Ethiopian Philosophy


Under the title mentioned, my ambition is to introduce to you a subject on Ethiopian philosophy and presentation of a profile on the life and works of Ethiopian philosophers.

I find the task of discussing Ethiopian philosophy difficult. To avoid distortion and save myself from messing in the field I know very little of, I preferred to quote at length from a book by Professor Claude Sumner, who is "a Canadian by Birth, and an Ethiopian by choice", to use his words-- the very words that sum up his life and his works.

To give you context of reading, I would like to say few words on the Ethiopian monasteries, and their role as educational centers. In history, the Ethiopian monasteries were endowed with Gult lands (benefit right to taxation) by kings. Monasteries were the only educational centers until modern time, and they financed scholars who could instruct courses on reading, writing, sacred music of the church, poetry, grammar, Qene, history and religious paintings. (By the way, the old and famous universities here in Europe had their origin in the monasteries). The Ethiopian monasteries vied among themselves to attract the best specialist in each of the fields mentioned. The educational program was very rigorous taking from four to seven years. Graduate of these schools could often start their own community, and some even ended up as philosophers. One of the philosopher was known by the name Zera Yaqob, (not the king who reigned between 1434-68). Zera Yaqob, the philosopher, wrote a philosophical work in 1667 titled in Geez as Hatata, which meant "to question bit by bit, piece-meal; to search into or through, to investigate accurately". Professor Sumner, commented that "it is an absolutely original work, the fruit of his own personal reflection". Sumner compares Zere Yaqob, with his contemporary western philosopher, Rene Descartes, author of Discourse on Method (1637). "In both philosophers one finds a method,the occasion for a critical inquiry, the necessity for such an inquiry, a criterion which leads to the establishment of a basic principle that is applied in both authors theodicy, ethics and psychology (and in Descartes to cosmology). In both also the method of inquiry is revolutionary, although its roots are deeply theological..."

After long and arduous work on Ethiopian philosophical anthropology,including the continent of Africa, Professor Sumner wrote synthesis of his works in a book entitled "The Source of African Philosophy: The Ethiopian Philosophy of Man", Stutgart 1986. He found out that, "at the source of Ethiopian philosophy, of African philosophy, throbs the philosophy of man", which, as I understand differ from the western philosophy of things. In the Ethiopian philosophy "man occupies the centre of all concerns and views, of the archetypal images, the sapiential type, the thought patterns, the world view, the societal models, the ethical problems".

"I (Sumner) first made this observation as I was trying to delineate the profile of images used in the sapiential and philosophical works of Ethiopia. As my research on traditional or rationalistic Ethiopian philosophy was progressing, I saw a kind of architecture of images building itself before my very eyes, a real pyramid whose basis is nature and whose apex is man himself. But the human person is not only the most important element in this construction, man penetrates the pyramid itself like a line joining the summit to the centre of the base, since a distinction is made between material beings made by man and those that are not, and since certain elements of the material world, like time for instance, are considered under a human viewpoint."

"We are here at the heart of Ethiopia-- but would it not also be the heart of the whole of Africa? Symbols are rarely things in physical nature, as they exist in themselves, independently of any human usage or modification. The human seal has left its imprint through the entire structure of the basic images, an imprint which becomes more and more manifest as one goes down the scale of life and penetrates into matter moulded by man or at least reflecting his being. Man himself is the pre- eminent symbol: his body with its various organs and in particular his heart, internal centre of intellectual, emotional and moral operations; the illnesses that beset him, man as individual and as social unit accomplishing various functions in society; lastly man in the nigh infinite complexity of his functions. Whereas the Western world, the Greek in particular, has a tendency to consider things as they are in their impersonal objectivity, the African world, the Ethiopian in particular, is clearly anthropocentric. The Greek takes as starting point the world of external reality, which is distinct and measurable. The Ethiopian does not break away from the world in which he lives. He does not disengage himself from it, he does not stand out; he is part of it. His starting point is within himself, in his own personal experience. He does not try to express what is in his mind; he rather attempts to evoke it.

The Greek reconstructs and recreates the outside world within the framework of his own thought. The Ethiopian starts from what is already in his mind and endeavours to transmit it by suggestion. The Greek abstracts and arrives at the universal idea; the Ethiopian sticks to the particular and tries to absorb it. The Greek would like to conceive truth and to demonstrate it; the Ethiopian seeks to offer himself to it and to have it desired by others. The Western world is a world of things, the Ethiopian world is a world of persons. The Western world is the world of senses and of matter; its instrument in the last analysis will become geometrically rigid reason. It is interested in things which have nothing in common with the interior world. It is the offshoot of Greek thought and in particular of the civilization which has developed since Renaissance. However, it carries within itself its own contradiction: existentialist philosophy is a contemporary witness of an attempt in the Western world to find the concrete anew, to go the way which, leaving aside the Greek and German manner of edifying a whole system on the basis of abstraction, prefers to apply thought to the art of living. The Ethiopian universe is that of human beings and of human life".

That is the core of Ethiopian philosophy in brief. Those of you who are interested in further reading see the five volume works and a number of published articles by Professor Sumner, who devoted his life in teaching and research on Ethiopian philosophy. Against the background discussion on Ethiopian Philosophy, I will post sayings, Ethiopian thought expressions, in our next column.

Good days,

Tsegaye T.