How many sub-Sahara African philosophers from before the 20th century do you know? I know two: Zera Yacob and his student Walda Heywat. Each of them wrote one treatise of only a couple of dozen pages each. It is believed that the written history of sub-Saharan philosophy begins and ends there. Why is this the case? Why is there not more written philosophy around? There are several factors that might explain this, one of these factors being the dominance of oral history in Africa until colonial times, which means that wisdom was passed on in the form of stories from generation to generation, rather than in the form of academic treatises. Whatever the explanation, Zera Yacob’s treatise is one of the few we’ve got, so if you want to know what African philosophy was about back in the day, this is where you should start.
Zera Yacob lived in Ethiopia in the 17th century, and those of you who are familiar with European early modern philosophy (Descartes, for instance) will notice, when they read Zera Yacob’s treatise, that the philosophical questions he addresses are not particularly new. Like his European and Islamic colleagues, Zera Yacob wondered whether we can know God, and conclude God’s existence, by means of reason rather than faith or revelation. Like in Europe and the Islamic world, he chose the method of rational introspection over relying on authority or tradition.
Due to the very short length of the treatise and the familiarity with its philosophical message, Zera Yacob’s work may not be the first place to turn to for philosophers looking for depth or original philosophical questions. Yet, it is interesting to note how similar philosophical questions were important in Ethiopia as well as in Europe and the Islamic world, simultaneously. This gives offers the humbling realisation that modernity is not a distinct Western achievement.
A further interesting characteristic of Zera Yacob’s work is that it is not only a philosophical treatise, but also an autobiography. He reports how he fled from the king after refusing to take sides in a religious conflict between the local Copts and the Jesuit missionaries who had managed to convert King Susenyos. Zera Yacob consequently lived in exile in a cave for about two years, which he describes as a pretty nice time, away from violent and ignorant people, meditating on God and humanity in welcome solitude. Philosophy, for Zera Yacob, was not an academic interest but a matter of urgency and immediate relevance.
You can read the entire treatise, along with some comments, on this blog.