The Pros and Cons of Wisdom

Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature

Hello, 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instructive sayings and proverbs, some profound, some funny, some strikingly relevant to modern life, and others a bit outdated.

Amenemope and ‘Onchsheshonqy: An Introduction

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 BCE 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, and that kind of thing. 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 forget the chronology of these two narratives, 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 BCe, 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,” may have 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 these values encourage behaviors which help keep human society cohesive, productive, and peaceful.

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. [music]

What Wisdom Literature Sounds Like

Let’s hear some samples of what Ancient Egypt’s 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, and it’s prominently featured in the podcast’s website. 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).

And following that preface, the advice begins in earnest.

Beware of stealing from a miserable man
    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)
And again, that was the opening advice of “The Instructions of Amenemope,” an Egyptian text from around 1100 BCE.

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) to 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.

Let’s talk for a moment about the structure of wisdom literature. This is something that I personally find fascinating. These days, we 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, does not work this way. Nor does most of the Bible, 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're just 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 whole 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. [music]

Taking Proverbs One at a Time

Wisdom literature isn’t meant to be read fifty pages at a time. 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.”

Champollion table

Champollion's table of Greek, Demotic, and Hieroglyphic, produced in the early 1820s. In this image, we see, concisely, what the Rosetta stone enabled - a window into a world 4,000 years before our own.

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 in the New Testament. 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 fairly 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 the little snake and rope proverb I happened to choose, 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. [music]

Elements of Ancient Egypt in Amenemope and ‘Onchsheshonqy

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,
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. . .
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)
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.

It’s little surprise that Egypt’s wisdom literature sounds 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 BCE Egypt became subject to the Macedonians 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 rulers 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 legionary standard. 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 BCE. Cleopatra, born to Ptolemy XII in 69 BCE, 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. Maybe 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 Mediterranean 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. And 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 to 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 “Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy,” because they are not instructions or proverbs, but instead, lamentations. Here they are.

[If only] the son were more honored than his father!
[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)
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.

This next portion of “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy” is simple. ‘Onchsheshonqy considers the cataclysmic changes taking place, and he 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.
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)
So in that portion of the “Instructions of ‘Onsheshonquy,” you can see Onsheshonquy 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, who can only imagine that Egypt’s decline is the result of God’s anger.

Wisdom and Improvisation

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 consulships 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 BCE 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 BCE, even though the city was threatened by Persians to the east and Spartans to the west, substantially expanded the number of what was considered citizens in mainland Greece, and laid the foundations for Athenian Democracy. At almost exactly the same moment, 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 much of 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 win the favor with the hidebound masses who still clung to their faith. In the 370s BCE 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 also 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). In other words, women talk too much. 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.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), one of America's more prominent producers of modern wisdom literature.

I’m not the first person to consider the pros and cons of wisdom. The first teenager who ever distained his mother’s advice hundreds of thousands of years ago was probably thinking about it, too. 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 Thoreau 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 in Walden. Thoreau writes “What old people say you cannot do, 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. The ancient Egyptians 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. Thoreau, after all, was born in 1817, which makes him quite outdated, according to his own words.

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 as its decades of civil war led, quite conveniently, to the acquisition of Egypt. Rome 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. [music]

Moving on to Hesiod

I’ve spent a lot of time on the pros and cons of wisdom, and wisdom literature in this episode, 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. And you know these traditions 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, and a gigantic amount of lyric and epic poetry in the Eastern Mediterranean world that we’ll get too soon.

Before we move on to a full 34 programs covering the literature of Ancient Greece and Canaan, however, let’s pause for a moment. As we saw in our show on The Book of the Dead, Ancient Egypt gave the eastern and central Mediterranean world some of its most important theological concepts – universal order, divine judgment, and the associated notion of an extrasensory world of absolute morals. Because of the relative shortage of literary texts to have come from Ancient Egypt, I’ve covered it quite quickly, making occasional references to the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and various pharaohs, but never delving into the fascinating three thousand years of events and people in Ancient Egypt as a connected story. There is more literature from Ancient Egypt, which I’ll cover in some upcoming bonus episodes – a darker forerunner of Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale called “The Wax Crocodile,” an early analog of the Cain and Abel story called “The Two Brothers,” and Ancient Egypt’s version of the Odyssey – a narrative called “The Story of Sinuhe.” If I’ve released those by the time you hear this, they’ll be on the Bonus Content page at literatureandhistory.com.

The History of Egypt Podcast, one of the best free educational programs on the internet.

However, I also want to take a second to plug one of my favorite podcasts – and this is Dominic Perry’s “The History of Egypt.” As I record this, The History of Egypt Podcast has over a hundred and twenty episodes available for free. Dominic is an extremely strong historian and narrator, and I think you’ll find his show an incredibly useful project. Ancient history tends to bundle around single, incendiary moments – all most people think of when they think of Ancient Greece is 5th-century BCE Athens, and with Rome we usually hurry toward the Punic Wars, the fall of the republic, the Augustan Age, and a smattering of emperors from Caligula to Diocletian. The great thing about “The History of Egypt” podcast is that it is a continuous narrative guide, centered in one place and one evolving culture, to three thousand years of history. Once you listen to it, you’ll have a reference point for all other events in the ancient world, and a clear sense of just how young what we call Ancient Greece, and Rome, and the Old Testament actually are. I like “The History of Egypt” podcast so much, in fact, that I just had to write my Dominic this little ditty about his show.

[thank you song to Dominic]

That’s again Dominic Perry’s “The History of Egypt Podcast,” available at egyptianhistorypodcast.com – if you don’t remember the link it’s a very popular show and easy to find on the internet. And also, if producing a full scale audio history of Ancient Egypt for free isn’t a generous enough gift to give to the world, Dominic also recently produced a miniseries called “Syrian Tales,” an audio collection of history and short fiction from mostly Bronze Age Syria, and all proceeds from this project have gone to benefit victims of the Syrian refugee crisis. I did a bunch of the music for these, and of course was proud to be involved.

Well, folks, it’s time for Literature and History to move northwest from the Nile Delta. We’ve talked about some of the major literary works of ancient Mesopotamia. And we’ve talked about some of the heavy hitters of ancient Egypt. Now, I’d like to give you a nice, long, eight episode introduction to the two most important early figures in Ancient Greek literature, and these, as any classicist will tell you, are Hesiod and Homer. Next time, we’re going to talk about a grumpy, cynical, brilliant Greek writer named Hesiod. Hesiod’s Works and Days, done some time in the late 700s BCE, is part farmer’s almanac, part mythological narrative, part angry rant, and all, from end to end, as entertaining as it was influential. More generally, Hesiod’s Works and Days, and his Theogony, side by side with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are works that mark a moment at which the ancient Aegean world was moving from oral history to a modest but emerging print culture – when city states were beginning to emerge and thrive after a few centuries of tumultuous history that followed the Bronze Age Collapse. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ve got a song coming up if you want to hear it. If not, Hesiod and I will see you next time!

Still here? Alright, well, here goes. I got to thinking about all the misogynistic stuff in the wisdom literature of the ancient world. You find it in the texts of Ancient Egypt, and the Book of Proverbs, and many of the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, and First Corinthians. I’m not singling out the Bible at all – you find this stuff all over Greco-Roman literature, too – from the poet Semonides’ demeaning catalog of the different types of women in the 600s BCE down to casually anti-feminist proclamations in the Roman elegists Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid – I mean the ancient world set down some really, really nasty stuff about women.

Of course, these writers were products of different cultures than ours – it goes without saying – but nonetheless when we read them, I think we’re surprised to see 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, and Greek and Roman authors 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. Hope it’s funny, and see you next time.


1.^ The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Ed. William Kelly Simpson, et. al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 224. Further references noted parenthetically.