Lipson – “Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric: It All Comes Down to Maat

  • In this article Lipson argues that the ancient Egyptian cultural concept of maat is central in considering Egyptian rhetoric.  Specifically she will demonstrate that: 1) a number of the popular textual genres present Maat as content – that is, they teach Maat; 2) In the letter genre, common in the everyday life of the culture, the rhetorical form embodies Maat: the written texts serve as rhetorical performances of Maat; 3) the letters use Maat indirectly as an instrument of persuasion; and 4) Maat serves as a Superaddressee in the letters, in Bakhtin’s sense of a third voice or participant, an ultimate addressee beyond the writer and the immediate receiver (79).
  • Maat is a goddess and a concept – as a concept, maat is referred to as truth, justice, or order.  Lipson translates the term as ‘what is right’ (81).  Maat also operates in the natural order as balance and harmony.  In other words, maat kind of operates like the moment of complexity, an “interconnected order of the cosmic, divine, natural, and human worlds” and the preservation of that interconnectivity (81).
  • In the conduct manuals of ancient Egypt the cultivation of Maat is almost always considered in terms of self-preservation and prosperity (treat other well not because they deserve it but because if you don’t they will rebel and not build artifices to your memory when you’re gone).
  • Letter-writing was a somewhat public activity as the scribes responsible for writing and reading the texts would also be involved in their production/reception.
  • Bakhtin’s superaddressee – a higher authority that a speaker or writer addresses, beyond the immediate audience . . . .  God, absolute truth, the court of dispassionate human conscience or science (93).
  • Lipson argues that the Egyptian epistolary tradition utilized Maat as the Bakhtinian Superaddressee – the texts not only invoke Maat but also put themselves up for understanding and assessment by Maat (93).


  • What do we make of Lipson’s exploration of Maat in the context of the letter on pgs. 86-7?  What sort of leaps is she making?  Does this kind of scholarship complicate the nice bifurcation of historiography into descriptive and reconstructive (or historical / reconstructive) strands?  How does reading Egyptian letters through the lens of Maat enhance our understanding of Egyptian rhetoric?
  • This sort of historiography seems to be particularly suited to interdisciplinary scholarship/endeavors.  Is this a guiding purpose in conducting such work?

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