One of my goals for this column is to also expose the Western world to philosophies and ideologies that demonstrate the ideas taught by the likes of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Aristotle, but never were able to be widely spread due to the upcoming colonial nature of the West at the time. Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob is one of those names that should be recognized in classical liberal thought for expressing the beginnings of the core tenets when those in Europe were expressing similar ideas.
In his own words, Yacob was “the son of a poor farmer” whose father would send him to school at a young age. His teacher told his 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,” so he was sent to another schoolmaster who teased him for his coarse voice. This caused Yacob to find another teacher, who he would study under for 4 years, and then move on to studying biblical scripture for 10 years.
Yacob was forced into exile after the then King of Ethiopia was convinced by a Portuguese Jesuit to convert to Catholicism, leading to it becoming the country’s official religion. Yacob was appalled by this, claiming that no religion should have any more rights than the other, which brought charges by the king. The philosopher would flee to a cave and spend two years in isolation pondering his relationship with God.
The parallels between Yacob and Western philosophy can already be seen with his origins. Like the French philosopher Rene Descartes, the Ethiopian placed himself in isolation with only his reason to disseminate his thoughts. Also like Descartes, Yacob was pondering his relationship and the existence of the Creator. The difference was that Yacob strengthened his faith in God through rational intelligence while Descartes concluded, like many enlightenment philosophers of the time, that the Lord was unknowable.
What makes the philosopher extraordinary was how he demonstrated his use of deduction and critical thinking without studying any of the ancient Greeks, or renaissance philosophers, and wrote his own philosophical work only 30 years after Descartes Discourse On Method. One passage of his work The Hatata (translated as “Inquiry”), created after returning from isolation, on why the Muslim prophet Muhammed having multiple wives is illogical clearly shows a Cartesian or even Socratic chain of reasoning:
“similarly, Mohammed said, ‘ the orders I pass to you are given to me by God;” and there was no lack of writers to record miracles proving Mohammed’s mission, and (people) believed in him. But we know that the teachings of Mohammed could not have come from God; those who will be born both male and female are equal in number; if we count men and women living in an area, we find as many women as men; we do not find eight or ten women for every man; for the law of creation orders one man to marry one woman. If one man marries ten women, then nine men will be without wives.”
Yacob’s views on human nature also are akin to those of renaissance philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for both believe that humans tend to do bad deeds, and they can only perfect their natures by pursuing their faith. He believed “the nature of humans, when they resort to themselves only, is not sufficiently adequate to be enabling. Under their own direction, they cannot know the difference between truth and falsehood,” according to Suffolk University Lecturer Teodoros Kiros. I could continue to draw parallels between Yacob’s thoughts and that of past philosophers, but more important is how incredible his realizations were despite no record of him studying the European tradition.
With such a gifted mind, one might wonder why Yacob never wrote more works or was an active player in the philosophies of the enlightenment. Ethiopia’s focus on orally delivered discourse over written words certainly played a part, and had his student Walda Heywat not requested that the philosopher write his treatise, he likely too would have been forever forgotten, but a major player was also the European attitude of Africa nations.
Scottish philosopher David Hume believed the “negroes” to be naturally inferior to whites and claimed they had no arts or sciences since no civilized society came from black nations. Therefore, no philosophical thought was expected to be found, nor would the European colonists likely have taken any of it seriously should it have been discovered.
This is one of many examples of what French philosopher Michel Foucault describes as those in power deciding what is history. He notes that medieval nobility would often give a more positive view of history to their king in order to sway favor away from the “clerks and judges” and that they would use history to “explains contemporary events in the terms of contemporary events, power in terms of power, and the letter of the law of the will of the king and vice versa.”
This attitude can also be seen in the European colonizers. German philosopher Georg Hegel stated in his History of Philosophy that “’Africa is no historical part of the world,” reflecting the general attitude that the continent had nothing to offer in intellectual discourse.
Yacob perished in 1692, his death only being recorded thanks to Heywat in an annotation to Hatata. Ethiopia’s quasi-classical liberal doesn’t have much to offer today as far as new philosophical arguments, but more so serves as a lesson that for philosophy to flourish, people must have the freedom to pursue it. Given the chance, Yacob could have been included alongside the anthologies of Lockean, Thomean and Cartesian thought and that history prevented him from it is a deep shame.
The text of The Hatata along with a brief commentary on each chapter can be found here.