Authors born before 1000 BCE
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Follow Your Heart
The Worth of Precepts
We may gain a distorted view of ancient Egyptian literature if we are familiar only with tomb inscriptions concerning gods and the dead. There also existed various forms of poetry, satires, and what are called Instructions in Wisdom. The latter consist of sets of maxims directed to the living, and they illustrate some of the humanistic values of ancient Egyptian society. The maxims were formed into a connected sequence by inserting them into a letter from a father to his son. The format endured for millennia (it was used by Amenope and Jesus Ben Sirach, for example, and appears in Cervantes). It also represents one of the earliest literary formats that carried the author’s name. This may not, however, be as personal as might be thought; for the temptation was to use the name of some famous figure in history as a means of giving the maxims more importance.
The Instruction of Ptahhotep to his son survives in papyrus copies. It is a collection of maxims (not all are given here) dealing with human relations. The maxims do not cover all aspects of Egyptian life. For the most part, they touch on the peaceful virtues of kindness, justice, truthfulness, moderation and self-control.
A man by the name of Ptahhotep was a vizier under King Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty. If he authored the instruction under this name, then it dates from 2450-2300 BCE. On the other hand, Miriam Lichtheim argues that the style of the document puts its origin close to the Sixth Dynasty (2300-2150 BCE). She also points out that the absence of maxims regarding the vizierate, the highest office in the land, make it unlikely that the author was a vizier. However, in the sequence that has come down to us (not reproduced here), the prominence given to conduct in legal disputes suggests an author familiar with the law courts.
1 Follow your heart as long as you live,
Do no more than is required . . .
Don't waste time on daily cares
Beyond providing for your household;
When wealth has come, follow your heart,
Wealth does no good if one is glum!
2 If you want a perfect conduct,
To be free from every evil,
Guard against the vice of greed:
A grievous sickness without cure,
There is no treatment for it.
It embroils fathers, mothers,
And the brothers of the mother,
It parts wife from husband;
It is a compound of all evils,
A bundle of all hateful things.
That man endures whose rule is rightness,
Who walks a straight line;
He will make a will by it,
The greedy has no tomb. . .
3 Be generous as long as you live,
What leaves the storehouse does not return;
It is the food to be shared which is coveted,
One whose belly is empty is an accuser;
One deprived becomes an opponent,
Don't have him for a neighbor.
Kindness is a man's memorial
For the years after the action.
4 Don’t be proud of your knowledge,
Consult the ignorant and the wise;
The limits of art are not reached,
No artist's skills are perfect;
Good speech is more hidden than greenstone,
Yet may be found among maids at the grindstones.
5 Do not repeat calumny,
Nor should you listen to it,
It is the spouting of the hot-bellied.
Report a thing observed, not heard,
If it is negligible, don't say anything,
He who is before you recognizes worth.
If a seizure is ordered and carried out,
Hatred will arise against him who seizes;
Calumny is like a dream against which one covers the face.
6 Do not plunder a neighbor's house,
Do not steal the goods of one near you,
Lest he denounce you before you are heard.
A quarreler is a mindless person,
If he is known as an aggressor
The hostile man will have trouble in the neighborhood.
7 If you are among the people,
Gain supporters through being trusted;
The trusted man who does not vent his belly's speech,
He will himself become a leader.
A man of means—what is he like?
Your name is good, you are not maligned,
Your body is sleek, your face benign,
One praises you without your knowing.
He whose heart obeys his belly
Puts contempt of himself in place of love,
His heart is bald, his body unanointed;
8 If you are a man of trust,
Sent by one great man to another,
Adhere to the nature of him who sent you,
Give his message as he said it.
Guard against reviling speech,
Which embroils one great with another;
Keep to the truth, don't exceed it,
But an outburst should not be repeated.
9 Report your commission without faltering,
Give your advice 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,
He should be silent upon hearing: "I have told.''
10 He who uses elbows is not helped.
11 If you are one among guests
At the table of one greater than you,
Take what he gives as it is set before you;
Look at what is before you,
Don't shoot many glances at him,
12 Don't speak to him until he summons,
One does not know what may displease;
Speak when he has addressed you,
Then your words will please the heart.
13 If you are in the antechamber,
Stand and sit as fits your rank,
Which was assigned you the first day.
Do not trespass—you will be turned back,
Keen is the face to him who enters announced,
Spacious the seat of him who has been called.
The antechamber has a rule,
All behavior is by measure;
14 Do not boast at your neighbors' side,
One has great respect for the silent man:
A man of character is man of wealth.
If he robs he is like a crocodile in court.
Don't impose on one who is childless,
Neither decry nor boast of it;
There is many a father who has grief,
And a mother of children less content than another;
15 If you are poor, serve a man of worth . . .
Do not recall if he once was poor,
Don't be arrogant toward him
For knowing his former state;
Respect him for what has accrued to him,
For wealth does not come by itself.
It is their law for him whom they love,
His gain, he gathered it himself.
16 As ill will comes from opposition,
So goodwill increases love. . .
17 Know your helpers, then you prosper,
Don't be mean toward your friends,
They are one's watered field,
And greater then one's riches,
For what belongs to one belongs to another.
The character of a son of man is profit to him;
Good nature is a memorial.
18 If you probe the character of a friend,
Don't inquire, but approach him,
Deal with him alone,
So as not to suffer from his manner.
Dispute with him after a time,
Test his heart in conversation;
If what he has seen escapes him,
If he does a thing that annoys you,
Be yet friendly with him, don't attack;
Be restrained, don't let fly,
Don't answer with hostility,
Neither part from him nor attack him;
His time does not fail to come,
One does not escape what is fated.
19 If you want friendship to endure
In the house you enter
As master, brother, or friend,
In whatever place you enter,
Beware of approaching the women!
Unhappy is the place where it is done,
Unwelcome is 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. . .
20 When you prosper and found your house,
And love your wife with ardor,
Fill her belly, clothe her back,
Ointment soothes her body.
Gladden her heart as long as you live,
She is a fertile field for her lord.
Do not contend with her in court,
Keep her from power, restrain her—
Her eye is her storm when she gazes—
Thus will you make her stay in your house. . .
21 If you are a man of worth
And produce a son by the grace of god,
If he is straight, takes after you,
Takes good care of your possessions,
Do for him all that is good,
He is your son, your spirit begot him,
Don't withdraw your heart from him.
But an offspring can make trouble:
If he strays, neglects your counsel,
Disobeys all that is said,
His mouth spouting evil speech,
Punish him for all his talk . . .
22 If you are a man who leads,
Who controls the affairs of the many,
Seek out every beneficent deed,
That your conduct may be blameless.
Great is justice, lasting in effect,
Unchallenged since the time of Osiris.
One punishes the transgressor of laws,
Though the greedy overlooks this;
Baseness may seize riches,
Yet crime never lands its wares;
In the end it is justice that lasts,
Man says: "It is my father's ground.''
23 If you are mighty, gain respect through knowledge
And through gentleness of speech.
Don't command except as is fitting,
He who provokes gets into trouble.
Don't be haughty, lest you be humbled,
Don't be mute, lest you be chided.
When you answer one who is fuming,
Avert your face, control yourself.
The flame of the hot-heart sweeps across,
He who steps gently, his path is paved.
He who frets all day has no happy moment,
He who's gay all day can't keep house.
24 If you are a man who leads,
Listen calmly to the speech of one who pleads;
Don't stop him from purging his body
Of that which he planned to tell.
A man in distress wants to pour out 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 soothes the heart.
25 Punish firmly, chastise soundly,
Then repression of crime becomes an example;
Punishment except for crime
Turns the complainer into an enemy.
Who sits in his master's council,
Concentrate on excellence,
Your silence is better than chatter.
Speak when you know you have a solution,
It is the skilled who should speak in council;
Speaking is harder than all other work,
He who understands it makes it serve.
27 Don't oppose a great man's action,
Don't vex the heart of one who is burdened;
28 Bend your back to your superior,
Your overseer from the palace;
Then your house will endure in its wealth,
Your rewards in their right place.
Wretched is he who opposes a superior,
One lives as long as he is mild,
Baring the arm does not hurt it.
29 If you meet a disputant in action,
A powerful man, superior to you,
Fold your arms, bend your back,
To flout him will not make him agree with you.
Make little of the evil speech
By not opposing him while he's in action;
He will be called an ignoramus,
Your self-control will match his pile of words.
30 If you meet a disputant in action
Who is your equal, on your level,
You will make your worth exceed his by silence,
While he is speaking evilly,
There will be much talk by the hearers,
Your name will be good in the minds of the magistrates.
31 If you meet a disputant in action,
A poor man, not your equal,
Do not attack him because he is weak,
Let him alone, he will confute himself.
Do not answer him to relieve your heart,
Do not vent yourself against your opponent,
Wretched is he who injures a poor man,
One will wish to do what you desire,
You will beat him through the magistrates' reproof.
32 If you listen to my sayings,
All your affairs will go forward;
In their truth resides their value,
Their memory goes on in the speech of men,
Because of the worth of their precepts. . .
The Instruction of Ptahhotep, hieroglphic pages with English transliteration, by M. H. Whealton.
Selection and introduction © Rex Pay 1999