The Maxims of Good Discourse
by vizier Ptahhotep (ca. 2200 BCE)
after two Middle Kingdom copies

adjacent pages :

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

by Wim van den Dungen


I PROLOGUE

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

The overseer of the city, the vizier Ptahhotep, he says :

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

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

The Majesty of this god said :

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

II THE TEACHING

Beginning of the maxims of good discourse,(9)
spoken by the prince, count, god's father, beloved of god,
eldest son of the King, of his body,
(10)
overseer of the city, vizier Ptahhotep,
teaching the ignorant in knowledge,
and in the standard of good discourse,
(11)
beneficial to him who hears,
but woe to him who neglects them.

So he spoke to his son :

1

"Don't let your heart get big because of your knowledge.
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)



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).



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.
There will be much talk among the hearers,
(and) the knowledge the magistrates have of your name will be good.(17)

4

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 will refute himself.(18)
Do not answer him to relieve your heart.
Do not wash the heart against your opponent. 
Wretched is he who injures a man of little heart.
One will wish to do what your heart desires.
You will strike him with the reproof of the magistrates.

5

If You are a man who leads,
charged to direct the affairs of a great number,
seek out every well adjusted deed,
so that your conduct may be blameless.
Great is Maat, lasting in effect. 
Undisturbed since the time of Osiris.
One punishes the transgressor of laws, 
though the heart that robs overlooks this.

Baseness may seize riches,
yet crime never lands its wares.
(19)
He 
(20) says : 'I acquire for myself.'
He does not say : 'I acquire for my function.'
In the end, it is Maat that lasts, (and)
man
(21) says : 'It is my father's domain.'

6

Do not scheme against people,
(for) god punishes accordingly.
If a man (nevertheless) says : 'I shall live that way.',
he will lack bread for his mouth.
If a man says : 'I shall be rich.'
He will have to say : 'My cleverness has snared me.'
(22)
If a man says : 'I will rob someone.',
he will, in the end, make a gift to a stranger !
(23)
People's schemes do not prevail.
God's command is what prevails.

Live then in the midst of peace (with what You have),
(for) what they give comes by itself.

7

If You get to be among guests,
at the dining table of one greater than You,
accept what he gives, in the way it is set before your nose.
Look at what is before You,
do not pierce it with lots of glances :
it offends the Ka to be molested.
(24)
Do not speak until he summons,

(since) one does not know whether he has evil on his heart.
Speak when he addresses You, 
and may your words please the heart.

The nobleman, sitting behind the breads,
behaves as his Ka commands him.
(25)
He will give to him whom he favors,
(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.
Thus the breads are eaten under the plan of god,

a fool is who complains of it.



If You are a man of trust,
sent by one great man to another,
be exact when he sends You.

Give his message as he said it.
Guard against slanderous speech,
which embroils one great with another.
Keep to Maat, do not exceed it.

But the washing of the heart should not be repeated.
Do not speak against anyone,
great or small, the Ka abhors it.

9

If You plow and there is growth in the field,

(because) god lets it prosper in your hand,
do not boast about it at your neighbour's side,
for one has great respect for the silent man.
If a man of good character is a man of wealth,

he takes possession like a crocodile,(28) even in court.
Do not impose on one who is childless :
neither criticize, nor boast of it.
(29)
There is many a father who has grief,

and a mother of children less content than another (without).
It is the lonely whom god fosters,
while the family man prays for a follower.
(30)

10

If You are a weakling, serve a man of quality, worthy of trust,

(so) that all your conduct may be well with god.
Do not recall if once he was of humble condition,
do not let your heart become big towards him,
for knowing his former state.

Respect him for what has accrued to him,
for surely goods do not come by themselves.
They are their laws for him whom they love.
His gain, he gathered it himself,

(but) it is god who makes him worthy,
and protects him while he sleeps.

11

Follow your heart as long as You live.

Do no more than is required.
Do not shorten the time of 'follow-the-heart',
(for) trimming its moment offends the Ka.
Do not waste time on daily cares

beyond providing for your household.
When wealth has come, follow your heart !
Wealth does no good if one is annoyed !

12

If You are a man of quality, worthy of trust,

may You produce a son, by the favour of god.
If he is straight, turns around your character,
takes care of your possessions in good order,
(then) accomplish for him all that is good.

He is your son, belonging to the seed of your Ka,(31)
(so) do not withdraw your heart from him.
But an offspring can make trouble :

if he goes into the wrong direction, neglects your counsel,
with insolence disobeys all that is said,
if his mouth sprouts evil speech,
(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.
He whom they guide can not go astray,
(but) whom they make boatless can not cross.
(32)

13

If You are in a court of justice,

stand or sit as fits your rank,
assigned to You on the first day.
(33)
Do not force your way in, (for) You will be turned back.
Keen is the face of him who enters announced,

spacious the seat of him who has been called.(34)
The court of justice has a correct method,
all behavior is by the plumb-line.
(35)
It is god who gives the seat.
He who uses elbows
(36) is not helped.

14 

If You are among the people,

gain allies  through being trustful of heart.
The trustful of heart does not vent his belly's speech.
(37)
He will himself become a man who commands,
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,
and one praises You without You knowing (it).

(But) him whose heart obeys his belly disappears ; (38)
he raises contempt of himself in place of love.
His heart is denuded, his body unanointed.

The great of heart is a gift of god.
He who obeys his belly, obeys the enemy.
(39)

15

Report your commission without swallowing the heart,
and give your advise in your master's council.

If he is fluent in his speech,
it will not be hard for the envoy to report,
nor will he be answered : 'Who is he to know it ?'

As to the master, his affairs will fail,
if he plans to punish him for it.
(40)
He should be silent and conclude : 'I have spoken.'

16 

If You are a man who leads,

that your way to govern may freely travel.(41)
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)

17

If You are a man who leads,
calmly hear the speech of one who pleads,

(and) do not stop him from purging his body (45)
of that which he planned to tell.

A man in distress wants to wash his heart
more than that his case be won.
About him who stops a plea,

one says : 'Why does he reject it ?'
Not all one pleads for can be granted,
but a good hearing calms the heart.

18

If You want friendship to endure
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.
(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,
then death comes for having known them.
(46)
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,
no affair of his can prosper.

19 

If You want your conduct to be perfect,
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, 
among the brothers of the mother,
and parts wife from husband.

It is an amalgam of all evils,
a bundle of all hateful things.
That man endures who correctly applies Maat,

and walks according to his stride.(48)
He will make a will by it. 
The greedy of heart has no tomb !
(49)

20 

Do not be greedy of heart in the division (of goods).
(50)
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)
Even a little of what is craved,
makes conflict rise in a cool-bellied man.
(53)

21

When You prosper, found your house,
love your wife with ardor,
fill her belly, clothe her back,

ointment is a remedy for her body.
Gladden her heart as long as You live.
She is a fertile field, useful to her master.
Do not contend with her in a court of justice,
(and) keep her from power, restrain her.
Her eye is her storm when she gazes.
(54)
You will make her stay in your house.
If You push her back, see the tears !
Her vagina is one of her forms of action.

What she enforces, is that a canal be made for her.(55)

22

Satisfy those who enter, and in whom You trust, with what You make,
(for) You make it by the favour of god.
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.
The (proper) Ka is a correct Ka at peace with itself.
(57)
If praiseworthy deeds are done,
trustworthy friends will say : 'Welcome !'
One does not bring supplies to town,
one brings friends when there is need.

23

Do not repeat calumny,
neither hear it.
It is the way of expression of the hot-bellied.
(58)
Report a thing observed, not heard.
If it is negligible, do not say anything,
(and) see : he who is before You recognizes (your) worth.
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)
Calumny is like a vision against which one covers the face.
(61)

24

If You are a man of quality, worthy of trust,
who sits in his master's council,
bring your whole heart together towards excellence.
Your silence is more useful than chatter.
Speak when You know how to untie the knot.
(62)
It is the skilled who speak in council.
Speaking is harder than all other work.

He who unties it makes it serve.

25

If You are mighty, gain respect through knowledge
and gentleness of speech.
Do not command except as is fitting.
He who provokes gets into trouble.
Do not be high of heart, lest You be humbled.
Do not be mute, lest You be reprimanded.
When You answer one who is fuming,
avert your face, control yourself,
(for) the flames of the hot of heart sweep across.
(63)
He who steps gently finds his path paved.
All day long the sad of heart has no happy moment.

All day long the frivolous of heart can not keep house.
The archers complete the aim,
as one who holds the rudder untill (it) touches land.
(64)
The opposant is imprisoned. 
He who obeys his heart is equipped to order.


26

Do not oppose a great man's action.
Do not vex the heart of one who is burdened.

His anger manifests against him who combats him.
The Ka {of the great one} will part from him who loves him.
(65)
(Yet) he who provides is together with god.
What he wishes will be done for him.
When he turns his face back to You after raging,
there will be peace from his Ka,
(66)
(and) hostility from the enemy.
To provide increases love.

27

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

28

If You are a magistrate of standing,
commissioned to appease the many,
remove stupidity from the record.
(71)
When You speak, do not lean to one side,
(72)
beware lest one complain :

'Judges, he puts his speech on the side he likes !'
In court, your deeds will (then) turn against You.

29 

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

30 

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

31

Bend your back to your superior,
your overseer from the palace,
then your house will endure in its wealth,

and your rewards (will be) in their right place.(75)
Wretched is he who opposes a superior,
(for) one lives as long as he is mild ...
Baring the arm does not hurt it !
(76)
Do not plunder a neighbour's house,
(and) do not steal the goods of one near You,
so that he does not denounce You,
before You are heard.
(77)
A quarreler lacks in heart,
so if he is known as an aggressor,
the hostile will have trouble in the neighbourhood.

32

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

33

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

34

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

35 

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

36

Punish as a commander-in-chief, (but) teach the complete form !
(90)
The act of stopping crime is an enduring good example.

Crime, except for misfortune,(91)
turns the complainer into an aggressor.

37

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

III THE EPILOGUE 

On Hearing & Listening 


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

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

Useful is listening to a son who hears !
If hearing enters the hearer, the hearer becomes a listener.
To listen well is to speak well.
He who listens is a master of what is good.

Splendid is listening to one who hears !
Listening is better than all else.
It manifests perfect love.
How good it is for a son to grasp his father's words !
Underneath them, he will reach old age.
(97)

On the Listener and the Non-Listener 

He who listens is beloved of god,
he who does not listen is hated by god.
(It is) the heart (which) makes of its owner a listener or a non-listener.
Life, prosperity & health are a man's heart.

It is the hearer who listens to what is said.
He who loves to listen, is one who does what is said.
How good for a son to obey his father !
How happy is he (the son) to whom it is said :

'The son pleases as a master of listening.'(98)
He (the son) who hears the one (the father) who said this,
is well adjusted in his inner being,
(99)
and honored by his father.

His remembrance is in the mouth of the living,
those on earth and those who will be.

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

The fool who does not listen,
can accomplish nothing at all.
He sees knowledge as ignorance,
usefulness as harmfulness.
He does all that is detestable,
and is blamed for it each day.
He lives on that by which one dies,
he feeds on damned speech.
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)
It goes well with him when he listens.
(104)
When he is old and reaches veneration,
(105)
(may) he speak likewise to his children,
renewing the teaching of his father.
Every man teaches as he acts.
(106)
May he speak to the children,

so that they may speak to their children.
Set an example, do not give offense.
If Maat stands firm, your children live !
As to the first who comes as a carrier of evil,
(107)
may people say to what they see :
'That is then just like him !'
(108)
And may they say to what they hear :
'That is then just like him !'
Let everyone see them
(109) to appease the multitudes.
Without them, riches are useless.

On Speaking

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

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

'Blessed is he to whom he was born !'

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

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

Lo, the good son, the gift of god,
exceeds what is told to him by his master,
he does Maat and his heart matches his steps.
(O my son) as You succeed me, with a sound body,

the King at peace with all what is done,
may You obtain many years of life !

Concluding Remarks 

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

Colophon
(D645)

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


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