The Instructions of Ptah Hotep


The Instruction of the Governor of his City, the Vizier, Ptah-Hotep, in the Reign of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Isosi, living forever, to the end of Time.

The Governor of his City, the Vizier, Ptah-Hotep, he said: 'O Prince, my Lord, the end of life is at hand; old age descends [upon me]; feebleness comes, and childishness is renewed. He [that is old] lies down in misery every day. The eyes are small; the ears are deaf. Energy is diminished, the heart has no rest. The mouth is silent, and he speaks no word; the heart stops, and he remembers not yesterday. The bones are painful throughout the body; good turns unto evil. All taste departs. These things does old age for mankind, being evil in all things. The nose is stopped, and he breathes not for weakness, whether standing or sitting.

Command me, your servant, therefore, to make over my princely authority [to my son]. Let me speak unto him the words of them that hearken to the counsel of the men of old time; those that hearkened unto the gods. I pray you, let this thing be done, that sin may be banished from among persons of understanding, that you may enlighten the lands.

Said the Majesty of this God [the King]: 'Instruct him, then, in the words of old time. May he be a wonder unto the children of princes, that they may enter and learn with him. Make straight all their hearts; and speak with him, without causing weariness.'

Here begin the proverbs of fair speech, spoken by the Hereditary Chief, the High Priest, Beloved of the God, the Eldest Son of the King, of his body, the Governor of his City, the Vizier, Ptah-Hotep, when instructing the ignorant in the knowledge of exactness in fair-speaking; the glory of him that obeys, the shame of him that transgress.

He said unto his son: Be not proud because you are learned; but converse with the ignorant man, as with the sage. For no limit can be set to skill, neither is there any craftsman that possess full advantages. Fair speech is more rare than the emerald that is found by slave-maidens on the pebbles.

If you find an debater talking, one that is well disposed and wiser than you, let your arms fall, bend your back, be not angry with him if he agrees not with you. Refrain from speaking evilly; oppose him not at any time when he speaks. If he address you as one ignorant of the matter, your humbleness shall bear away his contentions.

If you find an debater talking, your fellow, one that is within your reach, keep not silence when he says anything that is evil; so shall you be wiser than he. Great will be the applause on the part of the listeners, and your name shall be good in the knowledge of princes.

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

If you be a leader, as one directing the conduct of the multitude, endeavor always to be gracious, that your own conduct be without defect.

Great is Truth, appointing a straight path; never has it been overthrown since the reign of Osiris.

One that oversteps the laws shall be punished. Overstepping is by the covetous man; but degradations bear off his riches, for the season of his evil-doing cease not. For he said, 'I will obtain by myself for myself,' and said not, 'I will obtain because I am allowed.' But the limits of justice are steadfast; it is that which a man repeats from his father.

Cause not fear among men; for [this) the God punishes likewise.

For there is a man that said, 'Therein is life ; and he is bereft of the bread of his mouth. There is a man that said, 'Power [is therein]' and he said, 'I seize for myself that which I perceive.' Thus a man speaks, and he is smitten down.

It is another that attains by giving unto him that has not; not he that causes men dread. For it happens that what the God has commanded, even that thing comes to pass. Live, therefore, in the house of kindliness, and men shall come and give gifts of themselves.

If you be among the guests of a man that is greater than you, accept that which he gives you, putting it to your lips. If you look at him that is before you (your host), pierce him not with many glances. It is abhorred of the soul to stare at him.

Speak not till he address you one knows not what may be evil in his opinion. Speak when he questions you ; so shall your speech be good in his opinion.

The noble who sits before food divides it as his soul moves him; he gives unto him that he would favor- [it] is the custom of the evening meal. It is his soul that guides his hand. It is the noble that bestows, not the underling that attains. Thus the eating of bread is under the providence of the God; he is an ignorant man that disputes it.

If you be an emissary sent from one noble to another, be exact after the manner of him that sent you, give his message even as he has said it. Beware of making enmity by your words, setting one noble against the other by perverting truth. Overstep it not, neither repeat that which any man, be he prince or peasant, said in opening his heart to you; it is abhorrent to the soul.

If you have ploughed, gather your harvest in the field, and the God shall make it great under your hand. Fill not your mouth at your neighbors' table . . . . If a crafty man be the possessor of wealth, he steals like a crocodile from the priests.

Let not a man be envious that has no children; let him be neither downcast nor quarrelsome on account of it. For a father, though great, may be grieved; As to the mother of children, she has less peace than another. Verily, each man is created [to his destiny] by the God, Who is the chief of a tribe, trustful in following him.

If you be lowly, serve a wise man, that all your actions may be good before the God. If you have known a man of no account that has been advanced in rank, be not haughty toward him on account of that which you know concerning him; but honor him that has been advanced, according to that which he has become.

Behold, riches come not of themselves; it is their rule for him that desires them. If he bestir himself and collect them himself, the God shall make him prosperous. But He shall punish him if he be slothful.

If you would be a wise man, beget a son for the pleasing of the God. If he make straight his course after your example, if he arrange your affairs in due order, do unto him all that is good, for your son is he, begotten of your own soul. Sunder not your heart from him, or your own begotten shall curse [you].

If he be heedless and trespass your rules of conduct, and is violent; if every speech that comes from his mouth be a vile word ; then beat him, that his talk may be fitting. Keep him from those that make light of that which is commanded, for it is they that make him rebellious. And they that are guided go not astray, but they that lose their bearings cannot find a straight course.

Follow your heart during your lifetime; do not more than is commanded of you. Diminish not the time of following the heart; it is abhorred of the soul, that its time [of ease] be taken away. Shorten not the daytime more than is needful to maintain your house. When riches are gained, follow the heart ; for riches are of no avail if one be weary.

If you be in the chamber of council, act always according to the steps enjoined on you at the beginning of the day. Be not absent, or you shall be expelled; but be ready in entering and making report. Wide is the seat of one that has made address. The council-chamber acts by strict rule; and all its plans are in accordance with method. It is the God that advances one to a seat therein; the like is not done for elbowers.

If you be among people, make for yourself love, the beginning and end of the heart. One that knows not his course shall say in himself (seeing you), 'He that orders himself duly becomes the owner of wealth; I shall copy his conduct! Your name shall be good, though you speak not; your body shall be fed; your face shall be [seen] among your neighbors; you shall be provided with what you lack..

As to the man whose heart obeys his belly, he causes disgust in place of love. His heart is wretched, his body is gross , he is insolent toward those endowed of the God. He that obeys his belly has an enemy.

Report your actions without concealment; observe your conduct when in council with your overlord. It is not evil for the envoy that his report be not answered, ' Yea, I know it,' by the prince. For that which he knows includes not [this]. If he (the prince) thinks that you will oppose him on account of it, [he thinks] 'He will be silent because I have spoken.'

If you be a leader, cause that the rules that you have enjoined be carried out; and do all things as one that remembers the days coming after, when speech avails not.

Be not lavish of favors; it leads to servility, producing slackness,

If you be a leader, be gracious when you hearken unto the speech of a suppliant. Let him not hesitate to deliver himself of that which he has thought to tell you; but be desirous of removing his injury. Let him speak freely, that the thing for which he has come to you may be done. If he hesitate to open his heart, it is said, 'Is it because he (the judge, himself) does the wrong therefore no entreaties are made to him concerning it by those to whom it happens. But a well-taught heart hearkens readily.

If you desire to continue friendship in any abode wherein you enter, be it as master, as brother, or as friend; wheresoever you go, beware of consorting with women. No place prospers wherein that is done. Nor is it prudent to take part in it; a thousand men have been ruined for the pleasure of a little time short as a dream. Even death is reached thereby; it is a wretched thing.

As for the evil liver, one leaves him for what he does, he is avoided. If his desires be not gratified, he regards no laws.

If you desire that your actions may be good, save yourself from all malice, and beware of the quality of covetousness, which is a grievous inner malady. Let it not chance that you fall thereinto.

It sets at variance fathers-in-law and the kinsmen of the daughter-in-law; it sunders the wife and the husband. It gathers unto itself all evils; it is the girdle of all wickedness.

But the man that is just flourishes; truth goes in his footsteps, and he makes habitations therein, not in the dwelling of covetousness

Be not covetous as touching shares, in seizing that which is not your own property. Be not covetous toward your neighbors ; for with a gentle man praise avails, more than might. He [that is covetous] comes empty from among his neighbors, being void of the persuasion of speech. One has remorse for even a little covetousness when his belly cools.

If you would be wise, provide for your house, and love your wife that is in your arms. Fill her stomach, clothe her back ; oil is the remedy of her limbs. Gladden her heart during your lifetime, for she is an estate profitable unto its lord. Be not harsh, for gentleness masters her more than strength. Give to her that for which she sighs and that toward which her eye looks; so shall you keep her in your house. . . .

Satisfy your hired servants out of such things as you have; it is the duty of one that has been favored of the God. In sooth, it is hard to satisfy hired servants. For one says, 'He is a lavish person; one knows not that which may come [from him].' But on the morrow he thinks, 'He is a person of exactitude (parsimony), content therein.'

And when favors have been shown unto servants, they say, 'We go.'

Peace dwells not in that town wherein dwell servants that are wretched.

Repeat not extravagant speech, neither listen to it; for it is the utterance of a body heated by wrath. When such speech is repeated to you, do not listen to it, look to the ground. Speak not regarding it, that he that is before you may know wisdom..

If you be commanded to do a theft, bring it to pass that the command be taken off you, for it is a thing hateful according to law. That which destroys a vision is the veil over it.

If you would be a wise man, and one sitting in council with his overlord, apply your heart unto perfection. Silence is more profitable to you than abundance of speech. Consider how you may be opposed by an expert that speaks in council. It is a foolish thing to speak on every kind of work, for he that disputes your words shall put them unto proof.

If you be powerful, make yourself to be honored for knowledge and for gentleness. Speak with authority, that is, not as if following injunctions, for he that is humble (when highly placed) falls into errors. Exalt not your heart, that it be not brought low. Be not silent, but beware of interruption and of answering words with heat. Put it far from you; control yourself. The wrathful heart speaks fiery words; it darts out at the man of peace that approaches, stopping his path.

One that reckons accounts all the day passes not a happy moment. One that gladdens his heart all the day provides not for his house. The bowman hits the mark, as the steersman reaches land, by diversity of aim. He that obeys his heart shall command.

Let not a prince be hindered when he is occupied; neither oppress the heart of him that is already laden. For he shall be hostile toward one that delays him, but shall bare his soul unto one that loves him.

The disposal of souls is with the God, and that which He loves is His creation. Set out, therefore, after a violent quarrel; be at peace with him that is hostile unto [you] his opponent. It is such souls that make love to grow.

Instruct a noble in such things as be profitable unto him; cause that he be received among men. Let his satisfaction fall on his master, for your provision depends upon his will. By reason of it your belly shall be satisfied; your back will be clothed thereby. Let him receive your heart, that your house may flourish and your honor-if you wish it to flourish- thereby.

He shall extend you a kindly hand. Further, he shall implant the love of you in the bodies of your friends. Forsooth, it is a soul loving to hearken.

If you be the son of a man of the priesthood, and an envoy to conciliate the multitude, . . speak you without favoring one side. Let it not be said, 'His conduct is that of the nobles, favoring one side in his speech,' Turn your aim toward exact judgments.

If you have been gracious at a former time, having forgiven a man to guide him aright, leave him alone, remind him not after the first day that he has been silent to you [concerning it].

If you be great, after being of no account, and have gotten riches after squalor, being foremost in these in the city, and have knowledge concerning useful matters, so that promotion is come unto you; then swathe not your heart in your hoard, for you are become the steward of the endowments of the God. You are not the last; another shall be your equal, and to him shall come the like [fortune and station].

Bend your back unto your chief, your overseer in the King's palace, for your house depends upon his wealth, and your wages in their season. How foolish is one that quarrels with his chief, for one lives only while he is gracious.

Plunder not the houses of tenants, neither steal the things of a friend, lest he accuse you in your hearing, which thrusts back the heart. If he know of it, he will do you an injury. Quarrelling in place of friendship is a foolish thing.

If you would seek out the nature of a friend, ask it not of any companion of his; but pass a time with him alone, that you injure not his affairs.

Debate with him after a season; test his heart in an occasion of speech. When he has told you his past life, he has made an opportunity that you may either be ashamed for him or be familiar with him.

Be not reserved with him when he opens speech, neither answer him after a scornful manner. Withdraw not yourself from him, neither interrupt him whose matter is not yet ended, whom it is possible to benefit.

Let your face be bright what time you lives. That which goes into the storehouse must come out therefrom ; and bread is to be shared.

He that is grasping in entertainment shall himself have an empty belly; he that causes strife comes himself to sorrow. Take not such an one for your companion.

It is a man's kindly acts that are remembered of him in the years after his life.

Know well your merchants; for when your affairs are in evil case, your good repute among your friends is a channel which is filled. It is more important than the dignities of a man; and the wealth of one passes to another. The good repute of a man's son is a glory unto him; and a good character is for remembrance.

Correct chiefly , instruct conformably [therewith]. Vice must be drawn out, that virtue may remain. Nor is this a matter of misfortune, for one that is a gainsayer becomes a strife maker.

If you make a woman to be ashamed, wanton of heart, one known by her townsfolk to be falsely placed, be kind unto her for a space, send her not away, give her to eat. The wantonness of her heart shall esteem your guidance.

If you obey these things that I have said unto you, all your demeanor shall be of the best; for, verily, the quality of truth is among their excellences. Set the memory of them in the mouths of the people; for their proverbs are good.

Nor shall any word that has here been set down cease out of this land for ever, but shall be made a pattern whereby princes shall speak well. They (my words) shall instruct a man.. how he shall speak, after he has heard them ; yea, he shall become as one skilful in obeying, excellent in speaking, after he has heard them. Good fortune shall befall him, for he shall be of the highest rank. He shall be gracious to the end of his life ; he shall be contented always. His knowledge shall be his guide into a place of security, wherein he shall prosper while on earth.

The scholar shall be content in his knowledge. As to the prince, in his turn, forsooth, his heart shall be happy, his tongue made straight. And [in these proverbs] his lips shall speak, his eyes shall see, and his ears shall hear, that which is profitable for his son, so that he deal justly, void of deceit.

A splendid thing is the obedience of an obedient son; he comes in and listens obediently.

Excellent in hearing, excellent in speaking, is every man that obeys what is noble; and the obedience of one who obeys is a noble thing.

Obedience is better than all things that are it makes good-will.

How good it is that a son should take that from his father by which he has reached old age (Obedience).

That which is desired by the God is obedience; disobedience is abhorred of the God.

Verily, it is the heart that makes its master to obey or to disobey; for the safe and sound life of a man are his heart.

It is the obedient man that obeys what is said; he that loves to obey, the same shall carry out commands.

He that obeys becomes one obeyed.

It is good indeed when a son obeys his father ; and he (his father) that has spoken has great joy of it. Such a son shall be mild as a master, and he that hears him shall obey him that has spoken. He shall be comely in body and honored by his father. His memory shall be in the mouths of the living, those upon earth, as long as they exist

Let a son receive the word of his father, not being heedless of any rule of his. Instruct your son [thus]; for the obedient man is one that is perfect in the opinion of princes. If he direct his mouth by what has been enjoined him, watchful and obedient, your son shall be wise, and his goings seemly. Heedlessness leads unto disobedience on the morrow; but understanding shall establish him. As for the fool, he shall be crushed.

As for the fool, devoid of obedience, he does nothing. Knowledge he regards as ignorance, profitable things as hurtful things. He does all kind of errors, so that he is rebuked therefor every day. He lives in death therewith, it is his food. At chattering speech he marvels, as at the wisdom of princes, living in death every day. He is shunned because of his misfortunes, by reason of the multitude of afflictions that comes upon him every day.

A son that hearkens is as a Follower of Horus. He is good after he hearkens; he grows old, he reaches honor and reverence. He repeats in like manner to his sons and daughters, so renewing the instruction of his father. Each man instructs as did his begetter, repeating it unto his children. Let them [in turn] speak with their sons and daughters, that they may be famous in their deeds. Let that which you speaks implant true things and just in the life of your children. Then the highest authority shall arrive, and sins depart [from them]. And such men as see these things shall say, 'Surely that man has spoken, to good purpose,' and they shall do likewise; or, 'But surely that man was experienced! And all people shall declare, ' It is they that shall direct the multitude ; dignities are not complete without them.'

Take not any word away, neither add one; set not one in the place of another. Beware of opening . . . in yourself.

Be wary of speech when a learned man hearkens unto you; desire to be established for good in the mouth of those that hear you speaking. If you have entered as an expert, speak with exact lips, that your conduct may be seemly.

Be your heart overflowing, but refrain your mouth. Let your conduct be exact while amongst nobles, and seemly before your lord, doing that which he has commanded. Such a son shall speak unto them that hearken to him; moreover, his begetter shall be favored. Apply your heart, what time you speaks, to saying things such that the nobles who listen declare, 'How excellent is that which comes out of his mouth !'

Carry out the behest of your lord to you. How good is the teaching of a man's father, for he has come from him, who has spoken of his son while he was yet unborn ; and that which is done for him (the son) is more than that which is commanded him. Forsooth, a good son is of the gift of the God ; he does more than is enjoined on him, he does right, and puts his heart into all his goings.

If now you attain my position, your body shall flourish, the King shall be content in all that you does, and you shall gather years of life not fewer than I have passed upon earth. I have gathered even five score and ten years of life, for the King has bestowed upon me favors more than upon my forefathers; this because I wrought truth and justice for the King unto mine old age.

IT IS FINISHED FROM ITS BEGINNING TO ITS END EVEN AS FOUND IN WRITING.

Back To Top



Back to Collected Wisdom

Home Page

2009