The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep: Summary & Notes

Front cover of The Instructions of Ptah-Hotep.

In short

The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep is a collection of aphorisms of Ptah-Hotep, a high ranking official under Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi. Arguably this is the oldest book in the world, being written around 2300-2400 BCE. (Or, at least, the oldest that is still easily orderable and available in print today.)

Do these aphorisms sound dated? Absolutely. But what’s incredible is not that some of them are dated, but that plenty of them are not. Many of the instructions from Ptah-hotep relate to human nature, and this has changed but little over the last four thousand years.

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Book Summary & Notes

“Do not be proud and arrogant with your knowledge. Consult and converse with the ignorant and the wise, for the limits of art are not reached. No artist ever possesses that perfection to which eh should aspire. Good speech is more hidden than greenstone (emeralds), yet it may be found among maids at the grindstones.”

“A person of character is a person of wealth.”

“If you are among the people then gain your supporters by building trust. The trusted man is one who does not speak the first thing that comes to mind; and he will become a leader. A man of means has a good name, and his face is benign. People will praise him even without his knowledge. On the other hand, he whose heart obeys his belly asks for contempt of himself in the place of love. His heart is naked. His body is unanointed. The great hearted is a gift of God. He who is ruled by his appetite belongs to the enemy.”

“If you are a man who leads, a man whose authority reaches widely, then you should do perfect things, those who posterity will remember. Don’t listen to the words of flatterers or to words that puff you up with pride and vanity.”

“If you want to have perfect conduct, to be free from every evil, then above guard against the vice of greed. Greed is a grievous sickness that has no cure. There is no treatment for it. It embroils fathers, mothers and the brothers of the mother. It parts the wife from the husband. Greed is a compound of all the evils. It is a bundle of all hateful things. That person endures whose rule is rightness, who walks a straight line, for that person will leave a legacy by such behaviour. On the other hand, the greedy has no tomb.”

“Do not be greedy in the division of things. Do not covet more than your share. Don’t be greedy towards your relatives. A mild person has a greater claim than the harsh one. Poor is the person who forgets his relatives. He is deprived of their company. Even a little bit of what is wanted will turn a quarreler into a friendly person.”

“Don’t repeat slander nor should you even listen to it. It is the spouting of the hot bellied. Just report a thing that has been observed, not something that has been heard secondhand. If it is something negligible, don’t even say anything. He who is standing before you will recognize your worth. Slander is like a terrible dream against which one covers the face.”

“If you are a man of worth who sits at the council of a leader, concentrate on being excellent. Your silence is much better than boasting. Speak when you know that you have a solution. It is the skilled person who should speak when in council. Speaking is harder than all other work. The one who understands this makes speech a servant.”

“If you are mighty and powerful then gain respect through knowledge and through you gentleness of speech. Don’t order things except as it is fitting. The one who provokes others gets into trouble. Don’t be haughty lest you be humbled. But also don’t be mute lest you be chided. When you answer one who is fuming, turn your face and control yourself. The flame of the hot hearted sweeps across every thing. But he who steps gently, his path is a paved road. He who is agitated all days has no happy moments but he who amuses himself all day can’t keep his fortune.”

“If you are angered by a misdeed, then lean toward a man on account of his rightness.”

“Be generous as long as you live. What leaves the storehouse does not return. It is the food in the storehouse that one must share that is coveted. One whose belly is empty becomes an accuser. One who is deprived becomes an opponent. Therefore, do not have an accuser or an opponent as a neighbour. Your kindness to your neighbours will be a memorial to you for years, after you satisfy their needs.”

“The wise is known by his good actions. The heart of the wise matches his or her tongue and his or her lips are straight when he or she speaks. The wise have eyes that are made to see and ears that are made to hear what will profit the offspring.”

“The fool who does not hear, he can do nothing at all. He looks at ignorance and sees knowledge. He looks at harmfulness and sees usefulness. He does everything that one detests and is blamed for it every day. He lives on the things by which one dies. His food is evil speech.”

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