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16 June, 2009

No Dark Sarcasm In the Classroom

The children of the literate classes in Egypt were taught reading and writing by rote repetition. Many of the texts that they copied over and over again were instructions on proper behaviour, and thus literacy came with pedantic instruction in local values. So, for this Pagan Values Month post, I will explore one of these texts with an eye to general overview. I have chosen The Wisdom of Amenopet for this purpose, rather than selecting from multiple texts; link provided for those who want to see a translation. (For those who want to know what specific translation I'm working with, I'm using Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology with translations by John L. Foster because it happens to be my book of Egyptian writings near the computer at the moment.) Traditionally speaking, these wisdom texts were supposed to have been written by ancient sages for the proper instruction of their sons.

(A value of reconstruction: citing sources.)

One can see in Amenopet's writing that he lived in, and valued, a society that was ordered, heirarchical, polite, and prudent. He treats the gods as a given, declaring that truth is a matter of the God's love (the offering most commonly presented to the gods in wall decoration is a figurine of Ma'at, representing truth and justice, among other things), and expects his son to appreciate each day as the gift of the gods, as such is far wiser than sinking into mundane expectation that one day is just like another.

He has a great deal of advice on how to deal with people in a civil manner. He disapproves of snarky messages (either sending them or appreciating them), which probably has me in trouble. He suggests the generally prudent values of not arguing with hotheads, leaving the quarrelsome's generalised bitchiness in the hands of the gods, being generally polite with opponents, and not giving enemies an excuse to go overt with hostilities. He disapproves of negative gossip and suggests that his son should speak the good he knows of others, not the ill; in fact, he suggests avoiding abrasiveness in conversation altogether (there's another rough one). He disapproves of eavesdropping on judges and government officials.

Simple politeness expands to a certain generosity of spirit in Amenopet's eyes. He suggests taking time out of a workday to speak to widows, lending an arm to drunken old men and giving them the support that their children might provide if they were present, and forgiving two-thirds of the debts held by the poor. If there is beer in his son's jug, he ought not turn away a thirsty stranger. His son is encouraged not merely to not cheat the laborers of their fair day's wages (Egyptian laborers were paid in food) but to measure out their meals as if he were laying out food for a friend. Care and charity for the poor ought to be greater than debt to the mighty, and judging the poor should be done without harshness. If life is a ferry ride, he is not to leave people behind at the dock, should not worry too much about collecting fares, and should take his fair turn at the oar without demanding special treatment. It is unjust to use power to oppress those who do not have it, and Amenopet specifically mentions widows and the elderly in that category; he also objects to mocking the disabled.

He has a lot to say about living in a just society. He lists off a dozen different forms of fraud in order to say "don't do any of these": moving boundary-stones, falsifying weights, crafting false weights, falsifying writings, altering scales and balances, changing proportions of measures. On top of this he notes that messing with the planting of another man's land produces no benefit, but cultivating that man's good will does. He disapproves of associating with swindlers and thieves. He disapproves of threats and bribes, though he will allow as how it may be wise to speak what praise one can for someone who offers a bribe ... in case they come back. He goes so far as to suggest that one should not accuse others of criminal behaviour, for one does not know what motivated their actions; I imagine one 24601 would have appreciated that one. He suggests neither accepting favors from the powerful nor harassing the weak in their name.

There is a delicate balance of status to be navigated here, as well. It is important to know one's place; it is also possible that, by doing good, a god will chose to elevate one's station. This is not to be counted upon or begged for, because pleading for such things proves an unworthiness. One should not hang out in bars looking for someone important to latch on to and toady to, nor should one hold back dues to the temple in the hope of accumulating more. One should not covet the goods of the poor, for they have enough damn problems; instead, look after them. Nor should one covet the goods of the rich, for if the rich man asks one to administer his property, how could one do that honorably if one wants it for one's own? Both seeking wealth and seeking poverty are inappropriate in Amenopet's view of the world: a properly balanced personality will be provided with the gods with sufficiency, and wealth aside from that is a matter of luck or fate.

There is a great deal, as well, about putting on a correct social face. Some of this reflects the heirarchical nature of Egyptian society: to not criticise the conversations of the great, to not eat before a nobleman, to not backtalk superiors, to remember that a servant will serve a master's interests. At the same time, he advocates a certain set of attitudes so that his son's reputation will be a protection to him: his integrity should be so publically known that it is a comfort to his neighbors. He should be a good friend; if a friend is troubled, he should neither silence nor provoke into greater agitation, but rather let the friend speak, hear the issues with an understanding of where that friend is coming from, and attempt to bring about peace through listening. Amenopet holds the good will and good speech of others to be more valuable than the contents of storehouses. Another line I will simply quote from the translation, for it is too fantastic to paraphrase: "A strong arm is not weakened by discretion, nor is one's back made safe by bowing."

The Egyptian focus on truthfulness is clear throughout the writing. Not merely falsehood is denigrated, but the specifics of speaking false praise, of keeping quiet about one's goals so that others will be unable to interfere with them, and passing false laws get their own mentions. He is against not merely perjury, but babbling on in court. Goals achieved by lies are rotten in the heart, he says - the heart, the shrine of right action - and will come to no good in the end.

There is, further, a thread of prudence throughout the work. Take care of your health, Amenopet tells his son. Sleep on it before you speak. Pursue self-sufficiency in your fields, for work well-done brings the most satisfaction, and it is better to stand on your own feet than be dependent or deceive for sustenance. Do not overeat and indulge to excess, and do not associate with those who do. (Amenopet would not have approved of certain aspects of Roman high society.) You cannot know what tomorrow will bring, and you are of this time, not any other; live accordingly.

So. A set of values put forth by an Egyptian sage, and inculcated in generations of schoolboys.

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