The story behind 'The Eloquent Peasant'

Our first stories for teaching and entertainment come from Egypt.

One of the best, from about 2000 BCE, is "The Eloquent Peasant." I have known since my student days that this story is important, because it promotes the idea of social equality and the importance of fine speech. This peasant, who was robbed by a high-ranking bureaucrat, had equal standing as he made his appeals before the Chief Steward.

This year, I published a second edition of my translation of "The Eloquent Peasant" from Egyptian Hieroglyphic texts. Several good translations exist, but I wanted to get close to the storyteller in his own language. Also, I wanted to write an epilogue detailing the contemporary implications of the peasant’s thought.

This peasant needed food for his family. Therefore, he loaded his donkeys with all the products from the area around his home. Then he left for town. After he arrived, he was robbed. Now, he had nothing. So he complained to the Chief Steward. Next, he had to appeal his case. His speech for his first appeal was so wonderful that the Pharaoh told the Chief Steward not to answer him. Both of them wanted to hear more. The peasant had to appeal nine times; all of his speeches were perfect.

Readers of this story know that the peasant discusses the meaning of truth and justice. He also uses an ancient form of the Golden Rule: “Do for the doer to cause him to do.”

All of this is extremely important, and it is clear that many of our thoughts and sayings have a long history — at least 4,000 years.

In the third appeal, he talks about the desire to endure; the peasant has this desire. He is speaking to the Chief Steward and says, “Doing justice! This is breath in the nose.”

In other words, if you are truthful and just, you will create a human being. This reminds me of Genesis 2:7 where God blew into the nose of the human the breath of life, and he became a living being. The peasant is saying that doing and receiving justice is that which makes one truly human.

In subsequent appeals it becomes clear that one’s humanity not only involves doing justice for others, but it also assumes that you treat the land with kindness. He tells the Chief Steward that he must be concerned with the flooding Nile. He must re-establish destroyed fields and redistribute the land.

The peasant says that your care with truth and justice for the environment equals your care for all living beings. Environmental regulations protect the poor and the powerless. The peasant knew that truth and justice created human beings, free speech, land ethics and beauty. We must credit these humans from 2,000 BCE for their insights and their adventurous attempts to better their world. If we followed their lead, we might better our own world.

The eloquent peasant’s property was returned, and indeed he was free.

Loren Fisher lives in Medford.

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