The Pros and Cons of Wisdom
The Instructions of Amenemope and 'Onsheshonquy: Ancient Egypt's Wisdom LiteratureHello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 6: The Pros and Cons of Wisdom. In this episode, our final one on the texts of Ancient Egypt, we’re going to be talking about a genre of writing called “Wisdom Literature.” Wisdom literature was popular in the Ancient Near East. In wisdom literature, a narrator offers advice and instructions on how to conduct oneself in society. The two pieces of wisdom literature we’ll look at in this episode take a form common to the genre. In both of them, a father offers advice to his son. The advice itself is a loosely sorted collection of instructive sayings and proverbs, some profound, some funny, some strikingly relevant to modern life, and others a bit outdated.
Today’s two stories are very straightforward. Though they were produced in different times in Ancient Egyptian history – one during the late New Kingdom near Abydos, in central Egypt, around 1100, and the next a thousand years later in nearby Akhim, the stories are structurally and thematically very closely knit. Each narrative inculcates values common to wisdom literature - think before you speak, be honest in your dealings with others, be kind to the disenfranchised, avoid fools and keep company with the wise, etc. The first story is about twenty pages long, and the second about thirty. In fact, the only tough thing about these narratives is that their titles include exotic and unfamiliar Ancient Egyptian names. “The Instructions of Amenemope” is the title of the first, and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” the title of the second. If you get confused, just remember that Amenemope, the one set down around 1100 BCE, came before ‘Onchsheshonqy, the one set down around 70 BCE, just as A comes before O.
These two texts are not well known today outside of Egyptology. Nonetheless, they help us understand both the evolution of wisdom literature, and also, some of the cultural forces that led to the fall of Egypt. While Egypt’s last native monarch, Cleopatra, died in 31 BC, the wisdom literature that her ancient kingdom produced is still alive and well. The texts that we’ll look at in a moment, particularly “The Instructions of Amenemope,” directly influenced the second half of the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. Later writers compiled their own similar instructional writings, from Hesiod, to Marcus Aurelius, to Boethius, Erasmus, William Blake, Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau. Taken all together, wisdom literature’s instructions tend to counsel temperance, honesty, caution, self restraint, stoicism and silence over heedless self indulgence, lying and cheating, and unrestrained talkativeness. The values of wisdom literature are held in high esteem in Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu cultures alike, and essentially they encourage behaviors which help keep human society cohesive, productive, and peaceful.
Since we’re dealing with an important early piece of wisdom literature, the main theme of this episode is its title: The Pros and Cons of Wisdom. Let’s first establish a definition of wisdom. In literary history and beyond, wisdom is generally understood as a mental quality most common in older people, and familiarity with a set of customs and practices acquired through long experience rather than book learning or spontaneous revelation. You can learn calculus, physics, violin, sculpture, or gymnastics as a child. But only through years of experience – through ups and downs that trace lines around your eyes – can you acquire wisdom. At least, that’s the idea. It has, as I think we’ll soon see, some pros and cons.
The Instructions of Amenemope[music] Enough introduction. Let’s hear some samples of what wisdom literature sounds like. “The Instructions of Amenemope” dates from the fall of the New Kingdom, some time around 1100 BCE. All of the quotes in this episode come from an anthology called The Literature of Ancient Egypt, edited by William Kelly Simpson and published by Yale University Press. It’s the same one I used in the previous episode. I’m going to read about a page and a half of the seventeen pages that make up the main narrative of “The Instructions of Amenemope.” It’s a very representative excerpt, and I think by the end of it, you’ll have a good general idea of what wisdom literature is, and how it works.
So here’s the opening of “The Instructions of Amenemope.”
“[This is] [t]he beginning of the instruction about life, / The guide for well-being.” 1 “[It will] set one straight on the paths of life, / And make him prosper on earth. . .save him from the talk of others, [and make him] one who is respected in the speech of men” (224). “You will discover my words to be a treasure house of life, / And your body will flourish upon earth” (226). So, following that preface, the advice begins in earnest.
Beware of stealing from a miserable manSo, that’s the end of the quote. And again, that was the opening advice of “The Instructions of Amenemope,” an Egyptian text from around 1100 BCE.
And of raging against the cripple.
Do not stretch out your hand to strike an old man,
Nor snip at the words of an elder.
Don’t let yourself be [set] on fraudulent business,
Nor desire the carrying out of it;. . .(226)
Do not get into a quarrel with the argumentative man
Nor incite him with words;
Proceed cautiously before an opponent,
And give way to an adversary;
Sleep on it before speaking,
For a storm come forth like fire in hay is
The hot-headed man in his appointed time. . .(227)
Do not take by violence the shares of the temple,
Do not be grasping, and you will find abundance;
Do not take away a temple servant
In order to do something profitable for another man.
Adhere to the silent man, you will find life,
And your body shall flourish upon earth.
Do not displace the surveyor’s marker on the boundaries of the arable land,
Nor alter the position of the measuring line;
Do not be covetous for a single cubit of land,
Nor encroach upon the boundaries of a widow. (228)
If you spend your life with these things in your heart,
Your children shall observe them. (227)
The contents of “The Instructions of Amenemope” are fairly well represented in what you just heard. In the order of the excerpt above, the text teaches Amenemope’s son to be kind toward the disenfranchised, be honest in business, avoid overly combative people, think before opening his mouth, not to steal from religious institutions, (again) think before opening his mouth, not to tamper with legally ordained boundary markers, and then (again) be kind toward the disenfranchised.
Overall, “The Instructions of Amenemope” presents a coherent ethical system characterized by caution, conservativism, and a related respect for the existing socioeconomic order. You could open almost any piece of wisdom literature alongside Amenemope’s instructions – say Proverbs in the Bible or Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, copy and paste some statements back and forth, and, for the most part, not know the difference.
The Structure of Wisdom LiteratureLet’s talk for a moment about the structure of wisdom literature. This is something that I personally find fascinating. So like most people do these days, I tend to read things from the beginning to the end. Novels, short stories, newspaper articles, even oral narratives – these move in a chronological progression from start to finish. Nonfiction, particularly if it’s trying to make a case for something, proceeds in the same way, setting out an argument initially, adding evidence, making deductions, and then, finally, concluding. Whatever we read nowadays, we expect to begin at the beginning, examine each sentence as we move forward, and then conclude the text by reading its final sentences. Wisdom literature, however, doesn’t work this way. Nor does most of the Old Testament, Talmud, Qur’an, Hadiths, or any of the religious scriptures we’ll look at in future episodes.
Wisdom literature, in brief, is not meant to be read from end to end and subsequently digested and put back on the bookshelf. When read in a single sitting, “The Instructions of Amenemope” and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” conspicuously lack any engrossing narrative structure. They are merely compilations of sayings, and as you read a dozen of these sayings, and then two, and then three, they begin to blur together into an undifferentiated, repetitious mass. Alongside an argumentative essay by a good philosopher, wisdom literature lacks a coherently unfolding structure, unapologetically using quantity and reiteration rather than logic and deduction. At its worst, the genre is a broken record player, skipping relentlessly back and forth between the same five or six grooves, with minor variations in volume and pitch.
I think that the unfamiliar structure of wisdom literature is probably why many of us find reading the Bible so challenging. In addition to the ocean of unfamiliar names and bygone historical events, we also open wisdom books like Psalms and run headlong into a nonlinear progression of 150 mid-length poems that explore the same six or seven themes, again and again – often with passion, and beauty, and great figurative language – but still, becoming dauntingly repetitious if you read them from start to finish. Reading the Prophetic Books, or a handful of the shorter books of the Qur’an all together produces the same effect. These texts are organized in a way far different from a modern novel or newspaper. It’s part of their unique power, and their unique challenge.
None of this is surprising, of course. And maybe rather than lamenting that instructional texts produced thousands of years ago don’t conform to our modern expectations as readers, we should try to read them the way they are meant to be read. Piecemeal. Carefully. Savoring the wisdom that we find, pausing, and putting the book down, rather than just trying to grind through the text and toss it aside.
"Amenemope" and "'Onchsheshonqy" in DetailWisdom literature isn’t meant for mass consumption. So let’s do something fun. We’re going to spend a bit of time thinking about a single proverb out of the hundreds and hundreds offered in “The Instructions of Amenemope” and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy.”
I knew I wanted to zoom in on just one or two proverbs while reading “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy.” I found many familiar ones. For instance, ‘Onchsheshonqy tells the listener, “Do not do evil to a man so as to cause that another do it to you” (511). And that’s obviously a forerunner to the Golden Rule in the Book of Luke. And also in “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” I found strange maxims, like “Do not give a weary look toward the door bolt” (516). Hmm. Okay – uh – respect door bolts. Another curious one was, “If you are powerful, throw your documents into the river. If you are weak, throw them also” (517). Um – okay – thanks, ‘Onchsheshonqy – I’ll maybe – uh – not do that. There were proverbs that were so obvious that they were inadvertently funny, like, “A man who looks in front of himself does not stumble and fall” (513). Right. Nice. And there were moments of laughably outright contradiction. “There is no poor man except him who has died,” reads a one statement, and then, three pages later, “Better death than want.” Hmm. So, you are wealthy as long as you are alive, and if you lack wealth, it’s better to be dead. Perfectly logical, very – uh – consistent. Anyway, let’s move forward. Out of all of the thirty or so pages of proverbs and advice, my favorite was a very short one, just a sentence long. Here it is.
“The one who has been bitten by a snake is afraid of a coil of rope.” Again, “The one who has been bitten by a snake is afraid of a coil of rope.” Now, there are a lot of donkeys, crocodiles, horses, cats, and snakes in Ancient Egypt’s proverbs – these were a part of daily life in the largely agrarian society. At first glance, all the proverb says is that if you’re afraid of snakes, you’re liable to be afraid of things that look like snakes.
But this proverb, I think, says something profound. “The one who has been bitten by a snake is afraid of a coil of rope” is a short way of explaining one of the most prominent features of human cognition – and that is – the way that we learn by association. The proverb suggests that our minds are not infallible, but that there is a reliable logic to the way we learn from our experiences. And it also suggests that our sensory perceptions are sometimes problematically deceptive. These are two weighty ideas in philosophical history, and they’re sewn up in a proverb that you can read and understand in about five seconds. That’s powerful.
Now, you might not be particularly moved by my goofy little snake and rope proverb, but one of the strengths of wisdom literature’s frequent quantity over quality approach is that “The Instructions of Amenemope” and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” would probably have a dozen or so maxims that you’d find appealing, too.
Amenemope, 'Onchsheshonqy, and the Later History of Ancient Egypt[music] So far, all we’ve really talked about is wisdom literature in general – what it is, how it works, and why it’s important to take it slowly rather than plowing straight through. I want to come back to a point I made earlier about “The Instructions of Amenemope” – the older one. I said “You could open almost any piece of wisdom literature alongside Amenemope’s instructions – say Proverbs in the Bible or Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, copy and paste some statements back and forth, and, for the most part, not know the difference.”
I did say, though, “for the most part.” While Amenemope’s and ‘Onchsheshonqy’s instructions are generalizable to almost any period’s wisdom literature, some of each text is discernibly Ancient Egyptian in origin. So, what makes them Ancient Egyptian? In a word, each text is unusually preoccupied with social hierarchy. Egypt’s ancient wisdom literature is thoroughly – even disquietingly – filled with proverbs and maxims on how to best position oneself within the social – uh – pyramid. How appropriate. More than, say, Hesiod’s Works and Days or Biblical books like Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, all produced around the same time, the scribes of Ancient Egypt believed it was important for young people to understand their country’s rigid pecking order.
Let’s look at some examples, drawn from both the 1100 BCE “Instructions of Amenemope” and the 70 BCE “Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” – examples that, again, show these texts’ preoccupation with social hierarchy. Here they are.
When you are too free before your superior,So collectively, these maxims that I just read teach obedience, reverence toward authority, and complacency within the social hierarchy. These ideas are unavoidable within Egypt’s unique brand of wisdom literature. The social posturing encouraged by the above maxims might simply be evidence of scribes paying deference toward their own employers and masters. But it is more likely that these admonitions to bow down before authority did constitute practical advice during the ruthlessly autocratic thirty-one dynasties of Egypt, and the chaotic periods that punctuated them.
Then you are in bad favor with your subordinates. (233)
Do not sit in the beer hall
Nor join someone greater than you,
Whether he be low or high in his station.
An old man or a youth
But take as a friend for yourself someone compatible. . .
When you see someone greater than you outside,
Follow him, respect (him). (242)
Do not act overly familiar with the one who is greater than you. (506)
Do not go off after being beaten, lest your punishment be doubled. . .(506)
Do not eat a meal in the presence of a magistrate,
Nor set to speaking first.
There is no one who insults his superior who is not himself the one insulted. (521)
If you are about to say something before your master, count on your hand up to ten. (523)
Learn the manner of sending word to the palace.
Learn the manner of sitting in the presence of Pharaoh.
Learn the ways of heaven.
Learn the ways of earth. (526)
It’s little surprise that Egypt’s wisdom literature sounds – um Egyptian. Just as the Book of Proverbs doggedly drives home Hebraic monotheism, or Thoreau’s Walden articulates rugged New England transcendentalism, Egypt’s wisdom literature shows that what constitutes wisdom varies somewhat from culture to culture. But Egypt’s wisdom literature reveals more than simply a cultural preoccupation with social hierarchy. “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy,” particularly, bears the marks of the period that produced it – the bloody and chaotic sunset of Ancient Egypt’s history.
By 100 BCE, Egypt was not the solitary autocracy that had built the great pyramid in the 2600s, nor the great imperial power it had been in the 1270s under Ramesses II. A series of foreign peoples had conquered the country – Hyksos from the north, then Libyans from the west, then Kushites form the south, and then Persians from the east. In 304 Egypt became subject to the Mycenaeans under Alexander the Great. By the 200s, the Ptolemaic Greek dynasty of foreign rulers in Egypt was rotting at the core. Incest, betrayal and murder plagued the ruling regime, and in the south, armed rebellions, and peasant revolts, and banditry disrupted the production of goods and the flow of commerce. The Rosetta Stone, which was issued in 196 BCE to commemorate the coronation of Ptolemy V and his victory over native Egyptian rebels, has Egyptian hieroglyphics at the top, Demotic, or administrative and legal Egyptian, in the middle, and Greek at the bottom. A royal decree, the Rosetta Stone was Ptolemy V’s attempt to institute a lasting Greco-Egyptian government, with the Greeks in charge. But Ptolemy V was on a sinking ship. The Egyptian pharaohs had once been thought of as divine, but the transient, and feeble men who made up the late Ptolemaic dynasty hardly encouraged reverence or worship. They were not Egyptians – they were sacrilegious outsiders who brought neither stability nor imperial conquests. The Khufus, Thutmoses, Amenhoteps, and even Tutankhamuns were ancient history, and everyone knew it. The Rosetta Stone, while it’s been priceless to modern linguists, was in its own time the symbol of a failed attempt at political consolidation.
So Egypt was falling to pieces by 100 BCE. Its successive conquerors over the past thousand years had all sought control of the mineral rich lands of Nile, envisioning Egypt’s legendary stores of gold, grain and grazing lands. In the time that ‘Onchsheshonqy was set to papyrus, though, a conqueror had risen who would totally annex Egypt, and turn it into a breadbasket. This conqueror would not wield a Greek hoplite spear, but a Roman gladius. The Roman Republic had spent over a century tightening its grip over Egypt’s satellite lands. The final collapse of Egypt, a story that involves the most famous people in ancient history, took place in the summer of 31 BE. Cleopatra, born to Ptolemy XII in 69, had tried to maintain Egypt’s relative independence through her unions with first Julius Caesar and then Mark Anthony. And when she died in on August 12, 31 BCE, Egypt lost its sovereignty – not to regain it for nearly two thousand years.
It’s difficult to imagine the cultural trauma involved when a three thousand year old civilization is battered by a series of exponentially more rapid conquests. Everything the Ancient Egyptians knew – their religion, their economy, the languages spoken in their country, the trade networks – were rearranged or threatened sequentially during the first millennium BCE. Perhaps the most emblematic way to explain what happened to them with the death of Cleopatra is a famous anecdote about their geography. Now the Nile flows northward, and Egyptian maps put the source of the Nile to the north. Thus, rotate a map of North Africa and the Levant a hundred and eighty degrees, so that south is north, and you have the way that Egyptians viewed the world for thousands of years. When Augustus demoted Egypt to a province of the new Roman Empire, the world of the Egyptians was literally turned upside down.
So let’s get back to “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy,” a text written when the funeral pyre of Ancient Egypt was really starting to burn. The instructions, overall, seem surprisingly immune to stricken lamentations about the end of the world. Instead, ‘Onchsheshonqy plods imperturbably onward, offering his counsel. I should note that the frame narrative is supposed to take place during an earlier period of Egyptian history – the 500s BCE, and so maybe we shouldn’t expect ‘Onchsheshonqy to say anything about the apocalypse of the first century BCE. But still, even though “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” are set during an earlier period, and even though the piece is supposed to disclose timeless wisdom unto its recipient, the text shows evidence of the chaos and trauma of Egypt’s final century. Let’s look at two examples.
The first is a series of five hopeful statements that wish desperately for a coherent social structure. The statements are unique within the “‘Onchsheshonqy,” because they are not instructions or proverbs, but instead, lamentations. Here they are.
[If only] the son were more honored than his father!The speaker of these lines from “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” is alone in a world with no family or friends, where the celestial orbs, long the paramount emblems of Ancient Egyptian worship, are failing to function. Let’s look at another section.
[If only] it were the master’s son who became master!
[If only] the moon succeed the sun, without failing to appear!. . .
[If only] I knew my neighbor, that I might give to him my property!
[If only] I knew my brother, that I might open my heart to him! (510)
This next portion of “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” is simple. ‘Onchsheshonqy considers the cataclysmic changes taking place, and concludes that these changes are the result of the wrath of their principal deity.
If [God] is angry at a land, its ruler will abandon the law.So in that portion of the “Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy,” you can see 'Onchsheshonqy trying to understand the social order of first century BCE Egypt. The topsy-turvy rearrangement of the social order we glimpse here is the vision of an educated Egyptian scribe, familiar with his country’s customs and culture, and can only imagine that Egypt’s decline is the result of God’s anger.
If [God] is angry at a land, he will cause the laws to cease within it.
If [God] is angry at a land, he will cause purity to cease within it. . .
If [God] is angry at a land, he will elevate its humble men, and he will humble its great men.
If [God] is angry at a land, he will cause the fools to be rulers of the educated. . .
If [God] is angry at a land, he will make its bureaucrat to be the authority over it.
If [God] is angry at a land, he will make its washerman to be chief of police. (504).
We’ve come far enough now that I think the title of this episode – “The Pros and Cons of Wisdom” – will begin to make sense, and I’d like to tie the topics of this episode together. Egypt fell to Rome. Egypt was old, and it was choking beneath the incompetence of yet another dynasty of feuding, supposedly semidivine monarchs. Rome was up and coming, and it was thriving under an inventive system of rotating consulship that encouraged neither incest nor civil wars related to succession disputes.
As it was conquered by the Persians and then the Greeks, Egyptian society held fast to its time honored wisdom, clinging dutifully to rituals of animal worship and monument construction. In Saqqara, where the first pyramids had been built over two thousand years before, a female bull continued to be worshipped as the incarnation of Isis, and embalmed and mummified in preparation for the next bull. Vast resources were expended in carving the Isis bull tombs out of living rock and revering their mummified corpses. The seat of old traditions, Saqqara during the fourth century Persian conquest was home to a bizarre, decades long frenzy of animal worship. The Egyptians revered sacred cats, dogs, gazelles, bulls, ibises, falcons, crocodiles, and fish, making vast underground galleries for their mummified remains. For a price, petitioners could even offer mummified pieces of rodents to the falcons, supposedly embodiments of Horus, so that the falcon headed deity would honor their wishes. Imagine draining the blood out of a shrew, or gerbil, or hamster, and offering it to Jesus Christ, perhaps emblematized by a toucan, or parrot, and you would have a modern equivalent.
These religious practices were nothing new. But in adhering to the ancient traditions – the wisdom – of their past, the Egyptians were choosing a very, very different path than their neighbors in the Mediterranean. The reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens in 508, even though the city was threatened by Persians to the east and Spartans to the west, vastly expanded the number of what was considered citizens in mainland Greece, and laid the foundations for Athenian Democracy. In exactly the same year, after the overthrow of the last Roman king Tarquinius Superbus, the ruthless, brilliant Lucius Brutus assumed one of the first two consulships of a republican system of government that would endure for five hundred years and assume stable control over the known world.
I think you get the point. A yearning for the glories of thousands of years prior, when the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East weren’t such crowded areas, kept the interior of Egypt out of touch with how quickly the rest of the world had moved and adapted. Some of the last monarchical displays of religiosity in Egypt were merely gestures to carry favor with the hidebound masses who still clung to their faith. In the 370s Nakhthorheb, one of the final native rulers of Egypt, attempted a building project in the style of his more powerful predecessors, but his efforts were exhausted by fights with the Persians in the Nile Delta. By 304, when the Ptolemaic Greeks had assumed power over the Nile, Ptolemy I was careful to honor the country’s sacred animal cults, but it was only because Ptolemy I wanted peace and an increased crop yield.
Egyptian society, up until the last, remained conservative. I don’t mean conservative in the modern political sense, but in the classical, Edmund Burkean sense – the Egyptians were resistant to change, which is what conservative meant to the political economists of the eighteenth century. No wonder that their instructional literature, over and over, reiterates that one must respect the wisdom of elders, and respect the existing social order. This inherent quality of wisdom literature is the reason I’ve called this episode “The Pros and Cons of Wisdom.” The knowledge and traditions of the elderly are built on a deep well of communal experience that we can all learn from. This whole podcast is about literature – it’s about the wisdom of the past – so we all certainly understand that. That’s the pros. But on the cons side, the wisdom of wisdom literature is the product of a specific cultural environment, an environment that has colored its values and opinions, sometimes to ill effect.
Let’s look at an obvious example. Misogyny is rampant in the writings of the Ancient Near East, and the wisdom literature of Ancient Egypt is no exception. “Do not open your heart to your wife,” ‘Onchsheshonqy tells us, “What you have said to her belongs to the street” (513). So, women talk too much. [sigh] Okay. “The teaching of a woman is like a sack of sand with its side split open,” he adds a moment later, and concludes, “Do not rejoice over the beauty of your wife, her heart is set just on her sexual gratification” (518). I don’t think I need to argue that these antifeminist bumblings are more Iron Age slush than timeless wisdom.
I’m,not an expert, but I’ve read a fair amount wisdom literature, and scholarship about wisdom literature. And I’m always surprised to see, whether in the Book of Proverbs, or Amenemope, or ‘Onsheshonquy, or whatever such consistent and casual misogyny all over these books. And then I got to thinking, what if I were in a bar with the Egyptian and Hebrew scribes who wrote these texts? A distinct possibility, right? Like a piano bar, a loungy kind of place. I decided that what I would do would be to sing them this song.
I mean, our skulls are still pretty thick. But we’re getting a little bit better. And if I ever find myself in a bar, with ancient misogynistic scribes, I will definitely sing them that song. Anyway, let’s get back to the matter at hand.
I’m not the first person to consider the pros and cons of wisdom. The first teenager who ever disdained his mother’s advice hundreds of thousands of years ago was probably thinking about it. But one of my favorite figures in the tradition of wisdom literature is my countryman Henry David Thoreau. On the same page of Walden that he writes the famous line, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he emphasizes that this desperation results from an overweening adherence to the beliefs and customs of the past. “Practically,” Thoreau writes, “the old have no very important advice to give to the young.” Oh. Wow. That’s definitely not Ancient Egyptian. Another example. “What old people say you cannot do,” Thoreau writes, “you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.” You can see, I bet, that his words are the polar opposite of those of Amenemope and ‘Onchsheshonqy. They want a pious monarchy carving demigods with phallic shaped beards out of rock, and he wants to hang out in a small cabin, hoe beans, have his mom bring him cookies, and wear no pants. And I bet you can also see that Thoreau’s words are utterly self destructive. If “the old have no very important advice to give to the young,” then – when were you born, Henry? 1817? Hmm, carry the one – you are now two hundred years old – sorry, buddy. You’re outdated, according to your own words. It’s time to Thoreau you away.
Ancient Egyptian wisdom literature and Thoreau’s Walden – also, ironically, wisdom literature – propose two diametric theories of wisdom, one unbudgingly conservative and the other radically progressive. Neither is right or wrong. The desire to experiment with new ideas and the desire to retain old ones are a healthy game of tug-of-war which helps us do our best to make decisions, both individually and collectively. Adhering to outdated ideologies is often harmful. So, too, is the wholesale eradication of the past for the sake of a supposedly unprecedented future. Rome’s republican government, after enduring five centuries, underwent another sudden, sweeping change after the fall of Egypt. It became a hereditary monarchy again, and suffered dozens of civil wars, and, after another five centuries, sputtered out in the west. The pursuit of radical change and novelty, as you can readily understand, often just leads to something older and far more obsolete than what you already have.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the pros and cons of wisdom, and wisdom literature, for one main reason. Before too long, we’re going to spend a good deal of time with the Old Testament. Whether you’re very familiar with the book, or haven’t read any of it; whether you’re deeply religious or totally secular, much of what we learned from reading “The Instructions of Amenemope” and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” will be useful as we move into the most influential book ever written. You know, for instance, that the Old Testament will be a complex, nonlinear instructive text, in which stories are proceeded by maxims, which are in turn proceeded by more stories, and then more maxims, and so on. You know that some of what the Old Testament offers as wisdom will be beautiful and relate to your life, some will be difficult to understand, and some less palatable by modern standards. You know, perhaps more importantly than anything, that the Hebrew Bible wasn’t produced in isolation in the hills of Canaan, but instead in a bustling couple of centuries with well established scribal and literary traditions – traditions that had already produced the Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and Epic of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia, and The Book of the Dead, “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” “The Eloquent Peasant,” “The Instructions of Amenemope,” and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” in Ancient Egypt.
But it’s not time, yet, to drop in on our much loved friends in the ancient lands of Canaan. See, I have a grand plan. We’ve talked about the major works of ancient Mesopotamia, to the east of the ancient Israelites. And we’ve talked about some of the heavy hitters of ancient Egypt, to the south of the ancient Israelites. We have one more stop before we get to the worshippers of Yahweh. We have to go to the west. We’re going to take a nice, long detour into the early literature of Ancient Greece – specifically, the works of Hesiod and Homer. Next time, we’re going to talk about a grumpy, cynical, brilliant Greek writer named Hesiod, whose two surviving works are diverse, unique, and exceptionally entertaining. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.
|Paid||Audio Book||Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt||Barbara Mertz||Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs is an outstanding piece of popular history, being both academically rich as well as eminently readable. The Audible narrator, Lorna Raver, has a great voice - even after thirteen hours (the length of the audio book) you'll find yourself wishing it wasn't over.|
|Paid||Hardcopy||The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology||William Kelly Simpson, Editor||If you are interested in Ancient Egyptian literature, you need this book. It has all the major stuff, along with scholarly and historical introductions, pictures, footnotes about translation, and lots of other useful things.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt||Toby Wilkinson||A magisterial, gripping, single volume on Ancient Egypt's history, from Narmer to Cleopatra (e.g., pretty much the whole thing). A New York Times bestseller.I definitely, definitely recommend this overwhelmingly awesome book. Published in 2013.|
|Free||Podcast||The Ancient World||Scott Chesworth||This is a terrific, energetically delivered introduction to ancient history from earliest times up until Rome.|
|Free||Podcast||The Ancient World Rediscovered||Scott Chesworth||An entertaining, well organized survey of some of the great discoveries and wacky personalities of archaeology from the late 1700s until the early 1900s.|
|Free||Podcast||The Maritime History Podcast||Brandon Huebner||This podcast is all about the history of stuff humanity has done at sea and on rivers. It's exceptionally well done, working perfectly as a standalone, and Brandon has a great voice. His episodes on the maritime history of Ancient Egypt are terrific!|
|Paid||Audio Book||Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction||Ian Shaw||This is a book about Egyptology - the ways that we've come to know what we know about Ancient Egypt. It will definitely make you want to be an archaeologist or archaeological lab technician.|
|Free||Podcast||History in the Bible||Garry Stevens||Stevens' History in the Bible is a carefully researched, powerfully delivered, sparklingly funny podcast, covering "All the history, in all the books, in all the bibles."|
|Paid||Audiobook||Stories from Ancient Egypt||David Angus||Headed on a road trip with the kids? Want to hear some Ancient Egyptian fiction in its entirety? Stories from Ancient Egypt is a fun, super-accessible 2-hour compilation of Ancient Egypt's tales.|
|Paid||Audiobook||The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt||Kara Kooney||Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, lies at the axis of Ancient Egyptian history. Her stepson Thutmose III, largely thanks to her, was the greatest imperial conqueror in Ancient Egyptian history. Kara Kooney's book, which she narrates over about 10.5 hours, is a powerful, fascinating record of one of history's most phenomenal people.|
1.^The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Ed. William Kelly Simpson, et. al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 224. Further references noted parenthetically. Link
3.^Quoted in Budge, E.A. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1914. http://history-world.org/egyptlit.pdf
5.^Wilkinson, location 1560.
3.^Quoted in Budge, E.A. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1914. http://history-world.org/egyptlit.pdf
5.^Wilkinson, location 1560.