Ancient Egypt Philosophy

The Instructions of Ptah-hotep and The Admonitions of Ipuwer — The Dialogue of a Misanthrope — The Egyptian Ecclesiastes!


Historians of philosophy have been wont to begin their story with the Greeks. The Hindus, who believe that they invented philosophy, and the Chinese, who believe that they perfected it, smile at our provincialism.

It may be that we are all mistaken;

For among the most ancient fragments left to us by the Egyptians are writings that belong, however loosely and untechnically, under the rubric of moral philosophy.

The wisdom of the Egyptians was a proverb with the Greeks, who felt themselves children beside this ancient race.

The oldest work of philosophy known to us is the "Instructions of Pta'h-hotep," which apparently goes back to 2880 B.C.—2300 years before Confucius, Socrates and Buddha.

Ptah-hotep was Governor of Memphis

Ptah-hotep was Governor of Memphis, and Prime Minister to the King, under the Fifth Dynasty.

Retiring from office, he decided to leave to his son a manual of everlasting wisdom.

It was transcribed as an antique classic by some scholars prior to the Eighteenth Dynasty.

The Vizier begins:

    "O Prince my Lord, the end of life is at hand; old age descended! upon me; feebleness cometh and childishness is renewed; he that is old lieth down in misery every day.

    The eyes are small, the ears are deaf. Energy is diminished, the heart hath no rest. . . . Command thy servant, therefore, to make over my princely authority to my son. Let me speak unto him the words of them that hearken to the counsel of the men of old time, those that once heard the gods.

    I pray thee, let this thing be done. His Gracious Majesty grants the permission, advising him, however, to discourse without causing weariness advice not yet superfluous for philosophers."

Whereupon Ptah-hotep instructs his son:

    "Be not proud because thou art learned; but discourse with the ig¬norant man as with the sage. For no limit can be set to skill, neitheris there any craftsman that possesseth full advantages.

    Fair speech is more rare than the emerald that is found by slave-maidens among the pebbles. . . . Live, therefore, in the house of kindliness, and men shall come and give gifts of themselves. . . . Beware of making enmity by thy words. . . .

    Overstep not the truth, neither repeat that which any man, be he prince or peasant, saith in opening the heart; it is abhorrent to the soul. . . .

    If thou wouldst be a wise man, beget a son for the pleasing of the god. If he make straight his course after thine example, if he ar¬range thine affairs in due order, do all unto him that is good. ...

    If he be heedless and trespass thy rules of conduct, and is vio¬lent; if every speech that cometh from his mouth is a vile word; then beat thou him, that his talk may be fitting. . . . Precious to a man is the virtue of his son, and good character is a thing remem¬bered. . . .

    Wheresover thou goest, beware of consorting with women. . . . If thou wouldst be wise, provide for thine house, and love thy wife that is in thine arms. . . . Silence is more profitable to thee than abundance of speech. Consider how thou mayest be opposed by an expert that speaketh in council. It is a foolish thing to speak on every kind of work. . . .

    If thou be powerful make thyself to be honored for knowledge and for gentleness. . . . Beware of interruption, and of answering words with heat; put it from thee; control thyself."

And Ptah-hotep concludes with Horatian pride:

    "Nor shall any word that hath here been set down cease out of this land forever, but shall be made a pattern whereby princes shall speak well.

    My words shall instruct a man how he shall speak; . . . yea, he shall become as one skilful in obeying, excellent in speaking. Good fortune shall befall him; ... he shall be gracious until the end of his life; he shall be contented always."

This note of good cheer does not persist in Egyptian thought; age comes upon it quickly, and sours it.

Another sage, Ipuwer, bemoans the disorder

Another sage, Ipuwer, bemoans the disorder, violence, famine and decay that attended the passing of the Old Kingdom; he tells of sceptics who "would make offerings if" they "knew where the god is"; he comments upon increasing suicide, and adds, like another Schopenhauer:

    "Would that there might be an end of men, that there might be no conception, no birth. If the land would but cease from noise, and strife be no more"

It is clear that Ipuwer was tired and old. In the end he dreams of a philosopher-king who will redeem men from chaos and injustice:

    "He brings cooling to the flame (of the social conflagration?). It is said he is the shepherd of all men. There is no evil in his heart. When his herds are few he passes the day to gather them together, their hearts being fevered.

    Would that he had discerned their char¬acter in the first generation. Then would he have smitten evil. He would have stretched forth his arm against it. He would have smitten the seed thereof and their inheritance. . . .

    Where is he to¬day? Doth he sleep perchance? Behold, his might is not seen."

This already is the voice of the prophets; the lines are cast into strophic form, like the prophetic writings of the Jews; and Breasted properly acclaims these "Admonitions" as "the earliest emergence of a social idealism which among the Hebrews we call 'Messianism.'

Another scroll from the Middle Kingdom denounces the corruption of the age in words that almost every generation hears:

    "To whom do I speak today?
    Brothers are evil,
    Friends of today are not of love.
    To whom do I speak today?
    Hearts are thievish,
    Every man seizes his neighbor's goods. To whom do I speak today? The gentle man perishes, The bold-faced goes everywhere. . . . To whom do I speak today?
    When a man should arouse wrath by his evil conduct He stirs all men to mirth, although his iniquity is wicked. . ."

And then this Egyptian Swinburne pours out a lovely eulogy of death:

    "Death is before me today
    Like the recovery of a sick man,
    Like going forth into a garden after sickness.
    Death is before me today
    Like the odor of myrrh,
    Like sitting under the sail on a windy day.
    Death is before me today
    Like the odor of lotus-flowers,
    Like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.
    Death is before me today
    Like the course of a freshet,
    Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house. . . . Death is before me today As a man longs to see his home When he had spent years of captivity

    Saddest of all is a poem engraved upon a slab now in the Leyden Museum, and dating back to 2200 B.C. Carpe diem, it sings—snatch the day!

    I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hardedef, Words greatly celebrated as their utterances. Behold the places thereof!— Their walls are dismantled, Their places are no more, As if they had never been.

    None cometh from thence
    That he may tell us how they fare; . . .
    That he may content our hearts
    Until we too depart
    To the place whither they have gone.
    Encourage thy heart to forget it,
    Making it pleasant for thee to follow thy desire
    While thou livest.

    Put myrrh upon thy head,
    And garments upon thee of fine linen,
    Imbued with marvelous luxuries,
    The genuine things of the gods.
    Increase yet more thy delights,
    And let not thy heart languish.
    Follow thy desire and thy good,
    Fashion thy affairs on earth
    After the mandates of thine own heart,
    Till that day of lamentation come to thee
    When the silent-hearted (dead) hears not their lamentation,
    Nor he that is in the tomb attends the mourning
    Celebrate the glad day;
    Be not weary therein.

    Lo, no man taketh his goods with him;
    Yea, none returneth again that is gone thither."

This pessimism and scepticism were the result, it may be, of the broken spirit of a nation humiliated and subjected by the Hyksos invaders; they bear the same relation to Egypt that Stoicism and Epicureanism bear to a defeated and enslaved Greece.

In part such literature represents one of those interludes, like our own moral interregnum, in which thought has for a time overcome belief, and men no longer know how or why they should live.

Such periods do not endure; hope soon wins the victory over thought; the intellect is put down to its customary menial place, and religion is born again, giving to men the imaginative stimulus apparently indispensable to life and work.

We need not suppose that such poems expressed the views of any large number of Egyptians; behind and around the small but vital minority that pondered the problems of life and death in secular and naturalistic terms were millions of simple men and women who remained faithful to the gods, and never doubted that right would triumph, that every earthly pain and grief would be atoned for bountifully in a haven of happiness and peace.

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