Egyptian Philosophy

Read the Instructions of Ptahhotep for this lecture.

Balance, justice and truth were identified with the Goddess Maat in early Egyptian history.  In later periods, the term maat was also used to refer to the abstract ideas of balance and truth as well as the anthropomorphic goddess.  In later periods, Maat was believed to be the companion of Thoth, the god of knowledge, scribes and science.  The ancient Egyptians had a complex and fascinating understanding of the eternal, the temporary and the balances that must be maintained for the sake of order and harmony.

The Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was installed by Ra, the sun god, to judge humanity, please the gods as the people please or don’t the pharaoh who judges them, bring about Maat, order balance and harmony, and destroy chaos, imbalance and disharmony.  There is only one order, one king and one true kingdom, and justice is judging people equally, “both the miserable and the mighty,” protecting the weak against the strong while separating the good from the bad, a royal balancing act much as engineers balance blocks of stone to build temples and merchants weigh precious metals in the marketplace.  In one of the Coffin Texts, the sun god says, “I made everyone equal, and forbid them to cause imbalance.”  The same text warns, “After three journey down a road, only two can be found, for the stronger kill the weaker,” implying that two gang up on the other one unless order from above intervenes.

The Pyramid Texts, written around 2500 BCE, say the pharaoh will rise into the sky with the Sun and the stars, transformed from a changing temporary being into an unchanging eternal being, his lifetime now the endless cycle of the cosmos itself.  He only changes or acts when he wants to, and doesn’t change or have to act, to eat, sleep or communicate, when he doesn’t. Like the gods, he doesn’t grow tired or die. The Pharaoh will reach the height of the sky and become part of the Eternal Recurrence and Eternal Sameness.  He will not fall from the sky to the earth and become mortal or die, nor will the sky and the gods drop him, the texts assure us and him.  Thus, there is permanent, objective truth with a capital T in the rational, harmonious cosmos.

In the Egyptian wisdom quotes, my favorite gathering of early city-state texts, we can see that the Egyptians were concerned not only with balance as good for the individual but also in the ethical virtue of the balance of concern for oneself and for others.  As many tribes gathered into the earliest city-states, and then city-states were gathered into empires, people saw more and more of human behavior and became concerned with balancing excess and lack.  People saw that some had much to eat, much money, much power, and others had none.  They saw that excess can hurt the individual and society as much as deficiency, power and riches as much as oppression and poverty.  In Egypt and many societies that followed, including India, Greece and China, we can see a concern with balance and avoiding both excess and lack being praised as wise and ethical.

egyptian heart vesselIn early Egyptian writings, a good person was called the “king guided individual”, but in later writings this was replaced with the “heart-guided-individual”, who puts wisdom over desire, mind over the body, and thus has self-control and full potential.  This was seen as putting oneself in-line with the cosmos, as Being, the one eternal whole, is the source and guide of the many individual mortal beings.  Egyptologists argue that the move from “king guided” to “heart guided” shows the increasing need for self-regulation, self-control and self-consciousness in an increasingly complex society.  The heart was thought to be the center of the human being, as ancient people soon learned that the heart is the center of the vessels that branch throughout the body and which are crucial to its health and nourishment.  The Egyptians thought that if one was unkind to others it would choke the breath and blood from the heart and hurt one’s physical as well as mental health.

wedding ring

The Egyptians, like Aristotle, believed that the heart was the center of feeling, branching out through the human body through arteries and veins.  This is likely because nerves were too small to see, and so the circulation system was presumed to carry everything, including food, air and sensation, through the body.  The Egyptians were the foremost doctors of the ancient world and were revered by the Romans in the beginning ages of Roman empire, and only in the empire’s later years did the Romans begin turning to Greek doctors, who had learned much from the Egyptians and added to it.  Consider that we still practice the Egyptian custom of wearing the wedding ring, originally worn only by women, on the ring finger (which is how it got its name) through the Roman Catholic tradition.  There is a large artery running through this finger, which the Egyptians found by doing anatomy, and because it was thought to be associated with lust a man puts a wedding ring on his wife’s finger to serve as a sort of lust collar.  We do not practice the Israelite tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the index finger, which a man would put on his wife’s finger to prevent her from casting curses on him.

Sebayt is the Egyptian word for instructions, teachings and wise advice.  Several texts have survived for over four thousand years, including the teachings of Hardjedef, Ptahhotep, Marikare and others, that focused on “living truly” in a courageous way rather than a deceitful and cowardly way.  Egyptians continued to produce new works and old teachings of wisdom instruction continuously through Roman times, passed down over thousands of years.

The two great philosophers and ethicists of ancient Egypt that we still have are Hardjedef and Ptahhotep, who lived around the same time as the pharaoh Khufu build the largest pyramid at Giza, still standing today, five and a half thousand years ago.  The Instructions of Hardjedef is said to be the oldest Egyptian philosophy and ethics in writing, the first set of teachings that others copied and preserved.  Hardjedef was supposed to live at the same time as Khufu, the pharaoh who built the pyramid at Giza about four and a half thousand years ago.  Only a few fragments from the beginning of the text survive, just like the work of many philosophers of Greece and other ancient cultures. Hardjedef had a reputation for great wisdom, his name appears in other texts and he is compared to Imhotep, the architect so magnificent he was made into a god like a pharaoh.  Hardjedef and other sages became models for later Egyptians who looked back to past prosperous dynasties for wisdom and insight in troubled times. Hardjedef’s teachings are a public offering to his new baby son Auibre, who is still nursing and may not be able to appreciate the advice quite yet.

Clean yourself in your own eyes before someone can clean you.

When you grow, build a house.

Take a wife who has mastered her heart and multiply.  

You build for your children when you house yourself.

Build a strong house in the grave and a noble place where the sun sets.

Death lowers us, life lifts us.

The house of death is for life.

The best known and preserved Egyptian wisdom text, what some have called the first philosophy in history, is The Instructions of Ptahhotep, a work with an introduction, 37 maxims and conclusion that survives on three ancient papyrus scrolls.  While translations differ, most agree that the text teaches to practice moderation, kindness, justice and honesty towards everyone equally.  In the intro, Ptahhotep praises his pharaoh, who lives forever, and curses the old age he feels, which is evil in everything it does to us, but hopes that he can be a staff of wisdom that stands for the ways of the ancients, taking pain from the people.

1) Don’t be proud of what you know.  Talk to the foolish as well as the wise.  The limits of skill have no limit. No artist’s craftwork is perfect.  Wise words are as rare as jewels, but can be found in the mouths of the maids at the grindstone.

2) If you meet an enemy stronger than you, fold your arms and bend your back.  Talking won’t make them agree with you. Make nothing of what they say or stop what they do.  They will be called fools. Your wisdom will match their pile of words.

3) If you meet an enemy who is on your level, you will outdo them by silence.  While they speak evil, those who hear will talk, and your name will be fine as far as the judges know.

4) If you meet an enemy who is weaker than you, do not attack them.  Leave them alone and they will fight themselves. Do not talk to them to heal your heart.  Do not wash your heart by venting what you feel. Only the evil injure the weak. Others will want to do what you want to do, and the judges will punish them for you.

14) If you are with people, gain support through trust.  The trusted who don’t let their stomachs do the talking take the lead.

16)  If you lead others, reach widely and do great things.  Remember the next day is coming. There is no pain in the middle of honors, but hate rises when the crocodile comes.

17)  If you lead others, listen calmly to those who ask.  Don’t stop what they need and plan to let out. Those in pain want to pour out their heart more than win their case.  Others ask questions about us if we don’t let others question us. You can’t give everyone everything they want, but hearing others heals the heart.

19) If you want to be perfect and free from evil, guard against greed, a sickness without cure.  There is no treatment for fathers, mothers, brothers of mothers, parting wives from husbands, a mix of all evils, a bundle of all we hate.  Those who endure rule themselves right and walk a straight line. Those who rule write a will, while the greedy have no tomb.

20)  Don’t be greedy cutting pieces or want more than your share.  Do not be greedy towards those you love, as the kind get more than the cruel.  Those who shut others out lose, lacking interaction. Just a little of what you want turns an enemy into a friend.

21)  When you grow and build a house, love your wife, fill her belly, clothe her back, give oil for her limbs and make her heart happy as long as you live, for she is a fertile field for you.  But do not argue with her in court and do not let her take over your house. The gaze of her eye is a storm.

23)  Do not repeat or listen to slander, the spouting of hot bellies.  Say what you see, not what you hear. If it is not important, don’t say anything.  Others can see what you are worth. Hate rises against those who take things. Slander is like covering the face to stop dreaming.

24)  Focus on excellence.  Silence is better than chatter.  Speak when you know you have a solution.  The skilled should speak. Speaking is harder than all other work.  Those who understand use it well.

25)  If you are strong, gain praise through knowledge and kind words.  Don’t lead unless it fits, as those who stir get trouble. Don’t be proud, or you will be humbled.  Don’t say nothing, or others will say things. When you talk to the angry, tilt your face and keep hold of yourself.  The flame of hot hearts spreads. Those who step gently have paved paths. Those who worry all day never have a happy moment.  Those who are happy all day can’t keep house.

28)  If you are a respected judge who helps the people, draw a straight line.  When you speak don’t lean to one side. Take care others don’t say you’re unbalanced and your judgement turns into a judgement of you.

29)  If you are angry at someone lean toward the better in them.  Pass over it and don’t recall it, just as they and we were on our first day in the world.

Epilogue)  The wise are known by wisdom, the great by good actions.  Their heart match their tongue, lips straight when they speak.

If hearing enters those who hear, the hearer becomes a listener.  Hearing well is speaking well. Hearing is useful to those who hear.  Hearing is better than all else. It creates good will.

The fool who does not hear can do nothing at all, sees knowledge in ignorance, use in harm.  Fools do everything we hate and are blamed for everything every day.

Whoever plunders the goods of the poor takes the very breath of life away from themselves.  Such cheating chokes off justice, but a full measure increases its flow. – The Eloquent Egyptian Peasant

Egyptian PriestsThe Eloquent Peasant or The Complaint of the Peasant is a story about a peasant who has been robbed by a local official and who gives a series of nine arguments to the local magistrate appealing for justice which shows again that the ancient Egyptians were concerned about the poor and social justice, while also having problems with each as we still do today.  It also shows ancient Egyptian cosmology holds that the world works like a giant person, and breath and air carry order downward from the fire of the stars, sun and moon.  If we do injustice, we not only choke the universe but ourselves as well.  The Egyptians were the foremost doctors of the ancient world and were revered by the Romans in the beginning ages of Roman empire, and only in the empire’s later years did the Romans begin turning to Greek doctors, who had learned much from the Egyptians and added to it.

Wedding ringConsider that we still practice the Egyptian custom of wearing the wedding ring (originally just worn by women) on the ring finger (which is how it got its name) through the Roman Catholic tradition.  There is a large artery running through this finger, which the Egyptians found by doing anatomy, and because it was thought to be associated with lust a man puts a wedding ring on his wife’s finger to serve as a sort of lust collar.  We do not practice the Israelite tradition of wearing the wedding ring on the index finger, which a man would put on his wife’s finger to prevent her from casting curses on him.

Amenemopet , a local king who ruled around 1800 BCE, proclaimed that that we do the opposite of what we typically think to do to those we consider evil.  Rather than punish bad with bad, like fighting fire with fire, we can show them the compassion and consideration they lack even if they do not deserve it, similar to Jesus saying, “Turn the other cheek”.  Amen-em-opet shows not only concern with social justice, but giving freedom of speech to the dis-empowered.

Because we refuse to imitate the wicked, we help them, we offer them a hand…That they may know shame, we fill their bellies with bread.

The gods desire respect for the poor more than the honoring of the exalted.

If the poor owe you a large debt, divide it into three parts, forgive two and let one stand.  You will find that this is like everything in life.  You will sleep soundly, and in the morning greet it like good news.  Better is praise as one who loves others than riches in the storehouse.  Better is bread when the heart is happy than riches with sorrow.

Never permit yourself to rob the poor.  Do not oppress the down-trodden, nor thrust aside the elderly, denying them speech.

Egyptian harvest

Do not lie down at night being afraid of tomorrow.  When day breaks, who knows what it will be like?  Surely, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

Amen-em-opet, like Aztec poets and the Indian Vedas, reminds us that no one can predict the future, either through prophecy or science.

Ani, a scribe of the 18th dynasty, 1550-1300 BCE, gave much remembered and revered advice, even though he was only a high ranking scribe.

Rage destroys itself.  It damages its own affairs.

egyptian mother and childProvide generously for your mother with double rations, and carry her even as she once carried you.  It was a heavy load that she bore, but she did not cast it off, and even after you were born, did she not feed you at the breast for three years?  Your dirt was unpleasant, but she did not say, “Why should I bother with him?”  It was she who placed you in school.  It was she who came daily with food and drink for you.

Ani seems to be giving us the old, “You never call, you never write” routine of ancient Egyptian mother syndrome.  It is hilarious how he is not only reminding us to take care of the elderly, but of our own mothers as well.

Egyptian beer makingBoast not how many jars of beer you can drink!  Soon your speech turns to babbling nonsense, and you tumble down into the gutter…and when people seek to question you, they find only a helpless child.

Ani shows us that as people gathered into ancient city states, they became critical of human behavior, such as drinking.  Above is an image of ancient Egyptian beer brewing.

egyptian couple senejem and wifeEat no bread while another waits in want, but stretch out your hand to the hungry.  One person is rich, another is poor.  Yesterday’s master is today’s servant.  Don’t be greedy about filling your belly.  Where only last year the river ran, this year the course is dry.  Great seas have turned to desert wastes, and the sandy shore is now an abyss.

Ani again shows us that one could become rich or poor in society, and it is wise to remember it.  The Egyptians considered the desert to be the source of evil and the home of the god Set.  This is why seekers and sages, including Jesus, would venture into the desert, to show that they could live surrounded by death.

Egyptian Ox SacrificeMarikare, a local king offering advice to his  son, the crown prince around 1500 BCE, questions the value of traditional sacrifice, saying, “More acceptable to (the Father/Highest) God is the virtue of a just man than the ox of one who works iniquity.”  In India, Greece and China, we will see similar thoughts questioning the value of traditional practice over being virtuous.  If the wealthy make sacrifices, but rule with cruelty, those who dare to question will ask if performing sacrifices truly gains one merit.  Jesus chasing the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the temple is a similar move.  Christianity and Buddhism, likely the largest human cultures that have existed so far, both got in trouble for storing up wealth charging people for services, inspiring revolutions and reformations.

Honor those who achieve and the people will prosper, but keep your eyes open.  Too much trust brings trouble…Exalt no one because of birth.  Judge people by their actions.  People should do that which profits their soul/self/mind.  Let them perform the services of their temple.  Let them share in the mysteries of their religion.

Merikare shows great skepticism of authority, not only of political position and noble birth but of a central singular religious tradition.  Notice both ritual and mystery being included as religion.

pyramid shadow

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