“Being Quiet is Useful”

Socio-cultural Perspectives on Silence in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature

(Dr Ilaria Cariddi, Università degli Studi di Firenze)

In the long history of the so-called “wisdom” genre of ancient Egyptian literature, one of the most recurring topoi is  the  advice  of  keeping  silence—(s)gra  virtue  deemed essential for social coexistence, presented as a solution of daily-life issues,  and as a means to reach personal success.

Far  from  advocating  submissiveness, or a  dismissal  of  discourse,  for  the  Egyptians  “being  silent”  meant mastering  every  aspect  of  the  difficult  art  of  conversation,  as “speech  is  similar  to  fire”:  refraining  from  speaking can  be  a  form  of  prudence,  respect, self-control,  and  of  conflict  management.  Judicious  and morally  superior,  the  “silent  man”  is  also  capable  of  preventing  those  conducts  that  hinder  social interactions—and,  later  on,  also  considered offensive to  the  gods:  calumny,  hypocrisy,  excessive  criticism,  chattery,  verbal  violence.

Various  textual  sources  concur  in  presenting  silence  as  a  quality  admired  by  the  community, crucial in courtly behaviour, and rewarded by the sovereign. From the New Kingdom onwards, it also subsumes the principle of a reverential quiet in the human-divine relationship.

The  presentation  will  offer  a  selection  of  quotes  from  the  classics  of  the  genre,  in  order  to  discuss  the  development of a concept that appears peculiar in the ancient Mediterranean landscape of ethics.