Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter XI

June 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

When King Susenyos died in MDCXXV A.D., his son Fasiladas reigned in his place; at first he liked the Frang as his father did, but he did not persecute the Copts, in order that there be peace all over Ethiopia. During this time I came out from my cave and set out for the country of the Amhara; then I passed to the country called Byegamder where to all the enemies of the Frang I appeared as one of the monks who was ousted during Susenyos’ period. Because of this, they liked me and provided me with food and clothing.

In this manner, I was moving from region to region, never wanting to return to Aksurn, for I knew the wickedness of its priests. Remembering that man’s path is made firm by God, I said; “Direct me, O Lord, in the way I should go and to the land I shall dwell in.” I intended to cross [River Abbay] and to stay in the land [known as] Gwazzam, but God led me to a place I had not thought of.

One day I arrived at Enferaz and went to a rich person by the name of Habtu, whose [name] is [the same as] Habtu Egziabher; I spent a day with him. The next day I asked him to give me paper and ink to write a letter to my relatives in Aksum. He asked me: “Are you an expert at writing?” I answered: “Yes, I am.” He then said: “Stay with me for a few days and copy for me the Psalter of David; I will pay you for this.” I agreed and heartily thanked God for showing me the way by which I could live from the fruits of my work. I hated to go back to my previous profession, for I did not wish to teach falsehood, [knowing] that if I thought the truth, people would not listen to me, but would hate me, accuse me and persecute me. But I preferred to live with all men in peace and friendship; I wanted and preferred to feed on the fruit of my work, ignored by men and secluded with the wisdom God had taught me, rather than to live richly in the house of sinners.

A short time later, ink and paper were ready and I wrote a Book of the Psalms of David. My master Habtu and all who saw my writing were in admiration, for it was beautiful. As wages, my master Habtu gave me a fine suit of clothes; later on the son of this Habtu, whose name was Walda Mikayel, told me: “Write for me as you did for my father.” I did so and he gave me a cow and two goats. After this many persons came to me and asked me to write the Book of David and other books and letters; there was no other writer except me in this region; they provided me with clothing, salt, cereals, and other similar things.

My master Habtu had two young sons: the name of one was Walda Gabryel, who was called Tasamma, the name of the other was Walda Heywat, who was called Metku. Their father Habtu said to me: “Teach them to read the psalms; I shall supply you with boarding: what you earn by writing will be yours.” I said: “O my father! I shall do all that you have ordered me to do. I only ask that you be as a father, a mother and kinsfolk to me; for I have no relatives.”


Zera Yacob’s Treatise was, again, Ethiopia’s first autobiography as well her first philosophical text. At some point, if only for the sake of completeness, I should comment on these autobiographical elements and the historical setting. For now, though, I’ll just note the introduction of Walda Heywat the final paragraph. After just a few more chapters, we’ll see how Walda Heywat would continue Zera Yacob’s work.

Back to chapter X.


Poverty and Happiness

June 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

I know that our heart is always in the hand of God; it is possible for God to make us happy and content if we are in difficulties, poverty and sickness; again it is possible for him to make us miserable even if we live in wealth and all the luxuries of this world. Hence we see every day poor and wretched people enjoying the bliss of their heart; but the rich and the kings are sad and depressed in their riches, because of their limited desire. (Treatise of Zera Yacob, chapter 10)

When I spent a couple of months in Ethiopia, I was struck by the fact that when people have little or nothing, they need each other. As a result, they have tightly-knit communities, and they help each other out. When someone came into money, he shared it with his friends. I found this awkward: in wealthy societies, we pride ourselves on our independence, and expect the same from others; we try to draw sharp lines between our personal relationships and our economic ones.

Nobody turns down wealth and stability, but financial security also tends to isolate us, to the point that, after the incredible accumulation of wealth witnessed in the West over the course of the 20th century, many North Americans now have no friends beyond their own spouse. Since friendship is one of the main elements of a meaningful, fulfilling life, this is an enormous loss. It is hard to say that a house of one’s own in the suburbs is worth it.

Religious observance has declined in the West along with social ties. Just as we feel less dependent on each other, we feel less dependant on God. Since we feel less dependance, we think about ur Creator less, and call upon and worship him less. Since a sense of our cosmic purpose is another major component of a meaningful life, this also a great loss. It is not merely, as Zera Yacob says, that God can make the poor happier than kings, but that in some ways it is easier for Him to do so.

And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:6–24, ESV)

Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter X

May 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The prayers I said in the morning and in the evening were usually as follows: “O my creator and guardian! I worship you and I love you with all my heart, and I praise you for the kindness you have shown me this night”—in the evening I would say “this day,”—”Protect me for the coming day”—in the evening I would say: “during this night.”—”Make me wise this day and all the days of my life, that I may know your will and accomplish it; forgive me my sin. Give me each day what I need to satisfy the necessities of life, always strengthen me in your own strength, O my Lord, through your mercy, power and greatness, save me from poverty, from the hands and the tongue of men, from bodily sickness and sorrow of the soul.” In addition I was praying Psalm XXX: “In you I take shelter.” I meditated further and said to myself: “I ought to work to the best of my ability for the things necessary for my life—prayer alone is not enough. Though I am not skilled, I shall undertake work relying on the power of God; my work without your blessing, O Lord, is of small importance. You bless my thoughts, my work and my life; give me goods and happiness in the measure that you know and will. Change the heart of men who live with me that they behave well with me; for everything is fulfilled by your blessed will; in my old age stay close to me with your goodness.”

I know that our heart is always in the hand of God; it is possible for God to make us happy and content if we are in difficulties, poverty and sickness; again it is possible for him to make us miserable even if we live in wealth and all the luxuries of this world. Hence we see every day poor and wretched people enjoying the bliss of their heart; but the rich and the kings are sad and depressed in their riches, because of their limited desire. Sadness springs in our heart, without our willing it and without our knowledge of the cause of its beginning. We need to pray God that he grant us joy and felicity and keep us happy on earth. God makes his light to dawn for the just and his joy dawn for upright hearts; he knows and governs all the ways of our heart; he can make us happy when we are in trouble, and when we are happy. For happiness and sorrow do not come to us as it pleases men, but as God grants it to us. And I said: “My lord and my creator, give me joy and felicity, and keep me happy as long as I am on earth; after my death draw me to you and satisfy me fully.”

With these words was I praying day and night: I was admiring the beauty of God’s creatures according to their orders, the domestic animals and the wild beasts. They are drawn by the nature of their creation towards the preservation of their life and the propagation of their species. Moreover trees in the fields and plants which are created with great wisdom grow, bloom, flourish, produce the fruit of their respective seed according to their orders and without error; they seem to be animated. Mountains, valleys, rivers, springs, all your works praise your name, O Lord; highly praised is your name on earth and in heaven. Great are the works of your hands! Behold the sun, source of light and source of the light of the world, and the moon and the stars which you made and which do not deviate from the paths you prescribed for them; who can know the number, the distance and the size of the stars which, because of their remoteness, appear so small; clouds give out showers of rain to make plants green. All things are great and admirable, and all are created with great wisdom.

Thus did I remain for two years admiring and praising the creator. I thought within myself: “The work of God is splendid and the thought of him whose wisdom is ineffable is deep indeed. How then can man who is small and poor lie by saying, ‘I am sent by God to reveal to men his wisdom and his justice?’ But man reveals to us nothing but vain and contemptible things, or things whose nature is by far inferior to the reason that the creator gave us that we may understand his greatness.” And I said: “I am little and poor in your sight, O Lord; make me understand what I should know about you, that I may admire your greatness and praise you every day with a new praise.”


As with chapter IX, I haven’t much to add here. But it’s been about six months since I posted anything (I started a new job) so I though I should just pup up the next chapter. I’ll probably (hopefully) get around to adding some comments eventually.

Update: I have added some comments on this chapter.

Back to chapter IX; proceed to chapter XI.

Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter IX

November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

I know that God answers our prayers in another way, if we pray to him with our whole hearts, with love, faith and patience: during my childhood I was a sinner for many years, I neither thought of the work of God nor prayed to him; I made many sinful acts that rational nature forbids; because of my sins I fell into a trap from which man cannot free himself [by himself;] I began to be despondent and the terror of death overcame me. At that time I turned to God and I began to pray to him that he free me, for he knows all the ways of salvation. I said to God: “I repudiate my sin and I search for your will, O Lord, that I may accomplish it. But now forgive me my sin and free me.” I prayed for many days with all my heart; God heard me and saved me completely; I for my part praised him and wholeheartedly turned to him. And I said Psalm CXIV [116:1]: “I love! For God listens to my entreaty.” I thought that this psalm was written for me. I then said: “No, I shall not die, I shall live to recite the deeds of God.”

There are people who constantly accused me in the presence of the king and said: “This man is your enemy, and the enemy of the Frang;” and I knew that the king’s wrath was inflamed against me. One day the king’s messenger came to me, and said: “Come quickly to me; thus spoke the king.” I was very much frightened, but I could not flee, because the king’s men were guarding me. I prayed the whole night with a grieved heart; in the morning I rose and went up to the king. But God had made his heart soft, he received me well and mentioned nothing of the things I was afraid of. He only questioned me on many points concerning the doctrine and the [sacred] Books and he said to me: “You are a learned man, you should love the Frang, because they are very learned.” I answered: “Yes, they truly are;” for I was afraid and the Frang are really learned. After this the king gave me five measures of gold, and sent me away peacefully. After leaving [the king,] as I was still marvelling [at my fate,] I thanked God who had treated me so well. When Walda Yohannes accused me, I ran away, but I did not pray as before that [God] rescue me from the peril, because I was able to flee; man ought to do everything possible without tempting God needlessly. Now I praise Him; because I fled and am now living in a cave, I find ample opportunity to turn myself wholly to my creator; I am able to think of those things which eluded me previously and to know the truth that gives great joy to my soul. And I say to God: “I deserved the affliction which made me know your judgement.” I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars. What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things. I praise God for the wisdom he gave me and the knowledge of the mysteries of creation; my soul is drawn by him and despises everything except the meditation of God’s work and of his wisdom.

Everyday I recited the Psalter of David with a heart dilated [with joy;] and this prayer helps me considerably and raises my thoughts to God. And when in the Psalter of David I encounter things that do not agree with my thought, I interpret them and I try to make them agree with my science and all is well. While praying in this manner, my trust in God grew stronger. And I said: “God, hear my prayer, do not hide from my petition. Save me from the violence of men. For your part, Lord, do not withhold your kindness from me! May your love and faithfulness constantly preserve me. I invoke you, O Lord; do not let me be disgraced. So I shall always sing of your name, that day after day you will fulfil my desire. Turn to me and pity me. Give me your strength, your saving help, to me your servant, this son of a pious mother, give me one proof of your goodness. For the sake of your name, guide me, lead me! Rescue me from my persecutors, for the goodness you show me. Let dawn bring proof of your love, for one who relies on you. Protect me and lead me into the land, do not let me fall into the hands of my enemies. Let me hear [your] joy and exultation; do take away my hope. Counter their curses with your blessing, and let them know that you have done it.” I was praying day and night with all my heart this and other similar prayers.


This chapter is more autobiography and testimony than philosophy, but I have a few remarks nevertheless.

The first paragraph, in which Zera Yacob says that sin can bind us so that we can no longer free ourselves from its influence, and that we then require God’s intervention, and that God did so intervene in his life, is reminiscent of Augustine’s account of his conversion in Book VIII of the Confessions:

For the law of sin is the violence of custom [i.e. habituation], whereby the mind is drawn and holden, even against its will; but deservedly, for that it willingly fell into it. Who then should deliver me thus wretched from the body of this death, but Thy grace only, through Jesus Christ our Lord? (VIII.v.12)

I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose,
spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?

So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. ” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. (VIII.xii.28–29)

“What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things.” I always this this passage is so tragic—if only Zera Yacob had written more!

The final paragraph contains a whole series of quotations or paraphrases from the Psalms:  55:1; 40:11; 31:17; 61:8; 86:16–17; 31:4; 142:6–7; 143:8; 109:27–8. Looking at the sources, I’m reminded of Paul’s manner of quoting in his letters: the quotes are not exact, and are drawn from various places and then joined or fused together. In other words, Zera Yacob, like Paul, is drawing at will on his profound knowledge of scripture rather than looking things up. (But I should say that it’s hard for me to judge the accuracy of Zera Yacob’s quotations very well, since some of the apparent discrepancies may have to do with translation or variations in manuscripts.)

It is particularly clear in this chapter that, although he is not a Christian, Zera Yacob is a devout man.

Back to chapter VIII; forward to chapter X.

Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter VIII

November 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The will of God is known by this short statement from our reason that tells us: Worship God your creator and love all men as yourself. Moreover our reason says: Do not do unto others that which you do not like to be done to you, but do unto others as you would like others to do unto you. The decalogue of the Pentateuch expresses the will of the creator excepting [the precept] about the observance of the Sabbath, for our reason says nothing of the observance of the Sabbath. But the prohibitions of killing, stealing, lying, adultery: our reason teaches us these and similar ones. Likewise the six precepts of the Gospel are the will of the creator. For indeed we desire that men show mercy to us; it therefore is fitting that we ourselves show the [same] mercy to the others, as much as it is within our power. It is the will of God that we keep our life and existence in this world. It is by the will of the creator that we come into and remain in this Life, and it is not right for us to leave it against his holy will. The creator himself wills that we adorn our life with science and work; for such an end did he give us reason and power. Manual labour comes from the will of God because without it the necessities of our life cannot be fulfilled. Likewise marriage of one man with one woman and education of children.

Moreover there are many other things which agree with our reason and are necessary for our life or for the existence of mankind. We ought to observe them, because such is the will of our creator, and we ought to know that God does not create us perfect but creates us with such a reason as to know that we are to strive for perfection as long as we live in this world, and to be worthy for the reward that our creator has prepared for us in his wisdom. It was possible for God to have created us perfect and to make us enjoy beatitude on earth; but he did not will to create us in this way; instead he created us with the capacity of striving for perfection, and placed us in the midst of the trials of this world so that we may become perfect and deserve the reward that our creator will give us after our death; as long as we live in this world we ought to praise our creator and fulfil his will and be patient until he draws us unto him, and beg from his mercy that he will lessen our period of hardship and forgive our sins and faults which we committed through ignorance; and enable us to know the laws of our creator and to keep them.

Now as to prayer, we always stand in need of it because [our] rational nature requires it. The soul endowed with intelligence that is aware that there is a God who knows all, conserves all, rules all, is drawn to him so that it prays to him and asks him to grant things good and to be freed from evil and sheltered under the hand of him who is almighty and for whom nothing is impossible, God great and sublime who sees all that is [above and] beneath him, holds all, teaches all, guides all, our Father, our creator, our Protector, the reward for our souls, merciful, kind, who knows each of our misfortunes, takes pleasure in our patience, creates us for life and not for destruction, as the wise Solomon said: “You, Lord, teach all things, because you can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent. You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, you are indulgent and merciful to all” [Wisdom 11:23–25]. God created us intelligent so that we may meditate on his greatness, praise him and pray to him in order to obtain the needs of our body and soul. Our reason which our creator has put in the heart of man teaches all these things to us. How can they be useless and false?


is “worship God your creator and love all men as yourself” really a precept of reason? Zera Yacob offered an argument for the existence of God back in chapter III. And in chapter IV he briefly addressed the further matter of worship:

He is intelligent who understands all, for he created us as intelligent from the abundance of his intelligence; and we ought to worship him, for he is the master of all things. If we pray to him, he will listen to us; for he is almighty.

And what about the Golden Rule? Jesus taught it, but I am not so sure about reason, and I would like more of an argument there. Empathy and mutual aid are natural, certainly, but so are vengeance and rivalry.

I’ve talked before about how there are lots of good rules that are not deliverances of pure reason, and I think observance of the Sabbath is another good example. Unlike murder and theft, observing the Sabbath is only required because God tells us to do it. It’s like taking out the trash as a kid—you only have to do it if your parents tell you to. Still, you do have to do it if they tell you to, and likewise we’re supposed to observe the Sabbath, not because we’re told to do so by reason, but because we’re told to do so by God. Moreover, it’s good that he told us to do that. If everyone else works seven days a week, then it’s pretty hard to take one day off yourself. But if God (or any other authority) makes everyone take a day off, then great! Everyone gets a day off.

The following is an interesting passage, because it raises a question about how Zera Yacob understands the relationship between what we should do, what reason tells us, and what God wills:

But the prohibitions of killing, stealing, lying, adultery: our reason teaches us these and similar ones. Likewise the six precepts of the Gospel are the will of the creator. For indeed we desire that men show mercy to us; it therefore is fitting that we ourselves show the [same] mercy to the others, as much as it is within our power. It is the will of God that we keep our life and existence in this world. It is by the will of the creator that we come into and remain in this Life, and it is not right for us to leave it against his holy will.

Zera Yacob evidently thinks that whatever reason reveals to be right, God wills—perhaps because reason simply reveals the will of God? In the last chapter, Zera Yacob referred to “the will of the creator revealed through the light of reason,” and see also the first sentence of the present chapter. The last sentence of this quote may suggest that, ultimately, we should do things precisely because God wills that we do them; indeed just below Zera Yacob says that “We ought to observe [things which agree with our reason], because such is the will of our creator.” As Plato observed in the Euthyphro, there must be some reason why God commands one thing rather than another, so it cannot simply be that we should do things merely because God says so. On the other hand, and as I pointed out just above, God, like a parent, can make certain things obligatory in virtue of his authority. Maybe that’s all Zera Yacob is getting at in the last line above: it is wrong to abandon the life your creator gave you in the same way that you could be said to wrong your parents by committing suicide. But on the whole it is a shame that Zera Yacob does not say more about what we would now call moral epistemology and metaethics; probably we must just accept that he has not really worked out a theory on such matters.

Regarding manual labour, we may note that in Ethiopia, as in many ancient and medieval societies, manual labour and technical trades were looked down on.

In the second paragraph, Zera Yacob offers a brief theodicy (a “justification of the ways of God to man,” in Milton’s words). God could have made us perfect, but did not do so because he wanted us to perfect ourselves and deserve our blessedness. As usual, Zera Yacob doesn’t develop the idea in detail, but in contemporary philosophy of religion, this is known as a “soul-making theodicy.”

Back to chapter VII; proceed to chapter IX.

A New Book on Zera Yacob

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a brand new book out on Zera Yacob: The Ethics of Zär’a Ya’eqob, by Dawit Worku Kidane. You can read the introduction on Google Books. It looks pretty interesting. As the title implies, it seems to focus on the moral philosophy. But it also seems to have some pretty substantial discussion of the historical and cultural setting. Also, it offers a brand new English translation of the Treatise (I think only of Zera Yacob’s and not Walda Heywat’s, but I’m not certain about that), which is great, since it’s only the second complete English translation of the Treatise, and Sumner’s stuff is all out of print.

If anyone has looked at this book, please let me know. If you can send me some comments, I’ll happily post them here.

More on Chapter VII

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was recently rereading an essay on Walda Heywat that I started some time back, and it contained a pretty nice passage (if I may say so myself) on chapter VII of Zera Yacob’s Treatise, which I posted last week. I reproduce it below.

*     *     *

Zera Yacob is so confident of God’s providence that it figures in a argument for life after death. It’s clear that there is another life, he says,

for in this world our desire is not fulfilled: those in need desire to possess, those who possess desire more, and though man owned the whole world, he is not satisfied and craves for more. This inclination of our nature shows us that we are created not only for this life, but also for the coming world.

Moreover justice in this world is imperfect, and “therefore there must needs be another life and another justice.” The fact that Zera Yacob would argue that there must be another life on the basis of a recognition of God’s providence shows how far he is from a deep concern with evil as a philosophical problem. We see here again that “the goodness of the created thing” is a basic assumption in Zera Yacob’s thought: the insatiability of our desires is not a sign of corruptness, nor a cause for despair, nor a reason to try to extirpate them. Our natural drives are to be embraced and if there is no obvious satisfaction for them here then it must be available elsewhere.