Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
The Eloquent Peasant
(Egyptian, B.C. 2000 or earlier)
AN INTERESTING primitive protest against injustice is the story of the Eloquent Peasant, which was one of the most popular of ancient Egyptian tales, and is found in scores of different papyri. The story narrates how a peasant named Rensi was robbed of his asses by the henchmen of a certain grand steward. In spite of all threats the peasant persisted in appealing against the robber to the grand steward himself. The scene is described in Social Forces and Religion in Ancient Egypt, by James Henry Breasted, as follows:
It is a tableau which epitomizes ages of social history in the East: on the one hand, the brilliant group of the great mans sleek and subservient suite, the universal type of the official class; and, on the other, the friendless and forlorn figure of the despoiled peasant, the pathetic personification of the cry for social justice. This scene is one of the earliest examples of that Oriental skill in setting forth abstract principles, so wonderfully illustrated later in the parables of Jesus. Seeing that the grand steward makes no reply, the peasant makes another effort to save his family and himself from the starvation which threatens them. He steps forward and with amazing eloquence addresses the great man in whose hands his case now rests, promising him a fair voyage as he embarks on the canal, and voicing the fame of the grand stewards benevolence, on which he had reckoned. For thou art the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow, the brother of the forsaken, the kilt of the motherless. Let me put thy name in this land above every good law, O leader free from avarice, great man free from littleness, who destroys falsehood and brings about truth. Respond to the cry which my mouth utters; when I speak, hear thou. Do justice, thou who art praised, whom the praised praise. Relieve my misery. Behold me, I am heavy laden; prove me, lo I am in sorrow.
To follow the account of the incident in other records, the grand steward is so much pleased with the peasants eloquence that he goes to the king and tells him about it. My Lord, I have found one of these peasants, excellent of speech, in very truth; stolen are his goods, and he has come to complain to me of the matter.
His majesty says, As thou wishest that I may see health, lengthen out his complaint, without reply to any of his speeches! He who desireth him to continue speaking should be silent; behold, bring us his words in writing that we may listen to them.
So he keeps the peasant pleading for many days. The story quotes nine separate speeches, of constantly increasing bitterness and pathos. The peasant is beaten by the servants of the grand steward, but still he comes. Thou art appointed to hear causes, to judge two litigants, to ward off the robber. But thou makest common cause with the thief. Thou art instructed, thou art educated, thou art taughtbut not for robbery. Thou art accustomed to do like all men, and thy kin are likewise ensnared. Thou the rectitude of all men, art the chief transgressor of the whole land. The gardener of evil waters his domain with iniquity that his domain may bring forth falsehood, in order to flood the estate with wickedness.
In spite of his eloquence, the grand steward remains unmoved. The peasant appeals to the gods of Justice; and in the ninth address he threatens to make his plea to the god Anubis, who is the god of the deadmeaning thereby that he will commit suicide. None of the extant papyri informs us as to the outcome of the whole proceedings.