The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep: Book & Instructions

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

Like book classics? Here's an ancient one: 'The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep', one of the first Egyptian books. We'll explore who Ptah-Hotep was, the content of his book and its subsequent influence.

Who Was Ptah-Hotep?

Where do you look to find advice on how to live your life? Back in the Egyptian 5th Dynasty (2500 BCE - 2350 BCE) you might have look to a book by a vizier named Ptah-Hotep, a man of an elevated social class, powerful and educated. He wrote The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep, a set of moral advice and proverbs for young men. It is often considered the oldest book in the world.

Vessel with a inscription naming Ptah-Hotep.

Ptah-Hotep's name means 'God's beloved'. In his old age he decided to recount his accumulated wisdom from his long life in the service of the pharaoh.

The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep

His writings were collected by his grandson and were written using the hieratic writing, that is, a simplification of the hieroglyphic writing used by the scribes to write on papyri.

The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep was successful in its time and several copies were made of the book. One of the best preserved copies is contained in the so-called Prisse papyrus, an ancient papyrus discovered by a French archeologist in Thebes in 1856.

Prisse Papyrus contains one of the best preserved copies of the Maxims.

The Maxims

The work begins with a few words from the grandson awarding the work to his grandfather. Later, Ptah-Hotep tells us that he has dedicated his long life to obtaining wisdom, which can never be completely achieved.

Then the book is spelled out in a series of brief tips that are grouped into 37 topics. The maxims appear in no logical order and consider varied aspects of the human life. The book has several epilogues and finally a conclusion.

Quotes from The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep

Let's see some of the topics and quotations of the maxims themselves.

  • Maxim 1 advises humility: ''Be not proud because thou art learned; but discourse with the ignorant man, as with the sage. For no limit can be set to skill.''
  • Maxim 2, 3, and 4 discuss how to debate with a superior, with an equal and with an inferior.
  • Maxim 5 talk about how to be a gracious leader, and making sure ''that thine own conduct be without defect. Great is Truth...''
  • Maxim 6 advises not to spread fear among humankind or God will punish in equal measure: ''Live, therefore, in the house of kindliness, and men shall come and give gifts of themselves.''
  • Maxim 7 describes the particulars of good manners at the table of your superiors.
  • Maxim 8 and 9 specify how to act if you are an emissary to a nobleman, not to freeload from others, and not to be envious if you are childless.
  • Maxim 11 describes the need to follow your heart: ''Diminish not the time of following the heart; it is abhorred of the soul.''
  • Maxim 12 outlines how to raise and recognize a good son.
  • Maxim 15 - 17 advises on how to communicate and to govern as a leader.
  • Maxim 21 says to be kind to your wife: ''love thy wife that is in thine arms...Be not harsh, for gentleness mastereth her more than strength.''
  • Maxim 23 advises against listening to rumors.
  • Maxim 25 talks of self-control and moderation: ''Be not silent, but beware of interruption and of answering words with heat.''
  • Maxim 38 - 43 focuses on obedience, especially of sons: ''A splendid thing is the obedience of an obedient son.''

Picture of Ptah-Hotep.

The Importance of The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep

In addition to being very famous in its time, The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep influenced later philosophical works. The book brings together a whole series of ethical values that we often still consider desirable today.

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