Naguib Mahfouz: Nobel Laureate,
Author and Political Thinker
Naguib Mahfouz seems to be equally able to write about ancient
Egypt. His novels about Ancient Egypt concern themselves with an analysis of high politics, often through using mythic stories to indicate political concerns. So for example, his novel about Akhenaten, the ancient Pharoah focuses on the links between faith and politics and questions about how far religious motivations can justify political actions
. Khufu's Wisdom, his novel about the Pharoah Khufu (also known as Cheops) focuses on similar issues. Mahfouz is fascinated by the way that the personality of the ruler effects his power to control and rule his nation. Khufu's Wisdom concerns the succession to Khufu, from the beggining of the novel the scent of death rests over the realm, after ten years the Great Pyramid is still unfinished. The real story though concerns Khufu's effort to avoid a prophesy that says Djedjef, son of the priest of Ra, will succeed him and not his own sons. The novel shows us the way that despite Khufu's best efforts, Djedjef does come to succeed him, ultimately through the Pharoah's own intercession.
Statecraft is central to this novel. Khufu's actions rest upon the fact that as Pharoah his interests and the people's interests are presumed to be exactly aligned. Throughout the tale though two concepts of the Pharoah's power debate each other- we might to borrow Walter Ullman's language call them the ascending and descending views of Khufu's power. On the one hand we have the idea expressed by vizier, Hemiunu,
Why differentiate your lofty self from the people of Egypt, as one would the head from the heart or the soul from the body? You are my Lord the token of their honor, the mark of their eminence, the citadel of their strength and the inspiration of their power. You have endowed them with life, glory, might and happiness. In their affection there is neither humiliation nor enslavement but rather a beautiful loyalty and venerable love for you and for their homeland.
Notice that Hemiunu makes the Pharoah's power conditional upon the fact that he is a symbol for his subjects- it is through his subject's support and their identification of him as the symbol of the nation that he receives legitimation. They do that because he is a good ruler. In that sense power ascends from them to him. Khufu himself says that he agrees with this interpretation- he says that he is no mere king- he is Pharoah of Egypt- the stress is on the last word, it is the people that endows the authority. And in that context Khufu stresses the fact that the individual- himself or any in the room with him matters little besides the majesty of the nation in the thought of the statesman.
His son, Khafra, who throughout is offered as a counterpoint of folly to Khufu's wisdom, has a different view. After Hemeinu has spoken, Khafra gives a descending view of authority. He tells his father that
You rule according to the wish of the Gods not by the will of men. It is up to you to govern the people as you desire, not to ask yourself what you should do when they ask you!
For Khafra authority descends from God to the Pharoah and then to men- the Pharoah is not the King of Egypt but is King by Ra's authority and is entitled to rule for his own individual purposes. And despite what he says above, Khufu is not wise enough to follow his own advice. During the course of the novel he does act in the interests of himself and not in the interests of Egypt. By attempting to kill the young Djedjef in his cradle, the Pharoah attempts to commit a horrendous crime and use the soldiers of Egypt to do it and furthermore he attempts to put his son Khafra on the throne- a young man who would use Egypt as his chattel slave domain. The Pharoah's retirement into his study to write down his wisdom is a way of attoning for this crime- Khafra presses him to use Egypt's military power- at a cost to soldiers that Khafra cares little about- but Khufu wisely restrains his son from committing the further crime of killing the innocent troops in the cause of a useless war.
In the end Khufu yields to his son. We get the impression that Khufu by this point has grown old and more easily swayed by those around him. But he unlike the Prince still recognises the underlying sadness of war, that he betrays his trust towards the 100 Egyptians who die. Interestingly the war is also the instrument which brings about the change of dynasty- for Djedjef is promoted to be the commander of the armies which victoriously destroy the tribes of the Sinai. However Djedjef like Khufu reveals himself to be a great ruler- as opposed to a ruler who rules in his own interest not the interests of his community- he has compassion for the soldiers who have died in the war and also before admiring his own triumph attends to the captives of the Sinai tribes. In that way he too recognises that ultimately the justification of Egyptian power ascends from the people to those in power, it does not descend from the Gods to the Pharoah. The Pharoah is ruler of Egypt, not just a ruler by the grace of God. Djedjef therefore proves himself a more worthy successor to Khufu than Khafra ever did. In the last scene of the novel, Khufu himself is led to recognise this. Having spent his last years, writing a book of wisdom, the old Pharoah finally realises that his family's good and that of the state are separate and recognises Djedjef as his heir and the husband of his daughter.
It is not the Pharoah alone but minor characters too are called upon to make similar sacrafices. Bisharu is Djedjef's adoptive father and at one point has to consider the merits of his adopted son against that of the state- or the Pharoah's will- he argues within himself:
Now which of the two do you think will be first to be sold? Duty or the avoidance of doing harm. A pupil in the primary school at Memphis could answer this question immediatly: Bisharu will not end his life with an act of treachery. No he will never sell out his sire: Pharoah is first, Djedjef comes second.
Notice that for Bisharu it doesn't matter ultimately whether the Pharoah is Pharoah by order of the Gods or for the good of Egypt- duty would lead in the same direction. But one wonders whether the certainty with which Bisharu comes to his view at that moment would be the same- Khufu's status as the servant as well as the master of Egypt leads Bisharu to a desperate certainty that he must betray his actual son for the good of his country. Bisharu in this case acts in a better way than Khufu who when offered that choice decided the wrong way.
Ultimately though this novel is not about subjects but about sovereigns and the argument it makes is on behalf of what Ullman called the ascending theory of government. That government exists primarily to serve its people. The descending theory that government exists to serve an external force and the people must obey it is implicitly left dead on the floor with the Prince Khafra- the longterm good of Egypt is the same as the interests of the fates in this novel, it is a plan that the wise Pharoah ultimately has to carry out. Furthermore the rise of Djedjef is the rise of a sovereign who truly serves his people, whose power flows from acts of loyalty like those of his father, acts of loyalty which stem from the fact that a good subject, faced with the same dilemma as a good King, acts more virtuously, sacraficing his son where a King would not. This issue of political engagement as a form of service is something that recurs right up to the present day- Rousseau is one modern political philosopher who explores it- the general will isanother way of discussing the idea that we ought to centre sovereignty on the good of the whole public not the interests of our own part of the public. Ullman's notion of descending and ascending views of authority is an interesting one- and it still applies though in a democracy we are of course all in the position of Khufu- the interesting issue is whether we beleive that we have a responsibility when we exercise authority to look to the good of the people or whether we are endowed with authority to arbitrarily act in our own interests.
Khufu's Wisdom is a fascinating novel- and this isn't the only issue it explores- the subtle way with which Mahfouz interweaves ancient politics and myth with modern political philosophy is fascinating but there are other interesting questions in here- particularly about motherhood that this review hasn't scanned. Ultimately though one of the most interesting questions that arises out of the novel is a further insight- when we talk about the wisdom of Khufu are we talking about a faculty or an inclination. Khufu's last piece of wisdom is his renounciation of his own family in favour of the state- is that something he is wise because he knows or in this case is it that wisdom is the right emotional inclination- is the wisdom of Khufu actually not wisdom but political virtue?