Egyptian Philosophy

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 the sun god Ra 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.

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