The Teachings of Ptahhotep: The Oldest Book in the World


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Originally published as “The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep” and also as “The Maxims of Ptahhotep,” the work is believed by some scholars to be the oldest book in the world. Authorship is attributed to Ptahhotep, a vizier under King Isesi of the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2414-2375 BC). It is a collection of maxims and advice in the sebayt (“teaching”) genre on human relations and are provided as instruction for his son. The work survives today in papyrus copies, including the Prisse Papyrus which dates from the Middle Kingdom and is on display at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. There are considerable differences between the Prisse Papyrus version and the two texts at the British Museum. The 1906 translation by Battiscombe Gunn, published as part of the “Wisdom of the East” series and which is reprinted here, was made directly from the Prisse Papyrus, in Paris, rather than from copies. Some lessons include: Learning by listening to everybody and knowing that human knowledge is never perfect are a leitmotif. Avoiding open conflict wherever possible should not be considered weakness. Justice should be pursued and in the end it will be a god’s command that prevails. Greed is the base of all evil and should be guarded against, while generosity towards family and friends is praiseworthy.”

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