Monday, February 22, 2021

Ptahhotep on the Ethics of Arguing

The Instruction of Ptahhotep is one of the most important surviving works of ancient Egyptian philosophy. It is an eminent example of the sebayt genre, which is governed, in the words of The Instruction of Ptahhotep itself, by the attempt to make straight the paths of the younger generation through discourse, without wearying them, and a pattern whereby princes may speak well. We do not know exactly how old this particular Instruction is; if it goes back in original form to the real Ptahhotep, who was Grand Vizier of the Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, then it originated in the 24th century BC. The versions that we have, though, are definitely not earlier than about the 12th century BC, so either the extant version is an 'updated' version from that time, or was written probably around that time, in the Egyptian New Kingdom.

The work gives us a contextual frame. Ptahhotep is ninety-six years old, and sees the end of his life approaching. Therefore he asks the Pharaoh to hand down his authority to his son, but this also requires handing down the wisdom of ancient times. The king approves this, and we have a series of proverbs or aphorisms attributed to Ptahhotep, guiding his son in the behavior appropriate to his position.

An interesting thing is that the series of aphorisms begins with an ethics of argument, and one that captures something perennial:


1. 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, neither is there any craftsman that possesseth full advantages. Fair speech is more rare than the emerald that is found by slave-maidens on the pebbles.

2. If thou find an arguer talking, one that is well disposed and wiser than thou, let thine arms fall, bend thy back, be not angry with him if he agree (?) not with thee. Refrain from speaking evilly; oppose him not at any time when he speaketh. If he address thee as one ignorant of the matter, thine humbleness shall bear away his contentions.

3. If thou find an arguer talking, thy fellow, one that is within thy reach, keep not silence when he saith aught that is evil; so shalt thou be wiser than he. Great will be the applause on the part of the listeners, and thy name shall be good in the knowledge of princes.

4. If thou find an arguer talking, a poor man, that is to say not thine equal, be not scornful toward him because he is lowly. Let him alone; then shall he confound himself. Question him not to please thine heart, neither pour out thy wrath upon him that is before thee; it is shameful to confuse a mean mind. If thou be about to do that which is in thine heart, overcome it as a thing rejected of princes.

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