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The Teaching of the Vizier Ptahhotep

Introduction

The Teaching of the Vizier Ptahhotep is spoken by the vizier of the Fifth Dynasty King Isesi (c.2388–2356 BC). Although the Vizier Ptahhotep was a historical figure, the earliest manuscripts date from the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty. It seems that the Teaching was composed in the first reigns of that dynasty, and was merely set some four centuries earlier in the Old Kingdom, a golden age in the eyes of the Middle Kingdom.

After the title, a short prologue locates the sage in the grand court. It opens with his address to the godlike king, which paints a dark picture of the vizier's condition, in contrast with the usual ideal of a good old age expressed in official inscriptions. He is almost on the point of death, and he proposes to teach his son, so as to enable him to support his aged father. The poem itself becomes a restorative against the onslaught of time, and a process of renewal is enacted by the pronouncing of the Teaching: in the final stanzas, the vizier describes not his decrepitude, but a vision of how wisdom ensures the health of a wise man. Between these two descriptions of age comes the main substance of the Teaching: a series of maxims, which are introduced by a second title describing their aim of teaching men to be wise. Although the prologue states that the Teaching is addressed specifically to Ptahhotep's son, this title proclaims that it has wide concerns.

In the chosen setting of a perfect Old Kingdom, world virtue should be automatically rewarded, by society with wealth, and by the gods with a healthy old age. The sage can thus advocate an apparently pragmatic and self-interested approach to virtue: do good and you will be rewarded. Each of the thirty-seven maxims deals with a social situation that can exemplify wisdom. Many of these situations are presented in a diagnostic fashion, in the manner of a medical text: if such and such is the case, then this is the appropriate response. A common pattern for a maxim is an introduction giving a particular context, a personal injunction, and a concluding summary in reflective generalizing terms. Wisdom is a restorative for the ills of humanity. The style is consistently epigrammatic, spare, and dense, with verses patterned in couplets.

The sage's morality is social rather than purely personal: the central maxim (298–315) is about greed and selfishness, which is an official, social, and family fault as well as a personal one. The wider aspects of ethical issues are not presented with metaphors, as in The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, but are embodied in the specific situations. This formulation can make the Teaching seem opportunistic and materialistic, but the interweaving of situations with accounts of broad ethical principles presents an image of social behaviour in which every detail is informed by eternal Truth. This technique of expansion from the particular to the general allows consideration to be given to the interplay between ethical ideals and the practicalities of actual life. Much of the maxims’ import is conveyed by wordplay, drawing parallels between associated ideas, and occasional use of double meanings.

The Teaching places value on social advancement and respect for social rank, which presumably reflect the original audience's dependence on their social superiors and patrons. Despite this, the sage's attitude is far from complacent: he emphasizes the responsibility of rank towards those lower in society, as well as warning against ambition. His moderate and humane wisdom is, in this respect, immediately appealing for a modern audience. He advocates not merely conformity but also a stoic quietist acceptance of ‘what happens’ and of one's social role, as well as self-improvement in terms of wisdom and patience.

Each maxim is self-contained, but they are linked into short series by subject matter and language; this is particularly evident in the opening sequence. However, there is no rigid overall progression in the sequence of maxims, and the unity of the whole should be assessed in the context of the Egyptian tradition of wisdom texts as collections of wise sayings. Two versions of the Teaching are known from Middle Kingdom manuscripts, and this variation may relate in part to the choice of a loose structure for the Teaching. While the diverse situations express a basic unity of ethical attitude, the artful disorder of the sequence of maxims builds up into a more complex whole. Within the distant and idealized setting, the sage affirms that virtue will be rewarded, but the maxims also mobilize the audience's actual experience that this is not always so. Although virtue should ensure success in life, and although society and the divine order of things run in parallel, the variety of the maxims presents a variety of possibilities: success might be virtue rewarded or might be the result of crime; the virtuous might be rewarded, but are not necessarily, and might remain poor. The sage's son would be expected to succeed to the vizierate, but the Teaching covers a wide range of possible careers for him. Some maxims envisage him as subordinate to great officials, or even wretched. The sage is thus advising not merely social conformity or opportunism, but a trust in virtue for its own sake. Despite the Teaching's positive affirmations, and despite the setting in the Old Kingdom, there is an undercurrent of assertions that the world is uncertain, and full of social mobility, social competition, instability, and complexity. It is impossible to know what will happen; the role of chance in life is acknowledged, alongside that of the divinely sanctioned law of reciprocity. The series of maxims begins and ends with instances of unexpected virtue: the first maxim acclaims the ‘perfect speech’ of maidservants, whose talk is treated with disdain in other texts, and the last asserts the worth of an unconventional woman as wife. The world of the Teaching is unexpectedly varied.

Although the Teaching lacks the problematic setting of the literary discourses, it nevertheless articulates a complex sensibility, very different from the more straightforward presentation of similar ethical matters in funerary official Autobiographies. The choice between good and evil that has already been made there is here still to be made, and is a perilous one. The first maxim makes this complexity immediately apparent, warning of the folly of having pride in the very quality that it teaches—wisdom—and praising lowly maidservants, whose virtue has brought them no social rewards. The sage's realization that absolute wisdom and virtue are unattainable runs through the Teaching, and his often pragmatic attitude springs from the fact that a little good is sometimes all that is possible in an imperfect world.

The unity of the maxims is affirmed and developed in an epilogue, in which the general principles are expounded around the idea of hearing—that is listening, understanding, and obeying. Repeated wordplay on ‘hear’ enacts the unity of these principles in a dense and dramatic manner. As the train of thought becomes both more unified and more interwoven, the style becomes correspondingly more elaborate. The rewards of transcendent virtue and wisdom are presented unambiguously, but are counterbalanced by descriptions of the fate of the ‘fool’. The ethical choice between good and evil, obedience to the gods and disobedience, is determined by a person's own heart. The variety of such choices previously presented becomes here a central choice between good and evil, hinging on the dual nature of the human heart, a theme that is expounded more darkly in the Discourses.

The epilogue moves away from particular situations in a dizzying spiral from past to future wisdom, presenting the latter in broad terms in which the act of teaching a son embodies the cultural continuity of society as well as the individual's survival in eternity. This emphasis on obedience returns the audience to the dramatic setting, and the teaching concludes with the sage describing himself in old age, no longer suffering but on the point of becoming one of the blessed dead. In this resolution there is no uncertainty. His achievements in the court of his king validate his authority and the wisdom he has expounded.

Two Middle Kingdom manuscripts provide two slightly different versions of the Teaching, only one of which is attested in later New Kingdom copies. Here the other, from Papyrus Prisse (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris) is followed, as it alone is completely preserved. Numbers give the lines of Eugène Dévaud's synoptic edition (which numbers all phrases from variant versions), with the page and line numbers of P. Prisse in parentheses. The notes give the modern maxim numbers, which are sometimes used to refer to individual sections of P. Prisse.

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