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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

1 Did the historical Ptahhotep write the
Maxims of Good Discourse ?
2 Philological & Historical remarks and
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

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 local
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
thenon-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

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 :

the state
Order of
Re of the
creates spirits
Maat immortal
& eternal
Order of the divine
Pharaoh soul
PHARAOH deified &
ONLY immortal

the state
Order of Egypt of
Society circulates veneration
EVERYBODY Maat justified &

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 notjustified (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

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

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 (1
975), 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 ?

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 is a
double mastaba
which he shared
with his father,
Akhti-hotep. His
room is quite
similar to
although less

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

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

Other reliefs show fowl being carried by servants to

Mastaba of Ptahhotep - Saqqara

Back into the pillard hall and to the left is the

chamber of Akhti-hotep. 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 Within the courtiers

("Sniit") surrounding
2 Ninetjer (?) Menka Pharaoh, the most
Djoser Imhotep favoured persons were
3 called "friends" ("smrw").
Huni Kagemni The most important
Nefermaât dignitary bore the title
Snefru "tjati" ("TAti"), translated
Hemiunu as "vizier", who in the IVth
4 Khufu Dynasty, was regularly
Ankhkhaf one of the royal princes.
Later the office passed
Khafre Menkhaf into the hands of some
Nyuserre Ptahshepses outstanding noble, and
5 then it tended to become
Isesi Ptahhotep hereditary.

Teti Mereruka
In the titularies of the
Pepi II Djau early viziers, we find the
title : "superintendent of
11 Amenemhat all the works of the king"
IV ("amii-r kAt nbt nt nsw").
Amenemhat He was also the supreme
12 Iyotefoker judge, and bore the
epithet "prophet of Maat".
Hatshepsut Senmut
The earliest attested
Thutmose reference to this highest
III administrative office was
Aper-el written in ink on a stone
18 vessel from the Step
Ptahmose Pyramid of Netjerikhet at
Saqqara (the vizier Menka
of the middle of the IIth
Akhenaten Ramose Dynasty). In the beginning
of the Early Dynastic
Khaemwaset period, the vizier bore the
IX titles "Tt". The fuller form
20 : "tAitti zAb TAti" is of
Herihor later periods.

26 Psamtik I Sisobek And official called "Tt" is

depicted on the Narmer
Yuya palette. He walks in front
Cleopatra Amenhotep of Pharaoh and carries his
33 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
the courtlyaspect of
the office ;
 "zAb" or "noble" is a
general designation for
an official ;
 "Tati", untranslatable
and suggestive of
theadministrative aspe

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

He says :

"Cleanse yourself before your own eyes, lest another

cleanse you.(1)
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.(4)
Accept that death humbles us, accept that life exalts
us, the house of death is for life.(5)

Seek for yourself well-watered fields.(6)

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 Instruction to
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
Prissecontains 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 theMaxims, 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 beinganonymous), 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 Instruction to
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 Instruction to Kagemni

(VIth Dynasty - Papyrus Prisse I & II)
(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,

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

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
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

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

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. ForJéquier (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.
like Breasted, Sethe, Gardiner, Faulkner, Licht
heim,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
Predynastic Period
 earliest communities -
 Badarian culture - 4000
 Naqada I - 4000 - 3600
or Amratian culture
 Naqada II - 3600 -
3300 or Gerzean
 Terminal Predynastic
Period : 3300 - 3000
Dynastic Period
 Early Dynastic Period :
3000 - 2600
 Old Kingdom : 2600 -
 First Intermediate
Period : 2200 - 1940
 Middle Kingdom 1940 -
 Second Intermediate
Period : 1760 - 1500
 New Kingdom : 1500 -
 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
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
(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
(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)

(21) May this servant be commanded to

make a 'Staff of Old Age' !(3)
(22) so as to speak to him the words of the
(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
(27) and the Two Shores (6) may serve

(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

(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
(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 :

1 (D51)

(43) "Don't let your heart get big because

of your knowledge.
(44) Take counsel with the ignorant as
well as with the scholar.
(45) (For) the limits of art are not
(46) (and) no artisan is equipped with
(47) Good discourse is more hidden than
green stone,(13)
(48) yet may be found among the maids
at the grindstones.(14)

2 (D60)
(49) If You meet a disputant in his
moment (of action),(15)
(50) one who directs his heart, superior
to You,
(51) fold your arms (16) and bend your
(52) Do not seize your heart against him,
(53) (for) he will never agree with You.
(54) Belittle the evil speech,
(55) by not opposing him while he is in
his moment.
(56) He will be called a know-nothing,
(57) when your control of heart will
match his piles (of words).

3 (D68)

(58) If You meet a disputant in his

moment (of action)
(59) who is your equal, your peer,
(60) You will make your excellence
exceed his by silence,
(61) (even) while he is speaking wrongly.
(62) Great (then) is the discussion among
the hearers, (and)
(63) the knowledge the magistrates have
of your name will be good.(17)

4 (D74)

(64) If You meet a disputant in his

moment (of action),
(65) a man of little, not at all your equal,
(66) do not be aggressive
of heart because he is weak,
(67) give him land (for) he refutes
(68) Do not answer him to relieve
your heart.
(69) Do not wash the heart against your
(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.

5 (D84)
(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
(77) Great is Maat, lasting in effect.
(78) Undisturbed since the time of Osiris.
(79) One punishes the transgressor of
(80) though the heart that robs overlooks
(81) 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
(85) In the end, it is Maat that lasts,
(86) man (21) says : 'It is my father's

6 (D99)

(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)
(95) People's schemes do not prevail.
(96) God's command is what prevails.
(97) Live then in the midst of peace (with
what You have),
(98) (for) what they give comes by itself.

7 (D119)

(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,
(106) (since) one does not know whether
he has evil on his heart.
(107) Speak when he addresses You,
(108) and may your words please
the heart.
(109) The nobleman, sitting behind the
(110) behaves as his Ka commands
(111) He will give to him whom he favors,
(112) (for) that is the custom when the
night has come.(26)
(113) It is the Ka that makes his hands
reach out.(27)
(114) The great man gives to the lucky
(115) Thus the breads are eaten under
the plan of god,
(116) a fool is who complains of it.

8 (D145)

(117) If You are a man of trust,

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

9 (D161)

(127) If You plow and there is growth in

the field,
(128) (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,
(132) 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
(136) 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

10 (D175)

(139) If You are a weakling, serve a man

of quality, worthy of trust,
(140) (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.
(144) Respect him for what has accrued
to him,
(145) for surely goods do not come by
(146) They are their laws for him
whom they love.
(147) His gain, he gathered it himself,
(148) (but) it is god who makes him
(149) and protects him while he sleeps.

11 (D186)

(150) Follow your heart as long as You

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

12 (D197)

(158) If You are a man of quality, worthy

of trust,
(159) may You produce a son, by the
favour of god.
(160) If he is straight, turns around your
(161) takes care of your possessions in
good order,
(162) (then) accomplish for him all that is
(163) 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 :
(166) if he goes into the wrong direction,
neglects your counsel,
(167) with insolence disobeys all that is
(168) if his mouth sprouts evil speech,
(169) (then) put him to work for the
totality of his talk !
(170) They disfavour him who crosses
(171) (for) his obstacle was fated in the
(172) He whom they guide can not go
(173) (but) whom they make boatless
can not cross.(32)

13 (D220)

(174) If You are in a court of justice,

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

14 (D232)

(184) If You are among the people,

(185) gain allies through being trustful
of heart.
(186) The trustful of heart does not vent
his belly's speech.(37)
(187) He will himself become a man who
(188) a man of means thanks to his
(189) May your name be good without
You talking about it.
(190) You body is sleek, your face turns
towards your people,
(191) and one praises You without You
knowing (it).
(192) (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
(195) The great of heart is a gift of god.
(196) He who obeys his belly, obeys the

15 (D249)

(197) Report your commission without

swallowing the heart,
(198) and give your advise in your
master's council.
(199) If he is fluent in his speech,
(200) it will not be hard for the envoy to
(201) nor will he be answered : 'Who is he
to know it ?'
(202) 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.'

16 (D257)

(205) If You are a man who leads,

(206) that your way to govern may freely
(207) You should do outstanding things.
(208) Remember the day that comes
(209) (so that) no strife will occur in the
midst of honors.(43)
(210) (Indeed), where a hiding crocodile
emerges, hatred arises.(44)

17 (D264)
(211) If You are a man who leads,
(212) calmly hear the speech of one who
(213) (and) do not stop him from purging
his body (45)
(214) of that which he planned to tell.
(215) A man in distress wants to wash
his heart
(216) more than that his case be won.
(217) About him who stops a plea,
(218) one says : 'Why does he reject it ?'
(219) Not all one pleads for can be
(220) but a good hearing calms the heart.

18 (D277)

(221) If You want friendship to endure

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

19 (D298)
(P, L2 and beginning of L1)

(235) If You want your conduct to be

(236) deliver yourself from every evil,
(237) (and) combat against the greed of
the heart.
(238) It is a grievous sickness without
(239) impossible to penetrate.
(240) It causes disaster among fathers
and mothers,
(241) among the brothers of the mother,
(242) and parts wife from husband.
(243) It is an amalgam of all evils,
(244) a bundle of all hateful things.
(245) That man endures who correctly
applies Maat,
(246) and walks according to his
(247) He will make a will by it.
(248) The greedy of heart has no tomb

20 (D316)

(249) Do not be greedy of heart in the

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

21 (D325)

(257) When You prosper, found your

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

22 (D339)

(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,
(273) one says : 'A Ka too pleased with
itself !'.(56)
(274) 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
(279) one brings friends when there is
23 (D350)

(280) Do not repeat calumny,

(281) neither hear it.
(282) It is the way of expression of the
(283) Report a thing observed, not heard.
(284) If it is negligible, do not say
(285) (and) see : he who is before You
recognizes (your) worth.
(286) Let it be ordered to seize what it
(287) In accordance with the law,
(288) 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)

24 (D362)

(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
(294) Speak when You know how to untie
the knot.(62)
(295) It is the skilled who speak in
(296) Speaking is harder than all other
work. end of L2
(297) He who unties it makes it serve.

25 (D370)
(P and L1)

(298) If You are mighty, gain respect

through knowledge
(299) and gentleness of speech.
(300) Do not command except as is
(301) He who provokes gets into trouble.
(302) Do not be high of heart, lest You be
(303) Do not be mute, lest You be
(304) When You answer one who is
(305) avert your face, control yourself,
(306) (for) the flames of the hot
of heart sweep across.(63)
(307) He who steps gently finds his path
(308) All day long, the sad of heart has no
happy moment.
(309) 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.

26 (D388)

(314) Do not oppose a great man's action.

(315) Do not vex the heart of one who is
(316) 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
(320) When he turns his face back to You
after raging,
(321) (then) there will be peace from his
(322) (and) hostility from the enemy.
(323) To provide increases love.

27 (D399)

(324) Teach the great what is useful to

(325) be his aid before the people.
(326) Let his knowledge fall back on his
(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
(331) For your superior whom You love,
(332) and who lives by it,
(333) he in turn will give You good
(334) Thus will love of You endure,
(335) in the belly of those who love
(336) Behold : it is the Ka that loves to

28 (D415)

(337) If You are a magistrate of standing,

(338) commissioned to appease the
(339) remove stupidity from the
(340) When You speak, do not lean to one
(341) beware lest one complain :
(342) 'Judges, he puts his speech on the
side he likes !'
(343) In court, your deeds will (then) turn
against You.

29 (D422)

(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)

30 (D428)

(348) If You are great after having been

(349) have gained wealth after having
been poor in the past,
(350) in a town which You know,
(351) (then) knowing your former
(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.

31 (D441)

(356) Bend your back to your superior,

(357) your overseer from the palace,
(358) then your house will endure in its
(359) and your rewards (will be) in their
right place.(75)
(360) Wretched is he who opposes a
(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

32 (D457)

(370) Do not copulate with a woman-

(371) for You know that one will fight
(372) against the water upon her heart.
(373) What is in her belly will not be
(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)

33 (D463)

(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
(387) Do not answer with an act of
(388) Neither counter him, nor humiliate
(389) His time does not fail to come ...
(390) (for) one does not escape what is

34 (D481)

(391) Be bright-faced as long as You exist

(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
(396) Do not have him for a neighbour.
(397) Kindness is a man's memorial (86)
(398) for the years after the function.

35 (D495)

(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-
(405) An accomplished nature is a

36 (D495)

(406) Punish as a commander-in-chief,

(but) teach the complete form !(90)
(407) The act of stopping crime is an
enduring good example.
(408) Crime, except for misfortune,(91)
(409) turns the complainer into an

37 (D499)

(410) If You take to wife a woman of good

(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
(425) It is teaching a man to speak to what
comes after (him).
(426) He who hears this becomes a master-
(427) It is good to speak to posterity,
(428) it will hear it.

(429) If a good example is set by him who

(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
(433) so that it is happy with him on earth.
(434) He who knows is known by his
(435) (and) the great by his good actions.
(436) (That) his heart twines his tongue,
(437) (and) his lips (be) precise when he
(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
(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
(445) 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

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
a listener or a non-listener.
(453) Life, prosperity & health are a
man's heart.
(454) It is the hearer who listens to what is
(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 :
(458) 'The son pleases as a master of
(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.
(462) 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

(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
(472) The knower wakes early to his lasting
(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,
(483) to wit : 'A living death each day !'(102)
(484) One passes over his doings,
(485) because of his many daily troubles.

(486) A son who listens, is a Follower of

(487) It goes well with him when he
(488) When he is old and reaches
(489) (may) he speak likewise to his
(490) renewing the teaching of his father.
(491) Every man teaches as he acts.(106)
(492) He speaks to the children,
(493) 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

(504) Do not put one thing in place of
(505) Beware of loosening the cords in
(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

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

(517) Be patient of heart the moment You

(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)

(521) 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
(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
(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
(531) may You obtain many years of life !
Concluding Remarks (D640)

(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
(536) For by doing Maat for the King,
(537) the venerated place comes."

Colophon (D645)

(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
for I am in the midst of them {Tefnut &
Maat} :
the one near my back, the other near my
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
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-

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
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

"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
ofAmun). 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
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

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
 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'sconcrete 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

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
thatcompensations 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
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 was also the

justice meeted out
in Egypt's law
courts. The title
"priest of Maat"
referred to people
Seti I presenting Maat who were involved
XIXth Dynasty - his temple in the justice
at Abydos system, as well as
being priests of the
Keep Maat, do not exceed it. goddess herself.
Maxim 8, line 123
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

"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,
Maat as the double truth in the "Beautiful
"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
Assmann (1999, p.82 & 84)
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
relief of Maat in the tomb
of Seti I Which truth ? Maat
XIXth Dynasty - Thebes, herself and the
the legend reads : negative affirmations
"Maat, daughter of Re, or the declaration of
sovereign who presides innocence made by
over the land of silence." the deceased. In it, he
confirmed before the
For by doing Maat for the 42 gods not to have
King, offended Maat in
the venerated place comes. various (essential)
Epilogue, lines 536 - 537 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
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."
Sethe, 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
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

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

the preexistent,
NUN waters which lurk
behind every
excess of the
floods ...
the arch-
personalization of
divine evil -
SETH chaos
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 active
ISEFET general concept chaos
for all possible personal
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

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
excellenceof 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
learned and

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 New Kingdom,
when a new "ideal man" was proposed, one
entirely modest, with no material interests.
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

(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
(433) so that it is happy with him on earth.
(434) He who knows is known by his
(435) (and) the great by his good actions.
(436) (That) his heart twines his tongue,
(437) (and) his lips (be) precise when he
(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

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

Papyrus of Ani, Plate 3 - XXVIIIth


(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

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
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 &
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 notencounter 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
astheo-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

Tongue Heart
thought as the
words as physical efficient cause of
manifestations of words - the
what is conceived immaterial
by the heart - the cause of
material cause of creation and
creation and excellent
excellent discourse - seat
discourse of personality
and free will

Maat as Social Order

Hearing Listening
the material to grasp the
entrance of sound intent, possible
in the healthy ear hidden
- the implications and
comprehension of "Ka" of what
the meaning of was perfectly
what is said - the heard - to listen
ability to with the heart is
reproduce what to truly
has been said understand the
without "inner" message with
understanding one's "inner

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 hisown 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

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 !