Ptahhatp's proverbs

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From the Wall Street Journal:

‘The Oldest Book in the World’ Review: Also Sprach Ptahhatp

A set of maxims attributed to an adviser of an Egyptian pharaoh may be the world’s earliest surviving work of philosophy.

By Dominic Green

July 6, 2023 6:20 pm ET

What have we?  Philosophy in the Age of the Pyramids?  Philosophy before there were Greek philosophers?

Green launches his review:

In 1847 the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris acquired a 16-page scroll from the antiquarian Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879). He had bought it from one of the local men then excavating a cemetery near a pharaonic temple complex at Thebes in Egypt. The Papyrus Prisse, as it is known, contains the only complete version of a set of philosophical epigrams called “The Teaching of Ptahhatp.” Recognized upon its publication in 1858 as “the oldest book in the world,” the “Teaching” is attributed to a vizier to Izezi, the eighth and penultimate pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fifth Dynasty, who ruled Egypt in the late 25th and early 24th centuries B.C.

Bill Manley, who taught Ancient Egyptian and Coptic languages for decades in British universities, has made a new translation. In “The Oldest Book in the World,” he claims Ptahhatp as the first philosopher, and places the “Teaching” alongside, or rather, long before, “more recent classics” such as Lao-Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching,” Plato’s “Republic,” and the “Meditations” of that latecomer Marcus Aurelius. But then, every writer is a latecomer if Mr. Manley is right.

I'm interested in the text, the nature of the writing, and the language in which it is composed:

At the age of 110, Ptahhatp’s eyesight and hearing are weakening, his bones ache and his nose is blocked. It is time for the “Overseer of the City” to bequeath “historic words” as “a model for the children of responsible people.” Rather than draw hieroglyphs as we might imagine, he writes in “hieratic,” a cursive, joined-up script. He writes from right to left without vowels; Ancient Egyptian, one of whose dialects survives in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, has affinities with Hebrew and Berber.

As a lifelong servant of a god-king, Ptahhatp has developed a certain patience. Experience teaches philosophical self-regulation. Do not tarry with fools or feed the troll: “As your reputation is immaculate, you need not speak.” “No one will be born wise,” so “consult with the simple” as much as the educated: “Wise words are rarer than malachite yet found among the girls at the grindstones.” Remember your table manners, contain your temper and “remove yourself from any misconduct.” Your children are “the outpouring of your spirit,” so don’t “take them for granted.” Gossip is a “ruination from fantasy,” true friendship is the “spirit that brings gladness.”

The founder of my University would be proud to have Penned such deathless maxims.  I'm especially pleased with "Do not feed the troll", advice that I have had to remind myself of every day since I began posting on Language Log.

“Ideal is the listening and ideal the speaking of all who have heard what transforms,” Ptahhatp tells us. His goal is merut nefret, which Mr. Manley translates as “wanting wisdom” or “wanting the ideal,” anticipating the literal meaning of “philosophy” in Greek, as well as the metaphysics of Plato’s idealism. Herodotus reported that the Egyptians were “the first of all men on earth” when it came to observing the sun, assembling a divine pantheon, building temples and engraving “figures on stones.” In Mr. Manley’s adroit and pioneering translation, the “Teaching” is philosophy ages before the Greeks had it. “True integrity gets passed on.”

At this juncture, I cannot avoid mentioning Mark Liberman's apt quotation of Plato's argument against the use of written language in education (From Phaedrus, in the voice of Socrates quoting Thamus):

SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

PHAEDRUS: Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.

SOCRATES: There was a tradition in the temple of Dodona that oaks first gave prophetic utterances. The men of old, unlike in their simplicity to young philosophy, deemed that if they heard the truth even from 'oak or rock,' it was enough for them; whereas you seem to consider not whether a thing is or is not true, but who the speaker is and from what country the tale comes.

PHAEDRUS: I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.

SOCRATES: He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?

PHAEDRUS: That is most true.

SOCRATES: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

From "LLMs in education: the historical view" (5/1/23).


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Klisz said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 11:57 am

    I don't think I've ever seen ḥtp romanized as 'hatp' rather than 'hotep' before – though there's definitely a certain appeal to the Ptahhatp spelling being palindromic.

  2. Haamu said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 4:21 pm

    He only chose to palindromize himself because he was working for a guy named Izezi.

    Not to mention Theuth/Thoth, i.e., Θώθ.

  3. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 8:11 pm

    @Klisz: Bravo on the observation that Ptahhatp is a palindrome;
    way cool and way to go and "may all the ways you go be cool",
    as the Egyptians may well have said. Georges Perec would have
    composed a long palindrome around Ptahhatp, perhaps injecting echoes of Pt.'s "wisdom" (which underwhelms me, tho I'll think of it whenever I'm at a troll-booth). But I think -hatp just follows the vocalism shown by the Coptic descendent of the Anc. Eg. word. Btw, Coptic, which itself has 2 chief dialects,
    is indeed the Late Antique continuator of Ancient Egyptian
    (but I wouldn't speak of the "liturgy of the Coptic Church", since
    the latter phrase often refers to the church of Ethiopian Christians,
    whose liturgy is in Ge'ez, a Semitic language. As it happens,
    Ptah dwells in the word Copt, which is from Gr. Aiguptos 'Ægypt',
    from the Anc. Eg. 'House of the soul of Ptah', tho I think Memphis was the focal place of Ptah-worship. Hmm, I find odd Bill Manley's
    *nfrt = *-sophia; I think the word means 'goodness, excellence, beauty',but I'll leave that to the Egyptologists.

  4. martin schwartz said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 8:40 pm

    Hieratic is not a "joined-up" script. The characters are generally discrete, like the hieroglyphs of which hieratic is a mildly cursive form, but there are some ligatures. No vowel symbols because
    hieroglyphs lack vowels. Maybe early Semitic script imitated this feature; something to think about. By the way, there are many more than two Cotpic dialects; I misspoke (but now I'm misspelling to foil the LL robot which censors what it "deems" duplication). Oh, English has "Hoteps" as designation for Africentrics. A p'drome could have "…step on no Hoteps…".
    Martin Schwartz

  5. martin schwartz said,

    July 7, 2023 @ 8:48 pm

    scratch that last 'drome, or substitute "O" for "on no".

  6. Farybole said,

    July 8, 2023 @ 2:18 am

    I wonder what Plato would have made of the internet.

  7. Orin Ed DeNiro said,

    July 8, 2023 @ 6:58 pm

    Ptahhatp, is that the first palindrome?

  8. Polyspaston said,

    July 9, 2023 @ 9:26 am

    Socrates’ story of Thamus is of course misleading not only because he is wrong about writing being invented, but because learning to use writing is itself an exercise of memory – especially a system as complex as hieroglyphs, cuneiform, Chinese characters, or Mayan glyphs. I suspect it also lies at the root of the hopelessly busted flush of the idea of an alphabetic revolution that enabled cognition, as Eric Havelock argued.

    I haven’t read Manley’s book, but the claim that Ptahhotep is the world’s oldest work of literature was a relatively frequent one at the turn of the last century. Egyptologists now tend to date the text to the early Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1939-1760 BCE) in date or thereabouts, and not an actual artefact of the reign of Djedkare Izezi (c. 2365-2322 BCE). The language is Middle, not Old Egyptian, and it fits with a range of other historicising texts from the Middle Kingdom which are set in the Old Kingdom, including the Instruction for Kagemni, the Prophecy of Neferti, the tale of Neferkare and Sasenet, and the tales on p. Westcar, which are set in the reign of Khufu. Neferti is the most obviously fictional: it depicts someone at the court of king Sneferu (c.2543-2510 BCE) predicting the rise of a king Ameny – the diminutive form of Amenemhat, the name of the first king of the Twelfth Dynasty.

    So far as I am aware, the only arguments in favour of Ptahhotep being Old Kingdom are both rather debatable: that it displays signs of an Old Egyptian metrical structure (which is dubious given our limited knowledge of Egyptian prosody), and that its themes reflect the values of Old Kingdom funerary biographical inscriptions, which is far from convincing, either. The Old Kingdom phrases Manley believes to be present could well be archaising affectations. It was suggested some years ago that the text might represent a written redaction based on the oral circulation of real maxims put forward by the historical Ptahhotep orally or in divergent (but lost) manuscripts and edited together in the early Middle Kingdom like the Analects, but the idea didn’t catch on. I suspect because the span of time required is so great, but also because there is no evidence for an earlier tradition of the text. The work is almost certainly pseudepigraphic.

    I’m a bit dubious about Manley’s translation which, from the quotations, looks like a lot of modern Bible translations, which suck all the literary qualities out of the text in the pursuit of “meaning”, with a rather impoverished attitude to what that is. This does tend to make Ptahhotep rather drier than it needs to be, even as a sapiential poem.

    I’m not sure why Manley emphasises mrwt nfrt (‘desire of goodness’) as a key notion in Ptahhotep. A rather more prominent concept in the text is mdt nfrt, ‘fine discourse’, or ‘good speech’, a concept which runs through a lot of Middle Egyptian literature (e.g. at the start of Neferti, Sneferu asks his courtiers for someone to speak a little mdt nfrt for him), and which fits rather better with the well-known quotation given here about malachite. The phrase mrwt nfrt appears once in Ptahhotep, and it isn’t clear that it means ‘desire of goodness’ here, and not something like ‘perfect love’.

  9. KeithB said,

    July 10, 2023 @ 3:34 pm

    "Egyptologists now tend to date the text to the early Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1939-1760 BCE) in date or thereabouts, and not an actual artefact of the reign of Djedkare Izezi (c. 2365-2322 BCE). "

    Good, that makes it post flood, at least.

  10. chris said,

    July 15, 2023 @ 1:34 pm

    I have to admit, when I saw that Ptahhatp is a palindrome *in Roman letters* I thought the whole thing might be a put-on. But I guess someone was just being cute with the transliteration.

    Anyway, it seems extremely likely to me that philosophy (maybe not so named) is older than any system of writing and therefore the actual first philosophers are lost to time, because what Thamus failed to consider is that mortals die and writing lasts until it is destroyed, potentially a far longer span; so that the oldest philosophers *we know of* are the ones whose lives and thoughts are recorded in writing.

    Or, at least, we think we know of them, because those writings could have been mistakes or lies. Why do we consider Socrates real and Gilgamesh fictional and not the other way around? Are written accounts of Goliath or Achilles embellished stories about real men, or complete fabrications?

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