Ma’at and the Golden Rule
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the universe emerged from chaos. They perceived an enduring harmony and order to it that they regarded as sacred and necessary to sustain. They believed it was created and maintained by a powerful female spiritual force or goddess whom they called Ma’at. In their view, she kept discord and chaos at bay by creating order out of disorder thereby allowing them to live in peace, prosper and be happy. They regarded this ordering principle or Ma’at to be so important that they based their code of moral and ethical conduct on it believing that Ma’at required speaking the truth and treating others with honor and respect in all matters.
Ma’at is the earliest known version of the Golden Rule. As an expression of divine wisdom, Ma’at is reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas’s notion of natural or moral law. For example, he believed that the “standards of morality are in some sense derived from, or entailed by, the nature of the world and the nature of human beings.” Ma’at’s sacred status as a fundamental guiding principle that had to be honored in all things created an emphasis on using law to resolve disputes in a manner consistent with Ma’at, or the spirit of the law. Their emphasis on resolving disputes in a fair and equitable manner stands out in marked contrast to the rote application of the most relevant rule in a lengthy and detailed list of rules.
Ma’at was depicted on the walls of temples and tombs performing one of her most sacred duties at the Weighing of the Heart ceremony in the Hall of Two Truths in the Duat, or Egyptian underworld. She is depicted as a young woman holding a scepter with one hand, carrying an ankh with the other, and wearing an ostrich feather tucked into her headband. Known as the feather of truth, she would remove it from her headband and place it on one plate of a scale to counterbalance the weight of a recently departed person’s heart, symbolizing the soul. If the soul were lighter than the feather, it would achieve immortality and accompany Osiris to his home in the constellation of Orion and be reborn as a star. If the soul outweighed the feather, it would achieve eternal restlessness after dying a second time devoured by Amit, depicted as a female demon with a body part lion, hippopotamus, and crocodile.
During the Old Kingdom, the pharaoh’s primary role was to maintain Ma’at in society. Known as the Lord of Ma’at, he was said to decree with his mouth the Ma’at in his heart. This was an extremely important responsibility because the natural order and cosmic harmony would be disturbed, if someone violated Ma’at and pharaoh failed to restore it by making sure that justice was done, or if pharaoh violated Ma’at by his own conduct. Eerily similar to what we modern humans call the butterfly effect, the Ancient Egyptians believed that such disruptions would unleash ever more unpredictable and serious consequences reverberating throughout the Two Lands, including droughts, floods, pestilence, starvation, blindness, epidemics of disease, and accidents resulting in serious injury or death.
Ma’at prevailed over chaos for at least a thousand years beginning no later than the time that Menes unified the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt in approximately 3,000 BCE until the fabled Old Kingdom passed into history at the end of the 6th Dynasty in approximately 2186 BCE with the death of Pharaoh Pepi II. He died at the age of 92 outliving all of his heirs. His death also marked the beginning of the First Intermediate Period, a time of declining central authority and civil war between the rulers of various powerful city states within the Egyptian empire. Eleventh Dynasty Pharaoh Mentuhotep II of Thebes eventually restored Ma’at when he reunited Egypt in 2025 BCE by seizing Herakleopolis, the capitol city of the rival 10th Dynasty. This marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom and the shift of power from Memphis (modern day Cairo) to Thebes.
I believe our criminal justice system together with our economy and society is degenerating and falling apart. I propose for consideration and discussion the following idea:
We have lost our way because too many of us have discarded Ma’at and the Golden Rule as the fundamental ordering principle guiding our lives and replaced it with Greed.