Ethiopian philosophy

Ethiopian philosophy is the philosophical corpus of the territories of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Besides via oral tradition, it was preserved early in written form through Ge'ez manuscripts. This 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 traditional Ethiopian modes of thought. Because of the early isolation from its sources of Abrahamic 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 Ethiopian-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 religious beliefs of Ethiopians were challenged by King Suseynos' adoption of Catholicism, and by a subsequent presence of Jesuit missionaries. The attempt to forcefully impose Catholicism upon his constituents during Suseynos' reign inspired further development of Ethiopian philosophy during the 17th century. Zera Yacob (1599–1692) is the most important exponent of this renaissance. His treatise Hatata (1667) is a work often included in the narrow canon of universal philosophy.

Zera Yacob

Zera Yacob had a culture entirely theological. Although of humble birth, he earned respect for his intellectual capacities, and went on to pursue the traditional Ethiopian theological education. Zera Yacob 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, because 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 Zera Yaqob, the Emperor from the 15th century.

Walda Heywat

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 parables, and many times the source of his examples is the Book of the Wise Philosophers. Although his work is arguably 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.

See also


  • 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”,
  • Kiros, Teodros, Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart, Red Sea Press, 2005

Further reading

  • 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.

External links

African philosophy

African philosophy is the philosophical discourse produced by indigenous Africans and their descendants, including African/Americans. African philosophy presents a wide range of topics similar to its Eastern and Western counterparts. African philosophers may be found in the various academic fields of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy. One particular subject that many African philosophers have written about is that on the subject of freedom and what it means to be free or to experience wholeness. Philosophy in Africa has a rich and varied history, some of which has been lost over time. One of the earliest known African philosophers was Ptahhotep, an ancient Egyptian philosopher. In the early and mid-twentieth century, anti-colonial movements had a tremendous effect on the development of a distinct African political philosophy that had resonance on both the continent and in the African diaspora. One well-known example of the economic philosophical works emerging from this period was the African socialist philosophy of Ujamaa propounded in Tanzania and other parts of Southeast Africa. These African political and economic philosophical developments also had a notable impact on the anti-colonial movements of many non-African peoples around the world.

Claude Sumner

Father Claude Sumner, SJ was a Canadian professor of philosophy who worked at Addis Ababa University from 1953. He was best known for his work on Ethiopian philosophy, and in particular for introducing the philosophers Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat to the English-speaking world.

Sumner died on June 24, 2012, in Montreal, Canada, at the age of 92.


For the Egyptian activist and writer, see Sherif Hatata.

Hatata (; Ge'ez: ሓተታ ḥatäta "inquiry") is a 1667 ethical philosophical treatise by the Abyssinian philosopher Zera Yacob, written at the request of his patron's son Walda Heywat. The philosophy is theistic in nature and came during a period when African philosophical literature was significantly oral in character. It has often been compared by scholars to Descartes' Discours de la methode (1637).

History of Ethiopia

The article covers the prehistory and history of Ethiopia from its emergence as an empire under the Aksumites to its current form as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia as well as the history of other areas in what is now Ethiopia such as the Afar Triangle. The Ethiopian Empire (Abyssinia) was first founded by Ethiopian people in the Ethiopian Highlands. Due to migration and imperial expansion, it grew to include many other primarily Afro-Asiatic-speaking communities, including Oromos, Amhara, Somalis, Tigray, Afars, Sidama, Gurage, Agaw and Harari, among others.

One of the earliest kingdoms to rise to power in the territory was the kingdom of D'mt in the 10th century BC, which established its capital at Yeha. In the first century AD the Aksumite Kingdom rose to power in the Tigray Region with its capital at Aksum and grew into a major power on the Red Sea, subjugating Yemen and Meroe and converting to Christianity in the early fourth century. The Aksumite empire fell into decline with the rise of Islam, forcing the Ethiopians to move south into the highlands for refuge. The Aksumites gave way to the Zagwe Dynasty who established a new capital at Lalibela, before giving way to the Solomonic Dynasty in the 13th century. During the early Solomonic period Ethiopia went through military reforms and imperial expansion that made it dominate the Horn of Africa. Portuguese missionaries arrived at this time.

In 1529, a conquest of Abyssinia (Futuh al-Habash) by the Ottoman-allied Muslim Adal Sultanate devastated the highlands, and was only deterred by a Portuguese intervention. With both Ethiopia and Adal greatly weakened by the war, the Oromo people were able to invade into the highlands, conquering the remains of the Adal Sultanate and pushing deep into Ethiopia. The Portuguese presence also increased, while the Ottomans began to push into what is now Eritrea, creating the Habesh Eyalet. The Portuguese brought modern weapons and baroque architecture to Ethiopia, and in 1622 converted the emperor Susenyos I to Catholicism, sparking a civil war which ended in his abdication and an expulsion of all Catholics from Ethiopia. A new capital was established at Gondar in 1632, and a period of peace and prosperity ensued until the country was split apart by warlords in the 18th century during the Zemene Mesafint.

Ethiopia was reunified in 1855 under Tewodros II, beginning Ethiopia's modern history and his reign was followed by Yohannes IV who was killed in action in 1889. Under Menelik II Ethiopia started its transformation to well organized technological advancement and the structure that the country has now. Ethiopia also expanded to the south and east, through the conquest of the western Oromo (now Shoan Oromo), Sidama, Gurage, Wolayta and other groups, resulting in the borders of modern Ethiopia. Ethiopia defeated an Italian invasion in 1896 and came to be recognised as a legitimate state by European powers. A more rapid modernisation took place under Menelik II and Haile Selassie. Italy launched a second invasion in 1935. From 1935-1941, Ethiopia was under Italian occupation. A joint force of British and Ethiopian rebels managed to drive the Italians out of the country in 1941, and Haile Selassie was returned to the throne. Ethiopia and Eritrea united in a federation, but when Haile Selassie ended the federation in 1961 and made Eritrea a province of Ethiopia, the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence broke out. Eritrea regained its independence after a referendum in 1993.

Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 and the militaristic Derg Regime came to power. In 1977 Somalia invaded, trying to annex the Ogaden region, but were pushed back by Ethiopian, Soviet, and Cuban forces. In 1977 and 1978 the government tortured or killed hundreds of thousands of suspected enemies in the Red Terror. Ethiopia experienced famine in 1984 that killed one million people and civil war that resulted in the fall of the Derg in 1991. This resulted in the establishment of the Federal Democratic Republic under Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia remains impoverished, but its economy has become one of the world's fastest-growing.

Oromo people

The Oromo people (Oromo: Oromoo; English: Oromo, ’Oromo) are an ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia and represent 34.5% of Ethiopia's population. Oromos speak the Oromo language as a mother tongue (also called Afaan Oromoo and Oromiffa), which is part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The word Oromo appeared in European literature for the first time in 1893 and slowly became common in the second half of the 20th century.The Oromo people followed their traditional religion and used the gadaa system of governance. A leader elected by the gadaa system remains in power only for 8 years, with an election taking place at the end of those 8 years. From the 18th century to the 19th century, Oromos were the dominant influence in northern Ethiopia during the Zemene Mesafint period. They have been one of the parties to historic migrations, and wars particularly with northern Christians and with southern and eastern Muslims, in the Horn of Africa.


Philosophy (from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally "love of wisdom") is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BCE). Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust (if one can get away with it)? Do humans have free will?Historically, "philosophy" encompassed any body of knowledge. From the time of Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to the 19th century, "natural philosophy" encompassed astronomy, medicine, and physics. For example, Newton's 1687 Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy later became classified as a book of physics. In the 19th century, the growth of modern research universities led academic philosophy and other disciplines to professionalize and specialize. In the modern era, some investigations that were traditionally part of philosophy became separate academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics.

Other investigations closely related to art, science, politics, or other pursuits remained part of philosophy. For example, is beauty objective or subjective? Are there many scientific methods or just one? Is political utopia a hopeful dream or hopeless fantasy? Major sub-fields of academic philosophy include metaphysics ("concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being"), epistemology (about the "nature and grounds of knowledge [and]...its limits and validity"), ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, logic and philosophy of science.

Walda Heywat

Walda Heywat (fl. 17th century), also called Metku, was an Ethiopian philosopher.

Zera Yacob (philosopher)

This article is about Zera Yacob, the 17th century philosopher. For the Prince, see Zera Yacob Amha Selassie, Crown Prince of Ethiopia. For the emperor, see Zara Yaqob.Zera Yacob (; Ge'ez: ዘርአ:ያዕቆብ zar'ā yāʿiqōb "Seed of Jacob," modern Zer'a Yā'iqōb; also spelled Zärˀä Yaˁqob, Zar'a Ya'aqob, or Zar'a Ya'eqob; 1599–1692) was a seventeenth-century Ethiopian philosopher from Tigray. His 1667 treatise, known in the original Ge'ez language as the Hatata (Inquiry), has often been compared by a handful of non-traditional scholars to René Descartes' Discours de la méthode (1637). His writing came at a period when African philosophical literature was significantly oral in character. He believed in following one's natural reasoning instead of believing what one is told by others.

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.