200)     it will not be hard for the envoy to report,
(201)     nor will he be answered : 'Who is he to know it ?'
     As to the master, his affairs will fail,
(203)     if he plans to punish him for it.(40)
(204)     He should be silent and conclude : 'I have spoken.'


(205)     If You are a man who leads,
     that your way to govern may freely travel.(41)
(207)     You should do outstanding things.
     Remember the day that comes after,(42)
     (so that) no strife will occur in the midst of honors.(43)
     (Indeed), where a hiding crocodile emerges, hatred arises.(44)


(211)     If You are a man who leads,
(212)     calmly hear the speech of one who pleads,
     (and) do not stop him from purging his body (45)
(214)     of that which he planned to tell.
     A man in distress wants to wash his heart
     more than that his case be won.
(217)     About him who stops a plea,
     one says : 'Why does he reject it ?'
     Not all one pleads for can be granted,
(220)     but a good hearing calms the heart.


(221)     If You want friendship to endure
(222)     in the house You enter,
     as master, brother, or friend,
     or in whatever place You enter,
     beware of approaching the women !
     Unhappy is the place where it is done.
(227)     (Their) face is not keen on he who intrudes on them.
     A thousand men are turned away from their good.
     A short moment like a dream,
(230)     then death comes for having known them.(46)
(231)     Poor advice is 'shoot the opponent' ! (47)
     When one goes to do it, the heart rejects it.
     (But) as for him who fails through lust of them,
(234)     no affair of his can prosper.

(P, L2 and beginning of L1)

(235)     If You want your conduct to be perfect,
(236)     deliver yourself from every evil,
     (and) combat against the greed of the heart.
     It is a grievous sickness without cure,
     impossible to penetrate.
     It causes disaster among fathers and mothers, 
(241)     among the brothers of the mother,
(242)     and parts wife from husband.
     It is an amalgam of all evils,
(244)     a bundle of all hateful things.
(245)     That man endures who correctly applies Maat,
     and walks according to his stride.(48)
     He will make a will by it. 
(248)     The greedy of heart has no tomb !(49)


(249)     Do not be greedy of heart in the division (of goods).(50)
(250)     Do not covet more than your share.
     Do not be greedy of heart toward your kin.
     The kind has a greater claim than the rude.
     The family of the latter reveals very little,(51)
     (for) he is deprived of what speech brings.(52)
(255)     Even a little of what is craved,
(256)     makes conflict rise in a cool-bellied man.(53)


(257)     When You prosper, found your house,
(258)     love your wife with ardor,
(259)     fill her belly, clothe her back,
     ointment is a remedy for her body.
     Gladden her heart as long as You live.
(262)     She is a fertile field, useful to her master.
(263)     Do not contend with her in a court of justice,
(264)     (and) keep her from power, restrain her.
(265)     Her eye is her storm when she gazes.(54)
     You will make her stay in your house.
(267)     If You push her back, see the tears !
(268)     Her vagina is one of her forms of action.
     What she enforces, is that a canal be made for her.(55)


(270)     Satisfy those who enter, and in whom You trust,
            with what You make,
(271)     (for) You make it by the favour of god.
(272)     Of him who fails to satisfy those who enter,
            and in whom he trusts,

     one says : 'A Ka too pleased with itself !'.(56)
     What will come is unknown, even if one understands tomorrow.
(275)     The (proper) Ka is a correct Ka at peace with itself.(57)
(276)     If praiseworthy deeds are done,
(277)     trustworthy friends will say : 'Welcome !'
(278)     One does not bring supplies to town,
(279)     one brings friends when there is need.


(280)     Do not repeat calumny,
(281)     neither hear it.
(282)     It is the way of expression of the hot-bellied.(58)
(283)     Report a thing observed, not heard.
(284)     If it is negligible, do not say anything,
(285)     (and) see : he who is before You recognizes (your) worth.
(286)     Let it be ordered to seize what it produces.(59)
     In accordance with the law, 
     hatred will arise against him who seizes it to use it.(60)
(289)     Calumny is like a vision against which one covers the face.(61)


(290)     If You are a man of quality, worthy of trust,
(291)     who sits in his master's council,
(292)     bring your whole heart together towards excellence.
(293)     Your silence is more useful than chatter.
(294)     Speak when You know how to untie the knot.(62)
(295)     It is the skilled who speak in council.
(296)     Speaking is harder than all other work.                  end of L2
     He who unties it makes it serve.

(P and L1)

(298)     If You are mighty, gain respect through knowledge
(299)     and gentleness of speech.
(300)     Do not command except as is fitting.
(301)     He who provokes gets into trouble.
(302)     Do not be high of heart, lest You be humbled.
(303)     Do not be mute, lest You be reprimanded.
(304)     When You answer one who is fuming,
(305)     avert your face, control yourself,
(306)     (for) the flames of the hot of heart sweep across.(63)
     He who steps gently finds his path paved.
(308)     All day long, the sad of heart has no happy moment.
     All day long, the frivolous of heart can not keep house.
(310)     The archers complete the aim,
(311)     as one who holds the rudder untill (it) touches land.(64)
(312)       The opposant is imprisoned. 
(313)       He who obeys his heart is equipped to order.


(314)     Do not oppose a great man's action.
(315)     Do not vex the heart of one who is burdened.
     His anger manifests against him who combats him.
(317)     The Ka {of the great one} will part from him who loves him.(65)
(318)     (Yet) he who provides is together with god.
(319)     What he wishes will be done for him.
(320)     When he turns his face back to You after raging,
(321)     (then) there will be peace from his Ka,(66)
(322)     (and) hostility from the enemy.
(323)     To provide increases love.


(324)     Teach the great what is useful to him,
(325)     be his aid before the people.
(326)     Let his knowledge fall back on his master,(67)
(327)     (and) your sustenance will come from his Ka.(68)
(328)     As the favorite's belly is filled,
(329)     so your back is clothed by it,
(330)     and his help will be there to sustain You.
(331)     For your superior whom You love,
(332)     and who lives by it,
(333)     he in turn will give You good support.
(334)     Thus will love of You endure,
(335)     in the belly of those who love You.(69)
(336)     Behold : it is the Ka that loves to listen.(70)


(337)     If You are a magistrate of standing,
(338)     commissioned to appease the many,
(339)     remove stupidity from the record.(71)
(340)     When You speak, do not lean to one side,(72)
(341)     beware lest one complains :
     'Judges, he puts his speech on the side he likes !'
(343)     In court, your deeds will (then) turn against You.


(344)     If You are angered by a misdeed,
(345)     (then) lean toward the man (only) on account of his rectitude.
(346)     Pass over the old error, do not recall it,
(347)     since he was silent to You on the first day.(73)


(348)     If You are great after having been humble,
(349)     have gained wealth after having been poor in the past,
(350)     in a town which You know,
(351)     (then) knowing your former condition,
(352)     do not put the trust of your heart in your heaps,
(353)     which came to You as gifts of god,
(354)     so that You will not fall behind one like You,(74)
(355)     to whom the same has happened.


(356)     Bend your back to your superior,
(357)     your overseer from the palace,
(358)     then your house will endure in its wealth,
     and your rewards (will be) in their right place.(75)
(360)     Wretched is he who opposes a superior,
(361)     (for) one lives as long as he is mild ...
(362)     Baring the arm does not hurt it !(76)
(363)     Do not plunder a neighbour's house,
(364)     (and) do not steal the goods of one near You,
(365)     so that he does not denounce You,
(366)     before You are heard.(77)
(367)     A quarreler lacks in heart,
(368)     so if he is known as an aggressor,
(369)     the hostile will have trouble in the neighbourhood.


(370)     Do not copulate with a woman-boy,(78)
(371)     for You know that one will fight
(372)     against the water upon her heart.
(373)     What is in her belly will not be refreshed.(79)
(374)     That during the night she does not do what is repelled,(80)
(375)     (but) be calmed after having ended the offence of her heart.(81)


(376)     If You seek to probe the true nature of a friend,
(377)     do not inquire (after him), but approach him (yourself).
(378)     (Then) deal with him alone,
(379)     until You are no longer uncertain about his condition.
(380)     After a time, dispute with him.
(381)     Test his heart in dialogue.
(382)     If what he has seen (of himself) escapes him,(82)
(383)     if he does a thing that irritates You,
(384)     be yet friendly with him or be silent,
(385)     but do not turn away your face.(83)
(386)     Restrain yourself and open dialogue.
(387)     Do not answer with an act of hostility.
(388)     Neither counter him, nor humiliate him.
(389)     His time does not fail to come ...
(390)     (for) one does not escape what is fated.(84)


(391)     Be bright-faced as long as You exist !(85)
(392)     (But) what leaves the storehouse does not return.
(393)     It is the food to be distributed which is coveted.
(394)     (But) one whose belly is empty is an accuser,
(395)     (and) one deprived becomes an opponent.
(396)     Do not have him for a neighbour.
(397)     Kindness is a man's memorial (86)
(398)     for the years after the function.


(399)     Know those at your side, then your goods endure.(87)
(400)     Do not be weak of character toward your friends,
(401)     (they are) a riverbank to be turned and filled,(88)
(402)     more important than its riches ...
(403)     For what belongs to one (also) belongs to another !
(404)     The good deed profits the son-of-man.(89)
     An accomplished nature is a memorial.


(406)     Punish as a commander-in-chief,
            (but) teach the complete form !
(407)     The act of stopping crime is an enduring good example.
     Crime, except for misfortune,(91)
(409)     turns the complainer into an aggressor.


(410)     If You take to wife a woman of good quality,
(411)     who is unbound of heart and known by her town,
(412)     conform her to the double law.
(413)     Be pleasant to her when the moment is right,
(414)     do not separate yourself from her and let her eat,
(415)     (for) the joyful of heart confer an exact balance." (92)


On Hearing & Listening (D507)
(Ptahhotep continues ...)

(416)  "If You hear my sayings,(93)
(417)  all your plans will go forward.
(418)  In their act of Maat lies their value.
(419)  Their memory lingers on in the speech of men,
(420)  because of the accomplishment of their command !(94)
(421)   If every word is carried on,
(422)  they will not perish in this land.
(423)   That an advice be given for the good,
(424)  (so that) the great will speak accordingly.
(425)  It is teaching a man to speak to what comes after (him).
(426)  He who hears this becomes a master-hearer.(95)
(427)  It is good to speak to posterity,
(428)   it will hear it.

(429)  If a good example is set by him who leads,
(430)  he will be beneficient for ever,
(431)  (and) his wisdom will be for all time.
(432)  He who knows, feeds his Ba with what endures,
(433)  so that it is happy with him on earth.
(434)  He who knows is known by his wisdom,
(435)  (and) the great by his good actions.
(436)  (That) his heart twines his tongue,
(437)  (and) his lips (be) precise when he speaks.
(438)  That his eyes see !
(439)  That his ears be pleased to hear what profits his son.
(440)  (For) acting with Maat, he is free of falsehood.(96)

(441)   Useful is listening to a son who hears !
(442)  If hearing enters the hearer, the hearer becomes a listener.
(443)  To listen well is to speak well.
(444)   He who listens is a master of what is good.
  Splendid is listening to one who hears !
(446)  Listening is better than all else.
(447)  It manifests perfect love.
(448)  How good it is for a son to grasp his father's words !
(449)  Underneath them, he will reach old age.(97)

On the Listener and the Non-Listener (D545)

(450)  He who listens is beloved of god,
(451)  he who does not listen is hated by god.
(452)  (It is) the heart (which) makes of its owner
         a listener or a non-listener.
(453)  Life, prosperity & health are a man's heart.
  It is the hearer who listens to what is said.
(455)  He who loves to listen, is one who does what is said.
(456)  How good for a son to obey his father !
(457)  How happy is he (the son) to whom it is said :
  'The son pleases as a master of listening.'(98)
(459)  He (the son) who hears the one (the father) who said this,
(460)  is well adjusted in his inner being,(99)
(461)  and honored by his father.
  His remembrance is in the mouth of the living,
(463)  those on earth and those who will be.

(464)   If the son-of-man accepts his father's words,
(465)  no plan of his will go wrong.
(466)  Teach your son to be a hearer,
(467)  one who will be valued by the heart of the nobles,
(468)  one who guides his mouth by what he was told,(100)
(469)  one regarded as a listener.
(470)  This son excels, his deeds stand out,
(471)  while failure enters him who listens not.
(472)  The knower wakes early to his lasting form,
(473)  while the fool is hard pressed.(101)

(474)  The fool who does not listen,
(475)  can accomplish nothing at all.
(476)  He sees knowledge as ignorance,
(477)  usefulness as harmfulness.
(478)  He does all that is detestable,
(479)  and is blamed for it each day.
(480)  He lives on that by which one dies,
(481)  he feeds on damned speech.
(482)  His sort is known to the officials,
  to wit : 'A living death each day !'(102)
  One passes over his doings,
  because of his many daily troubles.

A son who listens, is a Follower of Horus.(103)
(487)  It goes well with him when he listens.(104)
(488)  When he is old and reaches veneration,(105)
  (may) he speak likewise to his children,
(490)  renewing the teaching of his father.
(491)  Every man teaches as he acts.(106)
(492)  He speaks to the children,
  so that they speak to their children.
(494)  Set an example, do not give offense.
(495)  If Maat stands firm, your children live !
(496)  As to the first who comes as a carrier of evil,(107)
(497)  may people say to what they see :
(498)  'That is then just like him !'(108)
(499)  And may they say to what they hear :
(500)  'That is then just like him !'
(501)  Let everyone see them (109) to appease the multitudes.
(502)  Without them, riches are useless.

On Speaking (D608)

(503)  Do not take a word and then bring it back.
(504)  Do not put one thing in place of another.
(505)  Beware of loosening the cords in You,(110)
(506)  lest a man of knowledge say :
(507)  'Hear ! If You want to endure in the mouth of the listeners,
(508)  speak (only) after You have mastered the craft !'
(509)  If You speak in a refined way,
(510)  all your plans will be in place.

(511)  Immerge your heart, control your mouth,
(512)  then You are known among the officials.
(513)  Be quite exact before your master,
(514)  act so that he says : 'He is a son !'(111)
(515)  And those who hear it will say :
  'Blessed is he to whom he was born !'

(517)  Be patient of heart the moment You speak,
(518)  so as to say elevated things.
(519)  In this way, the nobles who hear it will say :
(520)  'How good is what comes from his mouth !'(112)

Act so that your master will say of You :
(522)  'How accomplished is he whom his father taught.
(523)  When he came forth from him, issued from his body,
(524)  he (the father( spoke to him
        when he was in the belly (of his mother),
(525)  and he (the son) accomplished even more than he was told.'

(526)   Lo, the good son, the gift of god,
(527)  exceeds what is told to him by his master,
(528)  he does Maat and his heart matches his steps.
(529)  (O my son) as You succeed me, with a sound body,
(530)  the King at peace with all what is done,
(531)  may You obtain many years of life !

Concluding Remarks

(532)  Not small is what I did on Earth ...
(533)  I had hundred and ten years of life, 
(534)  as a gift of the King, (and)
(535)  honors exceeding those of the ancestors.
(536)  For by doing Maat for the King,
(537)  the venerated place comes."

(538)  From its beginning to its end,
(539)  in accordance with (how it was) found in writing.


3 The Memphite Philosophy of Order through Just Speach.

the biliteral Shu ("Sw")
the Feather of Maat

Thus said Atum : 
"Tefnut is my living daughter,
and she shall be with her brother Shu ; 
'Living One' is his name, 'Righteousness' is her name.
I live with my two children, I live with my two twins, 
for I am in the midst of them {Tefnut & Maat} :
the one near my back, the other near my belly.
Life lies down with Maat, my daughter,
the one within me and the other around me.
I stood up between them both, their arms being about me."
Nun said to Atum :
"Kiss your daughter, Maat, put her at your nose,
that your heart may live forever, for she will not be far from you.
Maat is your daughter and your son is Shu whose name lives.
Eat of your daughter Maat, it is your son Shu wo will raise you up."

Coffin Texts, spell 80 (De Buck, 1935-1961)

 3.1 Various perspectives on Maat.

Maat in religious history

"mt" with determinative of the goddess, also "mAat"
many other variations are extant

Great is Maat, lasting in effect. 
Undisturbed since the time of Osiris.
Maxim 5, lines 77 - 78

The earliest evidence for the existence of Maat can be found in the names of some kings. The oldest seems to be the name of Pharoah Sekhem-Ib, from Dynasty II (ca. 2800 - 2670 BCE). Both his Horus name and his Nebty name (cf. the royal titulary) include the epithet "pr n mAat" or "house of Maat". Pharaoh Snefru (ca. 2600 - 2571 BCE), initiating Dynasty IV, calls himself "nb mAat" or : "Lord of Maat" and in the late Vth Dynasty, Pharaoh Djedkara Izezi (ca. 2411 - 2378 BCE), used "mAat ka Ra", "Maat, the double of Re". With this goddess we touch upon direct evidence of the personalization of a stable concept, albeit ante-rational & non-abstract (executed in the mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational mode of thought).

"Choiser de parler de la Maat signifie également puiser dans une plénitude de sources. Aucune notion égyptienne n'a suscité une telle diversité de discours. Nous aurons à nous occuper de textes sapientiaux, biographiques, funéraires, théologiques, cosmologiques, culturels, historiques, c'est-à-dire pratiquement de toute la documentation égyptienne."

Assmann, 1999, p.15.

In the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is also called "Lord of Maat" and Maat is in the company of Re. He appears with Maat's plinth as the base of the throne on which he sits to judge the dead, meaning that everything depended on what happened in the Hall of the Double Maat (the Two Truths). The deities of the Ennead, together as a tribunal, were called the "council of Maat". The title "priest of Maat" was given to those who administered justice (the magistrates). The kings saw Maat as their authority to govern and continued to stress how their reigns upheld the laws of the cosmos which she embodied, for they were the "beloved of Maat". In Hermopolis, the goddess was also thought to be the wife of Thoth, moon god and god of wisdom. 

Maat personified the supreme daily offerings brought by Pharaoh and his representative to the pantheon in the various "places of truth" (i.e. the temples with their necropolis). She had no festival of her own to be celebrated. Ptah, Re, Thoth & Osiris, as well as Pharaoh, were called "Lord of Maat", i.e. the national deities of the Old Kingdom were all united by doing Maat. She had no myth of her own and could never be fused with other deities.

In the Middle Kingdom, Maat was disconnected from the pharaonic principle (which was not abolished, for Pharaoh still was the "Lord of the Two Lands"). But, what one did for Pharoah (and his people, undisconnected in the Old Kingdom) was no longer a guaratee for justification. The "inner being" and state of one's conscience became essential (everybody, not only Pharaoh, had a "soul" or Ba). Maat endorsed the rectitude which one seriously and with great effort had earned for oneself. The democratization of ascension (commoners could also be deified as an "Osiris NN") as well as this reevaluation of individual conscience (continuous judgement as a "balancing-out") was the great cultural surplus acquired during the Middle Kingdom. 

In the New Kingdom (XVIIIth Dynasty), Maat wascalled "daughter of Re" and Pharaoh wasrepresented offering an effigy of the goddess in the palm of his hand before the major deities. But after Akhenaten, "who lives by Maat", the will of the gods was equated with Maat, which in fact stopped the concept from working (the principle of balancing scales being abolished). Hence, The Instruction of Amenemope (NK, XIX / XXth Dynasty, ca. 1292 - 1075 BCE) can be seen as the last major work of Egypt's sapiental literature.

"Mais identifier la Maat à la volonté de Dieu, c'est l'abolir. La volonté de Dieu se traduit en actes individuels, actes de grâce, que l'Égyptien résume sous la notion de 'hzwt', 'faveur'. Maat s'absorbe dans 'hzwt' et il n'y a que la volonté divine qui reste. La différence essentielle entre la volonté de Dieu et la Maat, c'est que cette dernière est reconnaissable, saisissable, transmissible, évidente et confortante, tandis que la volonté de Dieu est cachée."
Assmann, 1999, p.143.

A small temple dedicated to Maat was found in the southern sector of the precinct of Montu at Karnak.

Maat as cosmic & social order

In the end, it is Maat that lasts, (and)
man says : 'It is my father's domain.'
Maxim 5, lines 85 - 86

The hieroglyphs associated with Maat is that of a plinth and a feather, representing the primeval mount upon which the creator self-emerged, and the invisible, all-encompassing nature of "air", which can be felt but never seen (cf. the word "hidden" & the iconography of Amun). She comes into being together with the cosmos (the hieroglyph of the feather is also the biliteral "Sw", the god of Air who was created together with Tefnut by the creator Atum-Re). Without Maat, the Nun (the primodial, chaotic waters) would reclaim creation. Maat is shown as a Lady wearing an ostrich feather (of the Air-god "Sw") which can stand on its own instead of the full representation of the goddess. She usually wears the sign of life ("anx").

Maat was more a fundamental bridging concept rather than a deity to be worshipped. Literally, "mAat" meant also : "truth, integrity, uprightness, justice, the right, verity, social & cosmic order, balance, equilibrium". The fact that "the proper measure" (in Dutch : "de maat", also in words as "maatstaf, maatgevend, matigen") was Ancient Egypt's fundamental concept, shows the importance of balanced, exact & correct thought before the advent of rational categories.

The cosmic function of Maat is the continuity, maintenance, stability and permanence of creation (cf. "Weltordnung" - Schmid, 1968) and so it is not surprising that, especially in the Old Kingdom, she is ultimately linked with the presence of Pharaoh (the Follower of Horus who is the sole god-on-earth who is Maat's brother). Pharaoh is the tenacity principle par excellence, as the Pyramid Texts make clear (cf. the Cannibal Hymn). Maat is born when creation emerged. Likewise, Pharaoh established & maintained the unity of the Two Lands, politically (Upper and Lower Egypt) as well as theologically (divine and human worlds). The kingship which his institution represented had "transcendent significance" (Frankfort, 1948).

More analogies may be found. At Philae, we see the Nile-god Hapy pouring water from two vases. A serpent's body outlines a cave in some rock. According to Plutarch, the Egyptians saw the Nile as an outflow of Osiris and the earth as the body of Isis, whereas Seth represented the intensity of dryness which evaporates the Nile's waters. The flood itself symbolized the annual resurrection of the vegetation-god Osiris. Contrary to other rivers, the Nile begins its annual swelling in the hottest time of the year, when Sirius (Isis) rises at the same time as the Sun (heliacal rising), a date which during the third millenium BCE coincided with the summer solstice. Orion (Osiris) appears just before the Dog Star Sirius ... The inundation itself, was similar to an inert, primordial ocean, for its expanse extended over a length of more than 1000 kilometers (over 600 miles), with, at some places, a width of 10 to 20 kilometers (up to 12 miles). Such a scenery must have been very impressive.

bas-relief in the temple adjoining the Nilometer
on the island of Philae showing the sources of the Nile

It is true that the relapse into chaos which Maat was supposed to avert and (if calamities happened) soothe & heal was not a metaphor, but a historical fact. Indeed, read the chaotic, undifferentiated, dark and endless "primordial waters" (of the "Nun", the "father of the gods" who had no temple) as (a) the "waters" of the river Nile, with its irregular and inpredictable (strange, chaotic) flood-attractor moving in the phase-space of the various parameters involved when observing the Nile (cf. Chaos, 1996), (b) the amount of water brought by the flood, ranging from too low to too high and (c) the natural and artificial redistribution of this water in the canals and irrigation-systems (public & local dikes). Nile water was the major source of wealth and poverty. The continuum of this "flood-attractor", which the Ancient Egyptians did not understand (for the process is too irregular and involves complex mathematics), may be represented by the two extreme ends of the phase-space of the inundation, namely very low and very high annual floods ... like the two extreme positions of the two scales of the balance. 

In years when too little water and silt was brought, the annual harvest surplus would be very small or non-existent, causing the reserves to be depleted. If the latter were too small or absent (because this is happening a couple of years in a row), famine, plague, disorder, misery and depopulation occurred as a function of the length of the absence of new, balanced floods. Extreme flooding caused canals and field systems to be damaged or destroyed, generating lower crops. Studies reveal that both long-term and short-term cycles are at work, in addition to stochastic, unpredictable changes in the height, timing, peak, duration and sequence of the annual summer flood (Hassan, 1993). Hence, although the Egyptians kept a record of the "chaotic waters" (probably to discover some regularity), they never mastered its mathematics. So, if the power of the "Nun" was a yearly recurring event, the whole notion of Ancient Egypt as an example of static, eternalizing, enduring stability should always be contrasted with the fact of the urgent & dangerous presence of chaos (in the way the cosmos was believed to function, as well as in the Egyptian mentality and economical organization). In fact, this makes Ancient Egypt a good example for the problems the world faces today ... 

The general flood-curve has been established by Bell (1970) and Butzer (1984). The annual discharge could be drastic (from, for example 129 billion cube meters per day in 1879 to 44 billion cube meters per day in 1913). Changes in the volume of the Nile floods occur on several scales (35 years, 150 years, 300 years, 500 years, 1000 to 1600 years and longer). So except for changes at the shortest interval, Nile floods could not be recognized in any orderly way and no predictions could be made. 

  • Early Dynastic Period : low floods, small population, adequate surplus ;

  • Old Kingdom : good floods, larger population, start of effective bureaucratic administration ;

  • end of the Old Kingdom : low floods, collapse of central authority, famine (end VIth Dynasty) ;

  • Middle Kingdom : low floods, ambitious programs of flood control and land reclamation ;

  • end of the Middle Kingdom : aridity of the Egyptian Sahara, low floods with occasional high floods, famine, disease ;

  • New Kingdom : good floods, surplus & prosperity - Egypt's "golden age" ;

  • end New Kingdom : after Ramesses II low floods (drop in lake levels in East Africa) and eight- to twenty-fourfold increase in grain prices in 1110 BCE.

This fundamental insecurity (which could have drastic effects) was the riverine foundation (basis) of Egyptian civilization. The "plinth of Maat" being an image of the "primordial hill" which served as a stable throne for Atum-Re, who as his own creator emerged out of chaos. Without Maat, chaos would reclaim creation. As their existence was based on highly unpredictable events, which returned every year, we may also understand Maat as Egypt's concrete conceptualization of a practical solution when dealing with disorder. If Re was the power of light, the dawn of creation, Maat, his daughter, was the immanent formula of creation and order. To apply this, enabled every element of creation to endure as part of creation. Because of Maat, ways were found to counter all circumstances (all positions of the two scales).

Indeed, compare the immanent continuity personalized by Maat with the Balance of Judgment (cf. 3.2 infra). The two scales and their various positions, reflect the various dynamical dual states at work in the processes of nature & society (cf. the Two Lands), especially in its astronomical cycles, which measure "eternity", and its socio-econmical cycle, based on riverine characteristics. On top of the middle point of the one beam, holding the two scales, sits the Baboon of Thoth, who, as consort of Maat, records the position of the plumb-line, which is telling us precisely how much the balance is out of its state of equilibrium. It is the correct, precise and faithful record of this unbalance which lies at the heart of doing Maat. He who applies Maat, starts with recording the imbalance and next compensates, and this permanently ...

The economical cycle of the Old Kingdom (a period of good floods) allowed for excessive building-projects such as the large pyramids of the "Pyramid Age" because the surplus was put in reserve. The administration of the produce was considerable, and guaranteed that compensations could always be made. As long as there was enough surplus in reserve, sudden large imbalance could always be re-equilibrated. A strong central command was of vital importance, and the large-scale collective building-projects pulled the whole country together around its Pharaoh, a socio-religious trigger of considerable importance. But when the floods turned bad for long periods of time, calamity could strike nationwide (no surplus and no reserves).

A prudent, timid and gentle stride was considered to be in harmony with Maat. Excesses were avoided. When they happen, they were compensated by putting in reserves as well as by being reserved. By being aware of the plumb-line of the balance (conscience), one may judge one's situation and act to (re)establish Maat and let her endure (again). The straight path was the proper middle way of accomplished equilibrium on the chaotic sea of non-equilibrium. As this law of rectitude was immanent (part of the order of creation), its standard was at work both in the macrocosmos (were it just "is") as well as in the microcosmos (were it ought to be). To it, growth is not essential, but increasing harmonization is (cf. the spiral-curve instead of the straight line). The macrocosmic work of Maat got associated with the course of Re, i.e. Solarized. In the microcosmos, as Ptahhotep showed, Maat operated in all kinds of social situations, but excelled as the good discourse made by the wise father to his son, who heard and listened, and did better than his own father.

Maat as justice

Seti I presenting Maat
XIXth Dynasty - his temple at Abydos

Keep Maat, do not exceed it.
Maxim 8, line 123

During life on earth, it was Pharaoh's duty to uphold "maât". "I have done Maat." has been spoken by several kings, as well as the affirmation that they were "beloved of Maat".

Maat was also the justice meeted out in Egypt's law courts. The title "priest of Maat" referred to people who were involved in the justice system, as well as being priests of the goddess herself.

In Ancient Egypt, Pharaoh prevented crime, judged & punished the criminals. Justice and the immanent order of being were one and the same thing. It was necessary that righteousness ruled (and greed expelled), because by offering order to Re, Pharaoh returned to his father what had been given by the latter, namely creation itself. By circulating the goods, and not causing individuals to heap up their wealth, equilibrium was maintained.

Pharaoh possessed everything and everybody else received what they needed from him and the other gods directly (via the offerings). Greed, lying & killing ran directly against Maat.

"And the Setem shall cense Re-Heru-Khuti in all his names, and shall say : 'O Re, living in Maat. O Re, who feedest upon Maat. O Re, who rejoicest in Maat. O Re, who art united to Maat. (...) I have come and I have brought unto thee Maat, in which thou livest, in which thou rejoicest, in which thou art perfect, in which thou art bound together, in which thou flourishest (...) Thy heart is glad when thou seest those who are in thy shrine, who rejoice when they see Maat, following thee, since evil beareth contentions and destroyeth all the gods and the offerings.'"
Book of Opening the Mouth, the Address to Re, translated by Budge, 1972, pp.103-107.

Maat as the double truth in the "Beautiful West"

"Le jugement des morts, si l'on en croit la forme que les Égyptiens ont donnée à cette idée, est surtout un rite d'initiation d'après le modèle de l'initiation sacerdotale. (...) Le rite purificateur/qualificateur comprend la récitation et l'action. La récitation, c'est la déclaration d'innocence ou de la Maat codifiée ; l'action consiste dans l'acte de la 'psychostasie', ou mieux de la 'pesée du coeur'."
Assmann (1999, p.82 & 84)

relief of Maat in the tomb of Seti I
XIXth Dynasty - Thebes, the legend reads :
"Maat, daughter of Re, sovereign who presides over the land of silence."

For by doing Maat for the King,
the venerated place comes.
Epilogue, lines 536 - 537

We see the deceased brought (sometimes by Maat herself) in the "Hall of Maat", the "Hall of the Double Truth" or the "Hall of Judgment". His heart (i.e. the sum total of all conscious processes) was placed on one scale and was balanced by "truth" herself -the Feather of Maat- on the other scale.

Which truth ? Maat herself and the negative affirmations or the declaration of innocence made by the deceased. In it, he confirmed before the 42 gods not to have offended Maat in various (essential) ways (cf. the Book of the Dead, chapter 125) but in this way also purged his possible sin. Anubis (god of embalming and guide of the dead) weighed the heart, and Thoth (god of writing, scribes, magic and wisdom) recorded. Only perfect equilibrium was acceptable. For only in that case had the person not added weight to his own heart by acting against Maat without compensating for the wrongdoing in some way. In that case, the heart was devoured by a female demon called "Ammut", the Devouress of the Dead. This was the second, final death. But if the heart weighed the same as the Feather of Truth, the deceased was justified (venerated) and could meet Osiris to be deified ... 

Maat as the Eye of Horus

the left & the right eye of Horus

That man endures who correctly applies Maat
and walks according to his stride.
Maxim 19, lines 245 - 246

In the Pyramid Texts we read : 

"Take the two Eyes of Horus, the black and the white. Take them to your forehead, (so) that they may illuminate your face."

, 1908/1960, § 33a

"Behold, Pharaoh Unis brings to you your great left Eye healed. Accept it from Pharaoh Unis intact, with its water in it intact, with its blood in it intact, and with its ducts in it intact."
Ibidem, § 451a - c

"To say : 'Horus has cried out because of his Eye, Seth has cried out because of his testicles. The Eye of Horus sprang up, as he fell on yonder side of the Mer-en-Kha {a lake in the netherworld}, to protect itself from Seth. Thoth saw it on yonder side of the Mer-en-Kha when the Eye of Horus sprang up on yonder side of the Mer-en-Kha and fell on Thoth's wing on yonder side of the Mer-en-Kha.' "
Ibidem, § 594a -f

"To say : 'May the sky make the sunlight strong for Pharaoh Pepi, may Pharaoh Pepi rise up to the sky as the Eye of Re and may Pharaoh Pepi stand at that left Eye of Horus by means of which the speech of the gods is heard.' "
Ibidem, § 1231a - d

"To say : 'O my father, Pharaoh Merenre, I have come and I bring to you green eye-paint. I bring to you the green eye-paint which Horus gave to Osiris. I give you {the eye-paint is addressed} to my father, Pharaoh Merenre, just as Horus gave you to his father Osiris. Horus has filled his empty Eye with his full Eye.' "
Ibidem, § 1681 - 1682

In the fight with Seth, Horus lost his left eye (and Seth his testicles - symbols of the causes of revolt, violence and turbulence). This left Eye of Horus, or Eye of Thoth, is the endangered & injured Eye, also called "the black eye" (his "empty Eye"), associated with the cycle of the Moon (especially the Full Moon) and the winter. It was miraculously filled and completed by Thoth and then given back to Horus (as it is brought to Pharaoh) as a "full Eye". Because of this rejuvenation, it is called "the green eye" (cf. the color of the resurrection of Osiris also associated with vegetation), but also the strong, mighty, great, pure Eye. It was stronger than men and mightier than gods ... Healed, it even had its own typical perfume.

The right Eye of Horus, or Eye of Re, is the original "wedjat-eye", for "wTAt" means "well, uninjured", also called "the white eye", associated with the cycle of the Sun (especially its zenith) and the summer. It was this intact eye which was used in the Egyptian notation of measures of capacity :

the Wedjat-eye or uninjured Eye of Ra or right Eye of Horus
the sum of the fractions is 63/64 - 1/64th was left to magic

"Although Maat may have been driven out, she could return thanks to the assiduous work of the ruler or the individual. In that sense maat resembled the eye of Horus, wounded time and time again and subsequentely healed. Both symbolized a constantly endangered order that must repeatedly be established anew. The presentation of the eye of Horus, or udjet eye, by the pharaoh or priest had the same basic significance as the presentation of Maat. The gesture gave visible proof that all disruptions and threats to order had been removed, and that justice and harmony ruled once more. On two statues we find the symbols explictly joined in the inscription : 'My arms carry the udjet eye, I present maat.' The sacred eye is often shown in the hands of a baboon - an allusion to Thoth, who healed the eye ..."
Hornung, 1992, p.142.

Again the two scales appear : uninjured (Eye of Re, analogon of the Feather, daughter of Re) versus the endangered or injured (Eye of Thoth, analogon of the heart, judged by speech). 

The white eye is incomplete (lacks 1/64th) and the black eye is restored to become the greatest magic power possible, except the powers of life & vitality, of which this green eye is a splendid example. The restored Eye is Maat, and the restored energy is given back to its origin (to complete the cycle and condition perpetual rejuvenation - the eternal return of the same). 

Turbulence in the cycle is part of the equation (as Seth was part of the pantheon), but the work (process) of restoration (from black to green, from barren to fruitladen tree, from emptiness to fullness) is -as long as creation lasts- everlasting & evergreen. Maat transcends the turmoil upon which the very existence of the culture of the Two Lands was based, but her standard is immanent in creation (the cosmic moral law was not in touch with the "first time" of before creation). She is the goddess perceived by Nun (the preexistent, passive "chaos" versus active "chaos" as "isefet") as Atum's greatest asset ! He tells him to kiss her and smell the excellence of her fragrance ! She is always near him, i.e. present in every point of his creation. Maat can be "eaten", for she is the "divine food" of the gods (the offerings) which are redistributed as "gifts of the gods". She is the ultimate food from heaven which is given back to heaven (as voice-offerings). 

Truth and justice are the backbone of every great civilization, and they can always be restored, as the Eye of Horus teaches (are Mercy its flesh and Compassion its spirit ?). To find oneself on the straight path again after having gone astray from it for a long time may be difficult, but not impossible. Indeed, "on the first day", there was no conflict (i.e. the "original" state of affairs was just). So if someone makes up later by doing great deeds for the people regardless his former lowliness, then Maat automatically rebalances between them and perfect peace ("hotep" - "Htp") returns as it was on the first day (when things just were what they were and not yet how they turned out afterwards). The "balancing-out" proposed here is not a final judgement (which comes later, after the process of judgment in the Hall of Truth is concluded by the recording of the results by Thoth and one is brought before Osiris), but a degree of mastership regarding the rudder of the boat of life, enabling one to continue to do one's work whatever the conditions, hinderances and/or the costs (here and in the afterlife).


the preexistent, primordial, precreational waters which lurk behind every excess of the floods ...


the arch-personalization of divine evil - fundamental cause of the disruption of divine plenty and (by extension) of the "breaks" between various "states" of the heart - controls Apep the serpent


the negation of Maat by the members of the pantheon (like Seth), and general concept for all possible moral evil done by the person and his (her) heavy heart


With the Eye of Horus, we touch upon the core of the dramatical activities unfolding between the gods & goddesses, as these are determined by the presence of Seth, the personalized focus of the active chaos within creation : divine, natural as well as moral (deicide, calamity & moral evil, i.e. "isefet"). The scarcely mentioned murder of Osiris by Seth, was the introduction of divine moral evil in the holy sanctuary of the pantheon itself : chaos initiated as an intrinsic, irreducible and active part of the system of nature (contrary to Nun, who remains passive and undifferentiated, Seth has a form of expression of his own) ... The result was devastating, for the old order (represented by Osiris) was over (he was slain). With the "mourning of Isis" came the necessary purgation which enabled Isis to trick Re into giving up his secret name. Together with Thoth she was able to resurrect Osiris in a new, immortal body in the netherworld, were he reigned as supreme king and judge. Together, Isis and Osiris conceived a son Horus, who avenged his father by combatting Seth, and lost his left eye. He was justified (not by winning the battle) but by the concert of the divine tribunal and so became the Lord of the Two Lands. Seth was not destroyed, but had to retreat in the dry deserts, with its storms and weird animals. As compensation for abandoning the throne, Seth was given two goddesses as wives and he was also allowed to live in the sky with Re. Every night, his magical strength was needed when Re, at the end of the nightly caverns (reviving Osiris at the midpoint of the night), was attacked by Apep, the great chaos serpent. Hence, Seth was fully integrated although he remained the arch-fiend.

The restoration of the Eye (by Thoth) is reminiscent of the resurrection of Osiris (cf. the "green" eye). The Eye of Horus represented the last, final phase of the drama, one with which everybody could easily identify when calamity, conflict, disease or some other evil occurred (Osiris, Isis & Horus function as a family-unit). The restoration of the Eye reflected the reequilibration of Maat on a personal, intimate, contextual level. To present the Eye of Horus, was to offer one's efforts to turn away from the Sethean towards the Osirian. This was doing Maat on a personal & social level (for offerings were always redistributed). 

The fact that the Eye was restored while Horus was alive, made it possible to associate its "emptiness" with a sickness (a lack) of which one is healed (completed, made full). Did the healer (another function of Thoth), restored what was sick by applying "green" or "vitality" ? When the Eye had been restored, it became more powerful than before (stronger immunity). Restored, it became the magical Eye par excellence, tracing its enemy with the "night-eye" of darkness (in dreams, visions) as well as with the "day-eye" of inner vision (in controlled trance, telepathy and clairvoyance). The eye of the high priests, the visionary prophets ...

"To the Egyptians, the archetypal amulet was the wedjat eye, from which one of the general words for amulet was derived. Rubrics often mention that the wedjat eye should be drawn on linen or papyrus for use as a temporary amulet. Thousands of examples in more permanent materials survive."
Pinch (1994, p.109)

I conjecture that to illiterate Egyptians, the restoration of the Eye of Horus was the analogon of what the resurrection of Osiris meant for Pharaoh and those deified with him. By adhering to the Eye, commoners realized a continuous awareness (conscience) also implied in the image of the balance with its plumb-line. Was the popular (amuletic & talismatic) image of the Eye, besides being protective, also at work as a common reminder to be alert, mindfull, aware, present & observant of what is happening (cf. "ayin", the "eye" in qabalah), i.e. to avoid disease and unbalance ? These attacks on Maat, cause breaks in the stream of consciousness, or Sethean gaps, which have to be restored afterwards, again by witnessing its flow, measuring its disposition and rebalancing, assisted by rituals & voice-offerings ...

Maat as Logos

"sbAiit" : written teachings

(For) acting with Maat
he {the wise} is free of falsehood.
Epilogue, line 440

The sign of the Star (N14) after "sb" is the triliteral "sbA", the word for "star" ("seba"). This hieroglyph, which covered the ceilings of the tomb of Pharaoh Unis and his successors, has "quintessential" associations (it represents a pentagram) : the quaternio of the elemental division is transcended by a "fifth element" embracing simultaneously the best of the quaternio united. This was associated with the "imperishable" circumpolar Northern stars, which did not rise or set, the light of which was deemed, in the Old Kingdom, to be the final, celestial & spiritual abode of Pharaoh. With different determinatives, the root "sbA" means "door", "teach" or "teaching". As it appears here ("sbAiit"), "written teachings" is the usual translation.

Ptahhotep is clear : through "good discourse", the best of the best (a teaching about life itself) is transmitted to a son or spiritual heir. That the latter may be a spiritual heritage put down in writing (a cultural memorial), is evident, and opens the avenue to understand why the "written teachings" of Egypt's sapiental literature are  "wisdom-teachings". The fact that they are put in the narrative structure of a monologue spoken by a father to his son (a characteristic returning in the Corpus Hermeticum), points to the importance of the actual words spoken by the father. Not only is this a "good" discourse because it concerns itself with what people ought to do to live a balanced life (namely Maat), but what is said is said in an accomplished, excellent way. The words spoken have instrinsic value because truth & justice operate in them. Their command is accomplished and so they (at least) linger on in the memory of those who heared them. It is clear that this aspect of the wisdom-teaching is in accord with the Memphite theology as well as with the verbal philosophy found in all periods. In that sense, we may read the wisdom-teachings as the concrete application of the "authoritative command" by non-royal scribes, priests & aristocrats. Excellent speech creates.

Egyptian sapiental education was based on hearing this excellent discourse. To hear, was to let the Ka of the words enter one's "inner being", allowing one to make (if hearing was accomplished) a perfect copy of what was heard and so to reproduce it. Indeed, if excellent discourse is written down, the process of "hearing" becomes that of "reading" or "reciting". This first step, eventually made the hearer an artisan able to copy the masterplan and comprehend it, but without a plan of his own. 

Moreover, hearing (reading) alone is of no avail. Only because of the commanding excellence of what is said (written), will hearing (reading) have a lasting effect on the hearer (reader). The excellent discourse is not a passive activity. It is the result of many long years of service (to other people, Pharaoh foremost) and the long and perpetuated exercise of the good example in various contexts of life (cf. the vignettes offered as "maxims"). The Good Discourse offers a variety of such archetypal situations. They enable the master-hearer & good listener to grasp the "act of Maat" which they represent. They are excellent examples of ways to circulate vital energy (Ka) in harmony with the plumb-line of the balance of truth & justice. Eventually, this leads to the "silence" of the wise, the refusal to engage in a contra-productive waste of vital energy, protecting oneself by bouncing back Sethean ignorance and pretence, solidly anchored in doing Maat for life itself.

The "just speech" is "commanding", but not described as "Hu", the "authoritative, great speech" of Pharaoh. Indeed, the former is at the service of the latter. Nevertheless, insofar as the uprightness of what is said (or written) is based on Maat, the extent of the "command" offered to just speech is not small, and is described in judicial and administrative terms (great ones, masters, judges, magistrates).

According to Assmann (1999, p.27), it is precisely in the discourses that the true structure of this "compact concept" of justice & truth may be revealed. Is the image of the balance adequate to ascertain how to "apply" Maat in everything, good discourse included ? For is it not in court that truth must be spoken ? The judges must listen and be impartial, the witnesses must describe precisely everything as it has happened and the accused must defend himself using excellent speech, confessing that no crime has been done and purging himself from all possible heaviness of heart.

Maat as Sophia

"No one is born wise."
Prologue, line 33

Words for wisdom like "sAt, "sAA", "sArt" and "be wise" ("sAr") may help us find out what kind of knowledge was given. Other Egyptian words suggest that the wise was viewed as competent, able & sincere of heart, endowed with skilled knowledge, learned and cunning.

Indeed, the wise in particular was able to circulate Maat and assure the proper balance of creation and man in it.

The wise is literally present in the Maxims, and we could see in him the "ideal man" of the Old Kingdom, devoted to Pharaoh and peace, lacking all martial "virtues".

In the Old Kingdom, wisdom-teachings were primarily aristocratic, but non-royal. They became "middle class" in the Middle Kingdom, when a new "ideal man" was proposed, one with a soul. The Old Kingdom instructions have the ambiance of the way of life of the Old Kingdom. They reflect a state which is unified, serene, orderly & optimistic. The state (Pharaoh & the temple services) was in harmony with itself. The instructions embody the pragmatical wisdom of the upper-class Egyptian, and promote the code of the Old Kingdom nobleman, belonging to the wealthy class, initiated in the temple service, able to read & write and part of the administration of Pharoah, like local governors, high priests, members of court or Pharaoh's family. The Maxims tell us a great deal about this. 

In the Epilogue, we read :

(429)  If a good example is set by him who leads,
(430)  he will be beneficient for ever,
(431)  (and) his wisdom will be for all time.
(432)  He who knows, feeds his Ba with what endures,
(433)  so that it is happy with him on earth.
(434)  He who knows is known by his wisdom,
(435)  (and) the great by his good actions.
(436)  (That) his heart twines his tongue,
(437)  (and) his lips (be) precise when he speaks.
(438)  That his eyes see !
(439)  That his ears be pleased to hear what profits his son.
(440)  (For) acting with Maat, he is free of falsehood.

The context here, is the transmission of vital information concerning Maat by means of the good example. This example is also a discourse by those who "know", i.e. the wise. They are known because they are able to observe, hear, listen, say & do the proper, correct, right thing at the right time. They focus on their "son", or spiritual heir (their "Magnum Opus") and try to see and hear that which may help them in their transmission of their wisdom to posterity. The wise transmit this most subtle of cultural forms and their heart & tongue is entirely devoted to that cause. Because they act in accord with Maat, no falsehood can enslave them.

Furthermore, although the wise is a master-hearer, he is foremost a listener. He listened (as a son) to his father, and was taught how the teach his own son to be a hearer. He spoke the excellend discourse. Eventually, his own son surpassed him as he surpassed his father. This structure will remain typical for sapiental discourses and it will return in Alexandria, in Jewish teachings and in nearly all Greek philosophical schools (also named after their founder).

3.2 The hermeneutics of the Weighing Scene.

Papyrus of Ani, Plate 3 - XXVIIIth Dynasty


(the hieroglyphs start above the "meskhen" and face right) :
"Osiris, the scribe Ani, said : 'O my heart which I had from my mother ! O my heart which I had from mother ! O my heart of my different ages ! May there be nothing to resist me at the judgment. May there be no opposition to me from the assessors. May there be no parting of You from me in the presence of him who keeps the scales ! You are my Ka within my body, which formed and strengthened my limbs. May You come forth to the place of happiness whereto I advance. May the entourage not cause my name to stink, and may no lies be spoken against me in the presence of the god ! It is indeed well that You should hear !'"

(Anubis watches a small text-line facing left) :
"Said he that is in the tomb : 'Pay attention to the decision of truth and the plummet of the balance, according to its stance !'" 

(the second part starts just above the right-hand beam of the balance, faced by the Baboon", hieroglyphs facing left) :
"Said Thoth, the righteous judge, to the Great Ennead, which is in the presence of Osiris : 'Hear ye, this decision, in very truth ! The heart of Osiris has been weighed and his Ba stands as a witness for him. His deeds are righteous in the Great Balance, and no sin had been found in him. He did not diminish the offerings in the temples, he did not destroy what had been made, he did not go about with deceitful speech while he was on earth.'"

(the third large section starts in the far right corner, facing right) :
"Said the Great Ennead of Thoth, who is in Hermopolis : 'That which comes forth from your mouth is true. The vindicated Osiris, the scribe Ani, is righteous. He has no sin, there is no accusation against him before us. Amemet {the eater of the dead, executing the second death} shall not be permitted to have power over him. Let there be given to him the offerings which are issued in the presence of Osiris, and may a grant of land be establised in the Sekhet-Hetepu {the Field of Offerings} like for the followers of Horus.'"

In this famous scene from the Papyrus of Ani, Ani and his wife enter the Hall of the Double Law or Double Truth (divine versus human - good versus evil - eternal life versus second death, etc.) to have Ani's heart, emblematic of conscience, weighed against the Feather of Maat, emblematic of truth & justice.

On the left of the balance, facing Anubis, stands Ani's "Shay" ("SAii") or "Destiny". Above Ani's Destiny is an object called "meskhen" ("msxn"), a cubit with a human head connected with Ani's place of birth. Behind Shay stand "Meskhenet", presiding over the birth-chamber, and "Renenet", guiding the rearing of children and called (in the Litany of Re) "Lady of Justification". Above them (behind the "meskhen") is the Ba of Ani in the form of a human-headed bird standing on a pylon. This left side summarized the various elements which together constituted Ani's life on earth : 

  • where he was born (nature) and how he was raised (nurture) ;

  • the destiny allotted to him : "what is fated" (Ptahhotep - Maxims 12 & 33 - Amenemope, chapter 7) : Shay is also the god of the span of years and the prosperity that one may expect to enjoy - note that the "meskhen" floats above Ani's destiny (indeed, where one was born influenced one's destiny) ;

  • Ani's heart : the epicentre of the whole scene, symbolizing Ani's thoughts, intentions and conscience during his lifetime on earth ;

  • Ani's Ba : during his lifetime, his soul was captured by the "net of the body" and it made Ani happy if he invested in enduring thoughts & deeds - after the mummification of the body, the Ba existed in a "spiritual body" (the "sah") and witnessed the weighing, of which the final direction of the lower constitutents of Ani depended (either a second death or a vindication).

On the right of the balance, the left arm of Anubis is above Maat's Feather (his tumb pointing to the words "the heart of Osiris has been weighed") while his right hand touches the plumb bob or plummet of the balance (at the end of the plumb-line). On the centre of the beam of the balance sits a dog-headed ape (Baboon), facing Thoth the recorder (who stands at Anubis' right side with the Monster of the Netherworld behind him). Beneath the right beam we find these words (spoken by Anubis, watching the pumb-line) :

Said he that is in the tomb : 
'Pay attention to the decision of truth
and the plummet of the balance, according to its stance !'

I conjecture that this exhortation summarizes the practice of wisdom found in Ancient Egypt, as well as their philosophy of well-being and art of living happily & light-heartedly (for the outcome of the weighing is determined by the condition of the heart alone). In this short sentence, the "practical method" of the Ancient Egyptians springs to the fore : concentration, observation, quantification (analysis, spatiotemporal flow, measurements) & recording (fixating) with the sole purpose of rebalancing, reequilibrating & correcting concrete states of affairs, using the plumb-line of the various equilibria in which these actual aggregates of events are dynamically -scale-wise- involved, causing Maat to be done for them and their environments and the proper Ka, at peace with itself, to flow between all vital parts of creation. The "logic" behind this operation involves four rules : 

  1. inversion : when a concept is introduced, its opposite is also invoked (the two scale of the balance) ;

  2. asymmetry : flow is the outcome of inequality (the feather-scale of the balance is a priori correct) ;

  3. reciprocity : the two sides of everything interact and are interdependent (the beam of the balance) ;

  4. multiplicity-in-oneness : the possibilities between every pair are measured by one standard (the plummet).

Above, in another register, are twelve gods, upon thrones before a table of offerings of fruit, flowers, etc. Their names : Harmachis ("the great one within his boat"), Atum, Shu, Tefnut ("lady of the sky"), Geb, Nut, Isis, Nephthys, Horus ("the great god"), Hathor ("lady of Amenta"), Hu and Sia. In a way, they represent the heavenly bliss awaiting the justified. Whether this final goal will be attained, will be decided in this Hall of Truth.

Other visual dispositions of the same concept may be found, but the vignette of the Papyrus of Ani outweighs them all qua beauty & excellence :

Papyrus BM 9901, Papyrus BM 10.472, Papyrus of Qenna , Wooden Ushabti Box

The central emblem is Maat's Feather. It represents the standard of truth & justice immanent in creation, but also the truth of the declaration of innocence made by the deceased (Plate 31) before the tribunal of assessors (the hieroglyph for "not" is in red), and thus by virtue of the rule of "reversal", a "purging" of possible past crimes. Three offences are repeated in the Judgment Scene :

  • never to diminish the offerings made to the temples (against the pantheon & the people) ;

  • never to destroy what had been made (against the memorial of the ancestors) ;

  • never to speak deceitfully (against truth & righteousness).

Wat does the text give us ? It starts with Ani invoking his own conscience but also his mother, from whom he received his heart (cf. the major role of woman in nurture, but also as representing the sacred "matrix" of life). We also learn that his heart was linked with the Ka "within the body", the vital power that made and sustained one's stride. Next, Anubis weighs Ani's heart against the divine standard (the Feather) and Thoth confirms that no sin is found and that the equilibrium of the Great Balance is established. Finally, the Ogdoad of Hermopolis (headed by Thoth), confirms the sentence spoken and recorded by Thoth and it is they -the chaos-gods- who lift the curse of the Monster or Ani's "second death". Instead of being annihilated, Ani will be allowed to enter the kingdom of Osiris because he is "maa-cheru" ("mAa - xrw"), i.e. vindicated, justified, triumphant !

What was the meaning of this afterlife scene to those still alive ? The importance given to the heart could not be missed : it is a person's conscience, determined by what he said (wrote) and did (how he lived), which was deemed crucial. As Ptahhotep taught, just speech is the heart of a wise transference of the best of the past to the best of today for the sake of the future (so that the memorial of the ancestors remains), as well as of the continuous progress made over the generations. If we study Egypt's sapiental literature, we do not encounter the notion that a person may be vindicated during his or her lifetime on earth. On the contrary, in the Old Kingdom, a non-royal could only hope to endure without being immortalized. The sage was always in the process of attaining the state of veneration, except when his vital force left his physical vehicle. Then and only then could veneration be a final station (a terminus). Although since the Middle Kingdom, deceased commoners could be immortalized and deified as "Osiris-NN", nobody attained this state during his or her lifetime. Only Pharaoh was a living god on earth. Hence, even during his lifetime, Pharaoh was "justified", for he "lived in Maat".

The weighing procedure invoked in this scene, is -ex hypothesi- not restricted to the afterlife (were it appears as the final "balance-sheet" of the deceased). The sapiental discourses make it clear that in every situation, the Egyptian wise seeks to do Maat, and does it by "measuring" the scale of the imbalance in order to restore the Eye and bring it to the forehead (i.e. realize a "tertium comparationis"). This to harmonize life and end strife in Pharaoh's name, he who guaranteed the unity of the Two Lands by returning Maat as voice-offering to his father Re. First comes a careful, concrete investigation of what is at hand, in order to discover its "balance", i.e. the two factors which allow the "Ka" to flow (from high to low) and animate the given context. Next there is the restoration by striking the "nil", the true balancing-point of the beam, arrived at when the difference between the two weights is naught. Indeed, the sinuous waters go up and down and when this flood equilibrates (not too much and not too little), the inundation is perfect and the surplus large. The wise has always enough reserves to compensate for any imbalance ... At the balancing-point, Maat is brought to the nose of Atum ...

The wise of Ancient Egypt made the poise of the balance of truth & justice rest upon the vastness of the non-equilibrium (chaos) which constantly treatened the survival of the cosmos. He knew that this reclaiming of life by death is of no avail if at every movement of the rudder, the boatman knows how to balance the bark and master the waters, whether he be travelling on earth or on the Nile of the netherworld. His commanding excellence made his bark float upon the chaotic ocean. His just word was the primodial hill, or the emergence of order out of chaos and the making of the beam of the balance that kept the two scales together and separated, allowing one to "walk upon the waters", using the surface-tensions of their chaos itself ...

3.3 Hearing versus listening, ignorance versus wisdom.

The fundamental categories of Memphite philosophy were "heart/tongue/heart" insofar as theo-cosmology, logoism and magic were at hand and "hearing/listening/hearing" in moral, anthropological, didactical and political matters. The first category reflected the excellence of the active and outer (the father), the second the perfection of the passive and inner (the son). The active polarity was linked with Pharaoh's "great speech", which was an "authoritative utterance" and a "creative command", which no counter-force could stop. The passive polarity was nursed by the intimacy of the teacher/pupil relationship, based on the subtle and far-reaching encounters of excellent discourse with a perfected hearing, i.e. true listening. 

The "locus" of Egyptian wisdom was this intimacy. Although Pharaoh was also called "wise", the sapiental discourses alone name their (possible) author. Wisdom was always linked with a "niche" defined by the vignettes of life the sage wished to use as good examples to confer his wisdom to posterity, to understand how he balanced Maat in all circumstances and made the social order endure by serving "the great house", being at peace with himself.

Maat as Cosmic Logos



words as physical manifestations of what is conceived by the heart - the material cause of creation and excellent discourse

thought as the efficient cause of words - the immaterial cause of creation and excellent discourse - seat of personality and free will

Maat as Social Order
Hearing Listening

the material entrance of sound in the healthy ear - the comprehension of the meaning of what is said - the ability to reproduce what has been said without "inner" understanding

to grasp the intent, possible hidden implications and "Ka" of what was perfectly heard - to listen with the heart is to truly understand the message with one's "inner being"

In the Maxims, there are no grammatical criteria to establish whether the author uses the verb "sedjem" ("sDm") as "to hear" or as "to listen". Although is some cases, variations occur which could indicate "listen", in other cases "sDm" appears when the context suggest "listening". Hence, only the context may reveal the distinction.

Let us enumerate them (following the order of the text were they occur) :

(024) the judge is an archetype of listening;
(031) A speaks to B and B hears A ;
(040) as the Epilogue makes clear, hearing the good discourse is already beneficial ;
(062) those who heard what happened will be talking about it ;
(212) the one who is pleading speaks to the one who hears ;
(220) to hear what a person in distress has to say helps that person to calm down ;
(281) one should not let what the hot-bellied has to say enter one's ear ;
(283) direct observation is preferred over testimonial evidence ; 
(336) the Ka is the subtle vehicle of vital energy linked with the heart and listening ;
(366) before the ear is touched by what You have to say ;

It is in his Epilogue, called a "fugue" on "sDm" (Assmann, 1999), that Ptahhotep makes use of both meanings in identical contexts, allowing one to discern between the receptive (hearing) and reflective (listening) modes of the passive side of the polarity. I must add, that Zába, Lichtheim, Assmann, Brunner & Jacq give different solutions :

(416) - (440) "hearing" alone

Ptahhotep describes how hearing these wisdom-sayings makes every plan go forward. The act of making these teachings available is beneficial. It is the best memorial possible as well as a tribute to the ancestors of truth & justice, who's words, in the end, will always prevail. The words of the sayings accomplish Maat "de opere operato", i.e. as would "Hw", authoritative speech (cf. magic). One only needs to "hear" (read) to already experience their rebalancing effect ... So, that the ears "be pleased" for what enters them, i.e. what they "hear".

(441 - 449) introducing the difference between "hearing" and "listening"

Useful (luminous) & splendid is listening to one who hears. By entering the ears, words are heard. After hearing is perfected (a master-hearer who is an artisan of reception & reproduction), the hearer may "listen with his heart" or "inner being" and do more than only hear. Only listeners are able to surpass the limits of what they heard and hence move beyond the mere recitation of what they heard. The good discourse is a creative one, for speaking well adds something to the traditions one heard. Listening focusses on what is good, excellent & accomplished. To one who hears, it is splendid because it adds a new dimension : the manifestation of what is good, namely perfect love. So, when the good son "grasps" his father's words, he did more than just hear spoken words and comprehend them, he "read" them as living good examples of doing Maat. Then the sayings of the ancestors become so many memorial sign-posts pointing to Maat and the ongoing process of balancing-out according to the "Great Balance". Hearing is beneficial but listening is a good old age. The latter only depends on the condition of one's heart ... (greedy materialists have no tomb).

(450 - 502) the difference between "a listener" and a "non-listener" : the wise versus the fool

The distinction between "listener" and "non-listener" is pertinent : the former is loved by god, the latter hated. As we already know, it is the "heart" which decides what will be the case, not the "ears". Human freedom is made explicit. The fool decided not to listen. He who knows, i.e. the wise, always listens. Ptahhotep points out that the natural state of man's heart is positive and constructive : life, prosperity & health ! So, the fool is a product of his own choice. Death, poverty and sickness (the injured Eye), which are his every day, are the outcome of neglecting the plummet. These defects ought not to be (normative) but just are because people made & continue to make wrong choices, causing the scale to flip to one extreme of the spectrum of possible balancing states. They do not restore the Eye, and so never acquire the "third Eye" that always watches the plumb-line. 

Of course, there is no listening without hearing (it is the hearer who listens to what is said). Moreover, the listener speaks well (is master of what is good) and does what is said (the hearer benefits too, but this does not necessarily mean that he will change his mind or way of life). 

The ultimate realization for a son is to hear his father say that he is a master of listening. Note that Ptahhotep points out that one may teach one's son to be a hearer, but never to be a listener. The latter depends on the heart of the son and can only be affirmed by those nobles who listened to the words of the son and observed his excellent deeds.

If hearing these wisdom-teachings is beneficial, then refusing to listen to them (the way of the insane) is like inviting failure & error. Those who listen not, go astray and are left with a Ka turned to itself, leading to frustration, loneliness and the depletion of one's vitality (death). Such a person is a fool and will accomplish nothing, exist as a "living dead" with many daily troubles ... The fool, the carrier of evil, is easily recognized, and so people who see and hear such an erratic occupied, immediately say : "Evil as we expected from him !". Because they understand his way, nothing of that foolishness can undermine their stability, equipoise, serenity and detachment.

Indeed, he who listens, is a Follower of Horus and because he listens all goes well. He was a son, but today he is a father who teaches his own son. 

(507) Behold ! Be aware ! Focus attention ! Open your ears ! Hear !
(507) in the mouth of the judges, nobles, magistrates and other great ones who listen ;
(515) those who heard the words "He is a son !"
(519) those who heard the elevated things spoken

The following "order" may be derived :

  • hearer : one who opens his ears to invite the meaning of the words spoken - the ears are pleased to hear what profits the didactical purpose of the good discourse, the accomplished transmission of the commanding words of wisdom - the hearer directs his attention consciously and so "hearing" is clearly a level higher than registering without the effort to comprehend ;

  • master-hearer : the one who immediately comprehends the meaning and can reproduce it - this leads to listening if the heart desires so ;

  • listener : one who opened his heart to invite the "inner" meaning of the totality of what he heard - one able to recognize the excellence of the good discourse in the words & deeds of those who heard & listened to them (i.e. a perfect son) - note that he who listens is loved by god ;

  • master-listener : one who listened so well that he surpassed the teachings of his own father and is able to do great, excellent deeds and speak the accomplished discourse ;

  • venerable : when old age has arrived, the master-listener (while alive) enjoys constantly doing Maat and his inner state contrasts with the defects described in the Prologue. Indeed, our author wants to make us believe that -although lacking memory- Ptahhotep was 110 when he spoke this accomplished discourse !

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