Some Musings on Struggle and Ma’at.
I wanted to start this blog off with an essay on the Maxims of Ptahhotep, and the first of the 37 Maxims contained within this example of Egyptian wisdom literature. However, as of late, my life has been too busy to sit down with the Maxims and to add to my notes, other than the two brief summaries of Maxims 1 and 2, that I wrote down in my notebook.
In addition to life taking away time to actually pore over the Maxims, life also presented me with something else to write about instead. I talked to a good friend recently. Let’s call him F. I told him about my project to write this blog, and how I have been dealing with not knowing what to do, and with my problems with motivation. I have a big problem with getting things done. There are things I want to do, but then I fall asleep and forget, contenting myself with dreaming about the things I want to do, and momentary pleasures, made all the easier to access in this day and age.
I told him that I specifically forced myself to study, forced myself to write. I said that I was “forcing myself to put myself to something and to do it.” This led to the following exchange:
F: “See, that’s the thing. Forcing yourself. Where’s the enjoyment?”
Me: “I can tell you where the enjoyment is. I’m proud of myself when I read a Maxim or two, and learn something, and write it down. I look at my blog, which I’ve selected a theme, background, header pic, etc. and the fact that those are my words on there, and it makes me happy. Especially for someone like me, because I’m frankly, quite lazy. That’s where the forcing came in. I had to push myself to start writing, though it helped that I was sufficiently frustrated with myself that I wasn’t writing anything.”
Let me say right now, in case I didn’t make myself clear, that I am not a paragon of industriousness and persistence in the very least. If I was, I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s very easy for me to intellectually know something, but then keep on doing the opposite, out of laziness or expediency, or habit.
The conversation, and the fact that I am exerting effort, even if it is less effort than say, picking fruit all day, or digging ditches, reminds me of a theme in Egyptian religion that resonates strongly for me: The struggle between Ma’at and isfet.
Ma’at is an Ancient Egyptian word meaning, more or less: “Truth, Justice, Order, What-is-Right, The Order of Creation.” It also overlaps with “good”.Isfet is disorder and chaos. It overlaps with “evil”. The gods must struggle daily to maintain Ma’at in the face of isfet. The cosmos must be constantly renewed, constantly maintained against isfet, or else everything would fall apart. This struggle is best represented in one of my favorite images in Egyptian art:
Set is depicted standing at the prow of the Sun-Barque, spearing the serpent Apep. Apep is the embodiment of isfet, ever-seeking to swallow up Ra during His nightly journey through the underworld.
In the Papyrus Chester Beatty, Set says:
As for me, I am Set, the greatest of strength among the Ennead, and I slay the enemy of Ra daily, being in front of the Barque-of-Millions, and none other god is able to do it…
The “enemy of Ra” is, of course, Apep, and the “Barque-of-Millions” is the Sun-Barque. He must slay Apep DAILY. He couldn’t just slay Apep once and then, no more Apep. He must fight Apep every day, unceasingly. Apep doesn’t take a day off, and neither does Set, nor any of the other gods.
This concept of struggle happens to make perfect sense when one considers the environment of ancient Egypt. Barren desert all around, with only the thin green, fertile banks of the Nile for sustenance. To make a healthy and prosperous civilization, the Egyptians didn’t simply let the water flow, or just eat through their stores of grain. They irrigated their fields, and they stored up the grain they harvested, to protect against a future lean season.
In my journey to and through Kemetic religion, this image, of Set spearing Apep, of the gods struggling so that Ma’at prevails instead of isfet speaks strongly with me. People have asked me what the point is to worshiping gods that are limited, for whom victory is not guaranteed. I would counter with “That is simply How Things Are.” Maybe on some level, it’s true that there’s some Grand Master Plan that is without error, where everything is justified as “God’s [ultimately benevolent] Will.” But I find that hard to see. What I see is this struggle between Ma’at and isfet.
As true as this struggle is for the cosmos, so it is true for the individual. As none of us are perfect, we all have our own version of Apep to struggle with. And just like Set could be said to be the god of not-so-pleasant things, yet who is necessary to get stuff done, so this struggle is often not-pleasant, and more difficult than letting ourselves slide down the path of least resistance, of entropy. Life is, by definition, a struggle against entropy, pumping entropy out like the crew of a boat bailing out water. The day an organism stops struggling against entropy is the day it slips into equilibrium with the environment. The day it is cold and dead.
This is a lesson that the Gods, those who love me dearly, and even my own heart, seem to hammer into my head daily. I wonder how long it’ll take for me to fully understand and put this lesson to practice.