Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric

At the very beginning of “Nomo, Kawa’da, and Communicative Practice: Bringing Good Into the World,” Maulana Kerenga makes a claim that captured my attention and held it throughout: if the western rhetorical canons have been applied to studies of the western world far from the origins of those canons in Greece and Rome, then classical African rhetorical canons can be used as frameworks and a vocabulary for the study of all African cultures and rhetorical practices: “This approach parallels the use of classical Greek rhetorical insights by European scholars to develop and explicate theories of rhetoric and its practice by various European cultures without needing to show causal links of rhetorical practice between ancient Greece and, let us say, Vikings or Victorian England” (4). Maulana hones in specifically on mdw nfr, eloquent and effective speech, an ancient Egyptian concept. I also enjoyed reading the applications of this concept, because instead of presenting mdw nfr as a mere replacement for western understandings of “eloquence,” Kerenga shows how rhetoric ought to be the study of communal deliberation, discourse, and action.

Closely held associations with Aristotle and arguments using the western canons have shaped rhetorical studies. Yet Aristotle is associated with political oratory, and the western canons continue to be Most in our field have made and remade arguments that claim Aristotle as “our” father (or more like racist uncle, as Raul Sanchez noted at the Cultural Rhetorics Conference), so any claim made against him is valid and important. To do cultural rhetorics, he must be effectively challenged and hopefully ousted, in order to clear room for new work, stories, approaches, and makings.

I especially enjoyed reading “Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric: It All Comes Down to Maat” by Carol Lipson. First, I find the history of all writing to be fascinating, but this article is so much more than that. Indeed, it’s more about maat than anything else, which functions as both a goddess and a concept. It is present in letters, ceremonies, and autobiographies, and all forms of maat, from my understanding of this reading, give reverence to higher order, whether that is truth, morality, or justice. Literacy in ancient Egypt is also fascinating; only male elites were literate and could read and write gylphs. Letter writing, however, was a practice that many more people from any class could participate in. The process of recording performed oral narratives (of course, always haling and employing maat) and then reading them aloud to the recipient (often in public areas where others could hear the letters) was public. In fact, writing in ancient Egypt was so public that, after reading this article on maat, I’m left with the sense that writing served primarily the function of public address.

So if maat and mdw nfr could be considered rhetorical canons, which they should be, to me it’s important that they are used in thoughtful and ethical ways. Their applications and evocations ought to be careful, contextual, and reverential just as they were in their original use. Yet to me, as I’m aware of how the western canons have been invoked and even reimagined for 21st century communication (often in ways that ignore or do not situate their historical contexts), in what ways can mdw nfr and maat bereimagined to understand contemporary communicative practices, both oral and written?