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The Teaching for King Merikare

Introduction

This Teaching is spoken by a King Khety to his son and designated successor Merikare; it is imagined as part of a continuous tradition of wisdom passed down through the royal line. The Teaching is set in the turbulent Heracleopolitan Period, c.2081–1987 BC, when the country was divided between rulers in the north and south, before the Middle Kingdom was established. The teacher may possibly be the same king as Nebkaure Khety, in whose reign The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is set. The position of him and his son, the future King Merikare Khety, in the dynasty is unsure. The date of the poem's composition is also uncertain, although it is not contemporaneous with the Heracleopolitan Dynasty. From its length and style it can perhaps be dated to late in the Middle Kingdom, considerably later than the more concise Teaching of King Amenemhat.

In contrast to royal inscriptions, the Teaching portrays a king as a troubled shepherd struggling to uphold order, and it seems that King Khety is speaking at the end of his life (see n. 56), reflecting on the causes of his downfall. This rather pessimistic presentation could be interpreted as a means of legitimizing the absolute rule of the Twelfth Dynasty. Chaotic circumstances justify harsh actions by the élite and the state, and it is likely that the Heracleopolitan Period was regarded by the Middle Kingdom audience as a sort of troubled interregnum writ large across history. The poem, however, is not limited to specific programmatic concerns; it is in part a study of statesmanship comparable to Machiavelli's The Prince, but it rises to yet more universal themes. The difficulties facing kingship were integral to the Egyptian world-view, of a universe threatened with chaos.

The Teaching opens with advice to the king's heir on how to restrain potential rebellion, a theme that suits its setting in a period of internal war. The king takes a negative attitude to the populace, and portrays them as a rabble tending towards evil. Words are as important as actions, and are extolled as embodiments of true wisdom. The rather cynical policies advocated are justified in terms of absolute Truth, and are then presented with more positive instances; although the advice is often brutal, the king also urges restraint in vengeance. Dealing with practical issues is entwined with concern to act by the laws of eternity, which will be manifested in a man's reputation with posterity, and in his judgement by the gods after death.

The opening seven stanzas concern specific instances of rebellion, but the poem then considers broader issues in more generalizing and reflective stanzas both about the role of wisdom and about actions related to social and eternal justice. The interweaving of injunctions and reflections, as well as the development of various lines of argument with the repetition of certain themes, parallels the concerns of the subject matter: the king's actions do not exist in isolation, but take place within a cosmic setting which ranges from the divine to the lowly, the ideal to the actual. The king himself embodies these concerns as the intermediary between the gods and mankind. The motif of wisdom, which occurs throughout the Teaching, articulates the dichotomy between the all-knowing wisdom of god and the more partial, fallible nature of the king and the folly of humanity. Despite these broad aspects, the teacher rarely steps outside the dramatic context of addressing his heir. His Teaching is very specific in the historical detail it uses—though there is no means of knowing how historically accurate it is—to present the human and individual side of the divine king.

The poem advocates ‘doing Truth’ as a means of ensuring endurance on earth. This theme is developed in a central series of stanzas dealing with the king's historical deeds and achievements that reflect his attempts to create an enduring legacy. Prominent among these, however, is a fault on the part of the king. The details of this event were presumably familiar to the audience, and at first it is alluded to only in general terms, as an example of why one must act with a view to the future. The event is mentioned several times with increasing directness, and it gradually becomes clear that it was the destruction of hallowed tombs in the necropolis of Thinis by the king's troops during the war with the rival Theban dynasty to the south. The king, however, presents the need for such conflict in terms of the ‘enemy’, who is associated with areas outside Egypt, and is thus allied with the forces of chaos that continually face the cosmos from outside. Despite this universalizing justification for his actions, the sacrilegious event reveals the king's fallibility and the limits to his knowledge. His responsibility for this deed seems to be viewed as having caused the end of his reign.

The references to this misdeed are nevertheless interwoven with descriptions of the king's positive achievements, by which he guaranteed the safety of the kingdom for his heir. None the less, the poem does not provide any simple positive summary of the king's reign. The description of the land's prosperity continually alludes to the dangers of royal responsibility, although less pessimistically than these threats are formulated in The Teaching of King Amenemhat. The king's failure at Thinis does not undermine his achievement as a whole, but remains an untoward event, both in that it involved royal fallibility and in that it meant that, as the upholder of justice, he suffered for his misdeed. The qualification of human fallibility, which lessens the king's responsibility for the sacrilege, paradoxically puts in general terms one conclusion that is drawn from the episode: that the world is imperfect. This untoward event in effect questions the benevolence of the gods, since they allowed this injustice to occur unwittingly and still punished the king for it; at first sight, this is grounds for pessimism. The king, however, takes his own misfortune as an indication not only that faults are inevitable and are punished, but also that the gods are watching over everything, and are not hostile to mankind. The universe is, despite appearances, ‘bound together’ through laws of eternal justice.

It is characteristic of the poem that the king's oversight is described most explicitly as part of a eulogy of the ‘perfect office’ of kingship and the wisdom of kingship. The stanzas move with a continual ebb and flow between the ideal and the actual that underlies the structure of the whole, and is made explicit in the final stanzas. In these the poem moves through a description of the invincible might of god against sinners towards what is arguably the climax of the poem, a eulogy of creation. The cosmos was created to care for mankind, and it is centred around men's hearts; this alludes to the belief that provided an answer to the questions of suffering and of the apparent injustice of the gods: that men's hearts were the source of evil, and that they brought suffering upon themselves despite the gods’ benevolence (see pp. 168–9). Creation is a struggle against primeval chaos, and mankind is inherently tending to wild, and by nature tearful. Thus, restraint is necessary on a cosmic scale, even including the punishment and slaughter of men by the gods. Suffering, paradoxically, can be the consequence of the creator's benignity, as in the mythical past when he destroyed most of mankind in order to restrain their rebellion (see n. 46). This formulation validates both the need for kingship and the untoward events caused by King Khety's failings and his consequent downfall.

The problem of divine justice is presented in terms of a royal individual's experience but is validated in terms of all mankind's. The poem moves from the sacrilege done in the name of the king to an epiphany of the creator-god whose care is made manifest through the retribution for the royal misdeed. At the centre of the Teaching, however, remain the ambiguous troubled heart of man and the fallibility of the all-too-human king. The whole poem extols the responsibility of rulers to impose order on a complex and chaosridden world. Although the responsibilities necessitate harsh actions, the king's awareness of the difference between the ideal and the actual also gives his teaching an air of humility. In a final stanza Khety returns to the theme of teaching his heir, and urges restraint once again: total power is God's alone, and, while the king must emulate him, he must not overstep his limited ability.

The most complete surviving manuscript (P. St-Petersburg 1116A) was copied c.1400 BC in Memphis by ‘the scribe Khaemwaset for himself, the truly quiet, good of character, patient, loved by people … for his dear brother whom he loves … the scribe Mahu’; the manuscript is rather corrupt, but other more fragmentary copies supplement it. Numbers give the sections of Wolfgang Helck's edition (letters indicate the lines of these sections), with the line numbers of P. St-Petersburg in parentheses.

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