By “Ethiopian philosophy” is generally understood the philosophy written in Ge'ez on the territory of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Because of its written character and early development, Ethiopian philosophy occupies a unique position within African philosophy.
Beginnings of Ethiopian philosophy
The character of Ethiopian philosophy is determined by the particular conditions of evolution of the Ethiopian culture. Thus, Ethiopian philosophy arises from the confluence of Greek and Patristic philosophy with African traditional modes of thought. Because of the early isolation from its sources of spirituality – Byzantium and Alexandria – Ethiopia received some of its philosophical heritage through Arabic versions.
The sapiential literature developed under these circumstances is the result of a twofold effort of creative assimilation: on one side, of a tuning of Orthodoxy to traditional modes of thought (never eradicated), and vice-versa, and, on the other side, of absorption of Greek pagan and early Patristic thought into this developing African-Christian synthesis. As a consequence, the moral reflection of religious inspiration is prevalent, and the use of narrative, parable, apothegm and rich imagery is preferred to the use of abstract argument. This sapiential literature consists in translations and adaptations of some Greek texts, namely of the Physiolog (cca. 5th century A.D.), The Life and Maxims of Skendes (11th century A.D.) and The Book of the Wise Philosophers (1510/22).
Mature Ethiopian philosophy
In the 17th century the Ethiopian identity is challenged by king Suseynos’ conversion to Catholicism, and by a consistent presence of Jesuit missionaries. It is the attempt of forcefully imposing Catholicism to Ethiopians during Suseynos that provokes the most impressive effort of independent thinking known to us in 17th century Africa. Zera Yacob (1599–1692) is the most important exponent of Ethiopian philosophy, and his treatise Hatata (1667) is a work worthy of being included in the narrow canon of universal philosophy.
Zera Yacob had a culture entirely theological. Although of humble birth, he made himself remarked for his intellectual capacities, and went on to pursue the traditional Ethiopian theological education. He mastered Coptic theology and Catholic theology, and he had extensive knowledge of Jewish and Islamic religions. His spiritual vade mecum was David’s Book of Psalms, in which he sought comfort and inspiration.
Knowing thus two Christian interpretations of the Bible, as well as the two other Abrahamic religions, and seeing the contradictions between them, Zera Yacob is led to refuse the authority of the Ethiopian tradition and of any tradition in general. He comes to think that the tradition is infested by lies, due to the fact that men, in their arrogance, believe that they know everything and thus refuse to examine things with their own mind, blindly accepting what has been transmitted to them by their forefathers. The philosopher accepts then as unique authority his reason, and accepts from the Scriptures and from the dogmas only what resists a rational inquiry. He affirms that the human reason can find the truth, if it searches it and does not get discouraged in front of the difficulties.
Thus, by his piece-meal examination (this is what hatätä means), Zera Yacob arrives at an argument for the existence of God (an essence uncreated and eternal), based on the impossibility of an infinite chain of causes, and at the conviction that the Creation is good, because God is good. This belief is the basis for a criticism of ascetic morals and of some Jewish and Islamic moral precepts as well. By identifying the will of God with what is rational Zera Yacob rejects most of these moral precepts (e.g. concerning polygamy, or fasting, or sexual or alimentary interdictions) as blasphemy. He seems to think that all is good for the good one, reminding thus of the mode of thought expressed in the profession of faith of the other great Zara Yaqob, the Emperor from the 15th century.
Zera Yacob had a disciple, Walda Heywat, who also wrote a philosophical treatise, systematising his master’s thought. He accorded more attention to the practical and educational problems, and he tried to connect Zera Yacob’s philosophy with the kind of wisdom expressed in the earlier sapiential literature. Walda Heywat recurs intensively to illustrations and parabola, and many times the source of his examples is the Book of the Wise Philosophers. Although his work is less original than that of his master’s, it can be considered "more Ethiopian", since it represents a synthesis through which some ideas engendered by Zera Yacob’s rejection of tradition are brought together with traditional Christian-inspired wisdom. It is “more Ethiopian” also in the sense that it addresses some practical, social and moral issues that most Ethiopians of his time encountered in their lives. Thus, Walda Heywat’s work is less speculative, but more national in character than the treatise of his master, Zera Yacob.
- Sumner, Claude, The Source of African Philosophy: the Ethiopian Philosophy of Man, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1986
- Sumner, Claude, "Ethiopia, philosophy in", In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1998
- Kiros, Teodros, “The Meditations of Zara Yaquob”, http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Afri/AfriKiro.htm
- Kiros, Teodros, Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart, Red Sea Press, 2005
- Teodros Kiros, "Zera Yacob and Traditional Ethiopian Philosophy," in Wiredu and Abraham, eds., A Companion to African Philosophy, 2004.
- Enno Littmann. Philosophi Abessini. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Vol. 18, Scriptores Aethiopici, Presses Républicaines, 1904. Contains the Ge'ez text of the treatises of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat.
- Claude Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. I: The Book of the Wise Philosophers, Commercial Printing Press, 1974.
- Claude Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. II: The Treatise of Zara Yaecob and Walda Hewat: Text and Authorship, Commercial Printing Press, 1976.
- Claude Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. III: The Treatise of Zara Yaecob and Walda Hewat: An Analysis, Commercial Printing Press, 1978.
- Claude Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. IV: The Life and Maxims of Skandes, Commercial Printing Press, 1974.
- Claude Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, vol. V: The Fisalgwos, Commercial Printing Press, 1976.
- Claude Sumner. Classical Ethiopian Philosophy, Commercial Printing Press, 1985. Contains an English translation and brief introduction for each of the texts presented in volumes I–V of Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy.
- Claude Sumner, "The Light and the Shadow: Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat: Two Ethiopian Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century," in Wiredu and Abraham, eds., A Companion to African Philosophy, 2004.
- A brief introduction to Ethiopian Philosophy - With bibliography and textual selections
- Ethiopian Philosophy - A blog devoted to Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat