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.”


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. 

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§ 8 Responses to Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter III

  • Yidnek says:

    nice work, is this the end??
    I love to hear more

    • Brendan says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Yidnek. There’s lots more to come. I’m plan to work through the whole of Zera Yacob’s treatise (16 chapters), and then through Walda Heywat’s treatise (35 short chapters). I hope to put up a chapter a week.

      Send me an email if you’re interested in getting hold of the complete text.

      • Yidnek says:

        where can i find the ge’ez text of the two. I follow the link on your blog, doesn’t work. Here is my mail […] if possible please send it, thank you very much

        [BR: Ok, done—and I’ve removed your email address.]

      • mengistu ferede says:

        I am interested to get your research on zera yacopand waldeheywot’s treatise.

  • addted says:

    really fantastic work would love to see more….thank you

  • Nathen Kaiser says:

    You stated in one of your post that there is not a sub-Saharan Africa philosophic tradition, but that is grossly incorrect. While there has been little work done on Ethiopic manuscripts, and African manuscripts in general, there is a project ongoing for West African manuscripts from Timbuktu. You must register to gain access, but I have read a few of them and they are quite strong in their philosophic rigor. I would also note the authors included ethnic moniker in their names, such as al-sudani (the black) and al-fulani (the Fulani).

    • Brendan says:

      Hi Nathan,

      apologies for the slow response. And thanks for drawing attention to the West African case. I am (just barely) aware of it – in my PDF version of the introduction I actually have the following footnote:

      “Islamic philosophy and theology of (ultimately) Platonic and Aristotelian provenance was studied, adapted, and produced in West Africa, including in sub-Saharan West Africa—see Diagne (2004). Western study of this material seems to be in its infancy.”

      It sounds like this material is becoming a bit more available, which is great.

      Given that this is (I believe) Islamic philosophy being practised, at furthest, on the fringes of the Sahara, I don’t think that my unqualified statement is “grossly incorrect.” It’s a marginal case, I guess. It’s probably not worth arguing about what counts as “a sub-Saharan African philosophical tradition.”

      • Nathen Kaiser says:

        Actually, there are some 300,000 books extant and most are single copies. Although, most of the book are works on mathematics, history, law, and medicine; there are many works on philosophy and, given the areas unique history (Mali, Ghana, and Sohgani empires) they are quite unique even from an Islamic point of view. Also, since the last time I posted I have been able to track down some Ethiopic scholars who tell me their are many other Ge’ez works on mathematics, science, and philosophy in possession of the ETOC and the University of Addis Ababa; I am working to gain access to them. I also came across stacks of philosophical work from Christian Nubia at the Harvard University library and I am told no one is working on them (they were cataloged in 1919). Simply because we are ignorant of thing does not mean that is evidence that it does not exist.

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