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Egyptologists have identified ancient texts that teach the Egyptian idea of philosophy. These texts divide into more than one ancient literary type. Many of them are instructions, identified in Egyptian with the word seboyet . But other texts that discuss philosophy include complaints, prophecies, and testaments. Some scholars refer to these texts as a group as “didactic literature,” the literature the Egyptians used to teach philosophy. Many of the texts identified as didactic literature combine more than one literary type within them. The Eloquent Peasant , for example, begins as the story of a farmer bringing his crops to market. He encounters a corrupt official who attempts to rob the farmer. The majority of the text is a series of orations on the nature of maat (“right conduct”). These orations amount to a treatise on the nature of maat. The narrative or frame story enhances the treatise by giving a concrete example of what happens when maat is ignored.Both the frame and the treatise mutually reinforce each other and thus the reader learns more about the nature of maat. Additionally, the orations themselves amount to an example of Egyptian rhetoric.


Teachings are the only Egyptian literary category that regularly names the author. The named author might not actually be the person who wrote the text, however. For example, the text attributed to Ptahhotep of the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 B.C.E. ) was likely written in the Twelfth Dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ). Yet copies of teachings, no matter when they were written or re-copied, maintain a connection with an author. By the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E. ), authors associated with teachings were the classic writers. Men whose names were attached to teachings such as Ptahhotep, Hordjedef, Khety, Ipuwer, and Neferty were named in a New Kingdom document as immortals. The New Kingdom text claims that their writings are better guarantees of immortality than their tombs.


The central subject of all the didactic literature is the nature of maat. The teachings describe specific cases that allow a person to live according to maat. The complaints and prophecies describe the world that lacks maat. The absence of maat is the central cause of disorder, injustice, and social ruin. The farmer in The Eloquent Peasant compares his own situation with the presence and absence of maat. Royal teachings, written for princes, also discuss the political implications of adhering to maat.


Most of the teachings have frame stories. These stories introduce the dramatic situation where usually a father speaks to his son or all his children so that he can explain the nature of maat. Often the father is an old and famous person who has reached the end of his career. He clearly states that he wants to share the knowledge he has gained in the course of a long life. In The Teachings of Ptahhotep the speaker is the prime minister of King Djedkare Isesy (2415–2371 B.C.E. ), though the text was probably actually composed by someone else nearly 500 years later. In the frame story, Ptahhotep asks the king’s permission to share his knowledge. The king’s agreement indicated to an ancient Egyptian that the knowledge and philosophy contained in the text was important and should be shared with the sons of all officials. Many other teachings specifically describe the speaker talking to his own son or children.


The frame stories help scholars determine who could be a wise man or philosopher in Egyptian thought. Ptahhotep was a prime minister, the highest political office available to a commoner. A New Kingdom instruction names Amenemope, who held a title placing him in charge of agriculture for all Egypt. Thus he was also a very high official. Much of his advice centers on agriculture. These men derive their authority from success in their careers. They also speak about the way to gain success in public life. Their concerns include the proper way to debate and how to behave at important social events. They enumerate different ways of pleasing a superior and generally how to get ahead in life. But other texts name only “a man” as the speaker. In this case where the father may not have been as great a success as Ptahhotep or Amenemope, he tells his son that loyalty to the king is the best way to advance in life.


The earlier texts such as Ptahhotep speak mostly of practical tips for advancement and equate these tips with maat. The Teachings of Amenemope , which dates to the New Kingdom, additionally includes many examples of moral behavior. Yet it is not clear that this change in subject matter is a true example of development. So few texts have been preserved from antiquity that it is not fair to say that the moral dimension was lacking in the earlier period. Perhaps texts similar to Amenemope existed in the earlier period but have not survived. Yet it is clear that Amenemope includes virtues not discussed by Ptahhotep. It integrates wider human experience into the text and promotes a way of life rather than just isolated behaviors.


Much of the didactic literature describes an ideal man that the Egyptians called the ger (“silent man”). The opposite type was the shemem (“heated man”). The silent man is not only silent, however. His silence comes when he thinks before he reacts. He is thoughtful, temperate, and judicious. He reflects before answering a “heated man,” a man ruled by his emotions. The contrast between the silent man and the heated man is most fully developed in Amenemope . The silent man is truthful, honest, straightforward, open, respectful, circumspect, diligent, generous, caring, and sympathetic. Amenemope compares him to a tree growing in the sunlight that flourishes in the garden. He contrasts this tree with the heated man, a tree planted in dark. Without sunlight, he withers and dies. The gardeners remove him and burn him on the rubbish heap. Here it is clear that the silent man earns eternal life for his virtues, while the heated man cannot achieve the afterlife.


The didactic literature includes a wide variety of texts, though the majority of them are teachings. The Teachings of Ptahhotep is the most complete of any ancient Egyptian philosophical teaching. Thus it is the standard of comparison. The frame story depicts the prime minister, Ptahhotep, requesting and receiving the king’s permission to share his wisdom. In the course of the request Ptahhotep speaks of old age and its frailties. But attaining old age also allows Ptahhotep to attain wisdom. He then states 37 maxims that summarize his understanding of maat. He stresses the proper conduct needed for success. He also enumerates the qualities a successful man needs: honesty, judiciousness, respect for superiors, and moderation. Then Ptahhotep speaks of the good son, one who is obedient. His obedience leads him to imitate his father and eventually become a wise man himself.


Any’s teachings date to either the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Dynasty. Any’s title is not included in the text and he concentrates more on personal life than official life. He gives his son, Khonshotep, advice on marriage, managing a household, and living a virtuous life. In an unusual twist, Khonshotep answers his father at the end of the text and suggests he might not be able to reach his father’s high standards.


In his teachings, Amenemope identifies himself as a high official of the department of agriculture. He addresses his words to his youngest son Horem-maakheru. Amenemope grounds his description of living a life according to maat in religious belief, making his reasoning seem familiar to modern readers. He emphasizes that his son should follow the “way of truth” as he pursues his career. He also closely examines the differences between the “silent man” and the “heated man,” or the controlled man versus the emotional man.


Merykare was a king of the Tenth Dynasty (2130–1980 B.C.E. ) and his teaching is set in his father’s reign in the town of Herakleopolis where the family lived. This family was a major opponent of the Theban family that eventually reunited Egypt during the Eleventh Dynasty (2008 and 1980 B.C.E. ). Surprisingly, the text was recopied during the New Kingdom when another Theban family ruled Egypt after reuniting and establishing a central government. Only the New Kingdom copies of the text remain. The text includes advice on good government, historical speculation, and a testament where the king describes his own life to his son. It ends with a hymn to the creator god Atum. It is unclear whether this text is truly useful for constructing a history and philosophy of the Tenth Dynasty. It is also unclear why later Egyptians took an interest in Merykare’s father’s advice.


The narrator of The Teachings of Amenemhet is Amenemhet I (1938–1909 B.C.E. ). Yet he speaks after his own death to his son Senwosret I (1919–1875 B.C.E. ). Amenemhet gives Senwosret advice on ruling Egypt, especially in view of his own difficulties. Amenemhet was assassinated, probably by his own courtiers. Amenemhet tells Senwosret not to trust anyone. He also justifies his own policies. In the end Amenemhet reassures Senwosret that his spirit will help his son rule.


The Teachings of Sehetepibre survives in several versions from the Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties. As a whole it is also known as the Loyalist Teachings , though one early stele names the speaker as Sehetepibre. The narrator tells his children to be loyal to the king and heaps praises upon him. The second part provides advice on managing servants. Together, the two parts of the text discuss giving and receiving loyalty.


From the Eighteenth Dynasty, The Teachings of Khety is a defense of education narrated by Khety for the benefit of his son Pepi. Khety describes the occupations that people without education perform and stresses their discomforts. He contrasts the fate of the uneducated with scribes who have an education. The scribe, Khety points out to Pepi, is everyone’s boss. Thus, Pepi should study hard at scribe school, be a success, and follow the wisdom of the ancestors.


The Admonitions of Ipuwer laments the chaos the narrator sees around him. The setting is most likely the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 B.C.E. ), though most modern commentators believe the author composed it in the Twelfth Dynasty (1939–1759 B.C.E. ). Ipuwer speaks at length of chaotic social conditions, especially that the formerly poor have replaced the rich in power. Since the text lacks both a beginning and an ending, it is difficult to know Ipuwer’s predictions or conclusions.


The Eloquent Peasant tells a story but also contains a treatise on the nature of maat. The story concerns the unjust arrest of a farmer traveling to market with his goods. The evil official who arrests him for trespassing allows the farmer to appear in court nine times to defend himself. The nine orations that the farmer makes are eloquent discussions of the nature of maat. They are both rhetorically complex and elegant in their language. In the end, the king rewards the farmer for his eloquence with full restitution of his goods.


The narrator of The Complaints of Khakheperre-sonb finds social conditions intolerable. Yet he spends nearly half the text describing his efforts to find adequate language to describe this low point in history. Oddly, the text was composed in the Twelfth Dynasty, a period of social stability. The only copy dates to Dynasty 18, another period of relative stability. Perhaps this text constitutes criticism of the current regime, though it is not specific enough to have meaning for the modern reader. It fits well in the Egyptian tradition of laments for the lack of order.


The Dialogue of a Man with His Ba is a discussion between a man and his own soul. The man argues that life is not worth living and that traditional funeral rites are useless. His soul responds that people must live their whole natural lives and that following his death he will reap his reward. The end of the text is not preserved, so it is unclear how the discussion ends.


In The Prophecy of Neferty , the prophet Neferty describes to the Fourth-dynasty king Sneferu (2625–2585 B.C.E. ) the horrors of the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 B.C.E. ). Neferty also knows that these horrors will end with the appearance of Amenemhet I (1938–1909 B.C.E. ). Thus most scholars believe the text was composed in Amenemhet’s reign. The discussion of disorder argues that the lack of maat is the cause of social chaos. When the proper king arises, maat is automatically restored.


Several other teachings exist in fragments. One such fragment is The Teachings of Hordjedef , referred to by one New Kingdom text as a classic. Not enough of the text survives to translate its maxims, although a surviving frame story places the action in the Fourth Dynasty (2625–2500 B.C.E. ). Another work known principally by its frame story rather than by its maxims is The Teachings of Kagemni. Only the conclusion survives, but the frame story places it in the reigns of Huni (Third Dynasty, before 2625 B.C.E. ) and Sneferu (2625–2585 B.C.E. ) though this is the setting and not the time of composition. While less is known regarding the speaker, setting, or time period, The Teachings of a Man for his Son is written in the language of the Middle Kingdom and includes maxims typical of the teachings and statements about loyalty to the king.


The large number of texts that discuss maat and promote ways of recognizing it attest to Egyptian confidence that the young can learn maat and the philosophies behind it. Tremendous effort was expended to define, teach, and propagate this core value in Egyptian life.


INTRODUCTION : In The Eloquent Peasant , a corrupt official frames a farmer passing through his territory and seizes his goods. The farmer appears in court nine times to demand his property. His orations amount to a treatise on the meaning of maat , the Egyptian concept of right conduct. In the sixth oration, the farmer equates right conduct with truth, with reducing evil in the world, and with finding the right balance.

Now this farmer came to petition a sixth time saying, “Oh Overseer, my lord.”
The one who lessens falsehood creates truth.
The one who creates the good, reduces evil.
As surfeit’s coming removes hunger,
Clothing removes nakedness.
As the sky is calm after a storm,
Warming all who shiver;
As a fire cooks that which is raw,
As water satisfies thirst.
Now look.
The judge is a robber,
The one who makes peace makes grief.
He who should soothe makes sore.
However, the cheater reduces justice.
Justice rightly filled neither is too little or too much.

SOURCE : Friedrich Vogelsang and Alan Gardiner, Die Klagen des Bauren (Leipzig, Germany: J. C. Hinrich, 1908). Translated by Edward Bleiberg.


Jan Assmann, Ma-at: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten (Munich, Germany: Beck, 1990).

Miriam Lichtheim, Late Egyptian Wisdom Literature in the International Context (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983).

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