Ethics 1 – Philosophy, Cosmology & Egyptian Ethics

For this lecture, please read this entry on Ethics and this entry on Maat.

hemisphere world

What is Philosophy & What is Ethics?

Philosophy has been called thinking about thinking, as well as thinking about living, asking the widest and deepest questions that humanity can ask, such as what is good or true overall about life.  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.

Miguel Leon Portilla Aztec Thought and Culture

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 “Western Civilization” 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 White Europeans developed philosophy and science, as well as the political practice of democracy, unlike other cultures.

While I am happy to live here and now rather than in the ancient past or dangerous places, it is clear that everyone thinks their neighbor needs more wisdom and perspective, regardless of what culture we find ourselves living in.  I am also for pushing counter-culturally against the idea that our culture is superior in reason or understanding to anyone, as money and power bring many good and bad things out of cultures that rise and fall.  The human body and brain are 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).

neoplatonism cosmos

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.

egypt book of the dead

Fertile Crescent Sumer Babylon Assyria

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.

Babylonian Ziggurat

Mesopotamian figureThis 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 incarnate, 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.

Assur Assyria depiction

Sargon_of_AkkadOne Babylonian text 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.

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.

Let us consider several of the Egyptian wisdom passages, in context.

egyptian pharaohLet 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.

egyptian bull sacrificeMore 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)

egyptian couple senejem and wifeBecause 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.

Amen-em-opet, 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.

Amen-em-opet shows not only concern with social justice, but giving freedom of speech to the disempowered.

Egyptian harvestWho 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.

egyptian servant girls

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.

Love the wife who is in your house.  Feed her belly, clothe her back.  Provide oil and cosmetics for her limbs.  Gladden her heart all the days of your life, for she is like a field that will prosper its owner, but do not go into court with her, and never let her get control of your house.

Ptah-hotep is being quite sexist, but shows us that women had the power to speak in court and ruled the home as they did and do in many traditional and modern culture.  Ptah-hotep is giving this advice to his son.

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 Sennefer seatedIf you have grown to some account in greatness, do not forget the time when you were small.  If you have now become a rich man in your city, do not forget how it was when you were in need.

Ptah-hotep shows us that there was social mobility in ancient Egypt, and one could become wealthy or poor depending upon circumstances.  Like the passage that tells us the maidens at the grindstone have wisdom yet no one can obtain it entirely, it suggests we always keep the view of the poor and unfortunate in mind to not only appreciate what we have but prevent ourselves from being unjust.

Egyptian beer making

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.

All Giza Pyramids

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.

Amen-em-opet, 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.


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