The Instruction of Ptah-hotep is Ancient Egyptian “self-help” literature – attributed to an Old Kingdom vizier writing advice and maxims to his son on good governance and virtuous living.
Originally, when I was planning this piece, I was going to include many of the more eccentric and culturally specific maxims – including keeping temple crocodiles well fed. But what moved me more were the many universal elements: cherishing wives and family, balancing work and leisure, treating others with respect – advice we can appreciate in any era.
But something still troubled me, until I realized that the reason so many of these aphorisms sound so obvious, even trite, is that humankind has been repeating itself with most of these same phrases for the roughly 4,500 years since this Instruction. We seem to know and have always known how we should be living, but this and other texts show that we don’t always take our own advice.
Make for thyself love the beginning and end of the heart. Make thyself to be honoured for knowledge and for gentleness.
One that reckons accounts all the day passes not a happy moment. One that gladdens his heart all the day provides not for his house. The bowman hits the mark as the steersman reaches land: by diversity of aim.
Swathe not thine heart in thine hoard, for thou art become the steward of the endowments of the God. Thou art not the last; another shall be thine equal, and to him shall come the like.
Let thy face be bright what time thou live. That which goes into the storehouse must come out therefrom; and bread is to be shared.
-Ancient Egyptian text, translated by Battiscombe G. Gunn, 1906. Adapted by the composer.
Instrumentaion – picc, 2 fl, 2 ob, E. hn, E-flat cl, 2 B-flat cl, b. cl, s. sax, a. sax, t. sax, b. sax, 2 bsn, cbsn, 4 hn, 3 tpt, 2 tbn, b. tbn, euph, tb, 3 pc (timpani, vibraphone, cabasa, tambourine), hp, pno, soprano voice
Duration – 8 minutes