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