The Maxims of Ptahhotep

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The Maxims of Ptahhotep or Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient literary work attributed to Ptahhotep, a vizier under King Isesi of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2414-2375 BC).[1] It is a collection of maxims and advice in the sebayt genre on human relations, that are directed to his son. The work survives today in papyrus copies, including the Prisse Papyrus which dates from the Middle Kingdom and is on display at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. There are considerable differences between the Prisse Papyrus version and the two texts at the British Museum.[2] The 1906 translation by Battiscombe Gunn, published as part of the "Wisdom of the East" series, was made directly from the Prisse Papyrus, in Paris, rather than from copies, and is still in print.[3]


In the introduction, the author explains the reason for writing the instruction, namely his having reached old age and wanting to pass on the wisdom of his ancestors who had, in his words, listened to the gods.[4] The Maxims are conformist precepts extolling such civil virtues as truthfulness, self-control and kindness towards one's fellow beings. Learning by listening to everybody and knowing that human knowledge is never perfect are a leitmotif.[5] Avoiding open conflict wherever possible should not be considered weakness. Justice should be pursued and in the end it will be a god's command that prevails.[6] Some of the maxims refer to one's behaviour when in the presence of the great, how to choose the right master and how to serve him. Others teach the correct way to lead through openness and kindness. Greed is the base of all evil and should be guarded against, while generosity towards family and friends is praiseworthy.[7] Rise in the social order should be accepted as a gift from an Egyptian god[8] and could be preserved by accepting the precedence of one's superior.

Selected passages[edit]

Quotations are taken from Christian Jacq, "The Living Wisdom of Ancient Egypt".[9]

  • "Great is the Law (Maat)." (p. 24)
  • "All conduct should be so straight that you can measure it with a plumb-line." (p. 27)
  • "Injustice exists in abundance, but evil can never succeed in the long run." (p. 32)
  • "Punish with principle, teach meaningfully. The act of stopping evil leads to the lasting establishment of virtue." (p. 32)
  • "The human race never accomplishes anything. It's what God commands that gets done." (p. 41)
  • "Those whom God guides do not go wrong. Those whose boat He takes away cannot cross." (p. 43)
  • "Follow your heart all your life, do not commit excess with respect to what has been ordained." (p. 66)
  • "If you work hard, and if growth takes place as it should in the fields, it is because God has placed abundance in your hands." (p. 74)
  • "Do not gossip in your neighbourhood, because people respect the silent." (p. 74)
  • "Listening benefits the listener." (p. 74)
  • "If he who listens, listens fully, then he who listens becomes he who understands." (p. 76)
  • "He who listens becomes the master of what is profitable." (p. 76)
  • "To listen is better than anything, thus is born perfect love." (p. 76)
  • "God loves he who listens. He hates those who do not listen." (p. 76)
  • "As for the ignorant man who does not listen, he accomplishes nothing. He equates knowledge with ignorance, the useless with the harmful. He does everything which is detestable, so people get angry with him each day." (p. 77)
  • "A perfect word is hidden more deeply than precious stones. It is to be found near the servants working at the mill-stone." (p. 78)
  • "Only speak when you have something worth saying." (p. 79)
  • "As for you, teach your disciple the words of tradition. May he act as a model for the children of the great, that they may find in him the understanding and justice of every heart that speaks to him, since man is not born wise." (p. 85)
  • "A woman with happy heart brings equilibrium." (p. 107)
  • "Love your wife with passion." (p. 107)
  • "As for those who end up continually lusting after women, none of their plans will succeed." (p. 108)
  • "How wonderful is a son who obeys his father!" (p. 112)
  • "How happy he is of whom it is said: 'A son is kind-natured when he knows how to listen.'" (p. 112)
  • "Do not blame those who are childless, do not criticise them for not having any, and do not boast about having them yourself." (p. 113)
  • "May your heart never be vain because of what you know. Take counsel from the ignorant as well as the wise..." (p. 119)
  • "So do not place any confidence in your heart in the accumulation of riches, since everything that you have is a gift from God." (p. 126)
  • "Think of living in peace with what you possess, and whatever the Gods choose to give will come of its own accord." (p. 127)
  • "Do not repeat a slanderous rumour, do not listen to it." (p. 139)
  • "He who has a great heart has a gift from God. He who obeys his stomach obeys the enemy." (p. 140)
  • "Those who[m] the Gods guide cannot get lost. Those they forbid passage will not be able to cross the river of life." (p. 143)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Nicholas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, 1992 Blackwell Publishing, p.79
  2. ^ M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.I, p.61
  3. ^ Battiscombe G. Gunn, "THE WISDOM OF THE EAST, THE INSTRUCTION OF PTAH-HOTEP AND THE INSTRUCTION OF KE'GEMNI: THE OLDEST BOOKS IN THE WORLD", LONDON, JOHN MURRAY, ALBEMARLE STREET, 1906, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30508/30508-h/30508-h.htm
  4. ^ Lichtheim op. cit. p.63
  5. ^ Françoise Dunand, Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3.000 BCE to 395 CE, Cornell University Press 2004, p.148
  6. ^ Lichtheim op. cit. p.65
  7. ^ Lichtheim op. cit. p.68
  8. ^ Lichtheim op. cit. p.72
  9. ^ "The Living Wisdom of Ancient Egypt", Christian Jacq, Simon & Schuster, 1999, ISBN 0-671-02219-9

External links[edit]