Saturday, November 6, 2010

♪Talk Like an Egyptian....♪

It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more. - A Roving Commission, My Early Life, Winston Churchill
Being the second youngest of nine children–and of generally not-very-well-to-do parents--I never expected to inherit anything when they passed on. None the less, I did receive one legacy that I have come to treasure: my parents' library. I have been going through it like the golden gift that it is.

Currently, the most pleasurable reading has been an almost new copy of Bartlett's, Sixteenth Edition. While it has its faults (editor Justin Kaplan's mocking of Ronald Reagan is despicable) there are "wonderful things"* to be found in this book.

Of particular interest to me is the first couple of pages. Bartlett, unlike other similar works, lists it authors by date of birth, so that you are given a sort of a historical 'feel' as you go through it. The earliest quotes found in it are in the very first pages.

The oldest is from something from Old Kingdom Egypt called The Song of the Harper, which concerns the Land of the Dead:

There is no one who can return from there,
To describe their nature, to
describe their dissolution,
That he may still our desires,
Until we reach the place where they have gone....

Remember it is not given to a man to take his goods with him,
No one goes away and then comes back.

This song dates to 2600 B.C.**, which is to say, it is 4,600 years old. "You Can't Take It With You" is ancient wisdom indeed.

Another is something called The Teaching For Merikare, ca 2140 B.C. Merikare was a city-king in the land of Heracleopolis, and the manuscript was supposedly written by his father, whose name is now lost to us. Merikare was warned:

Do justice, that you may live long upon the earth. Calm the weeper, do not oppress the widow, do not oust a man from his father's property, do not degrade magnates from their seats. Beware of punishing wrongfully; do not kill, for it will not profit you... provide for men, the cattle of God, for He made heaven and earth at their desire. He suppressed the greed of the waters, He gave the breath of life to their noses, for they are likenesses of Him which issued from His flesh....instill the love of you into all the world, for a good character is what is remembered.

But most fascinating is a manuscript of wisdom written by one Ptahhotpe, or Ptahhotep, the world's first philosopher. Ptahhotpe's manuscript, from the 25th Century B.C., or 4500 years ago, was written to benefit young men who wished to work as scribes and courtiers in the royal household of his day.

Beware an act of avarice, it is a bad and incurable disease; do not repeat slander; you should not hear it, for it is the result of a hot temper..... Do not be arrogant because of your knowledge, but confer with the ignorant man as with the learned . . . Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the mill stones.... Truth is great and its effectiveness endures.

President Obama, please note. It's amazing what the ancients have to teach us.

*ref. Howard Carter, discover of Tut's tomb–a quote not found in Bartlett's, by the way.

**That's B.C., not B.C.E. Dammit.

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Keep it clean for gene.