The Instructions of Ptah-Hotep, vizier, Fifth Dynasty

The Instructions of Ptah-Hotep, vizier, Fifth Dynasty 2494–2345 BCE
These instructions are an example of wisdom literature. They were written by the vizier Ptah-Hotep for the
purpose of giving advice and guidance to his son, who is succeeding him in his position upon his upcoming
retirement. A vizier was an important royal official, second only to the pharaoh, who oversaw many of the
functions of the government. In the New Kingdom era, there were two viziers who administered Egypt, one for
Upper, and another for Lower Egypt.
Precepts of the prefect and vizier, the lord Ptah-Hotep, under the Majesty of the King [pharaoh] … Assa (5th
Dynasty), living eternally forever.
Ptah-Hotep’s Lamentation on old age
The prefect … lord Ptah-Hotep, says: O Ptah with the two crocodiles [pharaoh], my lord, the progress of age
changes into senility. Decay falls upon man and decline takes the place of youth. A vexation weighs upon him
every day; sight fails, the ear becomes deaf; his strength dissolves without ceasing. The mouth is silent, speech
fails him; the mind decays, remembering not the day before. The whole body suffers. That which is good
becomes evil; taste completely disappears. Old age makes a man altogether miserable; the nose is stopped up,
breathing no more from exhaustion. . .
Royal command to relay wisdom to his son and successor
Who will cause me to have authority to speak, that I may declare to him the words of those who have heard the
counsels of former days? And the counsels heard of the gods, who will give me authority to declare them? Cause
that it be so and that evil be removed from those that are enlightened . . . The majesty of this god [pharaoh]
says: ‘Instruct him in the sayings of former days. It is this which constitutes the merit of the children of the
Beginning of the maxims, spoken by the noble lord…Ptah-hotep, so as to instruct the ignorant in the knowledge
of the arguments of the good sayings. It is profitable for him who hears them, it is a loss to him who shall
transgress them. He says to his son:
Listen and learn
Be not arrogant because of that which you know; deal with the ignorant as with the learned; for the limits of art
are not closed, and no artist is in possession of the perfection to which he should aspire. Good words are more
difficult to find than the emerald, yet even slaves can find one in the rocks of pegmatite…
Stay calm
If you encounter an adversary while he is angry, and if he is superior to you in ability, lower the hands, bend the
back, and do not get into a passion with him as he will not let you destroy his words. It is utterly wrong to
interrupt him since that shows that you are incapable of keeping yourself calm when you are contradicted. In
this case imitate one who is calm. You will have the advantage over him if you keep silent when he is uttering
evil words. “The better of the two is he who is impassive,” say the bystanders, and you will be right in the
opinion of the great. Also, do not despise him because you are not of the same opinion. Be not angry against
him when he is wrong…
Just leadership and maat
If you have, as leader, to decide on the conduct of a great number of men, seek the most perfect manner of
doing so that your own conduct may be without reproach. Justice [maat] is great, invariable, and assured; it has
not been disturbed since the age of Ptah. To throw obstacles in the way of the laws is to open the way to
violence…Inspire not men with fear, else Ptah will fight against you in the same manner… If anyone asserts that
he beats others, Ptah will end by reducing him to impotence. Let no one inspire men with fear; this is the will of
Ptah. Let one provide sustenance for them in the lap of peace; it will then be that they will freely give what has
been torn from them by terror.
Conduct as a dinner guest
If you are among the persons seated at the table in the house of a greater man than yourself, take that which he
gives you, bowing to the ground. Look at what is placed before you but do not point at it and do not look at it
repeatedly; he is a blameworthy person who departs from this rule. Speak not to the great man more than he
requires, for one knows not what may be displeasing to him. Speak when he invites you and your worth will be
Fulfill your duties faithfully
If you are one of those who bring the messages of one great man to another, conform yourself exactly to that
wherewith he has charged you; perform for him the commission as he has enjoined you. Beware of altering in
speaking the offensive words which one great person addresses to another; he who perverts the trustfulness of
his way, in order to repeat only what produces pleasure in the words of every man, great or small, is a
detestable person.
Work humbly and productively
If you are a farmer, gather the crops in the field which the great Ptah has given you, but do not boast in the
house of your neighbors; it is better to make oneself dreaded by one’s deeds. As for him who, master of his own
way of acting, being all-powerful, seizes the goods of others like a crocodile…, his children will be an object of
malediction, of scorn, and of hatred on account of it, while his father is grievously distressed, and as for the
mother who has borne him, happy is another rather than herself…
If you humble yourself in obeying a superior, your conduct is entirely good before Ptah. Know who you ought to
obey and who you ought to command and do not lift up your heart against him… Wealth comes only at Ptah’s
own good-will, and his caprice only is the law…
Be active during the time of your existence and do no more than is commanded. Do not spoil the time of your
activity; he is a blameworthy person who makes a bad use of his time. Do not lose the daily opportunity of
increasing that which your house possesses. Activity produces riches, and riches do not endure when it slackens.
Be a good parent
If you are a wise man, bring up a son who shall be pleasing to Ptah. If he conforms his conduct to your way and
occupies himself with your affairs as is right, do to him all the good you can; he is your son, a person attached to
you whom your own self has begotten. Separate not your heart from him…. But if he conducts himself ill and
transgresses your wish, if he rejects all counsel, if his mouth goes according to the evil word, strike him on the
mouth in return. Give orders without hesitation to those who do wrong, to him whose temper is turbulent, and
he will not deviate from the straight path …
Ignore flattery
If you are a leader, setting forward your plans according to that which you decide, perform perfect actions which
posterity may remember, without letting the words prevail with you which multiply flattery, which excite pride
and produce vanity.
Be patient with petitioners
If you are a leader of peace, listen to the discourse of the petitioner. Be not abrupt with him as that would
trouble him. Say not to him: “You have already recounted this.” Indulgence will encourage him to accomplish
the object of his coming. As for being abrupt with the complainant because he described what passed when the
injury was done, instead of complaining of the injury itself let it not be! The way to obtain a clear explanation is
to listen with kindness.
Relations with women
If you desire to excite respect within the house you enter, for example the house of a superior, a friend, or any
person of consideration, in short everywhere where you enter, keep yourself from making advances to a
woman, for there is nothing good in so doing. There is no prudence in taking part in it, and thousands of men
destroy themselves in order to enjoy a moment, brief as a dream, while they gain death, so as to know it. It is a
villainous intention, that of a man who thus excites himself. if he goes on to carry it out, his mind abandons him.
For as for him who is without repugnance for such an act, there is no good sense at all in him…
If you desire that your conduct should be good and preserved from all evil, keep yourself from every attack of
greed. It is a fatal malady which leads to discord, and there is no longer any existence for him who gives way to
it. For it introduces discord between fathers and mothers, as well as between brothers and sisters; it causes the
wife and the husband to hate each other; it contains all kinds of wickedness, it embodies all kinds of wrong.
When a man has established his just equilibrium and walks in this path, there where he makes his dwelling,
there is no room for greed.
Control your temper
Be not of an irritable temper as regards that which happens at your side; grumble not over your own affairs. Be
not of an irritable temper in regard to your neighbors; better is a compliment to that which displeases than
rudeness. It is wrong to get into a passion with one’s neighbors, to be no longer master of one’s words. When
there is only a little irritation, one creates for oneself an affliction for the time when one will again be cool.
Be a good husband
If you are wise, look after your house; love your wife without alloy. Fill her stomach, clothe her back; these are
the cares to be bestowed on her person. Caress her, fulfil her desires during the time of her existence; it is a
kindness which does honor to its possessor. Be not brutal; tact will influence her better than violence; . . . pay
attention to what she aspires, at what she aims and what she regards… Open your arms for her, respond to her
arms; call her, display to her your love…
Conduct in a meeting
If you are a wise man, sitting in the council of your lord, direct your thought toward that which is wise. Be silent
rather than scatter your words. When you speak, know that which can be brought against you. To speak in the
council is an art, and speech is criticized more than any other labor; it is contradiction which puts it to the proof.
Conduct as a superior
If you are powerful, respect knowledge and calmness of language. Command only to direct; to be absolute is to
run into evil. Let not your heart be haughty, neither let it be mean. Do not let your orders remain unsaid and
cause your answers to penetrate; but speak without heat, assume a serious countenance. As for the vivacity of
an ardent heart, temper it; the gentle man penetrates all obstacles. He who agitates himself all day long has not
a good moment; and he who amuses himself all day long keeps not his fortune…
Obedience to a superior
Do not disturb a great man and do not weaken the attention of him who is occupied. His care is to embrace his
task, and he strips his person through the love which he puts into it. That transports men to Ptah, even the love
for the work which they accomplish. Compose then your face even in trouble, that peace may be with you…
Teach others to render homage to a great man. If you gather the crop for him among men, cause it to return
fully to its owner, at whose hands is your subsistence. But the gift of affection is worth more than the provisions
with which your back is covered. For that which the great man receives from you will enable your house to live,
without speaking of the maintenance you enjoy, which you desire to preserve; it is thereby that he extends a
beneficent hand, and that in your home good things are added to good things. Let your love pass into the heart
of those who love you; cause those about you to be loving and obedient…
Avoid difficult people
If you are annoyed at a thing, if you are tormented by someone who is acting within his right, get out of his
sight, and remember him no more when he has ceased to address you.
Do not become arrogant with success
If you have become great after having been little, if you have become rich after having been poor, when you are
at the head of the city, know how not to take advantage of the fact that you have reached the first rank, harden
not your heart because of your elevation; you are become only the administrator, the prefect, of the provisions
which belong to Ptah. Put not behind you the neighbor who is like you; be unto him as a companion.
Obey your superiors
Bend your back before your superior. You are attached to the palace of the king; your house is established in its
fortune, and your profits are as is fitting even though a man is annoyed at having an authority above himself,
and passes the period of life in being vexed because of it… Do not plunder the house of your neighbors and seize
not by force the goods which are beside you…
Keep a pleasant disposition
Let your countenance be cheerful during the time of your existence. When we see one departing from the
storehouse who has entered in order to bring his share of provision, with his face contracted, it shows that his
stomach is empty and that authority is offensive to him. Let not that happen to you . . .
Raise your children traditionally
When a son receives the instruction of his father there is no error in all his plans. Train your son to be a
teachable man whose wisdom is agreeable to the great. Let him direct his mouth according to that which has
been said to him; in the docility of a son is discovered his wisdom. His conduct is perfect while error carries away
the unteachable. Tomorrow knowledge will support him, while the ignorant will be destroyed…A son who listens
is like a follower of Horus; he is happy after having listened. He becomes great, he arrives at dignity, he gives the
same lesson to his children. Let none change the precepts of his father; let the same precepts form his lessons to
his children. “Verily,” will his children say to him, “to accomplish what you say works marvels.” Cause therefore
that to flourish which is just, in order to nourish your children with it… Take not away then a word from the
ancient teaching and add not one; put not one thing in place of another; beware of uncovering the rebellious
ideas which arise in you; but teach according to the words of the wise…
Do that which your master bids you. Twice good is the precept of his father, from whom he has issued, from his
flesh. What he tells us, let it be fixed in our heart; to satisfy him greatly let us do for him more than he has
prescribed. Verily a good son is one of the gifts of Ptah, a son who does even better than he has been told to do.
For his master he does what is satisfactory, putting himself with all his heart on the part of right. So I shall bring
it about that your body shall be healthful, that the Pharaoh shall be satisfied with you in all circumstances and
that you shall obtain years of life without default. It has caused me on earth to obtain one hundred and ten
years of life, along with the gift of the favor of the Pharaoh among the first of those whom their works have
ennobled, satisfying the Pharaoh in a place of dignity.
It is finished, from its beginning to its end, according to that which is found in writing.
From: Charles F. Horne, The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb,
1917), Vol. II: Egypt, pp. 62-78.
Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and
copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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