The Instructions of Ptahhotep

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The Vizier Ptahhotep being carried in a palanquin

These maxims, which were probably written towards the end of the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, focus on basic virtues such as moderation, self-control, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, and justice.  There are four copies of these maxims in existence, but the most complete is the Papyrus Prisse which is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale of France.  There is a lot of wisdom in these sayings, and because they contain universal truths, they are as applicable to our lives today as they were when they were first written over four millennia ago.  The first three translations are my own. The last quote is from William Kelley Simpson's The Literature of Ancient Egypt. The others are from Miriam Lichtheim's Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1.


"Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge; confer then with the ignorant man as with the learned man. The limit of art has not been reached, and no artisan has mastered his craft.  Beautiful speech is more hidden than malachite.  It is found in the possession of the maidservant at the millstone."

"If you become a leader, governing the masses, seek for yourself every beneficent act, so that your conduct is without blemish. Ma'at is great and its effectiveness endures.  It has not been moved since the time of Osiris." 

"If you find a disputant in his moment, a self-controlled heart who is superior to you, bend your arms and bend your back.  If you defy him, he will not support you when you belittle evil speech.  Do not oppose him in his moment, for he is called a Know-Nothing when your self-control matches his wealth [of words]."

"Sustain your friends with what you have, you have it by the grace of God. Of him who fails to sustain his friends one says, 'a selfish ka.' "

"Do not repeat calumny, nor should you listen to it, it is the sprouting of the hot-bellied.  Report a thing observed, not heard.  If it is negligible, don't say anything.  He who is before you recognizes worth.  Calumny is like a dream against which one covers the face."

"If you probe the character of a friend, don't inquire but approach him.  Deal with him alone, so as not to suffer from his manner.  Dispute with him after a time, test his heart in conversation;  ...if he does a thing that annoys you, be yet friendly with him, don't attack;  be restrained, don't let fly, don't answer with hostility, neither part from him nor attack him.  His time does not fail to come, one does not escape what is fated."

"As for the fool who will not hear there is no one who can do anything for him. He regards knowledge as ignorance and what is beneficial as something that is harmful...Men pass over his deeds because of the multitude of troubles on him every day."


Reference for image

Painted limestone relief of Ptahhotep from Saqqara, 5th Dynasty, in Eugene Strouhal's Life of the Ancient Egyptians, p. 32.

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