Records of the Past, 2nd Series, Vol. III

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Records of the Past, 2nd Series, Vol. III

By A. H. Sayce

Introduction - The Precepts of Ptah-Hotep

The most ancient book in the world, the Papyrus Prisse, now preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, has furnished us with the text of a treatise, famous on account of its antiquity, of the glimpse that it gives us into the moral ideas of ancient Egyptian society, and of the difficulties it offers to the translator. I have studied it perseveringly since 1881, and have made it the subject of a philological essay, which I presented to the École des Hautes-Études in 1884–85 and published in 1887. 1 In this I gave the history of the manuscript, an account of the labours of my predecessors, a transcription of the hieratic text in hieroglyphic characters, and a translation accompanied by numerous critical observations and an index of the words employed in the Papyrus; but I did not intend to offer in it more than a purely philological study. In spite of its dry simplicity, however, the essay met with acceptance, and in the following year Mr. Howard Osgood did me the honour to publish an English translation of it in the Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct. 1888), along with a good commentary and an interesting comparison of the work with the Precepts of Ani. In my turn I now undertake to present my work under another form; not that the translation can be very new, since after so short a lapse of time I could not greatly improve a work on which I have bestowed all my thought and care 1; but what can be remodelled is the commentary. The philological part of my previous publication can be reduced without inconvenience, as the reader who wishes to study this side of the subject can refer to my essay; on the other hand, the philosophical and historical portion of the commentary will be considerably increased. I shall utilise for this purpose some of the texts which I copied at Thebes in 1886 in the tomb of Rekhmara, who exercised at a later period the same functions as Ptah-hotep.

Both were feudal lords of the Egyptian empire, nomarchs or prefects, and were specially honoured with the royal favour. Rekhmara 2 is called hesi n nuter nofer, 3 "favourite of the good god" (Thothmes III); Ptah-hotep, who dates his treatise in the reign of Assa of the Fifth Dynasty, boasts at the end of it that he had enjoyed above all others the favour of the king, and in a text published by Lepsius (Denkmäler, ii. 115) we read: Assa hesi Ptah-hotep, "the favourite of Assa, Ptah-hotep."

In the preface of Ptah-hotep's treatise he even seems to declare that he was of royal descent, for he calls himself "the royal son, first-born, legitimate" (ch. v. ll. 6, 7); but I have elsewhere noticed that this title must not be interpreted too literally. We may ask why the elder and legitimate son of the king never reigned if he lived, and Ptah-hotep did not die young, since he was already 110 years old 1 when he published his work. We must attribute an extraordinary longevity to Assa if we hold that Ptah-hotep was his son and died before him.

But Prof. Maspero has already shown that we must not give too literal an interpretation to the titles "royal mother," "royal wife," "royal daughter," and that it was possible to be "royal wife" by right of birth before being married. Such titles served only to determine the rank occupied by a princess at court in questions of etiquette and precedence.

If the appellation "royal wife" were only an honorary title, we may infer that "royal son" also might be the same and signify nothing more than "prince." In this case, "the eldest legitimate son of the king" would be equivalent to "prince of the blood royal." That such a title can be given to a person not belonging to the royal family is not unexampled even in our own days in the West; all the more could it be given in the East, where the most pompous titles are so easily accumulated. At the court of Egypt, where everything was referred to the king, the source of all honour, it is possible that a claim to nobility consisted in attaching oneself, at all events nominally, to his family, or even in making oneself part of it. The relations of the king enjoyed the highest titles, but even the "royal nurses" gloried in "the suckling which had mingled their blood with Horus." 

If Rekhmara does not, like Ptah-hotep, bear the title of royal prince, he was perhaps of even higher rank, since he is called "the double of the Pharaoh," animated by his spirit, taking his place in his absence, governing all Egypt like him, addressed by the same titles, 2 and saluted like him by the courtiers. We must not be astonished therefore at the royal title given to Ptah-hotep; the prefect of the capital was next to the king the first person in the kingdom.

Although an interval of many centuries separated the two prefects, it is probable that both governed according to the same rules, and that little change had taken place in the social state and ideas of the Egyptian people. Rekhmara, after exercising the viceroyalty in the absence of Thothmes III, insists before all else on the conservative character of his government. 1 The temples, the laws, the principles on which society rested, all remained unshaken; the children of the nobility succeeded their fathers regularly; everything, in short, continued as if the king remained perpetually in his capital, and the same hand had governed Egypt since the mythical age of Horus. All its kings and their ministers were only the images and substitutes of the god who had been the first to reign over the country; the principles of government, like the principles of morality, were of divine origin; nothing could be changed. Ptah-hotep had asserted this of the past and predicted it of the future; innovators had no place in Egypt, and their ephemeral success had always been followed by reaction. "Let none make innovations," he had said, "in the precepts of his father; let the same precepts form his instruction to his children." 2 Doubtless innovators sometimes made themselves heard by the uninstructed multitude and influenced the public for a moment, but their triumph was momentary. Nothing, then, must be taken away or added, nothing changed in established principles, and whoever found contrary ideas growing up in himself must be careful to root them out. 3 Thus, in order to discover the earliest trace of the struggle between established custom and new ideas, between the conservative and the radical, it is necessary to go back to the oldest book in the world.

Thanks to this horror of change in the government and society of ancient Egypt, the documents which relate to the occupations of the prefect Rekhmara doubtless give us sufficient information in regard to the occupations of the prefect Ptah-hotep. Interesting resemblances, moreover, between certain chapters of the Papyrus Prisse and the texts of the Tomb of Rekhmara authorise us in making this comparison. These texts depict to us the divan of the Pasha or Prefect of Thebes: "He sits in the divan, in order to hear the petitions … to give peace to the whole country, dispensing justice without paying attention to bribes, applications, (or) offerings, and he who has petitioned him has not wept." 1 … From early dawn he has been up to listen all day to the petitions of the provinces of the South and the provinces of the North. He has not repelled small or great; the evil done to the poor, the aged, or the afflicted is requited by Horus to its author. 2 ... There is no inattention in him to the matters about which he has been petitioned; he estimates the poor equally with the rich, appearing as peace-maker." 3

Ptah-hotep also tells us how the prefect ought to apply himself to fill the office of "leader of peace," with what care he ought to hear the explanations offered by the parties to a suit, with what patience lie should try to unravel the truth from obscure statements and . useless details: "When thou art a leader of peace, listen well to the words of the petitioner. Be not abrupt with him; that would trouble him. Do not say to him: Thou hast [already] said this. Indulgence will encourage him to do that for the sake of which he is come. As for being abrupt with the plaintiff because he describes what happened when the injury was done instead of complaining of the injury itself, let it not be! The way to obtain a clear explanation is to listen with kindness." 1

With the object of maintaining peace among their subordinates by means of justice, one of the chief cares of the prefects was to provide subsistence for the people and to preserve them from want. Every centre of population accordingly possessed a larit or assemblage of magazines, where corn, wine, and all sorts of provisions were stored and thoroughly well guarded. No place, in fact, could have been more secure, and we shall see how strictly all access to it was forbidden to the stranger.

The word larit appears to mean a well-guarded enclosure 2; among the duties which Ptah-hotep insists upon in his Precepts, one of those to which he attaches most importance is that of vigilantly guarding the larit: "If," he says, "thou art employed at the larit, stand or sit rather than walk about. Determine from the first not to absent thyself even when weariness overtakes thee. Keep an eye on him who enters, declaring that the object of his request is secret; what is consigned to thee is above appreciation, and all contrary argument is to be rejected. He is a god who penetrates into a place where no relaxation (of the rules) is made for the privileged." 1

Am-n-teh, overseer and director of the larit, tells us that there was no repose for him, and that he never closed his eyes during the night. 2

The presentation of the seal of the prefect alone could open the door. 3 Thus Rekhmara caused the storehouses to be constantly inspected by officials to whom he deputed his powers. 4 Well guarded as they were, he was constantly on the watch to assure himself that nothing was wanting to their safety. But only himself or his deputy could enter them; for all others the doors were carefully closed, and it was he who consigned the care of them to the guards. 5 The officials were empowered to strike even a delegate of the government who had not presented the seal and produced his authorisation to enter. 6

But the prefect did not confine himself to the superintendence of the storehouses; he also saw that they were filled, since on his supervision depended for his subordinates abundance or death. When Egypt had become a conquering, maritime, and commercial power, foreign countries further contributed to the support of the larit; the tombs of Rekhmara and Am-n-teh show us the wines of Syria, the essences and woods of Comal imported from afar and passing through the bazaars of Coptos. But it was still the taxes which furnished corn, the most necessary of provisions, and it is probable that under Ptah-hotep Egypt was engaged solely in filling with it its magazines. The tomb of Rekhmara depicts for us the labourers presenting the agents of the prefect with their crop of wheat, in order that the government might receive its share. They empty their baskets and form a heap, from which the delegate of the treasury measures out the amount due to the State. 1 The tax must have been somewhat heavy. The Bible tells us that Joseph took from the agricultural population the fifth part of their grain to store the larits in view of a famine (Gen. xlvii. 24). In any case the taxpayers who came so humbly before Rekhmara, with their faces to the ground, must in reality have been less submissive than they appeared to be through fear of the stick. Even Ptah-hotep mistrusted the tendency to revolt which might lie hid under such forced humility, and it was not enough for him that the taxpayer should put on a submissive air when paying his tax, it was necessary that his manner should be gay. "Let thy countenance be cheerful," he says, "during the time of thy existence. When we see one leaving the storehouse who has entered in order to bring his moiety of provisions, with the countenance contracted, it shows that his stomach is empty and that authority is offensive to him. Let not this be thy case." 1 He is continually recalling the services rendered by the Government and declaring that it is not sufficient to serve it; it is necessary to love it and cause it to be loved. 2 If there are superiors and inferiors, it is because God has so willed it; 3 all authority, all governors, are entitled to respect; when things are prosperous, the absence of submission to authority may endanger them. 4 The inferior ought to obey blindly and execute all commands without discussing them; 5 however he may act in obeying a superior, his conscience is clear before God; 6 the superior alone is responsible.

In return for the submission which it exacts, the Government takes care of the wants of the people; it supports and enables them to live. In the tomb of Rekhmara we see the workmen of foreign race presenting themselves before the storehouses with sacks to be filled with grain; 7 jars of oil, wine, etc., are also distributed among them. In a similar fashion the sons of Jacob came to fill their sacks in the storehouses organised by Joseph. But Ptah-hotep reminds the great of the earth that their duty is not only to protect in this way those whom God has confided to their authority. He who is placed in front, at the head of a large number of men, must be without reproach, and in spite of his power never forget that there are laws. The forgetfulness of this principle is the cause of revolutions; when the great neglect their duty, why should not the small take their place? 1 It is not of the counsels of the flatterers of to-day that it is needful to take heed; it is of the judgment of posterity, which renders justice to righteous actions. 2 To appear before it with honour, it is necessary to reverence knowledge and wisdom; to observe in everything a just moderation; 3 not to abuse one's powers; and to seek to inspire love rather than fear. For God forbids us to terrify the feeble; 4 on the contrary, we are as gods to the inferiors, whose confidence we have known how to gain. 5 The great man should remember that he is only the dispenser of the gifts of God, and if, being of low origin, He has attained to high honour, he must not, as is too often the case, be puffed up by his good fortune, but should consider the new duties which his rank imposes on him. 6 His position makes of him a steward of God, but a responsible steward. For if the inferior has no responsibility in obeying, the superior has in commanding and cannot avoid it. God has imposed different duties according to different stations in life. Thus the inferior who carries the message of a superior to a superior must transmit it faithfully and exactly, even if he thinks that the communication will not be well received. 1 On his side, the superior who sits in the council must declare candidly what he believes best, even in presence of the president, however exalted he may be, and not twist his words so as not to compromise himself. 2 He must only see that he does not deceive himself, since to deliberate in the council is not a pastime, 3 and he must for that end work hard and devote himself to his task. 4 Responsibility and continuous labour is the lot of him who watches over the public weal. In return it is right that he should obtain some compensations. His life is not subject to the discretion of any one; within the limits of his conscience he is the master of his own actions; but it is the reward of his labours; moreover, if the conditions of life differ in this world, it is because God has so willed it. 5

There are of course duties common to all men, at least to all who can read Ptah-hotep, for his book is addressed to the educated classes. 6 Thus the great must abstain from plundering as the small from thieving; 1 each must love his household and his wife, 2 making her happy; 3 must treat his people well, being recompensed in return by their good will; 4 must avoid licentiousness; 5 must listen without anger to a just observation and feel no resentment towards him who has made it; 6 must shun bad temper and walk in loyalty and frankness; 7 must exercise his power of criticism in judging himself rather than others; 8 must speak pleasantly, and refer to that which is bad by showing that it is bad, but without passion; 9 must argue with courtesy, answering with kindness him who deceives himself, and not be rude to him should he display ignorance. 

But among all other duties there is one on which the book insists specially; every one should labour to make his son a true gentleman, and not allow the authority given him by God to be weakened. 11 The father ought to command, the son to obey, in order that he may be worthy of governing one day in his turn the children which may be born to him. 12 "Good when he obeys and good when he commands, whoever has obeyed has profited, and it is profitable to obey him who has obeyed. The son who accepts the word of his father will attain old age on that account. God wishes us to obey; disobedience is abhorrent to Him." 1 Accordingly the father must display no weakness; a son without principles will bring grief to his parents; 2 on the other hand, when the son is obedient to his father, it is a double joy for both. 

It is not astonishing that Ptah-hotep paid so much attention to paternal authority; the family is the foundation of society, and the school of obedience is the family. Docile children will not be turbulent subjects to the prefect.

The whole system of morality is practical. "Moreover," says Professor Maspero, "we must not expect to find in this work deep profundity of conception.… Ptah-hotep does not trouble himself to invent or to draw conclusions." 4 This pleases God; that displeases Him; such is the ordinary argument, at least when the author does not offer, as the sanction of his morality, the hope of a good place for the laborious and docile student, 5 the hope of a long life for the obedient son, 6 and the hope of being faithfully served by his domestics for the good master. 7

The artlessness which we find in these counsels should not make us inattentive to the spirit of refinement which also appears in the writings of Ptah-hotep. He is not the author of the precepts which he gives; his practical philosophy has been bequeathed to him by his ancestors, 8 but he has put the precepts in verse in order to establish them in the memory of mankind; the poetical form in which he clothes them is intended to preserve them from alteration in the future. 1 The most ancient book in the world is therefore a rhythmic, if not a poetical, work, and we can gather from this to what a height civilisation had already attained. Although the author himself recognises that humanity leas still much progress to make, and that the learned are in reality only students, 2 this fact alone would suffice to prove that Egyptian society had long since left barbarism behind it 3 in the reign of Assa when Ptah-hotep compiled his treatise, as he tells us at its commencement.

1:1 Êtudes sur le Papyrus Prisse, le Livre de Kaqimna et les Leçons de Ptah-hotep. Vieweg, Paris, 1887.

2:1 Of course I do not mean that I consider my translation very nearly final.

2:2 The inscriptions of the tomb of Rekhmara, prefect of Thebes under the Eighteenth Dynasty, have been published by me in the Mémoires publiés par les Membres de la Mission archéologique française au Caire; Leroux, Paris 1889.

2:3 Tombeau de Rekhmara, in the Mémoires, p. 114, note 3.

3:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xix. l. 7.

4:1 The title of "royal nurse" was independent of the function of nurse, and was merely a title of etiquette. Under Amenophis II there were at least two commanders of the royal armies, Amenemheb and Pehsukher, whose wives were royal nurses. As it is very improbable that there were two nurses, both of whom married, one after the other, the commanders of his army, we must suppose that the wife of the commander, in virtue of the dignity of her husband, could claim the same rank as one who had really been a nurse of the king.

4:2 For example, smen hapu (Tombeau de Rekhmara, pl. xviii.)

5:1 Tombeau de Rekhmara, p. 42.

5:2 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xvii. ll. 11–13, ch. xlii.

5:3 Id., pl. xviii. ll. 2–8, chap. xlii.

6:1 Tombeau de Rekhmara, pp. 26, 27, pl. iii.

6:2 Id., p. 165.

6:3 Id., pp. 270, 171.

7:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xi. 11. 3–7, chap. xvii.

7:2 See my study on the Tomb of Am-n-teh and the office of mer larit, "overseer of the larit," in the Recueil de travaux relatifs a l’archéologie et à la philologie égyptiennes et assyriennes, vol. vii. Comp. Gen. xli. 48. Joseph "gathered up all the food of the seven years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cities: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same."

8:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. viii. ll. 2–6, chap. xiii.

8:2 See note 2 above.

8:3 Tombeau de Rekhmara, pp. 20, 24.

8:4 Id., pp. 23, 24.

8:5 Id., p. 15, pl. ii. 1. 16.

8:6 Id., p. 15, pl. ii. 1. 31.

9:1 Tombeau de Rekhmara, p. 46, pl. ix. xi. xii.

10:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xiv. l. 12; pl. xv. l. 2, ch. xxxiv. It is possible, however, that as the verb "to bring" sometimes signifies "to carry away," Ptah-hotep had here in view not taxpayers who found that the State took too much away from them but salaried officials who thought that it did not pay them enough.

10:2 Id., pl. xii. ll. 9–13, ch. xxvii.

10:3 Id., vii. ll. 2, 3, ch. vii.

10:4 Id., pl. xv. ll. 5, 6, ch. xxxvi.

10:5 Id., pl. xiii. ll. 1–4, ch. xxviii.

10:6 Id., pl. vii. l. 7, ch. x.

10:7 Tombeau de Rekhmara, pl. ix. pp. 9, 10, 50.

11:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. vi. ll. 3–7, ch. v.

11:2 Id., pl. viii. l. 14; pl. ix. ll. 1–3, ch. xvi.

11:3 Id., pl. xi. ll. 12, 33; pl. xii, ll. 1–4, ch. xxv.

11:4 Id., pl. vi. ll. 8–11, ch. vi.

11:5 Id., pl. vii. ll. 6, 7, ch. ix.

11:6 Id., pl. xiii. ll. 6–8, ch. xxx.

12:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. vii. ll. 3–5, ch. viii.

12:2 Id., pl. viii. ll. 11–14, ch. xv.

12:3 Id., pl. xi. l. 8–14, ch. xxvi.

12:4 Id., pl. xii. l. 7, ch. xxvi.

12:5 Id., pl. vii. l. 2, 3, ch. vii.

12:6 Id., pl. v. l. 4, ch. i.

13:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. vii. ll. 5–7, ch. ix.

13:2 Id., pl. x. ll. 8–9, ch. xxi.

13:3 Id., pl. xv. ll. 6–8, ch. xxxvii.

13:4 Id., pl. xi. ll. 1–4, ch. xxii.

13:5 Id., pl. ix. ll. 7–13, ch. xviii.

13:6 Id., pl. xiii. ll. 4, 5, ch. xxix.

13:7 Id., pl. ix. l. 13; pl. x. ll. 1–5, ch. xix.

13:8 Id., pl. x. ll. 5, 6, ch. xx.

13:9 Id., pl. xi. ll. 5–8, ch. xxiii.

13:10 Id., pl. xiv. ll. 6–12, ch. xxxiii.

13:11 Id., pl. vii. ll. 10–12; pl. viii. ll. 1, 2, ch. xii.

13:12 Id., pl. xvii. ll. 10–13, ch. xlii.

14:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xvi. ll. 4–7, ch. xxxix.

14:2 Id., pl. vii. ll. 5, 6, ch. ix.

14:3 Id., pl. xvi. ll. 9, 10, ch. xxxix.

14:4 Histoire ancienne des Peuples de l’Orient, ch. ii.

14:5 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xv. ll. 10–12, ch. xxxviii.

14:6 Id., pl. xvi. l. 6, ch. xxxix.

14:7 Id., pl. xi. l. 4, ch. xxii.

14:8 Id., pl. v. ll. 4, 5, ch. i.

15:1 Papyrus Prisse, pl. xv. ll. 9, 10, ch. xxxviii.

15:2 Id., pl. v. l. 9, ch. ii.

15:3 The rules of politeness were very refined (pll. v. vii. chs. iii. iv.; pl. x. ch. xx.; pl. xi. ch. xxiii.; pl. xiv. ch. xxxiii.); knowledge was respected (pl. xi. ch. xxv.); schools existed where the students passed their examinations in order to secure posts in the administration (pl. xv. ch. xxxviii.); I have no need to add that some of the most celebrated monuments of Egypt, like the great pyramids of Gizeh, were already ancient.



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