Zara Yacob, Professor Sumner and Ethiopian Philosophy

For many centuries, since the 17th century in the case of French philosopher Rene Descartes, since the 19th century in the case of Hegel, it was unacceptable if not unimaginable for Europeans to admit the fact that Africans had their own world views or philosophies. Yet, in the 17th century, a monk from the church in Axum rose to announce that Ethiopians and by extension Africa, like any people in any part of the world, had world views that may not resemble those of Europeans and bore characteristics and thought contents that grew up on the fertile soil of their lives and imaginations and reflected their identities, dreams and fantasies.

These assertions were first articulated or expressed by the foremost Ethiopian researcher and philosopher Claude Sumner who first unearthed the philosophical truths that remained buried under the burden of history and ancient civilizations and denied by so-called Eurocentric thinkers.

One may have to go backward in order to go forward and evaluate the contribution made by Zara Yacob the monk turned Ethiopian philosopher in his early years while he was running away from persecution. He hid himself in a remote cave where he found enough time to ponder on the nature of human beings, their relations with God and why they behaved the way they did under the circumstances. He discovered some of the pillars of his thought that he put together in what was later called Hatata Zara Yacob. The first Ethiopian philosopher captured Sumner’s attention and became the work of his entire life.

A brief biography of Zara Yacob in Encarta Encyclopedia suggests that, “Yacob was born into a farmer family near Aksum in northern Ethiopia, the former capital of Ethiopia under the ancient Kingdom of Aksum. Yacob’s name means “The Seed of Jacob” (“Zar” is the Ge’ez word for “seed”). Although his father was poor, he supported Yacob’s attendance of traditional schools, where he became acquainted with the Psalms of David and educated in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith. He was denounced before Emperor Susenyos (r. 1607–1632), who had turned to the Roman Catholic faith and ordered his subjects to follow his own example.”

Refusing to adopt the Catholic faith, Yacob fled into exile with some gold and the Book of Psalms. On the road to Shewa in the south, he found a cave at the foot of the Tekezé River and lived in it as a hermit for two years, praying and developing his philosophy. He wrote of his experience, “I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars. What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things.”

After the death of the Emperor, Susenyos’s son Fasiledes, Yacob left his cave and settled in Emfraz. He found a patron, a rich merchant named HabtaEgziabher (known as Habtu), and married a maid of the family.

He refused to live as a monk and stated that “the law of Christians which propounds the superiority of monastic life over marriage is false and can’t come from God.” However, he also rejected polygamy because “the law of creation orders one man to marry one woman.”

Yacob became the teacher of Habtu’s two sons, and at the request of his patron’s son WaldaHeywat, Yacob wrote his famous 1667 treatise investigating the light of reason.”

According to one study, “the major contribution of Claude Sumner to the field of African philosophy lies in paving the way for a new reconstructive project that challenged Eurocentric bias that saw Africa as the land devoid of the culture of philosophy and the refined aspects of human civilization. Sumner throughout his studies introduced a research project that sought to unearth Ethiopia’s written, unwritten and creatively appropriated sources of philosophy.”

According to another essay on African and Ethiopian philosophy, “African philosophy emerged out of the rationality debates and the need to affirm the existence of a unique African intellectual tradition that primarily reflects on the legacies of colonialism. Such a debate also centered on whether there is a unique philosophical tradition rooted on African traditional practices. In such a context, Ethiopian philosophy represents a unique approach in defying the colonial bias which is founded on the idea that philosophy is exclusively a western mode of thinking. It is also unique in being available among others in a written form which is absent in other philosophical traditions in Africa.”

Professor Sumner’s contribution to African and Ethiopian philosophy was evaluated in the above-quoted essay as follows: “Claude Sumner succeeded in introducing a philosophical edifice through which the different modalities of Ethiopian philosophy could easily find an expression. Unearthing the written, oral and adopted sources of Ethiopian philosophy, Sumner called on the need to demonstrate the role of philosophy in Ethiopian public life and matters of existing needs.

Dealing with Zara Yacob’s philosophical contribution, the Encyclopedia says that, “Yacob is most noted for this ethical philosophy surrounding the principle of harmony. He proposed that an action’s morality is decided by whether it advances or degrades overall harmony in the world. While he did believe in a deity, whom he referred to as God, he rejected any set of particular religious beliefs. Rather than deriving beliefs from any organized religion, Yacob sought the truth in observing the natural world…”

However, the know ability of God does not depend on human intellect, but “Our soul has the power of having the concept of God and of seeing him mentally. God did not give this power purposelessly; as he gave the power, so did he give the reality.”

In chapter 5 of Hatata, Zara Yacob criticizes the religious argument for slavery saying, “what the Gospel says on this subject cannot come from God. Likewise, the Mohammedans said that it is right to go and buy a man as if he were an animal. But with our intelligence, we understand that this Mohammedan law cannot come from the creator of man who made us equal, like brothers, so that we call our creator our father.” At the time, slavery was widely practiced in Ethiopia.”

Professor Summer based his study of Ethiopian philosophy on the full evaluation of the Hatata written by Zara Yacob. He translated it from the original Ge’ez to English in order to make it known throughout the academic and philosophical worlds. According to another study on this issue, Professor Sumner had set two objectives while studying the Hatata,

“Sumner‟s philosophical investigations were informed by two basic goals. The first one is the need to demonstrate the existence of a philosophical tradition in different non-Western parts of the world which is comparable in stature to the Western tradition. Secondly, Sumner sought to show that philosophy rather than being seen as an ivory tower needs to demonstrate its role in everyday human affairs. This means that philosophical categories must be practically applied in order to analyze existential predicaments and existing human problems.” For those who long-doubted the existence of an authentic and independent African philosophy

Professor Sumner did not only establish the fact Africa and Ethiopia had and have an authentic philosophical tradition that may be distinct from the Europeans for the simple reason that the two arose from two distinct civilizations and societal and cultural traditions but also because the European and African-Ethiopian philosophical traditions evolve in different epochs. However, this did not prevent Sumner to discover some similarities between Descartes’ and Zara Yacob’s methods of inquiry. Zara Yacob was an Ethiopian philosopher from the city of Aksum in 17th century. His 1667 treatise, developed around 1630 and known in the original Ge’ez language as the Hatata (Inquiry), has been compared to René Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (1637).

Professor Sumner further elaborated on the similarity between Descartes’ worldview and that of Zara Yacob in the following terms. First, he spoke of Zara Yacob’s solitary confinement to his cave during his persecution by the Catholic king Sussniyos, He says that those years “represented the years of his maturity… just as Descartes during the winter in Neubourg and was forced to live in a locality the whole day…” Second, “there is a method in Zara Yacob as in Descartes’. In both authors we find an occasion for a critical investigation, the need for such an inquiry…” Third, Descartes “rejected all received opinions, testimonies of the senses; information of our conscience…Zara Yacob’s criticism is not so-far reaching. He posits the need, the necessity of a critical examination in order to place aside all men’s lies…”

Professor Claude Sumner’s contribution to the development of Ethiopian and African philosophy was not limited to comparative studies and debates between Eurocentric and Afrocentric intellectuals. He rather tried to find a third alternative by sticking to his studies that did not take sides but remained objective and largely academic. By going beyond the confines of philosophy, Professor Sumner pioneered the study of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic cultures and traditions such as poems in Amharic and Oromiffa, proverbs and puns by devoting all his time to his projects until he died in 2012 at the age of 92. He taught philosophy for almost 50 years at the Haile Sellassie and then at the Addis Ababa universities where he witnessed the radical evolution in the teaching of philosophy at college level.

At one time in his career he was forced to give up teaching philosophy for some time as a result of the introduction of Marxism as a major study subject. As a devout Jesuit, Professor Sumner could not subscribe to the new trend that denied the existence of God and was called dialectical materialism. He was marginalized for a short time from academic activities but he could pursue his investigations in Ethiopian and African philosophy even in the academic environment characterized by suspicion, alienation and even passive persecution. It would not be too much to celebrate Claude Sumner’s life, contribution hard and devoted work at this particular time when intellectuals of his caliber and discipline are in short supply and need to learn a great deal from his life.



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