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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