Noteworthy Blog: “Classical Ethiopic”

April 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ge'ez GenesisThe treatises of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat are written in Ge’ez (ግዕዝ, aka Classical Ethiopic), a semitic language which occupies a role in Ethiopia analogous to that of Latin in Europe—it’s a liturgical and literary language that hasn’t been spoken popularly for quite a while. It’s related to, and shares a syllabary with, Amharic and Tigrinya.

Anyway, I just discovered this blog by a linguistics (?) grad student which is devoted to learning Ge’ez. I hope to make some use of it myself.

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A related find: the complete text of An Introduction to Ethiopic Christian Literature by J. M. Harden. It includes a discussion of our philosophers. Of Zera Yacob:

The Enquiry is throughout an appeal to reason. He is a master of the Scriptures and quotes them freely, but receives them only when they satisfy his conscience, or his understanding, as he calls it. He even works out for himself an a priori proof for the existence of God. He is quite impartial in his criticisms and his censure. Judaism, Christianity and Mahometanism all alike come under them when they teach things contrary to his understanding.

And his summation:

As the necessarily incomplete account that has here been given of these two works scarcely gives an idea of their originality, it may be well to add something as to the impression which the study of them made on their editor [Enno Littmann]. Of the first of them he says, while bewailing the want of originality in Ethiopic Literature in general; ‘A man like Zar’a Yâ’qob gave utterance at the time of the Thirty Years’ war to thoughts which first became current in Europe at the time of Rationalism in literature.’ Again, in words already referred to, he describes them both as ‘two religious philosophical works which stand apart as the most original writings in Ethiopic Literature, and which are a real contribution to the history of human thought.’

Incidentally, Littmann’s edition of the Ge’ez text, along with a Latin translation, is available online.


Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter I

April 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

I hope to put up, and comment on, one chapter a week from Zera Yacob (and eventually Walda Heywat). So, without further ado, let’s start at the start. The translation is Sumner’s, though I’ve made a few stylistic adjustments.

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In the name of God who alone is just. I shall describe the life, the wisdom and the investigation of Zera Yacob who said: “Come and listen, all you who fear God, while I tell you what he has done for me.” Behold, I begin.

In the name of God, who is the creator of all things, the beginning and the end, the possessor of all, the source of all life and of all wisdom, I shall write of some of the things that I have encountered during my long life. Let my soul be blessed in the sight of God and let the meek rejoice. I sought God and he answered me. And now you approach him and he will enlighten you; let not your face be ashamed. Join me in proclaiming the greatness of God and together let us extol his name.

I was born in the land of the priests of Aksum. But I am the son of a poor farmer in the district of Aksum; the day of my birth is 25th of Nahasye 1592 AD, the third year of [King] Yacob. By Christian baptism I was named Zera Yacob, but people called me Warqye. When I grew up, my father sent me to school in view of my instruction. And after I had read the Psalms of David my teacher said to my father: “This young son of yours is clever and has the patience to learn; if you send him to a [higher] school, he will be a master and a doctor.” After hearing this, my father sent me to study zemya. But my voice was course and my throat was grating; so my schoolmaster used to laugh at me and tease me. I stayed there for three months, until I overcame my sadness and went to another master who taught me qenye and seweseya. God gave me the talent to learn faster that my companions and this compensated for my previous disappointment; I stayed there four years. During those days, God as it were snatched me from the claws of death: for as I was playing with my friends I fell into a ravine, and I do not know how I was saved except by a miracle from God. After I was saved I measured the depth of the ravine with a long rope and found it to be twenty-five fathoms and one palm [deep]. Thanking God for saving me, I went to the house of my master. After this I left for another school to study the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. I remained ten years in this type of study; I learned the interpretations both of the Frang and of our own scholars. Oftentimes their interpretations did not agree with my reason; but I withheld my opinion and hid in my heart all the thoughts of my mind. Having returned to my native Aksum, I taught for four years. But this period was not peaceful: for in the XIX year of King Susenyos, while Afwons, a Frang, was Abuna, two years [after his arrival] a great persecution spread all over Ethiopia. The king accepted the faith of the Frang, and from that time on persecuted all those who did not accept it.


Ethiopia’s first distinctively philosophical text is also her first autobiography. Zera Yacob describes here his traditional education in poetry, scripture, and hermeneutics; the inquisitive temperament which is hinted at here will be seen in later chapters to develop into a general skepticism about revealed religion, prompted by the sectarian conflict in the Ethiopia of his day.

The “Frang” are foreigners. Portuguese soldiers had arrived in Ethiopia in the middle of the 16th century, and effectively saved the ancient Christian highland civilization from the depredations of Ahmed GragnThe Jesuits hung around, and eventually found influence at court, with the results described here.

Comparisons with Descartes are nearly ubiquitous in the (extremely limited) secondary literature on Zera Yacob, and with some justification. We already see a bright student with doubts about his traditional education; soon we will see Zera Yacob in isolation, tearing down his beliefs and building them back up.

Proceed to chapter II.

Reading the Kebra Negast

April 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

That’s what this blogger is doing. The first two posts are here and here. Here’s a passage:

It’s interesting to note that the Kebra Nagast, at least as we have it now, is fully Christian. When God is about to make Adam it says, “then the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit said: ‘Let us make man in Our similitude and likeness.’” It then goes on to talk about the Incarnation as the “Second Zion the Second Adam, who was our Saviour Christ. This is our Glory and our faith, our hope and our life, the Second Zion.”

A Brief Annotated Bibliography of Ethiopian Philosophy

April 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s not much out there about Ethiopian philosophy, and the texts themselves are hard to find. But I can tell you roughly what there is, and what you might expect to find there. (Readers are welcome to help me expand this—especially if you can help with literature in other languages.)

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Sumner, Classical Ethiopian Philosophy

Enno Littmann (1904) offers an edition of the Ge’ez text of the treatises of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat, along with Latin translations. This is available online. Hereafter I restrict myself to English-language materials.

Claude Sumner (1985) provides a translation of five nominally philosophical texts, along with brief introductions. Only two of these texts are philosophical in a strict sense, namely the treatises of Zera Yacob and of Walda Hewyat. These two texts are printed together, along with the Ge’ez text and a discussion of the text and authorship, in Sumner (1976b). Sumner (1978) then provides discussion of a more philosophical variety. These books are out of print and difficult to find, but selections from Sumner’s translation of Zera Yacob have been anthologized by Blackwell in Eze (1998). Dawit Worku Kidane (2012), “a close study of the Treatise of Zar’a Ya’əqob, giving particular attention to his ethical thought,” also provides a new translation of that work (in print as of November 2012).

The other three texts included in Sumner (1985), which are older and more in the vein of aphorisms or “wisdom literature,” also receive more extended treatment in Sumner (1974b), Sumner (1974a), and Sumner (1976a). Other literature dealing, in whole or in part, with oral or wisdom literature in the Ethiopian context includes Sumner (1986), Sumner (1995), Sumner (1996), Sumner (1999c), Sumner (1999b), Presbey (1999), and Presbey (2002). But hereon I restrict myself to Zera Yacob and Walda Hewat.

There is very little secondary literature. Brief (and to my mind not entirely satisfactory) encyclopedia-style accounts may be found in Sumner (2004) and Kiros (2004), or, even more briefly, in Sumner (1998) or Sumner (1999a). Published articles are few and far between, but see Kiros (1994, 2001, 2004, 2005) and Sumner (1999d). Sumner and Yohannes (2002) is a collection of articles by various scholars, though I am not familiar with the contents. Kiros (2001) and Ayele and Sumner (1991) will likely be of some relevance. There are a couple of student (?) essays online: Cherinet (1993); Asfaw (2004); Bokora (2004). The only article I know of in a mainstream philosophy journal (the multilingual Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie) is Krause (2003), though it’s in German. Kiros (2005) is a short book on Zera Yacob, but I cannot recommend it. I am not aware of any other book-length discussions in English, with the exception of the aforementioned Sumner (1976b, 1978) Kidane (2012). Finally, some interesting tertiary literature: on Claude Sumner and his work on Ethiopian philosophy, see Kiros (1995).

Substantial bibliographies listing older works and works in other languages may be found in Sumner (1985), Sumner (1976b), and Sumner (1978); Kidane (2012) is probably a good bet as well. These are also the obvious books to start with. A good and recent general history of Ethiopia—a fascinating country—is Henze (2000), while Harden (1926) is an introduction to Ethiopian literature (and includes a brief discussion of our philosophers).

References after the fold.

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Ethiopian Philosophy: A Very Brief Introduction

April 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

Zera Yacob was born in 1599, near Axum, in northern Ethiopia. As a youth he received a thorough traditional education in scripture and poetry—Ethiopia had long been a Christian country—and afterwards spent several years teaching. In 1626 king Susenyos (r.~1607–32), under the influence of Portuguese Jesuits, converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism, triggering a period of religious and civil unrest. Zera Yacob avoided taking sides, but his neutrality won him no friends. He was eventually denounced to the king and fled, taking with himself little more than a book of Psalms. He spent the next two years in seclusion in a cave near the Takkaze river, meditating and praying over the psalms. There he reflected on the disagreement between followers of different faiths, and this led him to reject all revealed religions as equally unsupportable, and to adopt instead a rational faith. He remained devout in his own way, convinced of God’s goodness and providential concern, both for himself personally and for human beings generally.

In 1632 Susenyos abandoned his attempts to impose Catholicism on the country. He abdicated, and died not much later; his son Fasiladas (r.~1632–1667) lost no time affirming his committment to the Orthodox faith, drawing the sectarian conflict to a close. Zera Yacob came out of hiding, finally making his way to the town of Enfraz, not far from Gondar and Lake Tana. Here he found employment doing writing for locals and teaching their children. One of these children was Walda Heywat. In 1667, with Walda Heywat’s encouragement, Zera Yacob wrote his short (roughly twenty-page) treatise, which was simultaneously the first autobiography and the first philosophical work in Ethiopian history. He died in 1692, but Walda Heywat later put down his own thoughts as well, very much in the same vein as those of his master, though marked by a less personal style, and at just slightly greater length. The two treatises (their common title, hatata, means something like ‘investigation’) are primarily concerned with showing the errors of various religions, and they correspondingly treat of various moral topics; they are also concerned to put confidence in God on a rational footing, and so to defend the goodness of God in the face of evil and injustice.

These two treatises are something very close to the only philosophical works produced in sub-Saharan Africa prior to the colonial period. Although some writers have tried to portray Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat as belonging to some kind of Ethiopian or African philosophical tradition, no such traditions exist—more’s the pity. What we see in these treatises is rather what in other circumstances might have been the start of a philosophical school. As Claude Sumner has said, Zera Yacob’s treatise is “an absolutely original work,” and if philosophy in Ethiopia starts with Zera Yacob it also ends with Walda Heywat.

Nevertheless Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat are certainly deserving of more than the next-to-non-existent attention they have received (for example, to my knowledge there has been no discussion of them or their philosophy in English philosophy journals, though there are a few descriptions in handbooks and encyclopedias). They belong on a map of the history of philosophy, and this blog is intended to help put them there.

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