For this lecture, please read the Instructions of Ptahhotep, to Kagemni & Amenemhat.

Ethics: Egypt & Ptahhotep

Philosophy has been called thinking about thinking, as well as talking about life, including what can be said that is true in life, thinking about living, and asking the widest and deepest questions we can ask.  It is possible that the term philosophy, which in Greek means “love of wisdom”, was coined by the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who was not the first human to understand the triangles involved in the “Pythagorean theorem” nor the first human to speak about wisdom.  The Greek philosophers were well aware that the Egyptians and Babylonians had praised wisdom for centuries before their own speculations about the cosmos and humanity’s place in it. When psychologists have asked people across cultures what wisdom is, the most common answer is that wisdom is the ability to think and reason well, to see our position and others’ positions from a wider point of view.

The ancient Greek thinkers called philosophers are those who question the ways of things and try to seek out answers, which we all do in our daily lives in countless ways.  In Miguel Leon-Portilla’s book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as “Do we know the gods exist?” “Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?” and “Can we ever know these things?”.  Indeed, when we look at ancient and modern cultures we find both answering and questioning, knowledge as well as wisdom, in ancient Greece and everywhere else.  No society would survive without pushing in both directions. Systems of thought are always sites of disagreement as much as they are of agreement, of trust and distrust for people, things and ideas.

In spite of this, cultures tend to speak of themselves as the first time humans have been truly human, and what we call Western Civilization of Europe is no exception, which for the last several hundred years, particularly since the Protestant Reformation, has credited itself with the ability to reason and traced this back before Rome to the ancient Greeks.  Those who believe “the West” is a superior culture often argue that the Greeks invented true questioning and answering, which is why Western Europeans developed impressive works philosophy, science and politics. While I am happy to live here and now rather than in the ancient past or immediate danger, it is clear that everyone thinks their neighbor needs more wisdom and perspective, regardless of what culture we find ourselves living in.  The human brain is well over 100,000 years old, and anthropologists who work with tribal groups have argued that humanity, homo-sapiens, are all similarly rational, with sapien meaning both rational and wise, like philosophy.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy which focuses on how human beings should live with each other and treat one another.  As the Scottish philosopher Hume argued, there is a difference between what is the case and what we should do about it, the difference between Ontology, what exists, and Ethics, how we should behave given what exists.  In both Ontology and Ethics, one of the central debates we find across human cultures is between dogmatism and skepticism, between those who argue there is a single necessary objective truth and those who argue that there are multiple possible subjective interpretations and perspectives.  In Ethics, when we are dogmatic we argue that there are universal objective standards of right and wrong, and when we are skeptical that there are different cultural practices and viewpoints. While I tend towards the counter-cultural, skeptical and subjective, I hope that everyone continues to find greater truth and meaning on both sides of this and all other debates.

Ancient Cosmology & Ethics As Balance


Many ancient cultures, including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians, had a very similar cosmology, the term used to cover the ancient understanding of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise.  The world was thought to be shaped like a person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body).

Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary.  One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy, the same message repeated again and again: reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body, and the good of the whole is to be placed above the desires of any particular part. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos.

As tribes and shamans settled with the onset of agriculture several thousands of years ago into the first city states with priests, first in places such as Sumer and Egypt and then elsewhere across the world, they acquired systems of writing that allowed them to communicate knowledge beyond the limitations of memorized oral traditions.  The early city states were gathering sites for many tribes and peoples, so city life was multicultural from the beginning.  While relations between different ethnic and cultural groups has been problematic, it was in the interests of the earliest cities to serve as a meeting site for many groups and cultures to foster trade and development.

This contributed to the expansion of systems of thought transmitted through teaching and texts.  While the shaman of a tribe could know the great deal of a tribe’s oral tradition, in the early city states knowledge grew to the point that specialists were required.  Often, centers of knowledge were temples and the texts and study maintained by priestesses and priests ordained in the traditions.  In the earliest of Sumerian texts used by student scribes, we can see divisions between the historical epic poems, the recorded history and mythology as literature, and the lists of minerals, plants and examples of math problems, a division similar to that between the humanities and sciences that remains today.  We sit at the result of this process that has continued for thousands of years.  The trade that developed in Sumer, Babylon and Egypt connected people from Africa, Asia and Europe in a network of increasing knowledge and speculations about wisdom.  Many are surprised to learn that ancient Sumer and Egypt traded with India hundreds of years before the Greeks arose, but archaeologists have found a small community of Indian merchants living in Alexandria Egypt as early as 300 BCE.

assyrian seige weapon

While our world today has new, modern ways, many of the problems we struggle with ethically and socially are ages old.  Consider the Assyrians. “Assyrian” did not name one ethnicity but rather a citizen of Assyria. Many people of different ethnicities called themselves Assyrians just as many people call themselves Americans. Jesus spoke Aramaic because it was one of the dominant languages of Assyria and the lands they had conquered.  Assyria invented all of the siege weapons that were used in feudal Europe (including the battering ram and the siege tower), but the Assyrians conquered others mostly by trade and diplomacy. Princes would be sent to be educated in Assyria, the center of knowledge in its day, and then the Assyrians would make contracts with the prince’s people to put them on the throne to maintain political control. Just like today the primary method of conquest is economic and military solutions are called for only when the economic methods have failed.  John Perkin’s book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (he came to speak at BCC a few years ago) gives an excellent account of the same strategy of dominance through economics in modern times as it is used by America and other wealthy countries today.

cuniform tabletSumer had some of the first schools, textbooks (in science and the humanities), medical texts, tax reduction, wisdom proverbs, and laments.  One excellent proverb is, “You go and carry off the enemy’s land, the enemy comes and carries off your land”.  My favorite Sumerian lament is recorded about 3000 BCE, over five thousand years ago, in which an elderly Sumerian complains that in his time, unlike in the glorified past, politicians are corrupt, teenagers are running around and breaking tradition and having sex, and concludes that the world will certainly end soon at the hands of the gods.  The prophet laments of the Bible’s Old Testament (the Jewish Torah) are based on this and other laments from the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations.

Babylonian King ReliefWhile many equate the word ‘democracy’ with freedom, it is important to remember that democracies have never included everyone, and that traditionally participation has been reserved for the small number of men who own property.  This was true in the first records of human history we have, as Samuel Kramer shows in his book History Begins at Sumer.  We can read in the first human writings that the Sumerian king Gilgamesh wanted to go to war, and so asked the elders of the senate to support him.  When they refused, he asked the lower assembly of property-owning but less prominent men for their support, and they enthusiastically agreed, allowing Gilgamesh to bypass the senate.  Such a bicameral congress should sound familiar.  Sadly, Gilgamesh did not put the war to a popular vote among the common people, which shows us just how undemocratic ancient Sumer was.

Maat & the Ethics of Ancient Egypt

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 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.

Find flooded fields for yourself.

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.

Let us consider several additional Egyptian wisdom teachings, in context.

Let not your heart be puffed up because of what you know, nor boast that you are wise. Consult with the ignorant as well as with the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found. Good speech lies hidden like a precious stone, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone.

This passage of Phah-hotep (Vizier to the Pharaoh, 2500 BCE) is similar to some we will read in Confucius of ancient China and it is also similar to Socrates of ancient Greece, showing great social wisdom four and a half thousand years ago.  We should learn from everyone, and remember that no one is perfect and no one knows everything when we are tempted to put ourselves above others.  This questions not only human knowledge, but social inequality.  It does not call for getting rid of social divisions (indeed, the last verse is somewhat sexist) but it does ask us to look beyond inequality and identify with others.

More acceptable to (the highest) God is the virtue of a just man than the ox of one who works iniquity.

In this verse, we see Marikare, a local king offering advice to the crown prince around 1500 BCE, questioning the value of traditional sacrifice.  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.

Rage destroys itself.  It damages its own affairs.

Ani (a scribe of the 18th dynasty, 1550-1300 BCE)

Because we refuse to imitate the wicked man, we help him, we offer him a hand…That he may know shame, we fill his belly with bread.

Amenemotep, a local king who ruled around 1800 BCE, is suggesting 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.  This is similar to Jesus saying, “Turn the other cheek”.

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

Amenemopet shows not only concern with social justice, but giving freedom of speech to the disempowered.

Who plunders the goods of a poor man takes the very breath of life away from (herself or himself).  Such cheating chokes off justice, but a full measure increases its flow.

The 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.

Honor men of achievement and the people will prosper, but keep your eyes open.  Too much trust brings affliction…Exalt no man because of birth.  Judge the man by his actions.  A man should do that which profits his soul.  Let him perform the services of his temple.  Let him share in the mysteries of his 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.

Provide 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.

Boast 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.

Eat no bread while another waits in want, but stretch out your hand to the hungry.  One man 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.

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

Amenemopet, like Aztec poets and the Indian Vedas, reminds us that no one can predict the future, either through prophecy or scientific calculation.  Before the onset of Chaos Theory in the 80s, many mathematicians and experts claimed that advancements in mathematics would make reality highly predictable, which did not come to pass.  As computers allowed for advanced calculation, they also showed us that this would not allow for accurate predictions, given that things such as computers can have dramatically unpredictable effects on society.

Assur Assyria depiction

Sargon_of_AkkadWe will end with two Babylonian texts that follow the Egyptian Instructions.  The first text was written about 2200 BCE known as the Dialog of Pessimism is a humorous and cynical back and forth between a master and servant that has interesting philosophical undertones.  Several times, the master says he will do something, and the servant gives him reasons doing it would be good.  Then the master says he will not do the same thing, and the servant gives him reasons doing it would be bad.  The master says he will support the king, and then that he won’t, that he will abandon society and live in the wilderness, and then that he won’t, that he will argue when his enemy speaks, and then that he will remain silent, that he will start a rebellion and then that he should not be violent, that he will love a woman for awhile and then that he won’t, that he will offer a sacrifice to his god and then that he won’t, that he will feed and help his country and then that he won’t.

The servant offers him good reasons for doing and not doing each thing, showing that humanity can rationalize any passing desire and then it’s opposite.  When the master says he will not offer a sacrifice, the servant says, “You may teach a god to trot after you like a dog”.  When the master says he will not help his country, the servant says, “Climb the mounds of ancient ruins and walk about.  Look at the skulls of those who died long ago and those who died recently.  Which are evildoers, and which are public benefactors?”  Finally, the master wonders whether he should kill them both, similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet asking, “To be, or not to be?” while considering skulls.  A later Babylonian wisdom proverb written around 1600 BCE reads:

Humanity is deaf and knows nothing.

What knowledge has anyone at all?

No one knows whether they have done good or bad themselves.

Where are the wise who have not transgressed and committed abominations?

Where are those who have checked themselves and did not backslide?

The Babylonian Theodicy, written around 1000 BCE, is a poem and philosophical dialog between two friends and equals, one who was abandoned as a child by parents who then died, and the other who says suffering and death is common to all.  The first asks how we can get out of suffering, and the second says that a good and just life is rewarded. The first says that animals and humanity commit crimes that go unpunished, and the second says that no crime truly goes unpunished.  The first says that religion and cultivating his relationships with the gods seems to do nothing, and the second warns the first that it is unwise to question the greater wisdom of the gods and cosmos. The first says that the wealthy commit injustice against the poor and prosper, with the courts and public opinion siding with the wealthy against the poor, and the second says that this is true, but part of how the gods made humanity imperfect, with greater strength to those who must fight for justice.  In the end, both agree that we should be just to please the gods, but also that the gods created injustice as part of the plan.