Rhetoric: The Ancient Egyptian Origin of a Distinctly Human Trait

Article excerpt

Evil may indeed win wealth, but the strength of the truth is that it endures: Instructions and Maxims of Ptah-Hotep (2540 B.C.)

Abstract

In this paper, my overall claim is that we can trace the origins of rhetoric as an ethical prerogative to the ancient Egyptians (hereafter aEs), and second, argue that rhetoric is a wholly and distinctly human trait not traceable to some speculative animal evolutionary heritage. This position follows, in part, from the emergence of humans before animals in ancient Egyptian mythology and also from the emergence of rhetoric as a feature of human life especially evident and characteristic of complex hierarchical societies such as the civilization of the aEs. In essence, I suggest that rhetoric stands as the original 'third instance' that resolves a thesis and anti-thesis rather than a focus on monuments or complex arts.

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Rhetoric As A Feature of Early Civilizations

Christian Myer (2006:1) says "The scholarly myth of origin has it that "rhetoric" developed in Ancient Greece ..." Why Meyer does not challenge what he acknowledges as myth is unclear, but this implication of the Greek provenance of rhetoric is demonstrably false. This is not to deny the Greek's particular cultivation of rhetoric into a formal disputatious art suited to their emerging democracies, but there can be little doubt that the ancient Egyptians have a better claim to being the originators of rhetoric or what they called 'good speech'.

Complex hierarchical societies like the aEs have by definition dealt with the exaggerated and ineradicable duality of wealth--rich vs. poor--that they embody, and my claim is that the aEs invented amongst other kinds of rhetoric, a rhetoric of ethical behaviour directed at all in society--both rich and poor, in both speech and deed to nullify tensions engendered by rank and privilege.

In other words the aEs set out poetic and persuasive words in speech and writing--underpinned of course, by fantastic visual imagery--that declaimed material wealth and at the same time encouraged the development of uprightness. It would appear that the ancient Egyptian rhetoricians were concerned above all to encourage ethical or good behaviour amongst all people, but especially good behaviour by the rich towards the poor--perhaps recognising that it was to both the Gods and the poor to whom they owed their privileges, and that just as nature in the Garden of Eden was the source of human wealth to which one owned a responsibility of benevolent stewardship, so to did the aristocracy of ancient Egypt owe something to the workers of Egypt--the source of their wealth, and it would appear that the idea that 'charity begins at home' was understood then.

Worldly Wealth is False Capital

Wealth for the aEs was as much an ethical as a material possession and there are several rhetorical instances of this perspective, particularly in the extensive Instructions and Maxims set down by Ptah Hotep, vizier of King Isesi of the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom (circa 2540 B.C.) In one especially relevant papyrus, the Egyptians are admonished thus:

   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.

   Be not covetous regarding division, and be not exacting, except
   with regard to what is due to you. Be not covetous toward your
   kindred; the request of the meek avails more than strength. …