9. In You I Take Shelter: Zera Yacob

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The 17th century Ethiopian rationalist Zera Yacob, hailed as the first modern Africana philosopher.



Further Reading

• R. Lee with M. Worku and W.L. Belcher, The Hatata Enquiries: Two Texts of Seventeenth-Century African Philosophy from Ethiopia about Reason, the Creator, and Our Ethical Responsibilities (Berlin: 2023).

• E. Isaac, A New Text-critical Introduction to Maṣḥafa Berhān: With a Translation of Book 1 (Leiden: 1973).

• C. Jeffers, “Rights, Race, and the Beginnings of Modern Africana Philosophy,” in P.C. Taylor, L.M. Alcoff, and L. Anderson (eds), The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race (New York: 2017), 127-39.

• D.W. Kidane, The Ethics of Zär’a Ya’eqob (Rome: 2012).

• T. Kiros, Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart (Lawrenceville: 2005).

• A. Mbodj-Pouye and A. Wion, “L’histoire d’un vrai faux traité philosophique (Ḥatatā Zar’a Yā‘eqob et Ḥatatā Walda Ḥeywat): Introduction: Enquête sur une enquête,” Afriques, Débats et lectures (2013).

• C. Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, Vol. II: The Treatise of Zärʾa Yaʿǝqob and of Wäldä Ḥǝywat: Text and Authorship (Addis Ababa: 1976).

• C. Sumner, Ethiopian Philosophy, Vol. III: The Treatise of Zärʾa Yaʿǝqob and of Wäldä Ḥǝywat: An Analysis (Addis Ababa: 1978).

• C. Sumner, "The Light and the Shadow: Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat: Two Ethiopian Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century," in K. Wiredu, A Companion to African Philosophy (Malden: 2004), 172-82.

• E.J. van Donzel, Anqasa Amin (La porte de la foi): Apologie éthiopienne du christianisme contre l'islam à partir du Coran (Leiden: 1969).

Blog post on the Hatata, including links to translation.

Our thanks to Dag Herbjørnsrud for help with this and the next episode!


A Fan of the P… on 4 October 2018

How long will this last?


I love this podcast and can’t wait for more, but I am concerned with the quality of the last few episodes. I remember when you first announced that you would be making a series on African philosophy I was pleasantly surprised as it is not a region that is often talked about at all. However, it seemes, at least from the content of these last few episodes, that this is because there is barely any African philosophy. 

Almost five episodes were spent on introductory materiel. Then, while Egypt and Mesopotamia are fascinating, they don’t seem to have any philosophical content. Now don’t get me wrong, both civilizations were very advanced for their day and their contributions to mathematics and natural philosophy/science, but I listen to this to hear about philosophy, not science and math- after all, Euclid and Archimedes and Apollonius and the Arab scientists were were barely mentioned as they left little in what we would call philosophy. Similarly, while their ethics may have been interesting, there is much more to philosophy than just passed down ethical wisdom. After all, there is a reason why Thales is often considered to be the first philosopher and not Solon or Bias or any of the other Sages. And mythmaking does not count either- again, there is a reason Hesiod and Homer are often contrasted with the Presocratics. Now, after all that the first philosopher to note may not have even existed. All of this could have really beeen compressed into an episode or two during the Enlightenment. If you were going to do a series on pre-philosophy, I suppose this would be a worthwhile endeavor, as I would love to see the Greek Sages and their predecessors as well, but as it is, I don’t see how this is philosophy and for the first time ever I find this podcast to be boring.I don’t mean to be rude, and agai the reason I’m bored is simply because of the quality of previous series. India was great addition, but can we please cut Africa and move onto China or the Enlightenment or even a series on pre-philosophy in general once all this is wrapped up?

In reply to by A Fan of the P…

Peter Adamson on 4 October 2018


Well, obviously "interesting" is a matter of taste so I can't really try to argue that you should have been interested in the material so far if you weren't. However I will say that the Egypt and Babylonia stuff (the latter of course not really part of Africana anyway, that was just put in for context and because I missed it out originally) is not particularly representative of what the series will be like as a whole. The whole series will be about 70 episodes long I believe, and most of it will actually be about 19-20th century thinkers who just about anyone would describe as interesting philosophers, like, say, W.E.B. DuBois or Frantz Fanon. So you'll no doubt feel like "normal service" is resumed at that point.

Before we get there, there is going to be quite a bit about approaching traditional, precolonial African culture with philosophical questions in mind - and this, I think, is going to be stuff anyone would find fascinating. It's sort of a combination of anthropology or ethnography and philosophy, and just the raw amount of information and ideas is staggering; this is what we have been writing scripts about for the past few months. Admittedly that section of the series will require you to be broad-minded, since it is about oral traditions and ethnographic reports of practices and beliefs, rather than densely argued philosophical texts which is mostly what we do here on HoPWaG (and did in the series on India). But I doubt you will think it is uninteresting!

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