In his book The Mind of Egypt, Egyptologist Jan Assmann identifies ma’at as the central philosophical principle of that ancient civilization on the Nile. He defines ma’at, illuminatingly, as “connective justice.” Instruction in ma’at was a critical part of Egyptian civic education, he asserts, one that served to sustain their society for thousands of years.
Justice is a growing concern among educators, but we often use the word reductively. To partisans of the right, it often seems to mean retribution against trespassers, with at best secondary consideration of proportion or mercy. To partisans of the left, it often seems to mean a social flattening, willfully blind to the merits of individuals. The term has most typically been defined in Western societies as giving to each their due; but of course, complex questions abound from this simple starting-point. There is virtue in going back to the classical theorists of justice and rethinking the ethical foundations of a liberal society (Michael Sandel has an excellent primer series on the subject). But ma’at or connective justice, one of the oldest conceptions of justice in the world, may give us particular insight into the character of right social relations—especially in a culture that can feel so atomized and impersonal.
Assmann notes that many scholars have perceived ancient Egyptian society as a mere aggregation, a mass of individuals devoid of horizontal forms of association, with all directly subject to the whims of a despotic state. But Assmann thinks this is misleading. What in fact bound Egyptians together as a people was not arbitrary authoritarian governance but a shared notion of justice, ma’at.
Ma’at had several dimensions. The first was an ethical cause and effect: good actions have good consequences, bad actions have bad consequences. It was important to ancient Egyptians that proper recompense be given for one’s deeds. A world in which good deeds went unrewarded and evil went unpunished would be a chaotic world, a world “out of joint.” As in many other ancient cultures, chaos was the enemy: it meant insecurity, injustice, and death.
But there is another dimension of ma’at. For ma’at was not an inexorable physical law; it could only be maintained by the cooperation of the community. This was not primarily a justification of the legal apparatus, i.e., judges and jailers; rather, it meant at its heart that every Egyptian should live properly in relation to all other Egyptians, in an organic web of reciprocity. The community was in a state of justice when in a state of solidarity, when most fully alive and orderly as a collective organism. Just individual deeds make community possible, and a just community makes individuals possible. This did not mean equality of contribution—reciprocal relations could be highly unequal—but each was expected to contribute to the rest relative to their personal status.
This is not unlike Old Testament notions of justice, in Hebrew mishpat. In addition to the laws of proportional recompense (an eye for an eye and so forth), there was an understanding, expressed in Deuteronomy but also with striking vehemence in the prophets, that to live justly (cf. Micah 6:8) entailed contributing to the strength of the social fabric—paying fair wages, looking after the vulnerable, dealing righteously, etc. And as with ma’at, mishpat contrasted with and served as a bulwark against the forces of chaos and death.
Egyptian civilization is most famous today for its mortuary arts, made iconic through such artifacts as the Book of the Dead, the sarcophagi of the pharaohs, and of course the great pyramids. Ma’at held a central place in the Egyptian perception of death as well as life. The dead were included in the community of ma’at alongside the living. As Daniel Ullucci in The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice explains, ancient sacrifices to gods or the departed should be understood as projecting the social web of reciprocity via ritual “into the superhuman realm. Sacrifice posits that superhuman beings exist and can participate in reciprocal exchange in a manner essentially similar to that of other humans.” Or as Assmann expresses it, “Obdurate egotism and covetousness might tear at the fabric of this network [of ma’at], but not death.” The mutual dependence represented in ma’at was ultimately cosmic, incorporating the deities and the celestial powers. Those wronged in human courts or institutions could appeal to the heavens to uphold their cause—prayers to the sun-god Ra to that effect have come down to us.
This understanding of justice may have its weaknesses. Assmann observes that it was repeatedly coopted by the pharaonic state to demand loyalty as central administrator of ma’at. But there is something attractive and valuable in what Assmann describes as a “constellational” understanding of personhood. The individual is not left autonomous nor subsumed entirely into a social body, but is rather enabled to develop as an individual precisely insofar as it is embedded in a larger, interconnected and interdependent whole.
St. Thomas Aquinas, building on Aristotle, offered Catholic civilization and the Western legal tradition a definition of the virtue of justice that was also firmly relational. Aquinas saw general justice as ordering virtuous behavior to the good of the community. Particular justice extends to how we treat our individual neighbors. Commutative justice prevails when we engage in fair exchange with them. Distributive justice prevails when goods and responsibilities are allocated across the community in due proportion to standing or deserts.
The tradition developed by Aquinas gives us a robust framework to think about justice. But I appreciate how ma’at, in Assmann’s telling, is oriented toward knitting together deed and requital, heaven and earth, person and person. It invites us to think of justice as a matter of linking one’s own self and interests with those of one’s neighbor and environment, integrating into a cosmic web that feeds our own capacities for fulfillment. It offers our imaginations a powerful vision of what a just community should be, one that has special relevance in times such as these, as a fraying social fabric and a growing inability to see into the lives of our neighbors feeds political polarization and obscures our ability to conceive of the common good.
A ma’at-flavored education will not nurture the egotistical fantasies of hyper-individualism, but help students rather to recognize their place within and duties to the life-sustaining social and natural order. That is to say, a just education cultivates gratitude. But this need not be unreflective and conformist; gratitude can coexist with a recognition of where the social order fails, with criticism, and with reform. The Egyptian inclusion of the supernatural in ma’at may remind us, as the Hebrew scriptures do so often, that the divine pattern need exert itself continually against worldly unrighteousness and exploitation. The measuring rod should ever be held up to our efforts, individually and as a community, as the “Eloquent Peasant” of what is perhaps ancient Egypt’s most famous literary text held it up to his social superiors:
“Punish theft and protect the poor! Don’t become a flood against the suppliant! Beware of the approach of eternity. Desire to last, as is said: ‘Doing justice [ma’at] is breath for the nose….’ Speak justice and do justice! For it is mighty, it is great, it is enduring, one will find its trustworthiness, it will lead to blessedness.”
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