Vizier of Isesi (Djedkare)
2388-2356 B.C.

Ptah-hotep was a priest of Ma'at and the author of a famous book of moral instructions, in which he tells us he was the vizier of King Isesi.

  This picture of Ptah-hotep comes from the well-preserved mastaba tomb he shares with his father, Akhti-hotep. It shows him wearing and holding many status symbols, including the fillet worn in the hair by Old-Kingdom officials of all levels, the golden collar of a nobleman, the long vizier's smock, a sekhem-sceptre, and the staff of a high official.

The Instruction of Ptah-hotep is available online in the original hieroglyphs. The selections below are from "The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt" by Joseph Kaster.

Selections from
The Instruction of Ptah-hotep

The instruction of the superintendent of the capital, the vizier, Ptah-hotep, under the majesty of King Isesi, who lives forever and ever.

So spoke he unto the majesty of King Isesi: Old age has come and dotage has descended. The limbs are painful, and the state of being old appears as something new. Strength has perished for weariness. The mouth is silent and speaks not. The eyes are shrunken and the ears deaf. The heart is forgetful and remembers not yesterday. The bone, it suffers in old age, and the nose is stopped up and breathes not. To stand up and to sit down are alike ill. Good is become evil. Every taste has perished. What old age does to a man is that it fares ill with him in all things.

Let therefore this servant be bidden to make himself a staff of old age; let my son be set in my place, that I may instruct him in the discourse of those who hearken, and in the thoughts of those who have gone before, those who have served the ancestors in times past. May they do the like for you, that strife may be banished from among the people, and the Two Riverbanks may serve you.

Said His Majesty: "Instruct him in discourse first. May he set an example to the children of the great; may obedience enter into him, and every right conception of him who speaks unto him. There is no child that of itself has understanding."

The beautifully-expressed utterances, spoken by the prince and count, the Father of the God and Beloved of the God, the bodily son of the king, the superintendent of the capital and vizier, Ptah-hotep, while instructing the ignorant in knowledge and in the rules of elegant discourse, the weal of him who will hearken thereto and the woe of him who shall transgress them.

Be not arrogant because of your knowledge, and have no confidence in that you are a learned man. Take counsel with the ignorant as with the wise, for the limits of art cannot be reached, and no artist fully possesses his skill. Good words are more hidden than the precious green stone, and yet it may be found with slave girls over the milestones.

If you find an orator at his time, with sound sense and better than you, bend your arm and bow. But if he speaks ill, then fail not to withstand him, in order that men may call out to him: "Ignorant one!"

But if it is an equal of yours, show yourself by silence to be better than he, when he speaks ill. Then will he be praised by the listeners, but your name will be accounted good among the great.

If he is a humble person, who is not your equal, be not wrathful against him, for you know that he is of no account. Disregard him, and so he punishes himself. It is bad if one injures one that is despicable. You smite him with the punishment of the great.

If you are a leader and give command to the multitude, strive after every excellence, until there be no fault in your nature. Truth is good and its worth is lasting, and it has not been disturbed since the day of its creator, whereas he who transgresses its ordinances is punished. It lies as a right path in front of him who knows nothing. Wrongdoing has never yet brought its venture to port. Evil may indeed win wealth, but the strength of truth is that it endures.

If you desire your conduct to be good, to set yourself free from all that is evil, then beware of covetousness, which is a malady, diseaseful, incurable. Intimacy with it is impossible; it makes the sweet friend bitter, it alienates the trusted one from the master, it makes bad both father and mother, together with the brothers of the mother, and it divorces a man's wife. It is a bundle of every kind of evil, and a bag of everything that is blameworthy. Long-lived is the man whose rule of conduct is right, and who goes in accordance with his right course. He wins wealth thereby, but the covetous has no tomb.

If you are a man of note, who sits in the council of his lord, fix your heart upon what is good. Be silent -- this is better than teftef-flowers. Speak only if you know that you can unravel the difficulty. It is an artist who can speak in council, and to speak is harder than any other work.

If you be grown great, after you were of small account, and have gotten you substance after you were aforetime needy, forget not how it fared with you in time past. Trust not in your riches, that have accrued to you as a gift of the god. You are not better than another who is your equal, to whom the same has happened.

As for the fool who hears not, he can do nothing at all. He regards knowledge as ignorance, and good as bad. He will do everything that is blameworthy, so that complaint is laid against him every day. He lives on that wherefrom others die, and it is his food to speak ill. This his nature is known to the magistrates; daily does death threaten him, and men shun him because of the multitude of misfortunes that are daily laid upon him.

May you reach me being sound in body, and so that the king is satisfied with all that has been done, and may you pass many years in life. It is not little that I have wrought upon earth. I have spent a hundred and ten years in life, which the king has given me, and with rewards beyond those who have gone before, because I did right for the king up to the place of reverence.

It has come from its beginning to its end, like that which was found in the writing.