THE MAXIMS OF PTAHHOTEP

THE LITERATURE OF ANCIENT EGYPT WILLIAM KELLY SIMPSON ISBN: 0-300-09920-7
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THE MAXIMS OF PTAHHOTEP
This text, one of the undisputed masterpieces of ancient Egyptian litera-
ture, dates possibly from as early as the late Sixth Dynasty of the Old
Kingdom. Some scholarly opinions, however, prefer to see it as a Middle
Kingdom composition dating from the Twelfth Dynasty. Although it was not
intended to be a complete compendium of Old Kingdom thought and morality,
it does nevertheless present a very good picture of the general attitudes and
outlook of that period. The text was composed under the guise of an elderly
vizier who was on the verge of retirement and desirous of handing his position
on to his son who also bore the name Ptahhotep. In general, the text appears as
a handbook of etiquette and proper conduct and is obviously addressed to
members of the nobility and upper classes. The major purpose of the text was a
very practical and pragmatic one, for it provides guidelines of conduct designed
to aid the reader or hearer in getting ahead in life and in being successful, both
personally and financially. At the same time, the text also has a certain moral
value with its stress on Ma’at and the doing of what is right. It is also extremely
optimistic in its general outlook, i.e., if one behaves in the right and proper
fashion, all will be well. Due to the extreme difficulty of this text, modern
translations of it show very wide variations in the interpretation of certain
passages. There are four copies of the text in existence, only one of which,
Papyrus Prisse in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, is complete. This version
is the earliest of the four, being a copy produced during the Middle Kingdom.
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Being the earliest, it is in all likelihood the most faithful reproduction of the
original. The other copies show considerable variations from Papyrus Prisse,
this being due perhaps to the fact that they were emended to make them more
understandable to the Egyptians of the New Kingdom. In the following transla-
tion, I have for the most part followed the text of Papyrus Prisse, although in
several instances I have inserted, where it seemed appropriate, lines from one of
the other extant versions. There are several publications of the text, but the one
which I have used in producing the following translation is that of Z. ˇZába, Les
Maximes de Ptahhotep (Prague, 1956). The text has been translated several
times, but those most easily accessible to the majority of readers will be that of
Miriam Lichtheim (Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1, [Berkeley, 1973], 61–
80) and that of R. O. Faulkner in the earlier edition (1973) of this book. The
edition of ˇZába also contains a French translation as well as translations of the
other versions of the text.
V.A.T.
4,1 The beginning of the Instruction written by the hereditary noble, the
prince, the father of the god, 1 the beloved of the god, the judge of the six
law courts, the arbiter who causes contentment throughout the entire land,
the mayor of the city, the vizier Ptahhotep, under the Majesty of the King of
Upper and Lower Egypt, Isesi who lives for ever and eternity. The mayor of
the city, the vizier Ptahhotep says:
‘‘My Sovereign Lord:
Old age has arrived, infirmity has descended,
4,3 Misery has drawn nigh, and weakness increases.
One must take a nap like a child every day,
The eyes are blurred, the ears are deaf,
And vigor wanes because of weariness.
The mouth is silent and no longer speaks;
5,1 The memory is gone and cannot recall (even) yesterday.
The bones ache through frailty,
Pleasure has become repulsive, and all taste has vanished.
What old age does to men is totally despicable.
The nose becomes plugged and cannot breathe;
Even standing and sitting are a bother.
1. Father of the god: a priestly title designating a court official of significant rank.
T H E M A X I M S O F P T A H H O T E P
131
5,3 Permit your humble servant to appoint a staff of old age. 2
Let my son be allowed to succeed to my position. 3
To that end I will instruct him in the decisions of the judges,
The wisdom of those who have lived in earlier ages,
Those who hearkened to the gods. 4
So may the same be done for you;
May discord be banished from the people,
And may the Two Banks 5 serve you.’’
Then the Majesty of the god said:
5,5 ‘‘Before you retire, teach him / about what has been said in the past;
Then he will be an example to the children of the nobles,
When understanding and precision have entered into him.
Instruct him, for no one is born wise.’’
The beginning of the wise maxims spoken by the Hereditary Noble, the
Prince, the father of the god, the beloved of the god, the eldest son of the
5,7 king, / of his very body, the judge of the six law courts, the arbiter who
causes contentment throughout the entire land, the mayor of the city, the
Vizier Ptahhotep, to teach the ignorant about knowledge and about the
principles of good conduct, things such as are profitable to him who will
listen, but a source of sorrow to him who disregards them. Thus he spoke to
his son, Ptahhotep the younger:
1. ‘‘Do not be haughty because of your knowledge,
5,9 But take counsel / with the unlearned man as well as with the learned,
For no one has ever attained perfection of competence,
And there is no craftsman who has acquired (full) mastery.
Good advice is rarer than emeralds,
But yet it may be found even among women at the grindstones.
2. If you come up against an aggressive adversary (in court),
5,11 One who has influence and is more excellent than you,
Lower your arms and bend your back,
For if you stand up to him, he will not give in to you.
2. ‘‘Staff of old age’’: one who will assist the writer in carrying out his duties.
3. This line does not appear in Papyrus Prisse, but it provides an excellent explication of
the previous line.
4. Or as an alternative reading: ‘‘those (who were) the servants of your ancestors.’’
5. I.e., the two banks of the Nile.
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You should disparage his belligerent speech
By not opposing him in his vehemence.
The result will be that he will be called boorish,
5,13 And your control of temper will have equaled / his babble.
3. If you come up against an aggressive adversary,
Your equal, one who is of your own social standing,
You will prove yourself more upright than he by remaining silent,
While he speaks vengefully.
The deliberation by the judges will be somber,
But your name will be vindicated in the decision of the magistrates.
6,1 4. If you come up against an aggressive adversary,
A man of low standing, one who is not your equal,
Do not assail him in accordance with his lowly estate.
Leave him be, and he will confound himself.
Do not answer him in order to vent your frustration;
Do not alleviate your anger at the expense of your adversary.
6,3 Wretched is he / who persecutes one who is inept.
Things will turn out in accordance with your will,
And you will defeat him through the censure of the magistrates.
5. If you are a ruler responsible for the concerns of the populace,
Search for every opportunity to do good,
So that there may be no shortcoming in your actions.
6,5 Great is Ma’at, and its foundation is firmly established;
It has not been shaken since the time of Osiris,
And he who violates the laws must be punished.
In the eyes of the covetous man it goes unnoticed
That wealth can be lost through dishonesty,
And that wrongdoing does not result in success.
6,7 He 6 says, / ‘I will procure (wealth) for myself.’
He does not say, ‘I will procure (wealth) through my diligence.’
But in the long run it is Ma’at which endures,
And an (honest) man may state: ‘This is my ancestral property.’
6. Do not stir up fear in people,
Or God will punish in equal measure.
6. I.e., the covetous man.
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A man may determine to live thereby, 7
But he will (eventually) be lacking in bread for his mouth.
6,9 A man may decide to become / rich,
And he may say, ‘I will snatch for myself whatever I see.’
A man may decide to cheat another,
But he will end up by giving (his gains) to a total stranger.
It is not what men devise that comes to pass,
But what God determines comes to pass.
Live, therefore, contentedly,
And let what they 8 give come of its own accord.
6,11 7. If you should be one of those sitting (as guests)
At the table of someone who is greater than you,
Accept what he serves when it is placed in front of you.
Look only at what is right in front of you,
And do not stare at him constantly, 9
For to force yourself upon him is an irritation to his spirit.
Do not speak to him until he invites you (to do so),
For one never knows what may be annoying.
You should speak only when he addresses you,
And (then) what you say will be of interest.
You should laugh only when he laughs,
And (this) will be very pleasant to his heart. 10
7,2 As for a nobleman when he is at the table, 11
His demeanor is determined by his mood. 12
He will be generous to the one whom he favors,
For such is the way once night has come.
It is his mood which prompts him to be generous; 13
A nobleman may give, but an (ordinary) man should not presume upon
him.
7. I.e., by causing others to fear him.
8. I.e., the gods.
9. ‘‘Constantly’’: lit. ‘‘with many glances,’’ perhaps with the intention of trying to attract
the attention of the host.
10. These two lines are not in Papyrus Prisse, but they complement the present context.
11. ‘‘At the table’’: lit. ‘‘behind his food.’’
12. ‘‘Determined by his mood’’: lit. ‘‘according as his ka commands.’’
13. Lit.: ‘‘It is the ka which stretches out his hands.’’
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7,3 The eating of bread is under / the governance of God, 14
And it is only a churl who complains about it.
8. If you are a man entrusted with responsibility,
One whom one nobleman sends to another,
Be meticulous in your duty when he sends you,
And deliver his message exactly as he dictates it.
Resist (doing) anything offensive by (making) a comment
Which could cause one nobleman to be annoyed with the other.
Observe the truth; do not surpass it, 15
Although one should not repeat an angry speech.
Do not speak against any person, be he great or small,
7,5 For this serves only to arouse the temper. 16
9. If you engage in agriculture, and (your) field prospers,
And God causes it to increase under your hand,
Do not talk (about it) incessantly around your neighborhood,
For it is important that one should practice the discretion appropriate to
the prudent man. 17
It is the man of integrity who is the possessor of (true) wealth,
And in the court he conquers like a crocodile. 18
Do not praise him who has no children,
Neither speak ill nor boast about it,
For it is common that a father may be in misery,
And as for a mother who has given birth, another may be happier than
she.
7,7 It is the lone man / of whom God takes care,
And the head of a family may pray for someone to succeed him. 19
14. These lines are probably not intended as any kind of profound statement. The
writer’s meaning appears to be something like, ‘‘Be satisfied if you are invited to eat,
and don’t complain if you are not given the royal treatment.’’
15. I.e., say only what you were told to say, nothing more.
16. ‘‘This serves only to arouse the temper’’: lit. ‘‘This is an abomination of the ka.’’
17. The meaning of these lines seems to be something like this: If your harvest is
especially prosperous, do not boast about it to your less fortunate neighbors, for a
man should be discreet enough to show respect for the feelings of those who have
been less fortunate.
18. The comparison of the upright man to a crocodile is a positive comment: he is
protected by his own integrity as surely as a crocodile can defend himself.
19. The meaning of these lines is not absolutely clear, but the writer seems here to be
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10. If you are humble and the servant of a well-to-do man,
Let all your behavior be flawless before God.
If you should learn that he was once of low estate,
Do not be disdainful toward him
Because you have learned about his past.
Respect him in accordance with what he has made of himself,
For wealth does not come of its own accord,
But it is the ordinance of the gods for one whom they favor.
As for his possessions, he has gathered them himself,
But it is God who has made him respectable
7,9 And watches over him even when he sleeps.
11. Follow your heart as long as you live,
And do not work beyond what is allocated (to you).
Do not waste the time of following the heart,
For wasting time is an annoyance of the spirit.
Do not lose the hours of daylight
Beyond (what is necessary for) keeping your household in order.
When wealth has been amassed, follow your heart,
For wealth brings no advantage when it is a burden.
12. If you are a well-to-do man
7,11 And beget a son who pleases / God: 20
If he is upright and follows your disposition,
If he listens to your teachings,
If his conduct is worthy within your household, 21
And if he manages your property well,
Then do every good thing for him,
For he is your son, begotten of your very being;
Do not withhold your love from him. 22
But one’s offspring may cause grief;
warning his reader not to regard childlessness as either a disgrace or a blessing, for
the childless man may sometimes be more fortunate than the one who has a large
family.
20. The expression ‘‘who pleases God’’ means here probably no more than ‘‘who be-
haves in a decent manner.’’
21. These two lines are not in Papyrus Prisse, but they fit the context admirably.
22. Lit. ‘‘Do not separate your heart from him.’’
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If he goes wrong and disregards your counsel,
If he does not do as you instruct him 23
But disobeys everything said (to him),
If his mouth prattles on with vile talk,
Then reject him, for he is not your son,
And for certain he was not born to you. 24
Punish him for all his talk,
For he who has extended his arm against you is hateful to the gods.
8,1 Surely evil was fated for him from the womb,
For he whom the gods guide is one who cannot err,
And he whom they leave stranded is unable to cross the river.
13. If you are in the audience chamber,
8,3 Stand and sit / in accordance with your position
Which was given to you on the first day.
Do not exceed (your duty), for it will result in your being turned back.
Be attentive to him who enters bearing a report,
For he who has been summoned has complete freedom.
8,5 The audience chamber / tends toward strict etiquette,
And all its affairs follow (specific) rules of conduct.
It is God who promotes one’s position,
And that men should force their way is not done.
14. If you are with the people,
Gain for yourself supporters who are trustworthy.
8,7 One who is trustworthy / is one who will not spread talk around the
community;
He will himself become an official
And a man of means due to his (good) performance.
As for your good reputation, you should not talk about it;
8,9 Provide for your body, but turn your attention / toward the people, 25
And men will boast on your behalf without you being aware of it.
But as for him whose heart obeys his stomach,
He invites scorn for himself instead of respect.
His heart is morose and his body wretched.
23. This line is not in Papyrus Prisse.
24. These two lines are lacking in Papyrus Prisse.
25. ‘‘Turn your attention toward the people’’: lit. ‘‘your face toward the people.’’
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8,11 Great of heart are those whom God has established,
But he who listens to his stomach is his own worst enemy. 26
15. State your business without concealing (anything),
Proffer your opinion in the council of your lord.
If he can speak fluently and easily, 27
It will not be difficult for an agent to give his account,
8,13 And no one will answer, ‘What does he know of it?’
Even an official whose property has fared poorly,
If he thinks about reproaching him concerning it,
Will be silent saying (only), ‘I have no comment.’ 28
16. If you are a leader,
9,1 Take responsibility in / the matters entrusted to you,
And you will accomplish things of note.
But think on the days which are still to come,
Lest some misdeed should arise to destroy your favorable position,
9,3 For an occasion of hatred is (like) the entrance of a crocodile.
17. If you are a man of authority,
Be patient when you are listening to the words of a petitioner;
Do not dismiss him until he has completely unburdened himself
9,5 Of what he had planned / to say to you.
A man who has been wronged desires to express his frustrations
Even more than the accomplishment of the ( justice) for which he came;
But concerning him who dismisses petitions
Men say, ‘Why ever did he reject it?’
9,7 Not everything about which he has petitioned will be done,
But a sympathetic hearing is a means of calming the heart.
18. If you desire that friendship should endure
In a house which you enter
9,9 As a lord, as a brother, or as / a friend:
In any place which you enter,
Avoid approaching the women,
For there is nothing good in any situation where such is done.
26. ‘‘His own worst enemy’’: lit. ‘‘belongs to the enemy.’’
27. ‘‘If he speaks fluently and easily’’: lit. ‘‘if his mouth overflows when he speaks.’’
28. Lit. ‘‘I have spoken.’’