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The ‘Loyalist’ Teaching

Introduction

The name of the teacher to whom this poem was ascribed is not preserved in any of the surviving copies, but he is certainly a man of high rank from the royal court. He tells his children of the ‘way of living truly’ in society and presents a vision of social solidarity in the Two Lands of Egypt, and of the responsibilities of enacting the ideals of Truth and order.

The Teaching falls into two halves. The first half opens with commands for the audience to respect their ruler. Teachings are often concerned with resolving tensions between the audience's concerns and experiences and the public ideals of society. This one presents these tensions in specifically political terms, embodied in the relationship between the audience and the centralized state. When dealing with this theme, Egyptian poetry is at its closest to official discourse. Loyalistic writings were common in Egypt, and articulated the absolute control of the king over society, but made little mention of any events or features of society that did not conform to traditional ideology. The king was regarded as a god and his power united individual bodies into a single prosperous society. Many of this Teaching's stanzas resemble a praise song to the king, such as were performed at court, although in the Teaching the royal power is extolled in strongly personal and intimate terms. The style is appropriately formal, and the verses are patterned in an even sequence of epigrammatic couplets, with many statements describing the king. He is presented as an ideal, generalized figure, the absolute embodiment of divine perfection, to which the audience is urged to enact its allegiance. The opening stanzas are monolithic and generally positive in tone; they are highly metaphorical—a feature that is developed in a different way in the second half of the poem.

The stanzas of the first half largely comprise generalizing statements, and are not overtly very didactic: all injunctions are distilled into the single implicit command to choose between loyalty and rebellion. The contrast between order and chaos, which dominates literary Discourses, is here formulated as one between the loyal man and the rebel, and both virtue and order are defined exclusively in terms of the king. His power has a correspondingly dual aspect, as he is assimilated with both protective and destructive cosmic agencies.

The second half of the Teaching turns to ‘another matter’, the treatment of one's social inferiors. While the first half concerns the relationship of the audience to the king, the second deals with the audience's responsibility to the rest of society. The two halves are marked as distinct with introductory formulae, but they also form a unified whole, linked by the repetition of various phrases and images. This integration is very appropriate, as a central subject is social solidarity. The poem acknowledges that the state is dependent on the labouring classes, and, although loyalism and an official's duties to his subordinates are common themes of many texts, this acknowledgement is unparalleled in official discourse of the Middle Kingdom.

Just as the first half admitted the possibility of rebellion against the king, in the second another danger is presented—that labourers may prove fugitive, and rebel against their immediate masters. The style matches the change in subject matter: it is more diverse than that of the first half, as it is concerned with the populace, rather than the unique king, and with a wider range of experience, including a more forceful and detailed presentation of the dangers of life.

The theme of an integrated world is embodied in imagery of cattle and herdsmen. Literally, this extols the value of peasant shepherds, but metaphorically it extols the value of the ‘shepherd’ of society, who is in the first instance the official who is being addressed, and ultimately the king, who is in turn the representative of the divine shepherd whose flock is mankind. The interdependence of society was an important aspect of the idea of Truth and order, and of the principles of retribution and reciprocity by which that ideal was enacted in the world. This solidarity existed not only throughout society, but also across time and through succeeding generations, and the Teaching describes at the end of both halves how the reader's sons will ensure the continuity of wisdom and social values. The final stanza concludes with a man's burial. At the end of the first half this was presented as a royal reward for loyalism, but here it also depends on a man's virtue being remembered by his underlings. Social integrity continues after death and spans the whole course of civilization, uniting the world with eternity in an affirmation of ultimate togetherness. The king is the representative of this unity, but the nexus through which it is achieved is the ethical choice of the audience.

The text was first discovered in a version inscribed on a cenotaph stela (Cairo CG 20538) erected at Abydos by the Treasury official Sehotepibre in the reign of Amenemhat III (c.1790 BC); he appropriated the authorship and addressed the royal eulogy specifically to his patron. This ancient edited version consisted largely of the first half, the loyalistic topic of which provided the Teaching with its modern title. The poem may originally have been composed early in the Twelfth Dynasty. The text is complete thanks to the scholarship of Georges Posener, who pieced together numerous partial New Kingdom copies. Numbers give the sections of Posener's edition (and the individual lines of these sections).

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