Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter IV

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Later on I thought, saying to myself: “Is everything is written in the Holy Scriptures true?” Although I thought much [about these things] I understood nothing, so I said to myself: “I shall go and consult scholars and thinkers; they will tell me the truth.”

But afterwards I thought, saying to myself: “What will men tell me other than what is in their heart?” Indeed each one says: “My faith is right, and those who believe in another faith believe in falsehood, and are the enemies of God.” These days the Frang tell us: “Our faith is right, yours is false.” We on the other hand tell them: “It is not so; your faith is wrong, ours right.” “If we also ask the Mohammedans and the Jews, they will claim the same thing, and who would be the judge for such a kind of argument? “No single human being [can judge:] for all men are plaintiffs and defendants between themselves. Once I asked a Frang scholar many things concerning our faith; he interpreted them all according to his own faith. Afterwards I asked a well-known Ethiopian scholar and he also interpreted all things according to his own faith. If I had asked the Mohammedans and the Jews, they also would have interpreted according to their own faith; then, where could I obtain a judge that tells the truth? As my own faith appears true to me, so does another one find his own faith true; but truth is one. While thinking over this matter, I said: “O my creator, wise among the wise and just among the just, who created me with an intelligence, help me to understand, for men lack wisdom and truthfulness; as David said, no man can be relied upon.”

I thought further and said: “Why do men lie over problems of such great importance, even to the point of destroying themselves?” And they seemed to do so because although they pretend to know all, they know nothing. Convinced they know all, they do not attempt to investigate the truth. “As David said: “Their hearts are curdled like milk.” Their heart is curdled because they assume what they have heard from their predecessors and they do not inquire whether it is true or false. But I said: “O Lord! who strike me down with such torment, it is fitting that I know your judgement. You chastise me with truth and admonish me with mercy. But never let my head be anointed with the oil of sinners and of masters in lying: make me understand, for you created me with intelligence.” I asked myself: “If I am intelligent, what is it I understand?” And I said: “I understand there is a creator, greater than all creatures; since from his overabundant greatness, he created things that are so great. 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.” I went on saying in my thought: “God did not create me intelligent without a purpose, that is to look for him and to grasp him and his wisdom in the path he has opened for me and to worship him as long as l live.” And still thinking on the same subject, I said to myself: “Why is it that all men do not adhere to truth, instead of [believing] falsehood?” [The cause] seemed to be the nature of man which is weak and sluggish. Man aspires to know truth and the hidden things of nature, but this endeavour is difficult and can only be attained with great labour and patience, as Solomon said: “With the help of wisdom I have been at pains to study all that is done under heaven; oh, what a weary task God has given mankind to labour at!” Hence people hastily accept what they have heard from their fathers and shy from any [critical] examination. But God created man to be the master of his own actions, so that he will be what he wills to be, good or bad. If a man chooses to be wicked he can continue in this way until he receives the punishment he deserves for his wickedness. But being carnal, man likes what is of the flesh; whether they are good or bad, he finds ways and means through which he can satisfy his carnal desire. God did not create man to be evil, but to choose what he would like to be, so that he may receive his reward if he is good or his condemnation if he is bad. If a liar, who desires to achieve wealth or honours among men, needs to use foul means to obtain them, he will say he is convinced this falsehood was for him a just thing. To those people who do not want to search, this action seems to be true, and they believe in the liar’s strong faith. I ask [you,] how many falsehoods do our people believe in? They believe wholeheartedly in astrology and other calculations, in the mumbling of secret words, in omens, in the conjuration of devils, and in all kinds of magical art and in the utterances of soothsayers. They believe in all these because they did not investigate the truth but listened to their predecessors. Why did these predecessors lie unless it was for obtaining wealth and honours? Similarly those who wanted to rule the people said: “We were sent by God to proclaim the truth to you;” and the people believed them. Those who came after them accepted their fathers’ faith without question; rather, as a proof of their faith, they added to it by including stories of signs and omens. Indeed they said: “God did those things;” and so they made God a witness of falsehood and a party to liars.

COMMENT

Having satisfied himself in chapter III that God does indeed exist, Zera Yacob now wonders about the reliability of scripture. He begins by arguing that it’s no use to inquire of so-called experts, because they all disagree, interpreting things merely insight of their own traditions. What are sometimes called “arguments from disagreement,” whereby it is argued that the existence of disagreement (or perhaps “interminable disagreement”) means that there is no fact of the matter or that we ought not to listen to anybody, may or may not be any good. That fact that people disagree doesn’t mean much in itself. Sometimes one party is right and has a good case and the other party is wrong and has a bad case. But Zera Yacob strengthens his case here by arguing that the reason for disagreement in this case is that people are lazy and credulous: they don’t really want to investigate things carefully, so they accept the testimony of charlatans. There is no doubt some truth to this: most people are not thinkers or critics.

On the other hand, philosophically minded people—and Zera Yacob is no exception—tend to be overly sceptical of tradition, and, indeed, of history in general. They’re good at thinking things through, and, as a result, they come to think that it should be possible to figure everything out a priori. But  there are lots of things—including surprising and unintuitive things—that we know only because they gave been reported to us. Moreover, it’s often possible to tell truth from fiction, even without resorting to archaeology. Compare the Gospel of Luke to the Gospel of Thomas, for example. The Gospel of Luke may or may not be entirely accurate, but it’s a serious work. The Gospel of Thomas, by contrast, is obvious nonsense, and it’s no surprise that it was not incorporated into the Biblical cannon.

Zera Yacob also makes some remarks of relevance to the problem of evil: he says that God didn’t make man to be evil, but that man is free to do evil if he so chooses (and consequently will be punished for it). More generally, people could think for themselves and correct their behaviour, but they refuse to. This is a pretty standard response, but doesn’t go very deep. Zera Yacob will have a bit more to say about the problem of evil in chapter VIII, and Walda Heywat will have even more to say.

Back to chapter III; proceed to chapter V.

Ethiopia Was Not Innocent of Philosophy Before Zera Yacob

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve said that the treatises of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat are the only properly philosophical works to be written in Ethiopia, but this passage from chapter III has some suspiciously philosophical language in it:

He who created them from nothing must be an uncreated essence who is and will be for all centuries [to come], the Lord and master of all things, without beginning or end, immutable, whose years cannot be numbered.

A certain familiarity with philosophical notions would have been an essential element of the church’s theology. (To my way of understanding, theology is really just a branch of philosophy.) For instance, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, like a variety of other orthodox churches, is a ‘Monophysite’ church—or, to let them explain it themselves:

It is unfair for the Church to be nicknamed “Monophysites” by the faithful who accept the Chalcedonian formula of “two Natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ”, because the expression used by the non-Chalcedonian side was always miaphysis, and never Monophysis (mia standing for a composite unity unlike mone standing for an elemental unity). Therefore these churches are best referred to as the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the Jesuits and the Orthodox clergy would have been arguing about in Zera Yacob’s day. And obviously this kind of Christological dispute requires a lot of fine distinctions concerning ‘essence’ or ‘being.’ So Zera Yacob would certainly have been familiar with some technical philosophical or theological ideas.

I’ve updated my comments on chapter III to include this point.

Updated: A Brief Introduction to Ethiopian Philosophy

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve updated the PDF version of my Ethiopian Philosophy: A Brief Introduction with Bibliography (see the “Where to Start” page). I’ve fixed some references and added a few more, and I’ve expanded the selections: the file now contains chapters I–IV of Zera Yacob’s treatise, and chapters I–III of Walda Heywat’s treatise.

Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter III

May 14, 2012 § 8 Comments

After prayer, when I was not engaged in any kind of work, I used to meditate for whole days on conflicts between men and their depravity and on the wisdom of their creator who is silent while men do evil in His name and persecute their fellow men and kill their brothers. For in those days the Frang prevailed. And not only the Frang [were strong in their persecutions] but my own people were even worse than they. Those who had accepted the faith of the Frang would say: “The Copts have denied the rightful see of Peter, and are therefore the enemies of God;” and so they persecuted them. The Copts did the same in defence of their faith.

I said to myself: “If God is the guardian of men, how is it that their nature is thus deeply corrupted?” and I said: “How does God know, or is there anyone in heaven who knows? Or if there is one who knows, why does he remain silent on men’s depravity while they corrupt his name and act with iniquity in his holy name?” I said in my prayer: “O my Lord and my creator, who endowed me with reason, make me intelligent, reveal to me your hidden wisdom. Keep my eyes open lest they slumber until the moment of death. Your hands made me and moulded me; render me intelligent that I may know your precepts. My feet have nearly stumbled and the ground [under them] has nearly given way; and the labour stands before me.” While I was praying in such and similar ways, one day I said to myself in my own thought: “Whom am I praying to or is there a God who listens to me?” At this thought I was invaded by a dreadful sadness and I said: “In vain have I kept my own heart pure” (as David says).

Later on I thought of the words of the same David, “Is the inventor of the ear unable to hear?” and I said: “Who is it that provided me with an ear to hear, who created me as a rational [being] and how have I come into this world? Where do I come from? Had I lived before the creator of the world, I would have known the beginning of my life and of the consciousness [of myself]. Who created me? Was I created by my own hands? But I did not exist before I was created. If I say that my father and my mother created me then I must search for the creator of my parents and of the parents of my parents until they arrive at the first who were not created as we [are], but who came into this world in some other way without being generated. For if they themselves have been created, I know nothing of their origin unless I say, “He who created them from nothing must be an uncreated essence who is and will be for all centuries [to come], the Lord and master of all things, without beginning or end, immutable, whose years cannot be numbered.” And I said “Therefore there is a creator, else there would have been no creation. This creator who endowed us with the gifts of intelligence and reason, can he himself be without them? For he created us as intelligent beings from the abundance of his intelligence and the same one being comprehends all, creates all, is almighty.” And I used to say: “My creator will hear me if I pray to him,” and because of this thought I felt very happy. “I would pray to my creator with great hope and love, and with all my heart I would say: “You, Lord, know the thought of my heart from afar. Indeed you know all that was and all that will be; and all my paths you know beforehand.” Hence it is said: “You know from afar. For God read my thoughts before I was born” and I said: “O my creator, make me intelligent.”

COMMENT

In the first two paragraphs of this chapter, Zara Yacob struggles with the question: “why does God allow people to do evil in his name?” and “If God cares for men, why are they so corrupt?” No king, unless a mere puppet, would allow people to run around invoking his name while acting against him; so why does God? A parent would currect his children; why does it seem that God doesn’t?

(Philosophers will recognize Zera Yacob’s questions as forms of the problem of evil. They might prefer to present it in a more generalized and abstract form—something like: if God is good, why do bad things happen? This very abstract question is not meaningful in its own right, but only as a kind of short hand for various more specific question of the sort asked here by Zera Yacob. Likewise it is the more specify questions that we can hope to answer.)

Zera Yacob does not attempt to answer the question right away (he’ll take it up again in chapter IV). Instead he reports that, with dismay, he began to doubt whether there is any God at all. In response, he presents an argument which looks to be a combination of, on the one hand, what is known as an argument from design (or a teleological argument), and, on the other, a cosmological argument. The former type of argument appeals to the presence of design in the world, and the latter to the contingent nature of things; the idea in the first case is that we need a designer, in the second case that we need a creator. In Zera Yacob’s case, the observation is: we are marvellous but transient things, not responsible for ourselves; therefore there must be an intelligent creator.

I’ve said that the treatises of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat are the only properly philosophical works to be written in Ethiopia, but the reader may notice that this passage has some suspiciously philosophical language in it:

He who created them from nothing must be an uncreated essence who is and will be for all centuries [to come], the Lord and master of all things, without beginning or end, immutable, whose years cannot be numbered.

A certain familiarity with philosophical notions would have been an essential element of the church’s theology. (To my way of understanding, theology is really just a branch of philosophy.) For instance, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, like a variety of other orthodox churches, is a ‘Monophysite’ church—or, to let them explain it themselves:

It is unfair for the Church to be nicknamed “Monophysites” by the faithful who accept the Chalcedonian formula of “two Natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ”, because the expression used by the non-Chalcedonian side was always miaphysis, and never Monophysis (mia standing for a composite unity unlike mone standing for an elemental unity). Therefore these churches are best referred to as the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches.

This is exactly the kind of thing that the Jesuits and the Orthodox clergy would have been arguing about in Zera Yacob’s day. And obviously this kind of Christological dispute requires a lot of fine distinctions concerning ‘essence’ or ‘being.’ So Zera Yacob would certainly have been familiar with some technical philosophical or theological ideas.

Finally, a question to consider: is philosophical argument an adequate substitute for revelation if the point is to affirming belief in a good and personal God (as Zera Yacob does at the end of the chapter)?

Back to chapter II; proceed to chapter IV.

Last updated May 17, 2012. 

Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter II

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Map of Ethiopia

While I was teaching in my district, many of my friends came to dislike me. During this period there was no real friendship and as a result men became jealous of one another. I surpassed the others in knowledge and in love of one’s neighbour and I was on good terms with all, even with the Frang [foreigners; i.e. the Portuguese] and the Copts. And while I was teaching and interpreting the Books, I used to say: “The Frang say this and this” or “The Copts say that and that,” and I did not say: “This is good, that is bad,” but I said: “All these things are good if we ourselves are good.” Hence I was disliked by all; the Copts took me for a Frang, the Frang for a Copt. They brought a charge against me many times to the king; but God saved me. At that time, a certain enemy of mine, Walda Yohannes, a priest from Aksum and a friend of the king, went [to bring a charge against me:] since the love of kings could be won by perfidious tongue. This betrayer went to the king and said this about me: “Truly this man misleads the people and tells them we should rise for the sake of our faith, kill the king and expel the Frang.” He also said many other similar words against me. But being aware of all this and frightened by it, I took three measures of gold which I possessed and the Psalms of David, with which I prayed, and fled at night. I did not tell anyone where was going. I reached a place close to the Takkaze River, and the next day, as I felt hungry I went out in fear to beg the farmers for some bread. I ate what they gave me and ran away. I lived in this manner for many days. On my way to Shoa, I found an uninhabited location. There was a beautiful cave at the foot of a deep valley, and I said [to myself:] “I shall live here unnoticed.” I lived there for two years until [King] Susenyos died. “At times I would leave [the cave] and go to the market or to the country of the Ahmara as they took me for a hermit who goes about begging and gave me enough to appease my hunger. People however, did not know where I dwelt. Alone in my cave, I felt I was living in heaven. Knowing the boundless badness of men, I disliked contact with them. I built a fence of stone and thorny bush so that wild animals would not endanger my life at night, and I made an exit through which I could escape if ever people searched for me; there I lived peacefully praying with all my heart on the Psalms of David and trusting that God was hearing me.

COMMENT

This chapter is still strictly biographical, and I don’t have much to say about it. It would be interesting to know, though, to what extent Zera Yacob was diplomatic about the rival views of the Copts and Catholics because he had already become fairly skeptical about revealed religion. This skepticism was hinted at in chapter I as well.

Things start getting philosophical in chapter III.

Back to chapter I; proceed to chapter III.

An Article on Zera Yacob in a Mainstream Philosophy Journal

May 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Just discovered: Andrej Krause, “Spezielle Metaphysik in der Untersuchung des Zara Jacob (1599–1692),” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 85.3 (2003), pp. 331–345. The abstract is in English:

 In 1667 the Ethiopian philosopher Zar’a Ya’qob finished his Treatise. This work belongs to the most impressive products of African philosophy. It deals above all with ethical and metaphysical problems. In this paper are discussed some of the metaphysical arguments of the Treatise, more precisely its reflections on rational theology and rational psychology. It becomes evident that Zar’a Ya’qob used premises which we would not take for granted today. Nevertheless his high confidence in human reason and his endeavour to express himself comprehensibly are very remarkable and recommendable.

Not terribly descriptive, unfortunately. But I should have enough German to work my way through it, so I’ll take a look and report back here eventually.

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