Notes on the Maxims of Good Discourse

adjacent pages :

plain text of the Maxims
lexicon of special concepts
hieroglyphic text of the Maxims

by Wim van den Dungen


(1) Phonetically, the name Ptahhotep (meaning "Ptah is pleased, happy, satisfied") consists of two symmetrical parts, centering upon a central axis, like the two scales of a balance : "ptH" - "Htp". The central "H" ("pt-HH-tp") is the uniliteral sign "H" (V28), representing a wick of twisted flax (used in candles). It is an emphatic sound, which is lost in the English "Ptahhotep". Hence, there are egyptologists who wrote this name as "Ptah-hotpe" (or more rigorous as "Pteh-hetpe"), which does not allow for a non-emphatic pronunciation of the "h", on the contrary, a pause is needed. Compare the vertical nature of V28 ("H") with a vertical pole on top of which is the central pivot of the balance, the middle point of the beam and its two scales : "Ptah" and "Hotep" ("Ptah" as "Feather of Maat" and "Hotep" as the justified heart).
(2) This whole passage is part of a literary device. The biographical details are presented to sketch the context : even in his old age, Ptahhotep pleads to be commanded to teach. For only by teaching wisdom are the defects of old age ineffective enough to still allow for creative speech. But the same has to be done to Pharaoh. Before his throne, Ptahhotep puts his life to rest. But Pharaoh is pleased with him and commands him to teach, for wisdom is not acquired by birth, but by the direct experience of life itself. Although old and lacking memory, Ptahhotep starts teaching ...
(3) the teaching and a son or a disciple - wisdom by itself saves, but a son and/or one or more disciples (hence a teaching) is a necessary preparation to it - "him" refers to his son or successor ;
(4) those able to listen - before judgement, the judges (assessors) hear, question and listen 
(5) the judges also listened to the gods, which could suggest their priestly status (those able to see the statue of the city-god in its "naos", learn their will) ;
(6) like the Two Lands, another name for Egypt as a whole ;
(7) the good example influencing important people may have major effects ;
(8) may the precise, correct information given by the teacher reach his disciple ; 
(9) "Ts", "maxim", may also be rendered as : "utterance, formulation, articulation, speech". "Nfr", "good" also implies "excellent, accomplished". As the context of the examples is largely moral, I've preferred "good" - an alternative would be : "the articulation of excellent speech".
(10) the "body" referred to is the "corporate" body of Egyptian society, embodied by the "majesty" of Pharaoh, a Follower of Horus but also a god, for son of the creator - Pharaoh appointed his representatives (viziers, high priests, judges) and they acted in his name. A document was valid only when it bore Pharaoh's seal. This complete organization is called "a body", and Ptahhotep, as vizier, was of course part of it too ;
(11) the word "Hsb" has other connotations as well : "to count, to enumerate, to reckon". Budge (1978 - 510b) translated it as "in the very best examples", but Faulkner (1999, p.297) proposed "norm, standard", which seems to fit the context better ;
(12) "Ax", "equip" and "Axw.f", "his mastery" - "his power" (of a god) : no artisan's skills are perfect ;
(13) "wAD", a triliteral represented by a stem of papyrus (M13), means "be green" and derivatives. Green being the colour of Osiris' resurrection. "Green stone" may be malachite, emerald or feldspath. The underlying implication being the force of growth which mysteriously emerged every year (after the inundation). Wise discourse is more hidden than this most sacred and hidden power ;
(14) "Hmt", a female servant, has the root "Hm", also used for "majesty" (Pharaoh being the master-servant) - commoners are not excluded from wisdom, quite on the contrary, for the good discourse is democratic and foremost manifest when simplicity and dedication meet ; 
(15) when he is in his moment of strength ;
(16) a mark of respect a great and/or superior man commands ;
(17) various renderings possible - I've adapted the order of the words to comfort sense ;
(18) make space between You and your opponent ;
(19) the criminal is unable to reach a safe harbor - the thief will be discovered when he tries to sell the stolen goods - crime does not pay ;
(20) the criminal does only acquire wealth for himself, and so does not teach (has no son) ;
(21) the one who is a son who received from his father says : "I got it all from my father." ;
(22) it seems clever to decide to become rich, but if that is all one does, one ends up being poor of heart, because rectitude is far more clever and rewarding ;
(23) the thief is stolen - if one steals, one ends up being one's own victim, doing the opposite of what one intended in the first place (the free gift) - the wealthy fool themselves ;
(24) to gaze at one's food might suggest that something is wrong with it - to gaze at someone is like entering a foreigner's land, privacy & intimacy - it offends the vital energy of that person (cf. the "evil" eye which can destroy with just a gaze) - note that food has a Ka too (i.e. its vitality & energy) ;
(25) the great one are in harmony with themselves, and apply the correct energy in every situation ;
(26) a ritual at the end of the day ?
(27) to offer is to do more than to give away material things, for the natural course of the energetical "double" is to communicate and reach out (the hieroglyph used for the Ka is precisely this : two hands reaching upwards) - to offer is to give away (and receive) vital energy ;
(28) enigmatic - a wealthy man who has a good character is not attached to his possessions, not even when he is in court ;
(29) of the fact that You do have children ;
(30) the solitary is the friend of god, and the family man prays for a successor, a son (his "Staff of Old Age") ;
(31) the son is the best of the vital energy (its "seed") of the father (just as "semen" is the best of the physical body of the male) ;
(32) teaching and education (nurture) and unavoidable determination (nature) walk hand in hand. As nature is the pantheon, magic is the "via regia" to change fate. But when the gods have decided, nothing can change what they have decreed - a good son is therefore also a "gift" of the gods (besides the outcome of the good discourse or the teachings of the father, his good examples) - note that determinism does not outweigh free will and the influence of the effort to rectify and return to Maat ;
(33) the first day is a metaphor for the moment when the original, true and eternal order of things was established, i.e. when nature was created (for at that moment did Maat come into existence too) - by knowing were one stands in the order of things, the wise are able to invest in that what endures ; 
(34) one has to wait until one is called and not try to get in anyway - those who are called get a spacious seat and can follow the procedures with ease, whereas the others have to stand with the crowds and are unsure whether they will be heard at all (?) ;
(35) in the famous "Judgement Scene" from the Papyrus of Ani, the left arm of Anubis is above Maat's Feather, while his right touches the plumb-line of the balance. On top of the balance sits the Baboon of Thoth, the recorder, and beneath the right beam we find these words (explaining how Anubis is watching the pumb-line) : "Words spoken by he who is in the chamber of embalment : 'Pay attention to the decision of truth and the plummet of the balance according to its stance." This exhortation summarized the practice of wisdom found in Ancient Egypt, as well as their philosophy of well-being and art of living happily & light-heartedly. Here we encounter it as the guiding principle of the legal system ;
(36) "qaH" is both "elbow" and "shoulder" and "rdiw" could be eiter active or passive, so other images are : "he who rubs shoulders", or "steered by the elbow" (Lichtheim) ;
(37) does not put into words the emotional, uncontrolled passions, desires & appetites represented by the "belly". The latter is distinguished from "heart", the seat of thinking, control, will-power, conscience and conscious presence & expression (the "mind") ;
(38) under no circumstance should a human being degenerate to the point of being the belly's servant or slave, for then the humanity of a person (rooted in a heart free to master & steer itself as a follower of Pharaoh) vanishes ;
(39) the opposite of Maat, Osiris & Horus (the deities mentioned by name) is Seth, the arch-fiend of order, truth & justice, the murderous brother of Osiris & the injurer of the (left, black) Eye of Horus (restored by the Moon-god Thoth) - Ptahhotep adds that the belly is the region of Seth and hence to be mastered by the wise ;
(40) namely to punish the messenger in the case the master is not fluent and errors are spoken and repeated - these mistakes are not part of the responsibilities of the messenger (in other words : don't shoot the messenger), be responsible for what You say (for it will be repeated and maybe used against You !) ;
(41) experience no or only slight hinderances on the way, no sudden stops and long periods of inactivity, continuous flow of activity & production, ongoing creativity ;
(42) namely in the place of silence, the beautiful West, the abode of Osiris, the afterlife ;
(43) if one is not detached from the applause one gets by working for one's afterlife, one is bound to meet misfortune while having succes ;
(44) here a hiding crocodile is suggested, an image of the "build-up" of negativity resulting from one's continuous disregard for one's place in the West - being "greedy" in the here and now causes one to forget one's tomb, resulting in the lack of a memorial (the end of the Ka) ;
(45) giving expression to emotional, affective and erratic (uncontrolled) contents (note the use of "body" and "belly" for uncontrolled -unmastered- affects) ;
(46) adultery, punished by death ;
(47) in love-affairs, one has only oneself to blame. One has to accept that other people may fall in love with what fancies You ;
(48) moves in harmony with who he is and what he can ;
(49) in the process of possessing this world, one looses the next ; 
(50) i.e. in situations when You have to share material goods ;
(51) no great deeds come forth from that stock ;
(52) they lack the vital education given by a wise father ;
(53) even a "cool" man, who has few instinctual & affective outbursts, feels things move inside when he observes only a glimps of what he craves after (of what makes him "kick") ;
(54) the female eye can be terrible, as evidenced by the Cobra-goddess Wadjet of Buto in the Delta, preserver of royal authority over Lower Egypt. She is the "green one", and is represented as a cobra rearing up to strike with lethal force any enemy of Pharaoh. She also appears as a lioness, the "Eye of Ra". Here, the context is the power of the feminine to be restrained and confined ; 
(55) the central word "kAt", "vagina" has the necessary determinative (M51) - the context is erotical, so "to make a canal" is nothing less than the image of opening up the readiness to be penetrated, or in other words : a woman enforces that the man makes love to her ;
(56) here a twisted Ka is put on stage - so instead of answering the natural outward flow of the energy of life, it is perverted and kept inside at the service of one person only ;
(57) clearly when the Ka is disconnected from the outside (like a tomb without offerings), it becomes depleted and miserable. To restore itself, the Ka must reestablish a correct, precise balance (cf. the plumb-line) and maintain its focus on both scales (as does the Baboon, facing the Feather of Maat) and continuously steer well. Then "peace" (a "tertium comparationis") will be found ;
(58) the hot-bellied has a natural inclination towards violence (the cold-bellied one towards inactivity) ;
(59) let us grasp the damage that calumny has caused ; 
(60) those who make use of it will eventually be hated ; 
(61) one runs away from it, shields oneself from it, for it hurts one's Ka or vital energy ;
(62) when You know to solve the problem at hand ;
(63)  the hot-tempered person (a condition of the heart and not of the belly) explodes and his anger is like flames that sweep across and which may trigger violence in those who they touch ;
(64) the arrows reach their target and the rudder is left behind when it has become obsolete ;
(65) the Ka of the master will detach its vital, psycho-energetical link or bond ; 
(66) the link will be reestablished ("peace" as a metaphor for harmonious, balanced communication) ;
(67) the knowledge the great receives from the sage must always benefit his superior too ; 
(68) the great man (and everybody else in the Old Kingdom) is sustained by Pharaoh plenty (he who is able to multiply and vitalize through his Ka) ;
(69) apparently love runs very deep (cf. Hathor and the primeval goddess) : not only is the phenomenon associated with the heart, but also with the Ka and material sustenance, yes, even with a person's uncontrolled, blind (wild) affects (represented as "the belly" as opposed to "the heart"). We see that Ancient Egyptian anthropology describes both "belly" and "heart", as well as their vital characteristics (or "Ka") ;
(70) we read that the Ka loves to listen, i.e. representing (grasping) the true nature of what is said, as it were desciphering the sense "behind", "beyond", "next to", "together with", etc. what is actually said with the tongue. Some words have power (wise discourse), others not (foolish chatter). Good discourse is also an excellent mastership of the use of words of power, i.e. being able to steer well the rudder of authoritative speech that commands service and that "de opere operato" fashions what it means (cf. "Hu" & Heka). Note that in my reading, "listening" (as opposed to "hearing") also and foremost refers to an inner, vital, energetical, subtle, "double" process (involving a grasping of and a reflecting on what has been heard) ;
(71) remove what is not useful - the sentence (P417) is read as : "Sda mAdw nw a", and "mAdw" (an unknown word) is rendered as "stupidity, ignorance" (B276b) ;
(72) be impartial ;
(73) since before the misdeed there was no conflict between you - here I conjecture that "the first day" points to the original state of Maat (the first day of creation), or, analogically, to any original state of affairs before the crime (or Seth-event) happened ;
(74) if heaps of weath are the only thing that count, then competition is endless - again Ptahhotep warns against material attachment ;
(75) You will receive your wage only when You respect your superiors ;
(76) stretching the arm out of its sleeve to greet someone ;
(77) the thief may be known before he has the possibility to defend himself ;
(78) "Hmt", "woman, wife" and "Xrd", "boy, child" has been rendered in various ways. Instead of "child-woman" (Jacq), I propose "woman-boy" and read the maxim as a rejection of sexual intercourse between a man and an effeminate, unmanly, womanish man. We know that anal penetration was associated with Seth (supposed to have subjected Horus to it). Note that in the whole passage, this boy is referred to as "she" ;
(79) Both "heart" and "belly" of a woman-boy are unclean, as the images of the "water" upon her heart, which is rejected, and her belly, which is not refreshed, indicate. To refresh is also "to satisfy", and so the desires and appetites of the woman-boy can not be fulfilled ;
(80) there are more dark, hidden and secret desires, tendencies and repulsive perversions associated with this woman-boy, and one should restrain her from satisfying them ;
(81) when her deliberate indecency ("an offence of her heart") ends, one should calm her by not fulfilling her desires, for the only way to calm the passions is not to feed them ;
(82) if he himself has not grasped the bottom of his own heart ;
(83) face up to your possible friend, even if this implies tragic disappointments ;
(84) man is free to do Maat or to make his heart heavy, but her law is unavoidable, fated : one reaps what one has sown ;
(85) a generous person ;
(86) people remember the kind man but forget the harsh ;
(87) know who your helpers are, then your affairs will prosper ;
(88) the well-born who does good multiplies the good with the good ;
(89) punish as one who commands respect and never withhold vital information ;
(90) even the wicked know that misfortune may happen to everybody ;
(91) misfortune (fate) and crime (evil will) are distinguished - crime degenerates the criminal, whereas misfortune falls outside the order of affairs one is able to control (in the hands of the gods) ;
(92) this Maxim raises three points : (1) the word "Spnt" ("good quality") is unknown ; (2) in the sentence "iw.s m hpwii" (P501), "hpwii" comes from "hp" or "law, order, regulation, restriction, custom" - the plural points to the common laws of both Upper and Lower Egypt, not to Maat (the "double law" of judgment, i.e. "divine" (Feather) versus "human" (heart) ; (3) the word "aqAA" in "sAp.s aqAA" (P506) is accompanied by the determinative for water or actions connected with water (N35), whereas "aqA" implies "keeping the true mean, to be right, exact, proper", hence the translation "exact balance" (necessary to steer a boat ?) ;
(93) here "hearing" is used : the passive, recording aspect of the auditive process steering the transmission of the wisdom-teachings ;
(94) the words as such have power and accomplish their meaning in those who hears them ;
(95) when "hearing" is perfect, one has heard a good teaching which did not perish - perfect hearing is also (cf. Kagemni) a perfect recitation (reproduction of what was heard) - the master-hearer is one who works with what he heard as an artisan (adds emphasis and timbre but does not change the schematics of the examples received) ;
(96) the principle of contradiction in proto-rational format : truth = - falsehood {A = - (-A)} ;
(97) the son (who hears & listens) "grasps" his father's words and they are like the roof of his house ;
(98) the son himself became a good example - here "nb" is "master", someone who exceeds in excellence (cf. "nb" as "master" or a person with superior authority) ;
(99) hearing the words of good discourse adjust one's inner being (wisdom heals) ;
(100) who is able to repeat exactely what he heard (an accomplished reciter) ;
(101) has no moment of peace, jumps around and is always busy ;
(102) each day he wakes as a living dead ;
(103) to listen is a higher faculty, acquired when one is a master-hearer and decides to open one's heart ; 
(104) hearing blesses, but listening compels - the expression is : "when he follows ("xt") what he listens to", which sounds twisted ;
(105) when he has attained the stage of wisdom ;
(106) genuine teachings reflect a person's actions ;
(107) a person with evil intentions - the word "isefet" also means : "disorder, turmoil, trouble" or the opposite of Maat - the word "chaos" is also suggested, although it is usually associated with the "primordial waters" ("Nun") ;
(108) the evil one is unable to move beyond his evil deeds and repeats them over and over again - people recognize it immediately ;
(109) your good children, the incarnations of their father's good examples and beyond ;
(110) do not say this and another time that - do not confuse - make sure not to loose restraint - seal your heart ;
(111) he is a disciple, one who heard & listened to wisdom-teachings ;
(112) how excellent and accomplished did he speak !


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initiated : 15 X 2002 - last update : 13 XII 2010 - version n°1

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Antwerp, 2002 - 2017.