"First published around 2388 B.C. Fifth Kemetic (Egyptian) Dynasty under the title: Teachings of the Prefect of the City, Dja Ptahhotep ynder the majesty of the king of the South and the North. Assa Djed-Ka-Ra. living eternally forever."
by Hilliard III Asa G. (Editor), Larry Williams (Editor), Nia Damali (Editor)
…Ptahhotep, instructs the ignorant in the knowledge and in the standards of good speech. A man teaches as he acts… The wise person feeds the soul with what endures, so that it is happy with that person on earth. 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 wise is a person who acts with MAAT [truth, justice, order, balance, harmony, righteousness and reciprocity] and is free of falsehood and disorder.
—Ptahotep 2350 B. C. E.
The Teaching is set at court, with the highest official (´vizier´ in Egyptological translation), a man named Ptahhotep, requesting retirement from the king. The official paints a bleak picture of old age, evidently to convince the king that retirement is necessary, and asks that he be replaced in office by his son as ´staff of old age´, a term also found in a late Middle Kingdom legal document to denote a son taking the office of his father, presumably on condition that he continues to support the father (UC 32037). This term, the Middle Egyptian syntax and the late Middle Kingdom date of the two earliest surviving manuscript copies, point to a Twelfth Dynasty date of composition.
The king consents to the request of Ptahhotep, with the observation that the young cannot be born with wisdom - by implication they need the experience given by advanced age. The Teaching presents then both a positive and the dramatised negative aspects of growing old in ancient Egyptian society.
1 (Papyrus Prisse, column 4, line 1 to column 5, line 4)
The teaching of the Overseer of the City and Vizier Ptahhotep
before the power of the dual king Isesi living for ever and eternity.
The Overseer of the City and Vizier Ptahhotep declares:
O my sovereign,
Old age has struck, age has descended,
Feebleness has arrived, weakness is here again.
Sleep is upon him in discomfort all day.
Eyes are grown small, ears deaf,
Mouth silent, unable to speak,
Heart emptied, unable to recall yesterday.
Bones ache his whole length.
Goodness has turned to evil,
All taste is gone.
What old age does to people is evil in every way.
Nose is blocked, unable to breathe,
how old (it feels) standing or sitting.
Let a staff of old age be decreed to be made for this humble servant.
Let him be told the speech of those who assess,
the advice of the ancestors once heard by the gods.
Then the same may be done for you,
strife may be removed from the populace,
and the Two Shores may toil for you.
2 (Papyrus Prisse, column 5, lines 4-6)
Then the Power of this god said:
Teach him then the speech from the past
that he may provide the example for the children of the great.
May hearing enter into him, the measure of every heart.
Speak to him. For noone can be born wise.
3 (Papyrus Prisse, column 5, lines 6-8)
Beginning of the collection of fine words
Said by the man of the elite, foremost of arm
god´s father and beloved of the god
eldest son of the king of his body
overseer of the city, vizier Ptahhotep
in teaching the ignorant to be wise
according to the rules of fine words,
something useful to whoever heeds,
and something harmful to whoever transgresses it.
4 (Papyrus Prisse, column 5, lines 8-10)
Then he addressed his son:
Do not be proud on account of your knowledge,
but discuss with the ignorant as with the wise.
The limits of art cannot be delivered;
there is no artist whose talent is fulfilled.
Fine words are more sought after than greenstone,
but can be found with the women at the grindstone.
5 (Papyrus Prisse, column 5, lines 10-13)
If you meet an opponent in his moment
A director of heart who is superior to you,
bend your arms and bow;
do not take up your heart against him,
for he will not be swayed for you.
You can belittle bad speaking
by not clashing with him in his moment;
it will mean he is called a fool,
when your self-restraint has subdued his excess.
6 (Papyrus Prisse, column 5, lines 13-14)
If you meet an opponent in his moment
Your equal, a man from your levels,
silence is how you establish your superiority over him,
while he is bad mouthing,
greatly to the disgust of the assessors,
and your name is the good one in the mind of the officials.
7 (Papyrus Prisse column 6, lines 1-3)
If you meet an opponent in his moment
Who is a poor man, and not your equal,
do not vent your hear on him by his wretchedness.
Put him on land for him to oppose himself.
Do not pour out your heart at the man facing you.
The demolition of a wretched heart is a difficult matter.
What you wish will be done;
beat him with the hostility of the officials.
8 (Papyrus Prisse column 6, lines 3-6)
If you are to be among leaders
at a command for the condition of the multitude,
seek out for yourself every effective moment,
until your condition reaches faultlessness.
What is right is great, and (its) keenness enduring.
It has not been overturned since the time of Osiris.
The one who overlooks laws is punished;
that is what is overlooked in the sight of the greedy.
It is the small-minded that seize riches,
but crime never managed to land its rewards.
Whoever says ´I snare for myself´
does not say ´I snare for my needs´.
The final part of what is right is its endurance;
of which a man says ´that is my father´
9 (Papyrus Prisse column 6, lines 8-10)
Do not cause fear among people
God punishes with the same.
Anyone who says ´I can live by it´
will lack bread for his statement.
Anyone who say ´I can be powerful´
will have to say ´I snare against myself by my cleverness´.
Anyone who says he will strike another,
will end by being given to a stranger.
10 (Papyrus Prisse column 6, line 11- column 7, line 3)
If you are a man at a sitting
at the table place of one greater than you,
take whatever he causes to be set before you,
do not stare at what is before him,
do not pierce it with many glances
Pressing it is an offence to the ka.
Do not speak to him until he has requested:
you never know what may displease.
Speak when he questions you,
and your speech will please.
A great man, when he is at a meal,
behaviour following the command of his ka,
he will give to the one he favours,
that is the night-time behaviour that happens
- only a fool complains about it.
11 (Papyrus Prisse column 7, lines 3-5)
If you are a man of entry
sent by official to official,
be precise in the form he sent you
carry out the mission for him as he says.
Guard against harming with words,
embroiling official with official.
Grasp what is right by its likeness;
an outburst of the heart is not repeated
from the speech of all people.
12 (Papyrus Prisse column 7, lines 5-7)
If you plough for plants on the margins,
the god grants it to be great by your hand
Do not inflate your mouth beside your neighbours;
to inspire awe by being silent is greater.
A master of character who is master of wealth,
he seizes like a crocodile in the council.
Do not scorn the childless man,
do not bemean by boasting over it.
Even a father can have his plenty of grief;
a mother who has given birth may be less happy than a maid.
It is the lone man that the god fosters,
while the lord of a clan may beg to be followed.
13 (Papyrus Prisse column 7, lines 7-9)
If you are weak, follow a man of excellence
and all your conduct will be good before god.
When you have known lesser men before,
do not be proud against him,
from what you knew of him before.
Respect him according to what he has become,
for goods do not come of their own accord.
This is their law for their desire.
An overflow - he has assembled it of himself.
It is the god who makes him excellent,
and protects him while he sleeps.
14 (Papyrus Prisse column 7, lines 9-10)
Follow your heart as long as you live.
Do not make a loss on what is said,
do not subtract time from following the heart.
Harming its time is an offence to the ka.
Do not deflect the moment of every day
beyond establishing your heart.
As things happen, follow (your) heart.
There is no profit in things if it is stifled.
15 (Papyrus Prisse column 7, line 10 to column 8, line 2)
If you are a man of excellence
and produce a son in the favour of god,
if he follows precisely the outline of your character,
and ties your things to their proper place,
do everything good for him,
for he is your son, he belongs to the shooting of your ka
Do not separate your heart from him.
Seed may make a disputant;
if he wanders, and breaks your advice,
and has rebelled against all that is said,
and his mouth wanders into evil speech,
battle him in all his words.
He who attacks you is the one they have condemned.
It means it was decreed that he be smitten (from the time he was) in the womb.
Their guidance does not stray,
their stranded never find a ferry.
16 (Papyrus Prisse column 8, lines 2-6)
If you are in the approach hall
stand and sit at every step
as was ordered to you on the first day.
Do not waver - that causes your expulsion
The sight of the one who enters to report is keen,
the space of the one he has summoned is broad.
The approach hall follows regulations,
every move according to the measure.
It is the god who promotes a place
Those who push forward are not made.
17 (Papyrus Prisse column 8, lines 6-11)
If you are to be with people
appoint for yourself people you can trust,
and be trustworthy.
The man without speech running through his body
is the one who becomes a commander himself.
A master of goods - what is he like?
Your good name is that you do not speak.
Your body is fattened for you more than your contemporaries.
You receive praise from those you do not know.
When a heart heeds only its belly,
it puts resentment of it in place of love of it.
His heart is afflicted, his body unkempt.
The great of heart is the gift of god,
the one who obeys his body belongs to the enemy.
18 (Papyrus Prisse column 8, lines 11-14)
Report your matters without hesitating
give your advice in the council of your master.
Anyone fully fluent in speaking,
will find no difficulty in being a messenger in reporting.
Noone will contest ´but who can know it?´
It is the one who exceeds his field who comes unstuck -
if he intends to prevail by it,
he has to be silent at the words ´I said so´.
19 (Papyrus Prisse column 8, line 14 to column 9, line 3)
If you are a leader
with broad scope in what is commanded to you,
you should do outstanding things,
so as to be remembered in days to come.
A (legal) case does not arise out of the midst of praises.
The hidden beast intrudes - and then there is resistance.
20 (Papyrus Prisse column 9, lines 3-7)
If you are to be a leader
be patient in your hearing when the petitioner speaks,
do not halt him until his belly is emptied
of what he had planned to have said.
The victim loves to sate his heart
even more than accomplishing what he came for -
if a petition is halted,
people say ´but why did he break that rule?´.
Not everything for which he petitions can come to be,
but a good hearing is soothing for the heart.
21 (Papyrus Prisse column 9, lines 7-13)
If you wish friendship to last
within a house you may enter,
as master, as brother, or as friend,
anywhere you may enter,
resist approaching the wife.
It is not good for the place where it is done,
It is not clever to open it up,
A thousand men are tied against what is good for them;
a little moment is like a dream,
but death is reached by knowing it.
It is a vile twist to shoot the enemy,
it comes out on his doing, the heart restraining him.
The one who fails by lusting for her,
no plan succeeds by his hand.
22 (Papyrus Prisse column 9, line 13 to column 10, line 5)
If you wish your conduct to be good
and to save yourself from all evil,
resist the opportunity of greed.
It is a sore disease of the worm,
no advance can come of it.
It embroils fathers and mothers,
with mother´s brothers.
It entangles the wife and the man,
it is a levy of all evils,
a bundle of all hatefulness.
The man endures whose guideline is Right,
who proceeds according to his paces.
He can draw up a will by it.
There is no tomb for the greedy hearted.
23 (Papyrus Prisse column 10, lines 5-8)
Do not be greedy over a share,
do not be jealous of what is not your due,
do not be greedy against your kin.
The mild man receives more respect than the strong.
The one who goes out under his kin is a miserable man,
deprived of the profit of speech.
A fraction of the object of greed
creates a quarreler out of a cool temperament.
24 (Papyrus Prisse column 10, lines 8-12)
If you are excellent, found your household,
love your wife within reckoning.
Fill her belly, clother her back,
ointment is the remedy for her body.
Gladden her heart as long as you live.
It is a field of benefit for its lord.
Do not impose her in affairs.
Distance her from power, restrain her.
Her eye is her storm when it sees.
This is what keeps her in your house.
Your quelling her, is water.
The womb puts her in her arms.
In her turmoil a canal is made for her.
25 (Papyrus Prisse column 11, lines 1-4)
Make your staff happy with what has come to you,
it has come to one whom the god favours.
Anyone neglecting the happiness of his staff
is called a spirit of hoarding.
Noone know what is coming, when planning tomorrow.
The spirit of the correct man is the spirit that brings happiness.
If moments of praising arise,
it is the staff who would cheer.
Food cannot be brought to town
staff are fetched when there is shortage.
26 (Papyrus Prisse column 11, lines 5-8)
Do not repeat slander
and do not listen to it.
It is the result of the hot-headed.
Repeat a word after seeing,
not heard entirely skewed.
See, what is before you is fine knowledge.
When a levy is decreed to take place,
the one made to exact it is hated, by law.
Slander is like a moment of dreaming,
See what is the remedy for the dream -
27 (Papyrus Prisse column 11, lines 8-11)
If you are as a man of excellence,
sitting in the council of his master,
rally every heart to excellence.
Your silence is more benefit than creeping talk.
You should say what you know how to explain.
There are artists of words in the council,
speaking is more difficult than any labour.
The one who can explain is the one who makes it work.
28 (Papyrus Prisse column 11, line 12 to column 12, line 6)
If you are powerful in causing respect for you,
by knowledge, by calming in speech,
do not order people, except by the guidelines.
The aggressive man ends up in trouble.
Do not have your heart too high, or it will be brought down.
Do not stay silent if it makes you stumble.
When you answer the speech of a fiery man,
distance your sight, restrain yourself.
The spear of a hothead flies past,
but a fine mover has his path smoothed.
A man who worries all day long
will never be allowed a good moment.
A man who lazes all day long
will never have a solid house.
A shot filled is like an oar abandoned on the ground,
when another is taken,
his heart has obeyed the wish ´if only I had...´
29 (Papyrus Prisse column 12, lines 6-9)
Do not block the moment of a great man
do not constrain the desire of one who is laden down.
Barriers from him arise against the one who disputes with him,
there is release for the ka with the one who shows love for him.
This is the gift of sustenance, this and the god.
What he loves is action for him.
When the face is turned back to you, after a storm,
there follows peace before his ka,
and barriers before the enemy.
Planting love brings sustenance.
30 (Papyrus Prisse column 12, lines 9-13)
Instruct the great in what is useful for him
Foster his image in the sight of people,
cause his wisdom to fall in front of his lord,
and there may be rewards for you too before his ka.
The stomach of the loved will be content,
your back will be clothed by it,
his image will be over you for the life of your house,
Your noble, the one you love,
he is alive by it.
When he makes a good gesture, do not be silent.
This is indeed the guarantee of your love in the body of those who love you.
See, it is the ka that loves to listen.
31 (Papyrus Prisse column 13, lines 1-4)
If you play the son of a man of a council,
a messenger for pleasing the multitude,
select the fringes of action.
In speaking do not take sides,
in case he speaks his opinion:
´officials, he sets the case on that side´,
and your mistake is turned into judgement.
32 (Papyrus Prisse column 13, lines 4-6)
If you show mercy on a past failure,
incline to a man for his virtue.
Pass over him, do not recall it,
since he might stay silent for you on day one.
33 (Papyrus Prisse column 13, lines 6-9)
If you are rich after your impoverishment,
and acquire property after lack of it,
in the city that you have known,
with awareness of what happened to you before,
do not place your trust in your wealth.
It came to you by the gifts of the god,
so you will not be behind another like you,
but the same could happen to him
34 (Papyrus Prisse column 13, line 9 to column 14, line 4)
Bend your back to your superior,
your overseer of the king´s domain,
and your house will be fixed on its goods,
your rewards in their place.
The man who struggles with the superior is an irritant.
You live as long as the superior is pleased with you.
The shoulder is not injured by being exposed.
Do not seize the house of neighbours,
do not suppress anything close to you,
it gives no results in anything.
Let him not speak ill of you before you have heard.
A troublemaker is a man with no mind.
Whoever is known as a quarreller,
there is trouble for the struggler in places near to him.
35 (Papyrus Prisse column 14, lines 4-6)
Do not have sex with a child woman
when you knew the approach to the water of its chest.
There is no cooling what is in his body.
Do not go mad on making the approach.
He is cool after damaging his heart.
36 (Papyrus Prisse column 14, lines 6-12)
If you seek out the character of a friend,
do not make your own enquiries, go direct to him,
make the case with him alone
to avoid suffering in his matter.
Debate with him after a period of time,
and try his heart in the matter of the case.
If what he has seen come out through him,
and he does the matter that angers you about him,
or that makes him a friend,
do not seize the sight,
be collected, do not deluge him with words,
do not reply with a slight,
do not react against him by destroying him.
His moment cannot fail to come.
Noone can escape from what is fated for him.
37 (Papyrus Prisse column 14, line 12 to column 15, line 2)
Let your face be bright as long as you live.
Whoever leaves the store cannot enter.
It is the bread of sharing that causes envy.
A man with an empty stomach is a man to complain;
the opponent is born out of impoverishment.
Do not make him into someone to approach you.
Favour is the memory of a man
in the years after ruin.
38 (Papyrus Prisse column 15, lines 2-5)
Know your plumage and your property will last.
Do not be mean in your character towards your friends.
They are his river field when it floods, more important than his riches.
They are the property of one for another.
The quality of a son of a someone is good for him;
good character will be remembered.
39 (Papyrus Prisse column 15, lines 5-6)
Punish from the head, teach by character.
The force against a criminal will be a model example.
Any instance except for results
is what makes a moaner turn into an active opponent.
40 (Papyrus Prisse column 15, lines 6-8)
If you marry a good-time girl
A joyful woman known to her town,
If she is wayward,
and revels in the moment,
do not reject her, but instead let her enjoy;
joyfulness is what marks calm water.
41 (Papyrus Prisse column 15, line 8 to column 16, line 2)
If you heed these things that I have told you
all your conduct will move forward.
Their holding true, that is their wealth.
The memory of them moves in the mouth of people
from the excellence of their phrasing.
When every saying has been brought,
it does not perish in this land forever.
Doing it is a matter for goodness,
the words of the officials follow it.
This is the teaching of a man to speak to posterity,
hearing it he becomes an attentive craftsman.
It is good to speak to posterity, for it will hear it.
If there good cases arise from the one who is the superior,
he will be eternally effective,
all his wisdom will last forever.
The wise man nourishes his soul
by establishing his goodness with it on earth.
The wise man is famed for what he has learned,
it is the official who is after good conduct.
from the action of his heart and his tongue,
his lips are reliable when he is speaking,
and his eyes in seeing,
his ears intent in hearing what is useful for his son.
Who does what is right, is free from falsehood.
42 (Papyrus Prisse column 16, lines 3-13)
Hearing is good for a son who hears,
hearing enters into the hearer.
The hearer becomes one who is heard.
Hearing is good, as speech is good.
The hearer is the master of what is useful.
Hearing is good for the hearer,
hearing is better than any other thing;
love of good comes into being.
How beautiful it is when a son receives what his father says.
Old age is achieved for him by it.
The hearer is one whom the god loves.
The one whom god hates does not hear.
The heart is the creator of its master.
Do not hear from the one who does not hear.
A man´s heart is his life, prosperity and health.
It is the hearer who hears the speaker,
the one who acts according to what is said is the one who loves hearing.
How good when a a son listens to his father.
How joyful is the one to whom this is said.
A son who is handsome is a hearing lord.
The hearer to whom it is said is effective in the body.
Mempory of him is in the mouth of the people,
Those who are on earth, and those who will be.
43 (Papyrus Prisse column 16, line 13 to column 17, line 4)
If the son of a someone receives what his father says,
There can be no wavering for any of his plans.
Instruct your son to be a good hearer,
who will be excellent in the hearts of the officials,
guiding his mouth according to what he has been told,
seen as a hearer.
The son who excels, his steps are distinguished,
but there is no straight way in for the one who fails to hear.
The morning of the wise man will be his security,
while the fool is pressed down.
44 (Papyrus Prisse column 17, lines 4-9)
As for the fool unable to hear,
nothing can ever be done for him.
He sees wisdom as ignorance,
and what is good as what is painful.
He commits every error,
to be accused of it each day.
He lives on what one dies of,
corrupt speect is his food.
His character in this is well-known to the officials,
saying ´living death´ each day.
His faults are passed over
from the sheer number of faults on him each day.
45 (Papyrus Prisse column 17, line 10 to column 18, line 12)
A son who hears is a follower of Horus
It is good for him after he hears.
In his old age he achieves revered status.
He can tell the same to his children,
renewing the teaching of his father.
Every man teaches by his deeds.
He tells on to the children,
and they can tell their children.
Show character, do not pass on your weaknesses.
Securing what is right, is the life of your children
As for the principal who arrives with wrongdoing,
people say what they see
´that is exactly how that man is´
to say to those who will hear
´that is exactly how that man is´ too.
Their everyone sees, and the multitude is pacified.
There is no profit in riches without them.
Do not remove a word, do not add it.
Do not put one in place of another.
Fight against opening up the bonds on you.
Guard against a man of experience saying
´listen up, if you wish to be secure
in the mouth of those who hear;
speak up when you have penetrated the case of the craftsman´.
You speak at the case of closure,
and all your plans will fall into place.
46 (Papyrus Prisse column 18, line 12 to column 19, line 3)
Flood your heart, restrain your mouth
then your plans will be among the officials.
Be straight in character before your lord.
Do as he has said, that is the son,
sothose who hear it say
´indeed favour gave birth to him´.
Say things of distinction,
so the officials who hear may say
´how perfect is the issue of his mouth´.
47 (Papyrus Prisse column 19, lines 3-8)
Do as your master has said for you.
How good is one instructed by his father
when he emerged from him out of his body,
and he told him, while he was in the body, entirely,
May what he has done be greater than what he was told.
See, a good son, by the gift of the god,
surpassing what he was told before his lord.
He does what is right.
His heart has acted according to his set steps.
As you reach me, your body intact,
the king content with everything,
take years of life.
What I have done on earth is not little.
I took 110 years of life
by the grant of the king to me,
favour ahead of the ancestors,
from doing what is right for the king until the stage of revered status.
The Teachings of Ptahhotep: A Training Manual for 21st Century African Leaders
“No one is born wise.”
IN the main, the European neocolonialist orchestrated attempt by African elites to superimpose European-style political institutions and economic practices on African societies has met with dismal failure. The oppressive political and stagnant economic conditions in most African nations bear witness to this truth. Unfortunately, European, American, Japanese and other non-African models of economic and political development are not suitable for and thus not transferable to most of Africa because theses models when not adversarial to, do not arise from, traditional African cultural values, beliefs, and institutions.
When it comes to African development, there are no quick fixes or easy solutions. Again, this is most unfortunate because it means that African leaders and intellectuals who sincerely wish to modernize their societies must begin the arduous task known to the Akan people of Ghana, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire as sankofa. Sankofa means to actively seek and then embrace the wisdom of one’s ancestors (the past) in order to establish correct practices which allows one to build successfully for the future. If Africa is to reclaim its sovereignty, re-Africanize (modernize) its nations, and fulfill its destiny as a global force for peace and justice, it cannot accomplish any of this simply by importing and then adapting English, American, French, German, Portuguese, Japanese and other non-African political, economic and cultural ideologies and institutions the way it imports and adapts their manufactured goods.
African leaders – most of whom receive their schooling at European or American colleges and universities – are in dire need of African centered leadership models, materials and resources. Most of these they must develop for themselves; no one can or should do this work for them. As we move deeper into what Europeans call the 21st century, African people and their leaders will discover that they must abandon non African theories and models of national development and return to the teachings and practices of their wisest ancestors for correct inspiration and guidance. In this spirit and toward this end, The Teaching of Ptahhotep is an ideal place to begin.
BELIEVED to be the oldest book in the world and originally published in Kmt (ancient Egypt) in 2388 BCE, The Teachings of Ptahhotep are the distilled political and social wisdom of a brillant priest who served as a high-level government official in the service of Pharaoh Menkauhor (2396-2388 BCE). Said to be the grand uncle and known to be the tutor of Pharaoh Assa Djed-Ka-Ra (2388-2356 BCE), Ptahhotep was thought to be of noble birth, in fact, the eldest son of a pharaoh. But he renounced the throne in favor of the priesthood, and in this role he served as an advisor to political leaders. Ptahhotep was reputed to have been 110-years-old when he wrote his book, which was published under the imposing title Teachings of the Prefect of the City, Dja Ptahhotep under the Majesty of the King of the South and the North, Assa Djed-Ka-Ra.
A copy of The Teachings was discovered in the early 1800s by a French archeologist named E. Prisse d’Avennes in a tomb on the west bank of the Hapi (Nile) River across from Waset (Thebes/Luxor), the political and intellectual capitol of Kmt. Written on 18-pages of papyrus in a style derivative from mdw ntr (hieroglyphics) called heiratic, The Teachings were given to the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, which published the text in French in 1847. Though Maulana Karenga (1984) in Selections from the Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt provides an abridged translation of The Teachings that is insightful, this essay references the Hilliard, Williams and Damali (1987) translation.
Thought to be a fragment of a larger body of ancient African wisdom instruction called Seboyet, much of which is now lost to the world, the 18-page text contains two sets of documents. The shorter, older document contains the opening passages of instructions to Kagame, a scribe who lived during the reign of Pharaoh Seneferu (2575-2551 BCE), the reputed builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The second document, known as the Prisse Papyrus, is Ptahhotep’s 14-page book, which is the subject of this essay.
Instructions for African Leaders and Followers
AS the “eyes and ears” of the pharaoh, Ptahhotep traveled extensively throughout Kmt talking with, and more important, listening to people from all walks of life. A keen observer and student of human nature deeply committed to the maintenance, preservation and restoration of ma’at, Ptahhotep held immense power and influence in Kmt. Not only was he the pharaoh’s vizier or prime minister, he was also entrusted by his superiors with the mayoralty of Waset. And it is in that capacity that he spoke wisdom (condensed into 37 verses) instructive for present-day Africans who aspire to both leadership and followership roles. Sixteen of his 37 verses speak directly to leaders and followers.
In Verse 5, for example, he says to leaders: “If you are a man who leads, a man who controls the affairs of many, then seek the most perfect way of performing your responsibility so that your conduct will be blameless.” Admonishing leaders in Verse 25, Ptahhotep states: “If you are mighty and powerful, then gain respect through knowledge and through your gentleness of speech… When you answer one who is fuming, turn your face and control yourself. The flame of the hot-hearted sweeps across everything. But he who steps gently, his path is a paved road.”
He instructs followers in Verse 8, with these words: “If you are a person of trust sent by one great person to another great person, be careful to stick to the essence of the message that you were asked to transmit. Give the message exactly as he gave it to you. Guard against provocative speech, which makes one great person angry with another. Just keep to the truth…” In Verse 24, Ptahhotep further counsels followers: “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.”
A final strength of Ptahhotep’s work is his succinct, eloquently-stated views on a number of topics central to African leadership success like marriage, friendship, child-rearing, conflict resolution and the perils of greed and lust. Regarding these last two – greed and lust, the bane of countless African leaders – Ptahhotep devotes seven verses. In Verse 20, for example, he advises: “Do not be greedy in the division of things. Do not covet more than your share. Don’t be greedy toward your relatives.”
And, he cautions men in Verse 18: “If you are one who fails through lust of women, then no affair of yours can prosper.” This comprehensiveness adds to the value of this remarkable little volume.
THOUGH written more than 4,000 years ago, The Teachings of Ptahhotep contain insights that are Pan-African, timeless and universal. All would-be African leaders would benefit from the wisdom of this noble ancestor. In fact, The Teachings, along with its companion volume The Book of Coming Forth by Day – the source of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments – should be required reading for African political, economic, and religious leaders throughout the global African community. As the world’s first textbook, Ptahhotep’s precepts were studied and practiced by the leadership in ancient Africa a thousand years before the coming of the Hebrews, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and others.
Finally, The Teachings embody African leadership thought at its best and in a future essay, it will be contrasted with the classic European leadership text, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1513.