On MA'AT and Learning Solidarity

Photo by OKRAD/iStock / Getty Images

Ma’at, or a world that requires agency

If our eyes allowed us to see the inner dynamics of a human body, we would overcome a few misperceptions quickly. Notably the erroneous assumption that somehow by magic this compound of a myriad living forces exists in a state of constant harmony - only because our human senses (under normal conditions) do not perceive its ever-lasting struggles and efforts. The opposite is true though: Our bodies are constantly at work on the inside. Sometimes this work is heavy lifting, to pull us back from brink of illness, to swing an organ back into its proper rhythm when it was lost; but always it is a careful awareness, a watching and tending, a rebalancing and rearranging. No ecosystem can maintain itself without daily struggles, and neither can our human bodies. That is why we need ample amount of sleep, water, nutrition and sunlight - because natural resources are constantly consumed and applied. The myth of a perpetuum mobile, of a self-sustaining ecosystem, is precisely that, wishful thinking. Real life living systems are progressively dependent on the watchful care of all their combined hive-components. A single one of them goes down, the entire system may ultimately falter. 

If we aim to understand the (social) nature of Ma'at, we have to understand not only the physical planet we live on, but the entire cosmos we are woven into, as one gigantic living system. According to the Ancient Egyptians, this cosmic body follows precisely the same dynamics as any living gestalt: it is entirely dependent on the active agency of its components to safe itself from falling into chaos and disintegration. The cosmos needs care. It doesn't need a human hand alone - it needs all hands of all its visible and invisible species united in daily acts of service, integration and rejuvenation. 

Always act in such a way that you do not break the web of acting for one another.
— Egyptian Saying

The term Ma'at in this context refers to much more than its often traditional translation 'world-order'. It refers to the process in which the individual being or force not only realizes itself, but at the same time takes its proper place towards everything else that exists in creation. Ma'at describes the process of self-realization just as much as self-localization within a single hive-cosmos, where each part is attempting to 'speak and do Ma'at’ in every single movement. 

Let's pause for a moment and reflect on how such a worldview might differ from ours today? In a world where humans have failed so significantly to take their proper place, where a single species almost managed to push an entire cosmos off its scale, it is easy to believe that the complete extraction of this species equals healing - or 'doing Ma'at'. The Ancient Egyptians would have seen this quite differently though: The simple abandoning of a habitat by an entire species - whether that is a small pond, a nature reserve, or an entire planet - will not bring it back to wholeness. It might allow it to recover from its immediate imbalance. However, in the long run, what is required for a healthy ecosystem to sustain itself, to be truly resilient to the attacking forces of chaos, is the united services of all species that were born from it - also the human one. 

Ultimately this reveals a most essential ethical dilemma: Our human actions easily distort an ecosystem way beyond their intended consequences; yet according to Ancient Egyptian views, not acting at all is equally unethical. 'Doing Ma'at' as we begin to see requires mastery just like any other skill we like to learn. In fact, 'doing Ma'at' is the ultimate human skill worthwhile living for.

"The Egyptian Gods not only were in the world, but they were the world. Their collaboration brought forth the world, i.e. the continuous process which we call 'cosmos'. For this it required Ma'at. It ensured the synergy of all coaction, which allowed the cosmos to emerge from the constant interaction of forces and from the overcoming of opposing energies." (Jan Assmann, Ma’at, p.35)

As we can see, in its ephemeral yet constantly rejuvenating way of being this Ancient Egyptian cosmos could not have been more different from the Ancient Greek and Gnostic ones: Nothing in the Egyptian cosmos is static, immutable, eternal and ideal; yet everything is fluid, social, changing, interdependent and organic. If the perfected gestalt of the Greek cosmos was a flawless statue carved from white marble, the Egyptian was the meandering, ever-breeding delta of the Nile. 

So what did this mean for Ancient Egyptian everyday life? Clearly Ma'at was not an abstract parameter or concept; instead it was the horizon of success for all things mundane as well as divine. How should you live? How should you love? How should you serve and rule? How should you be remembered? And how should you live on? 'Speaking Ma'at, doing Ma'at' was the answer to life (and afterlife) in all its myriad facets and dimensions.

The three Vices of Ma’at

Nothing illustrates this better than the three core vices against the Ma'at: inertia, deafness and greed. 

Inertia in this context was a function of forgetfulness. The sloth lived in the moment, with no yesterday and no tomorrow. Yet without the respect for time there was no Ma'at. Every yesterday's act required a response today. Every act performed today held the promise of an echo returning tomorrow. Ma'at was encapsulated in the demand that yesterday held for today and it required memory and active recalling. The Egyptian language had a wonderful way of expressing this idea: We often find the term that every act requires jointing. Just like bricks stacked up to turn into a building, they will come to nothing, unless each deed is followed by an act of jointing - a response that completes the act, provides its echo and closes its gestalt. Inertia and forgetfulness in light of this meant to untie the ribbon between act and echo. 

"Solidarity requires social memory, d. H. a horizon of motivation that is not always constituted anew from day to day according to the respective interests, but reaches back into the past, embraces yesterday and today, ties back today to yesterday. That means responsible action in the sense of Ma'at.” (Jan Assmann, Ma’at, p.63)

An Egyptian saying goes "Whoever is deaf to the Ma'at, has no friends." (Assmann, p.69). Just like good memory wove yesterday's acts into today, so the ability to listen wove mutual acts together into friendship and into solidarity. Acting in this context always formed a function of communication, of responding to what one had heard. Because the Egyptian cosmos was embalmed in a process of constant birth and death, there were very few hard and fast rules. Philosophical paradigms and static maxims didn't bode well, when the entire world could change over night. What took their place instead, was everyone's ability to listen and to understand by themselves. 'Speaking Ma'at' and 'doing Ma'at' first and foremost required the ability to listen. 

Characteristically to Egyptian language is the idea that emotions do not emerge from within the body of the perceiver - but that they radiate out from the person who evokes them. Thus it is a person (or a spirit, god, etc.) who radiates fear, love, etc - and the person next to them is simply absorbing and echoing the impulse they set free. Exuding love - and being loved in return - thus turns into a responsibility of every single community member. Especially so in a society where wellbeing and salvation were so closely tied to the way how one was remembered by fellow humans, spirits and progeny. 

Thus the corresponding virtue to deafness was not simply the ability to listen, but actually the quality of one's 'heart's-patience' (Herzensgeduld). The act of active, mindful listening was determined by one's heart's ability to be patient and to fully absorb the speech of the speaker. Most forms of social injustice therefore were either blamed on the disintegration of inverse acts (i.e. weaving together yesterday and today) or on one's inability to skillfully listen. 

"When what is heard enters the hearer, the hearer 
becomes one to be heard." (Egyptian saying)

The third and most straight forward of the vices was greed. Simply put, greed was considered the anti-principle of all things Ma'at. If Ma'at was considered a socially positive principle, that created synergy and coherence on the three layers of time, society and individual, then greed was its destructive, evil twin on all three layers. Greed in this context was a direct function of autarky - of placing one's personal autonomy over the common good. 

What is important to reconcile in light of this, is that according to the Ancient Egyptian worldview all social bonds and even ties of blood were completely depended on whether one managed to do Ma'at. A father or mother who did not treat their children well or failed to ensure their inheritance had no hope for prayers and requiems to be read at their grave. Being ill remembered or forgotten, however, was the most devastating, terrifying prospect Egyptians could imagine. All deeds, one's entire life, was aimed at earning good memory amongst fellow citizens, family and progeny - at becoming a person who radiated love both in this life and in the afterlife. Ma'at was the conscious antipole to a raw everyday reality that often turned out to be cruel, unfair or favoring the healthy and strong: To 'speak Ma'at', to 'do Ma'at' precisely was not any kind of natural law, but a service that had to be chosen in every single word and act. A service directed towards realizing oneself, one's community and the world one aimed to be positively woven into one with.

"A man's paradise is his good nature" (Egyptian saying) 

Why to start with Ma’at, and not with Magic

Now I sit here and wonder what Ma'at could mean for us today? Learning about the ethics of the Ancient Egyptians certainly was a stark reminder for me not to attempt anything in magic that I haven't yet mastered in my mundane, everyday life. Who am I to approach chthonic or celestial spirits with the request to walk through their gates - if I can't even yet calm my heart, and bed it on patience? 

Most of all the idea struck me, that the cosmos - or any habitat for that matter - is nothing hierarchical and stable at all. I realized how much I had fallen into the trap of believing that all it took for healing to take place, was to stop or somehow extract our destructive human behavior. Isn't that the metaphor we often encounter these days: to look at mankind as some kind of virus - that once contained or killed off would allow again for a prospering ecosystem to restore itself. It turns out life might be much more complex than that - and much more in need not of human passiveness, but of our positive agency. 

I think of the female act of giving birth. I think of how much care we have learned to give to these moments (or hours!). Not to over-engineer it, and yet not to abandon it. To maintain a caring, watchful presence, gently supporting the process, stewarding both mother and the emerging life, without considering ourselves neither the conductor nor the creator of the moment to unfold. In these moments we still know how to stay true to the origin of the word 'response', which originally meant 'promising something in return'. For every movement mother and child are performing, we offer a promise in return. -- What if I knew how to walk through every normal day like this? Like a midwife to the small cosmos I am part of, to the world that surrounds me, and which is continuously caught up in the process of being born and being also taken into death again. 

What if I had mastered such level of listening, of patience, of jointing together each act of promise and counter-promise, of deed and counter-deed, of weaving together yesterday and today, the last moment and then the next. Wouldn't that be quite the way to aspire to live? The way of the Adept, without a single step into the magical circle - but out, unrestricted into the open world. Speaking Ma'at. Doing Ma'at. 

Here is to a better 2019.