THE INSTRUCTIONS OF PTAHHOTEPPtahhotep was a vizier, a kind of prime minister, in the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt’s
Old Kingdom. He was revered for his wisdom for centuries after his death
because of a remarkable composition attributed to him, The Instructions of
Ptahhotep. These maxims contain both moral precepts and practical advice for
getting along in social situations and the proper behavior of a man towards his
superiors and inferiors. This text is adapted from Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient
Egyptian Literature, University of California Press (1975), Volume I, 61 – 80.
Questions for Analysis:
1) What kind of society was Ancient Egypt? Was it egalitarian or
2) What kinds of behaviors and personal qualities did an ideal man have in
Ptahhotep’s view? How did he behave towards others?
3) What does Ptahhotep say about how a man should behave towards his
father? What were the qualities of an ideal son?
4) What does Ptahhotep say about relations between men and women?
What kind of role did women have in society?
“The Instruction by the Mayor of the city, the Vizier Ptahhotep, under the Majesty
of King Isesi, who lives for all eternity. The mayor of the city, the vizier Ptahhotep,
O king, my lord! Old age is here,
Feebleness came, weakness grows, “Childlike”,
one sleeps all day. Eyes are dim, ears deaf,
Strength is waning through weariness,
The mouth, silenced, speaks not,
The heart, void, recalls not the past,
The bones ache throughout.
Good has become evil, all taste is gone,
What age does to people is evil in everything.
May this servant be ordered to make
a staff of old age (= a son to succeed him)
So as to teach him the words of those who listen
to the ways of the ancestors,
Who have listened to the gods.
Beginning of the excellent teachings
spoken by the mayor of the city and Vizier, Ptahhotep,
to instruct the ignorant in the standard of
excellent discourse, as profit for him who will hear,
as woe to him who would neglect them. He spoke to his son:
1. Don’t be proud of your knowledge,
Consult the ignorant and the wise;
The limits of art are not reached,
No artist’s skills are perfect;
Good speech is more hidden than greenstone,
Yet may be found among maids at the grindstones.
2.If you meet a disputant in action
A powerful man, superior to you,
Fold your arms, bend your back,
To flout him will not make him agree with you.
Make little of the evil speech
By not opposing him while he’s in action;
He will be called an ignoramus,
Your self-control will match his pile (of words).
3. If you meet a disputant in action
Who is your equal, on your level,
You will make your worth exceed his by silence, While he is speaking evilly,
There will be much talk by the hearers,
Your name will be good in the mind of the magistrates.
4. If you meet a disputant in action,
A poor man, not your equal,
Do not attack him because he is weak,
Let him alone, he will confute himself.
Do not answer him to relieve your heart,
Do not vent yourself against your opponent,
Wretched is he who injures a poor man,
One will wish to do what you desire,
You will beat him through the magistrates’ reproof.
5. If you are a man who leads,
Who controls the affairs of the many,
Seek out every beneficent deed,
That your conduct may be blameless.
Great is justice, lasting in effect,
unchallenged since the time of Osiris.
One punishes the transgressor of laws,
Though the greedy overlooks this;
Baseness may seize riches,
Yet crime never brings its goods to shore;
In the end it is justice that lasts,
Man says: “It is my father’s ground.”
6. Do not scheme against people,
God punishes accordingly:
If a man says: “I shall live by it,”
He will lack bread for his mouth.
If a man says: “I shall be rich,”
He will say: “My cleverness caught me.”
If he says: “I will snare for myself,”
He will be unable to say:
“I snared for my profit.”
If a man says: “I will rob someone,”
He will end being given to a stranger.
People’s schemes do not prevail,
God’s command is what prevails;
Live then in the midst of peace,
What they give comes by itself.
7. If you are one among guests
At the table of one greater than you,
Take what he gives as it is set before you;
Look at what is before you,
Don’t shoot many glances at him,
Molesting him offends the spirit.
Don’t speak to him until he summons,
One does not know what may displease;
Speak when he has addressed you,
Then your words will please the heart.
The nobleman, when he is behind food
Behaves as his spirit commands him;
He will give to him whom he favors,
It is the custom when night has come.
It is the spirit that makes his hands reach out,
The great man gives to the chosen man;
Thus eating is under the counsel of god,
A fool is who complains of it.
8. If you are a man of trust,
Sent by one great man to another,
Adhere to the nature of him who sent you,
Give his message as he said it.
Guard against reviling speech,
Which embroils one great with another;
Keep to the truth, don’t exceed it,
But an outburst should not be repeated.
Do not malign anyone,
Great or small, the spirit abhors it.
9. If you plow and there’s growth in the field,
And god lets it prosper in your hand,
Do not boast at your neighbors’ side,
One has great respect for the silent man:
Man of character is man of wealth.
If he robs he is like a crocodile in court.
Don’t impose on one who is childless,
Neither decry nor boast of it;
There is many a father who has grief,
And a mother of children less content than another;
It is the lonely whom god fosters,
While the family man prays for a follower.
10. If you are poor, serve a man of worth,
That all your conduct may be well with the god.
Do not recall if he once was poor,
Don’t be arrogant toward him
For knowing his former state;
Respect him for what has accrued to him,
For wealth does not come by itself.
It is their law for him whom they love,
His gain, he gathered it himself;
It is the god who makes him worthy
And protects him while he sleeps.
11. Follow your heart as long as you live,
Do no more than is required,
Do not shorten the time of “follow-the-heart,”
Trimming its moment offends the spirit.
Don’t waste time on daily cares
Beyond providing for your household;
When wealth has come, follow your heart,
Wealth does no good if one is unhappy.
12. If you are a man of worth
And produce a son by the grace of god,
If he is straight, takes after you,
Takes good care of your possessions,
Do for him all that is good,
He is your son, your spirit begot him,
Don’t withdraw your heart from him.
But an offspring can make trouble:
If he strays, neglects your counsel,
Disobeys all that is said,
His mouth spouting evil speech,
Punish him for all his talk!
They hate him who crosses you,
His guilt was fated in the womb;
He whom they guide can not go wrong,
Whom they make boatless can not cross.
13. If you are in the outer chamber (of an official’s office),
Stand and sit as fits your rank,
Which was assigned you the first day.
Do not trespass-you will be turned back,
Keen is the face to him who enters announced,
Spacious the seat of him who has been called.
The antechamber has a rule,
All behavior is by measure;
It is the god who gives advancement,
He who uses elbows is not helped.
14. If you are among the people,
Gain supporters through being trusted;
The trusted man who does not vent
his belly’s speech (= complain),
He will himself become a leader.
A man of means-what is he like?
Your name is good, you are not maligned,
Your body is sleek, your face benign,
One praises you without your knowing.
He whose heart obeys his belly
Puts contempt of himself in place of love,
His heart is bald, his body unanointed;
The great-hearted is god-given,
He who obeys his belly belongs to the enemy.
17. If you are a man who leads,
Listen calmly to the speech of one who pleads;
Don’t stop him from purging his body
Of that which he planned to tell.
A man in distress wants to pour out his heart
More than that his case be won.
About him who stops a plea
One says: “Why does he reject it?,,
Not all one pleads for can be granted,
But a good hearing soothes the heart.
18. If You want friendship to endure
In the house you enter
As master, brother, or friend,
In whatever place you enter,
Beware of approaching the women!
Unhappy is the place where it is done,
Unwelcome is he who intrudes on them.
A thousand men are turned away from
what is best for them for only a
short moment; like a dream,
Then death comes for having “known” them. (=having sex with them)
Poor advice is “shoot the opponent,”
When one goes to do it the heart rejects it.
He who fails through lust of them,
No affair of his can prosper.
19. If you want a perfect conduct,
To be free from every evil,
Guard against the vice of greed:
A grievous sickness without cure,
There is no treatment for it.
It embroils fathers, mothers,
And the brothers of the mother,
It parts wife from husband;
it is a compound of all evils,
A bundle of all hateful things.
That man endures whose rule is rightness,
Who walks a straight line;
He will make a will by it,
The greedy has no tomb.
20. Do not be greedy in the division,
Do not covet more than your share;
Do not be greedy toward your kin,.
The mild has a greater claim than the harsh.
Poor is he who shuns his kin,
He is deprived of interchange
Even a little of what is craved
Turns a quarreler into an amiable man.
21. When you prosper and found your house,
And love your wife with ardor,
Fill her belly, clothe her back,
Ointment soothes her body.
Gladden her heart as long as you live,
She is a fertile field for her lord.
Do not contend with her in court,
Keep her from power, restrain herHer eye is her storm when she gazesThus will you make her stay in your house.
23. Do not repeat hateful talk,
Nor should you listen to it,
It is the spouting 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.
‘If a seizure is ordered and carried out,
Hatred will arise against him who seizes;
Hateful talk is like a dream
against which one covers the face.
25. If you are mighty, gain respect through knowledge
And through gentleness of speech.
Don’t command except as is fitting,
He who provokes gets into trouble.
Don’t be haughty, lest you be humbled,
Don’t be mute, lest you be chided.
When you answer one who is fuming,
Avert your face, control yourself.
The flame of the hot-heart sweeps across,
He who steps gently, his path is paved.
He who frets all day has no happy moment,
He who’s gay all day can’t keep house.
28. If you are a judge,
Commissioned to satisfy the many,
Go in a straight line.
When you speak don’t lean to one side,
Beware or someone will complain:
“Judges, he distorts the matter!”
And your deed turns into a judgment (of you).
30. If you are great after having been humble,
Have gained wealth after having been poor
In the past, in a town which you know,
“Knowing” your former condition,
Do not put trust in your wealth,
Which came to you as gift of god;
So that you will not fall behind one like you,
To whom the same has happened.
31. Bend your back to your superior,
Your overseer from the palace;
Then your house will endure in its wealth,
Your rewards in their right place.
Wretched is he who opposes a superior,
One lives as long as he is mild,
Baring the arm does not hurt it.
Do not plunder a neighbor’s house,
Do not steal the goods of one near you,
Lest he denounce you before you are heard.
A quarreler is a mindless person,
If he is known as an aggressor
The hostile man will have trouble in the neighborhood.
34. Be generous as long as you live,
What leaves the storehouse does not return;
It is the food to be shared which is coveted,
One whose belly is empty is an accuser;
One deprived becomes an opponent,
Don’t have him for a neighbor.
Kindness is a man’s memorial
For the years after the function.
35. Know your helpers, then you prosper,
Don’t be mean toward your friends,
They are one’s watered field,
And greater then one’s riches,
For what belongs to one belongs to another.
The character of a son-of-man is profit to him;
Good nature is a memorial.
36. Punish firmly, chastise soundly,
Then repression of crime becomes an example;
Punishment except for crime
Turns the complainer into an enemy.
If you listen to my sayings,
All your affairs will go forward;
In their truth resides their value,
If a good example is set by him who leads,
He will be beneficent forever,
His wisdom being for all time.
The wise feeds his soul with what endures,
So that it is happy with him on earth.
The wise is known by his wisdom,
The great by his good actions;
His heart matches his tongue,
His lips are straight when he speaks;
He has eyes that see,
His ears are made to hear what will profit his son,
Acting with truth he is free of falsehood.
Useful is hearing to a son who listens;
If hearing enters the hearer,
The hearer becomes a listener,
Hearing well is speaking well.
Useful is hearing to one who hears,
Hearing is better than all else,
It creates good will.
How good for a son to grasp his father’s words,
He will reach old age through them.
He who hears is beloved of god,
He whom god hates does not hear.
The heart makes of its owner a hearer or non-hearer,
If a man’s son accepts his father’s words,
No plan of his will go wrong.
Teach your son to be a hearer,
One who will be valued by the nobles;
One who guides his speech by what he was told,
One regarded as a hearer.
This son excels, his deeds stand out,
While failure follows him who hears not.
The wise wakes early to his lasting gain,
While the fool is hard pressed.
The fool who does not hear,
He can do nothing at all;
He sees knowledge in ignorance,
Usefulness in harmfulness.
He does all that one detests
And is blamed for it each day;
He lives on that by which one dies,
His food is distortion of speech.
His sort is known to the officials,
Who say: “A living death each day.”
One passes over his doings,
Because of his many daily troubles.
Every man teaches as he acts,
He will speak to the children,
So that they will speak to their children:
Set an example, don’t give offense,
If justice stands firm your children will live.
As to the first who gets into trouble,
When they see (it) people will say:
“That is just like him.”
And will say to what they hear:
“That’s just like him too.”
To see everyone is to satisfy the many,
Riches are useless without them.
Don’t take a word and then bring it back,
Don’t put one thing in place of another.
Lo, the good son, the gift of god,
Exceeds what is told him by his lord,
He will do right when his heart is straight.
As you succeed me, sound in your body,
The king content with all that was done,
May you obtain (many) years of life!
Not small is what I did on earth,
I had one hundred and ten years of life
As gift of the king, Honors exceeding
those of the ancestors,
By doing justice for the king,
Until the state of veneration!