Introduction to Classical Ethiopian Philosophy

Teodros Kiros

Philosophy, until very recently, has been defined as strictly textual. The prejudgment is that, in order for something to be accepted as philosophical, it must be written. African philosophy in particular has suffered considerably from the pre-judgment; or, what others may explicitly call a Eurocentric racial gaze. The colonial and imperial projects on Africa produced narratives of what philosophy is and is not and imposed it on the continent of Africa, from which emerged the new and dangerous view that the colonized African subjects were by definition impervious to logical thinking, to systematic thought, to organized opining and to conceptual formations, four definitions of philosophy.1
Africans as human beings were thus denied the capacity to think, an essential characteristic of human beings, and through this denial, they were excluded from philosophical activity as logical thinking, systematic thought, opining and concept formation.
Recent philosophical thinking has changed this view. African philosophers and non-African philosophers such as the late Claude Sumner who considered himself “Canadian by birth and Ethiopian by choice” – and many of his fellow students, of whom I am one, have originated a new narrative, in which it is argued that philosophy is not exclusively textual, but also significantly and creatively oral, and that the content of philosophy can be transmitted both in written and oral forms, and that the two forms are not mutually exclusive. African philosophical forms therefore are importantly oral and written.
Most African nations south of the Sahara have created masterpieces of philosophical thinking and transmitted them orally from generation to generation; they have now become systematically compiled as sage philosophy.2
Classical Ethiopian philosophy is a source of great pride for the continent of Africa, because it satisfies the conditions that Africans were fated to prove that in order for something to be philosophical, it must be written. Ethiopia points to its great historical presence on the world stage as a possessor of both written texts and orally transmitted wisdoms of the highest standards. The existence of an original Ethiopian philosophical text, written by Zara Yacob in the seventeenth century, sent tremors of epistemological and moral shock to the Western world. This discovery was a mighty blow to the Eurocentric gaze, which too confidently owned thinking as an exclusively western gift. There were those who had the audacity to deny that this was an African/Ethiopian philosophical product. Claude Sumner has answered the doubters by contending that modern philosophy began in Ethiopia contemporaneous to Descartes..
In what follows, I will present an outline of oral and written African philosophical activities in Ethiopia. I will use two analytical methods, vast interpretation and strict interpretation to situate the nature and place of African philosophy in Ethiopia. I will subject all the oral Ethiopian texts to this method of reading.
The Fisalgos, The Book of Philosophers and The Life and Maxims of Skendes are philosophical under the method of vast interpretation, whereas the work of Zara Yacob and Walda Heywot – a student of Zara Yacob – are philosophical under the method of strict interpretation. Zara Yacob’s and Walda Heywot’s texts are written sources of African philosophy in Ethiopia. They were all originally written in Geez, and masterfully translated into English by Claude Sumner, and it is his translations that I am using in this introduction. For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, Sumner’s brief General Introduction to Classical Ethiopian Philosophy is adequate.3 My introduction radically differs from Sumner’s comprehensive historical interpretation, which historically situates all the texts with names, origins, and comparisons with European texts. My introduction, by contrast, is an analytical examination of the texts themselves. I attempt to interpret, dissect, elaborate and draw out the arguments through the heuristic method of what I call vast and strict interpretations of philosophical propositions. There are no historical references, but rather a strict interpretation of meanings and arguments. These contrasts of content make the introductions complementary; one is historical, the other analytical, and Classical Ethiopian Philosophy benefits from both. The texts require both methods, and readers will appreciate them.
My contribution in this introduction is on the written sources of Classical Ethiopian Philosophy in Africa. My introduction directly leads to the analyses of the texts themselves, and I leave the discussion of the history of the texts and their linguistic origin in the able hands of Claude Sumner, who has already done the work.
The oral contributions of African philosophy in Ethiopia have recently commanded the attention of Tena Dewo, who analyzed the Oromo Gada System; Charles C. Verharen has compared Oromo with Ancient Egyptian philosophy, and I have appropriated the Egyptian MAAT and argued that it is a powerful source of a moral economy for the African situation and the human condition.4
The Fisalgos are not original philosophical reflections – they are transcriptions from the Greek Physiologos.5 They tell moral stories and organize human actions under a rubric of symbols including animals, plants and stones. The Fisalgos are also distinct interpretive devises of the Bible. To those who learn philosophical arguments through the accessible symbols of nature, the Fisalgos have no competitor. They are brilliant philosophical statements, comparable in depth and insight to parables and aphorisms. Indeed, they are indispensable tools of philosophical argumentation.
There is one particular discourse, which is worth quoting in full and subjects it to the vast interpretation and closely examines its philosophical status on the strict interpretation.
I will present three discourses and examine their philosophical status. My method is to represent the symbolic nature of the discourses as vastly philosophical and strict textual forms and articulate their analytic arguments.
The young of the hipwopas, when their father grows old, pluck off his molting feathers, peck his eyes, keep him in a hot place, welcome him under their wings, feed him, and guard him, as if they were saying to their father: As a reward for having kept us, we shall do likewise to you. And they do so until (these aged birds) are imparted with renewed vitality; they are rejuvenated and are young once more.6
Let us think about the wisdom of the thinker in analytic moral terms, and covert the symbolic insight of this discourse into a series of logical arguments, which are transformed from symbols into propositions. By this method, they acquire a strictly philosophical form, since one of the definitions of philosophy is that it is an exercise in the formation of logical arguments. All the discourses, on close and subtle reading, are potentially philosophical in the strict sense. But time and patient work is required to isolate the atomic statements, because some of them definitely are, from the molecular structure in which they are readily written. I reserve this work for the future.
One such logical interpretation of the symbolic discourse is this:
Your parents live the examined life and take care of themselves and you. You assume the obligation of reciprocating this care later in life, when you parents may not be able to care for themselves. The thinker does not say that you must abide this logic. There is no command. From the fact that the hipwopas behave such, it does not follow that humans should behave similarly, but it can follow that if there are animals behaving in this manner, perhaps some humans might be inspired to do the same. The argument is morally analytical, when we spell it out completely. When the symbolical discourse is examined closely, it is impregnated with atomic statements of the kind “hipwopas are morally sensitive”.
The writer’s premise is that, since humans evolved from animals, animals can in an interesting sense give us clues to understanding human behavior. That is the Fisalgos freely uses animals, stones and plants to comment on human behavior.
Now, consider Discourse Three:
When the lioness brings forth a dead male cub, she keeps it until the partner comes. On the third day, he returns, and breathes into the face of his cub, and brings it back to life 7
Claude Sumner has correctly argued that this discourse is a symbolic reference to the resurrection of Christ on the third day. This discourse remains symbolically potent, but cannot easily be rendered analytically coherent. It remains true to the nature of the symbol; the male cub maintains its metaphorical power, referring to a momentous event in human history, the resurrection of Christ and the appearance of the Lord. This discourse is a classic example of the Fisalgos as a device of using animals as symbolic representations of biblical meanings of human action.
Discourse XLIL states:
It is a hard stone, and iron does not scratch it; neither fire nor the smell of smoke have any power against it. If it is in a house, no evil spirit or any other thing that is even vain can enter it. He who wears it vanquishes all snares of the devil. 8
This is a religious argument, presenting Christ as solid as diamond. That Christ is indestructible, and that whoever believes in him is ever protected. No devil or fire can destroy him. When Christ inhabits our souls, we are permanently protected from the snares of the devil and other evil spirits. The thinker subtly advises us that if we want permanent protection, we must, from the depth of our being, embrace Christ. This is an argument to humans that if they want to be protected, they must embrace God, since it is assumed that only God, who is strictly perfect and infinitely powerful. can protect humans from danger. There are many discourses that translate into strictly philosophical moral and epistemological arguments.
These are a few of the discourses that can be transformed from symbols to arguments.
We must now move on The Book of The Philosophers and examine its vast and strict philosophical forms. The Book of The Philosophers is a collection of sayings.
Consider the following sayings, which I will subject to both vast and strict interpretation. You will notice that these sayings are simultaneously philosophical in both senses – they are vastly and strictly philosophical. Like Epictetus, the Roman slave thinker, the sayings from The Book of Philosophers use philosophy as a means of cultivating virtue for the self.
1. “A wise man said, ‘ A wise young man is better than a foolish old man’.” 9
We are accustomed to associating wisdom with age. This saying sheds new light on this habitual belief. Typically, we assume that the elderly, by virtue of their age, are wise and knowledgeable, but there is no guarantee that this is true. Experience becomes a rich source of knowledge only if, as Socrates teaches, we consciously examine the meaning of our actions; the non-examined life is empty. In the non-examined life, as the saying goes, age is just numbers.
The argument could thus be formulated: The young who examine their actions, and scrutinize their behavior, are much wiser than the elderly who live unreflectively. Age is advantageous only if, in the course of aging, we sharpen our mind by using it well; in the moral sphere, age is of benefit only to those who live reflectively The message here is a compelling one. It provokes us to think deeply.
Another saying complements the above saying:
“Wisdom is stronger than many relatives and knowledge is given more credit than respected relatives.”10
Just as we should prefer the company of the young and wise to that of the old and foolish, we should prefer wise strangers to foolish relatives, because the wisdom of the strangers is more beneficial than the foolishness of relatives. The saying is counsel to us, and it continues, with another, which says:
Good conduct is better than a good friend and a book brings solace to those in sorrow”.11
To the advice that at all times we must choose the wisdom of the young and strangers to the foolishness of relatives, the thinker adds that strength of character and wisdom will serve us better than non-virtuous friends. Therefore, we must use our time to cultivate virtue, rather than waste it in the company of bad friends. A virtuous stranger is preferable to a non-virtuous relative, is the ultimate argument. Traditionalists will cringe over this argument, but it is there, presented for our careful consideration.
The thinker advises by saying:
Seek Wisdom” 12
6. One of the kings replied. “What is time?” and they answered him: “Time is yourself: if you make it good, it is good; if you make evil, it is evil. At the end of sorrow comes joy, and at the end of suffering and worry comes hope.” 13
This is a metaphysical proposition blended with a moral imperative. Time is not an empirical existent. Time is intimately intertwined with the one who uses it. In this instance, it is the human being. Time is essentially what we human users make of it. If we use time to do good, then time becomes good; if we use time to do evil, then time becomes evil. Time and action are inseparable. It is action only that gives time a malleable identity. I am reminded of Aristotle, for whom evil is a consequence of choice. Thus for Aristotle, evil is a consequence of doing evil things; the repeated choice of evil actions develops an evil human being. The saying above reinforces the same point; time, like all virtues, is a consequence of choice. Strictly speaking, time is what we do with it. There is no evil, just as there is no time. But there are evil people, and there are bad users of time. We can become evil, or bad users of time, by repeatedly doing evil things or repeatedly misusing time. Both are consequences of choices, and habit-forming addictions.
A wise man said: “Five actions are not good without their complements, namely a model of imitation without good manners, friendship of an honored person without good behavior, wealth without generosity, pride without power, love without peace.” 14
This is a synthetic proposition, combining all wisdom propositions into a coherent moral imperative. It teaches that any action is good only when those whom we imitate are themselves good; that their conduct is itself good; that those whom we honor are endowed with good behavior; that those who are wealthy are generous; and finally that love itself cannot grow without peace. The above five premises lead to the conclusion that the organizing principles of the moral life must be the idea of wisdom.
14. They said to Plato, “How can a man retaliate against his enemy?” He answered: “By doing good things to him.” 15
Humans characteristically retaliate against their enemies through revenge; the thinker, following Plato, thinks otherwise. He advises that we punish our enemies by being good to them, that the good things we do might cure them from the evil. Good begets good and never begets evil; therefore, the good that we do to our enemies might produce goodness in them. Whereas, when we return evil with evil, it can only produce evil. Evil cannot be cured by evil, but given patience and love, it can be cured by love.
They said to a wise man, “How can a man be perfect?” He said: “By three things which are reason, Knowledge and Faith and three are respectable characteristics, for reason is the ruler of his flesh, knowledge is its guide, and faith is its light.”16
The thinker counsels that the road towards perfection requires the body’s whimsical desires be ruled by reason, guided by knowledge and lighted by faith. Stated differently, faith would lighten the road towards perfection, with knowledge guiding the journey and the body willingly submitting itself to be governed by reason. The care of the self, which is the ideal goal, is an ethical task that all ethical subjects must freely choose. Embarking on this task requires use of reason and knowledge, and the light of faith. The care of the self is an individual project.
Furthermore, the counsel treats the body as a project we should all individually put in order by harmonizing, as in music, the relationships between reason, knowledge and faith. In one single passage, like Plato, the thinker insists that the self puts its own house in order through reason’s governance and knowledge’s guidance. For Augustine and Zara Yacob, reason and knowledge themselves need the radiance that faith provides. The passage is at once vastly and strictly philosophical.
65 Wisdom is not good, if the action is not good. 17
The thinker argues that wisdom and action must work in concert. Put syllogistically, the argument is this:
Assume A is wisdom and B is action. As per the above saying, A=B and B=A. The proposition demands that A is wise only if B makes wise decisions or, correspondingly, that B’s decisions are good only, and only if A is wise.
Strictly speaking, good decisions cannot exist if there aren’t wise persons to do them; similarly bad decisions are the consequence of unwise persons.
88 Three things render a man perfect: purity with faith, patience in time of trouble and good action in life.18
Closely following discourse 64, the wise person argues that the self-cultivating individual’s human perfection demands patience and the capacity to remain still during trouble and triumph. He reinforces also reinforces discourse 65 by reminding us that wisdom is good only if actions in life are good. He concludes that perfection is a consequence of a strictly coordinated relationship among faith, patience and good action.
A wise man asked, “ Where is the dwelling place of Wisdom”, He said, “In the Tongue.” 19
The tongue is the source of speech. What we say, and how it is said, determines the content of wisdom. Since we are not privy to what is in the human heart, we can only judge others based on what they say. Controlling the tongue is crucial in the revelation of our inner lives, because others are prone to judge us by the content of our speech. It is therefore important to reflect deeply and carefully before speaking. Once we speak, we reveal ourselves to others, and our wisdom or lack thereof is present on our tongue. Words have the special power of directly disclosing our inner lives.
Controlling what we say is also a way of regulating our behavior. Others cannot readily fathom what we are thinking, but they are quick to judge what we say. All classical Ethiopian thinkers were keenly aware of the power of the tongue, and all ask for its regulation.
When the wise Solomon was asked, “Where is dwelling place of observation,” he answered, “In the brain.” 20
Solomon was asked about the dwelling places of the three of the five senses, to which he answered by presenting the eyes as the dwelling place of truth, the ears as the dwelling place of vanity and the nose as the place of the strength of the spirit.
Solomon also presents the soul as the dwelling place of desire, the chest as the dwelling place of sorrow, the heart as the place of joy, the hands as the dwelling place of usefulness, the flesh as the dwelling place of the soul’s enemy and the face as the “measure of good reputation”.21
These are remarkable vast-philosophical propositions, which give an impressive treatment of the five senses, and other relevant parts of the body, as sources of empirical knowledge. The body is used not only as a rich, sensate fountain of knowledge, but also as a source of metaphysical knowledge and transcendental possibility. The argument is structured through the graceful, simple and intelligible
The wise man said, “ A thing which belongs to a man is intelligence and a thing which belongs to intelligence is choosing.”22
This saying, which on the surface is simple and direct, is, upon closer inspection, rich with meaning. This meaning is vastly philosophical, but translatable to the strictly philosophical.
Man is potentially intelligent, but this intelligence is manifested only in choice. Stated differently, choice reveals the intelligence of the chooser; or, it is only by choosing that humans reveal true nature. Choice, therefore, is ultimately the realization of intelligence. A person’s intelligence is manifest in the choices that he/she makes, and choice is the manifestation of behavior. 23
Finally, “ Conscience and patience are the parents of wisdom. Conscience is of no use without counseling and counseling is of no use without conscience. These are like soul and flesh. Without the soul the flesh has no life nor any movement. And without the flesh the soul has no power or manifestation of man’s behavior.”
This is a powerful synthetic argument that anchors the concerns of the wise thinkers of The Book of the Wise Philosophers. Its central insight could be presented in the following propositions:
Classical Ethiopian Philosophy is deeply concerned about the relationships between the body and soul. Indeed, the delicate relationship between the body and soul is invoked on every page of the text in one way or the other. The passage below provides an example of this relationship. In this passage, it is argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between the body and the soul. They are inextricably intertwined. They need each other. They complement one other.
The relationship between patience and conscience, delineated above, is similar to the relationship between the soul and the body – the soul is to patience as the body is to conscience. The relationship, however, is only hinted at, but not fully worked out. I will attempt here explicate this relationship in full.
The soul, the essential characteristic of which is thought, governs the activities of the body by directing the body to want the right things, at the right time and in the right place, for the right reasons and to the right degree. The body provides the soul with the right outcome when the body listens to the soul. Correct behavior and right character are manifest realizations of the body following the guidance by the soul.
The soul needs the body so as to guide it, and the body needs the soul to govern it. The body provides the soul with an ethical project and the soul carries out successfully the project that it is given. Therefore, the soul is the life giver and the body is the physical object living that life.
This is an extended interpretation of the passage above. Now, we move on to examine the Life and Maxims of Skendes, an Ethiopian moral authority on the care of the self.


There are many versions of The Life and Maxims of Skendes, a subtle psychological study of human nature. The text uses the instincts of women to study desire, and the ways in which desire fights to overcome reason and language, a physical manifestation of the fight between the body and the soul. Greek, Arabic and Ethiopian renditions exist, among others.. According to Claude Sumner, the Ethiopian version of Skendes is based on the Arabic version.24 The text was made available in the reign of Emperor Zara Yacob, during the first quarter of the 15th century.
After many years, Skendes returns to Ethiopia and sleeps with his own mother. The next morning, he reveals himself, leading his mother to commit suicide. Following his mother’s suicide, Skendes reproaches his tongue, which revealed the truth to his mother, and decides to never speak again. 25 In his silence, Skendes becomes a philosopher.
Recalling the tragic moment of his mother’s suicide, Skendes wrote:
“ But when I saw that my mother was already dead, I imposed silence upon my tongue” 26
As a silent philosopher, Skendes used written maxims in place of speech.. When brought questioned by the court, for instance, he responded by writing maxims.
For the purposes of this introduction, I will choose a few of these maxims and subject them to vast and strict philosophical examinations, in the same manner of my treatment of The Book of the Wise Philosophers.
Skendes wrote elaborate answers to 55 questions in the first section and 108 questions in the second section. I will choose a few of these answers and examine them closely. Bear in mind that none of these interpretive guides are substitutes to reading the original writings and interpreting them independently.
He was questioned, “What is the essence of God? He wrote as follows, “God alone is the essence which proceeds from the essence. His excellence is provided with many resemblances: His praiseworthiness is incomprehensible; His mind immortal: He governs all things with His spirit; His eyes do not sleep; are not all princes through Him; He holds all creatures in His hand; He is the light; He is the mind; He is the power provided with authority over all things; He is the hand holding all things in His palm.”27
This compact statement hides a strict argument about the existence of God, an argument Rene Descartes made the centerpiece of Meditations, his 17th century treatise of methodic doubt.
Skendes here presents himself not as a doubter, but a meditative believer. He is struggling to answer two questions: (1) Does God exist?; and (2) Who caused God’s existence? His answer to the first question is, God exists and He is the cause of the existence of the universe and all its components, including human beings. He created all things with His spirit and holds them all in his hands. He radiates light on the universe. He is the universal mind and his mind is immortal. He is deathless and a life giver, perfect and infinite. He creates all kings, and it is He who gave them power, the power to govern.
His answer to the second question is brief but powerful. . For Skendes, God is an essence who created himself. The power of self-creation is what makes God, God. Only God possesses the capacity to create himself, and become the cause of His existence. God is the creator of the idea of cause and effect, being simultaneously the cause of His existence and the manifestation of this existence in the form of an immortal effect. This self-creating God is both the essence and the existence.
Another maxim:
He was asked,
“ What is the World” and wrote as follows, “Its boundary is endless; it is beautiful to look at; it is eminent; it cannot be grasped; it is an eternal substance…it is a substantial force the ten elements of all things surround; they are the sun, the moon, the stars, the light, darkness, the day, the night, the air, fire, water.” 28
The argument is the following. God: the essence of existence, the creator of essence and existence, He with the gift of causing existence, created the world. He created the world with an infinite boundary as a living substance. He created causality and substantiality. He himself is a substance, who created himself, and thus is the cause of his existence. The world is a substantial force surrounded by ten elements, which are listed above.
Furthermore, the world is beautiful precisely because God has bestowed beauty on it, and beauty shines under the luminosity of His light, since he himself is light. Closely following this line of thought, Skendes also argues that the world is a good news that cannot be explained, and is an image of many symbols and, most importantly “Death, however, comes to all that moves on the earth and extinguishes its life.”29
The ultimate insight is that, for Skendes, the world created by a deathless God is subject to death. Whereas God is deathless, the world, which He created, is impermanent: contingent and subject to death.
He was then asked what the ten elements, which surround the world, are. He writes,
(1) The day is a messenger that toils;
(2) The sun is the eye of the sky;
(3) The moon is the vestment of the sky;
(4) The stars are calculators of time;
(5) The sky is the roof of the earth;
(6) The angels are immortal fire;
(7) The clouds are admirable spirits;
(8) The soul like the angels is an immortal fire, good and rational, full of knowledge and intelligence, which teaches reason to the body;
(9) The mind is a hidden good, which is rational, commands language, controls thoughts, feeds and strengthens intelligence and the adornment of wisdom;
(10) Paradise is the rest place for the good soul;
(11)Hell is a house of sorrow;
(12)Man is endowed with mind;
(13) She is evil30
There is much that is questionable here. Most particularly, his view of women is shocking by modern standards.
When asked what the Voice is, he wrote,
“The voice is spiritual…it affords intelligence to the body…it discloses thoughts; it manifests them whatever they may be”31
This comment is particularly interesting to musicians as the architects of the human voice, although it aims at locating the function of the human voice as such. A close reading of the text reveals the voice, as a divinely inspired musical instrument to be divinely inspired, in that it breathes intelligence and purpose to music as a human sound emitted through the voice. The voice is a spiritual instrument, which speaks through sounds, and the sounds themselves are voices of the creator. The sounds emanate in God and are given to the world as spiritual guidance. They are expressions of God’s supreme love of his children. There is much that is instructive to Musicians here, which needs careful reflection.’
When asked what Death is, he wrote:
“Death is an everlasting sleep; it itself dissolves bodies…it abolishes movement…it makes the souls go away…it is not embarrassed by anyone”32
His view of death is a major departure from that presented in The Book of the Wise Philosophers, for whom death is only the departure of the body and the release of the soul. In direct contrast and with a striking originality, Skendes argues that death is simply the end; he does not separate the death of the body from the deathlessness of the soul. In Skendes’ view, souls do not rise after death..
He was asked, “What are Wisdom and Knowledge?” and he wrote,
“Wisdom is the light that fills the soul; it is everywhere, it has no end, it cannot be found; it would resemble God; it is the eye of the soul; it sees all that is concealed and secret; the light of summer is stronger than that of winter, so the light of the knowledgeable and of the wise” 33
This argument is built upon his philosophy that God, who Himself is the uncreated essence, and the cause of his existence it the only Wise one, although he creates humans in His image, which is the image of perfection, infinity and the capacity to cause the existence of all that is, and most particularly the nine elements. That is the major premise of the argument. The minor premise is that wisdom is an imperfect gift God gives to those humans who want to know Him, and through knowing him, know themselves, and the nature of the infinite universe in which humans live. The possibility of wisdom and knowledge presupposes a belief in the essence and existence of God, Skendes asserts. That is the beginning and end of knowledge and human wisdom. In order to know, one must be under the light, and the light is God. Skendes concludes this argument by counseling that the virtues that bring one closer to God are “chastity and the avoidance of evil”34
In summation, Skendes argues that knowledge and wisdom are obtainable only by those who have embraced God; otherwise, they cannot be owned, and, without God, knowledge collapses, and is meaningless and useless.
Skendes further notes, in response to a question, “Which is preferable, to pursue wisdom or to leave it”:
“The pursuit of wisdom within the bounds of the fear of God is the light of belief and it is in itself hope. One without hope is one without belief.” 35
Skendes’ consistency here is impressive in the following sense. He has previously argued that wisdom is God, and that the possibility of following the path of wisdom presupposes a belief in God. Those who seek wisdom must always seek the company of God, by thanking Him and praying to Him. God may reveal Himself to those who thank and pray, and perhaps speak to them. Wisdom, therefore, is a form of thanking God through prayer, and endlessly seeking him. Skendes now further insists that it is preferable to seek wisdom than not, and that seeking wisdom can happen only “within the bounds of the fear of God,” by, as previously argued, “ avoiding evil.” This is an example of a chain of related arguments, beginning with the existence of God and ending with the insistence that one must fear Him.
When asked, “What is the image of God,” he wrote,
“It is the purity of the heart without disease…for man has abandoned the devil, obeyed God, purified his heart; he has been converted.” 36
This is a new argument: God cannot be imagined in physical form. One can imagine in his/her heart with a demanding honesty, integrity and knowledge of the self. The self-alone must do this to the self. It is the care of the self – seeking God through a purified heart. When the heart is thus purified, God will visit the heart and guide it towards the pursuit of wisdom and the cleansing of sorrow, anguish and suffering.
God comes to aid, he wrote,
“All those who struggle hard and keep themselves away from evil things are the objects of God’s favor.” 37
This argument is built on an earlier argument, in which Skendes wrote that we can experience God only when we avoid evil. We control evil by controlling our desires, when they threaten to overwhelm us; and when we allow the soul to guide the body when it is tempted by evil. As demonstrated by this chain of though, Skendes was a systematic and logical thinker guided by faith in God.
He was asked,
“When we do wrong we place this wrong on the responsibility of the devil, though we do not perceive him.” 38
He answered,
“We are responsible both for our own wrong doing and for attributing this same wrong doing to the devil. Even when we are driven to evil by force, the desire is still ours. But the will is ours. If we do not will (the act) the devil has no power over us…our soul is not so weak to be defeated by him, unless it desires to be so and does not realize it is going astray” 39
Skendes centers the origin of evil within us, by arguing that when we choose what we should not choose, and blame that choice on the influence of the devil, we err twice: once when we willfully choose wrongly, and secondly when we allow the devil to lead us. We could avoid both mistakes by allowing the soul, which is stronger than the body, to guide the body. In order to allow the soul to guide the body, we must self-consciously train ourselves to avoid making evil choices. Skendes is aware that this is a very difficult task, but it is an ethical project that the self must cultivate, with the help of God. 40 Choosing correctly is an event that purifies the self. It also produces the right outcome, and leads to God. Through him, we can form correct habits, thus further avoiding the possibility of evil choices.
The final answer provokes thought in a powerful way.
He was asked,
“Which part of our body is the most evil?” and he answered,
“Many evil ideas come through hearing. The power of sight cannot overcome what is heard. For what is heard overwhelms what the heart thinks. The hand touches, the tongue speaks. But all these senses are overcome by the power of hearing. So if you could control hearing, all the rest would obey you”. 41
This passage is among the most provocative in Skendes’ Maxims. It requires
careful reflection. I will end the section by responding to the provocation.
In our daily lives we see things and sometimes touch them. Our eyes are flooded with images of the real, pornography; images of TV corrode our soul.
We hear a lot of gossip. Some of us feed on gossip, and rarely do we investigate the truth of what we hear. Often, we internalize what we hear, by making it our own. Our eyes are flooded with images of the real, pornography; images of TV corrode our soul.
Most of us, if asked whether we are more affected by what we hear or what we see, are prone to respond “what we see.” We relegate the power of hearing to a lower echelon of importance. Skendes deconstructs this belief. He asserts that if we can control what we hear, we can control the rest of the senses.
I agree. Although we are not always aware of it, what we hear about others shapes what we think of them. It is much harder to form opinions through personal investigation than simply depending upon what we hear as truth. The media is our source of hearing. It shapes our thoughts, guides us to think in a certain way. Media that teaches us what human nature is, what communism is, what we should like and dislike.
If we were to control what we hear by choosing not to hear certain things, at least until investigating, thinking about and testing them against personal experiences, we will be the better for it. We can become fiercely independent human beings through such action. In independence, we can use free thinking to guide our eyes, control our tongues and even determine what we choose to eat. In this sense, Skendes is originally right when he argues that, of the five senses, the sense of hearing is the most fundamental one.
We now move to the second facet of African philosophy in Ethiopia by examining the thoughts of a single extraordinary philosopher, Zara Yacob, and his written text, followed by elaboration by his student Wolda Heywot, who took his teachers thoughts to the next level of Social Ethics.
I will systematically examine The Treatise of Zara Yacob with regards to five philosophical themes:
(1) Method
(2) Existence and Existential Seriousness
(3) The Investigation of Faith and Prayer
(4) Human Nature
(5) Knowledge
(1) Method
The treatise begins with an invocation of God , whom the thinker thanks for giving him the previous gift of existence.

He writes,

“In the name of God, who is the creator of all things, the beginning and the end, the possessor of all, the source of all life and of all wisdom, I shall write of some of the things that I have encountered during my long life. Let my soul be blessed in the sight of Go and let the meek rejoice. I sought God and he answered me. And now you approach him and he will enlighten you; let not your face be ashamed. Join me in the proclaiming of the greatness of God and together let us extol his name.”42
From the very beginning he assumes the existence of God, the very God that he has been seeking, and that answered him. The key phrases in the passage are “ sought” and “enlighten”.
“Sought” in Geez is hassasa; hatata means “prayerful meditation.” The combination of these devices of discovery result in the emergence of a method of knowing God that I call methodic belief. We can know God only through relentless searching; by looking for and moving towards God, until God answers us.
Prayer is the means by which we engage in hassasa and hatata; as we pray, we also look for God, until he answers our prayers, after which we hold on to Him and carry him in our hearts. When we carry Him in our hearts, He guides us when we are lost, corrects us when we are mistaken, makes us listen when we are not, makes us understand what is right when we lead ourselves astray. Hassasa and hatata are constant companions of the self, which is engaged in the perpetual project of the care of the self.
Zara Yacob’s method of knowing God is not methodical doubt, as proposed later by Descartes. Rather, Zara Yacob exhibits passionate belief in God’s existence. With this assumption in mind, Zara Yacob actively looks for God (hassasa) when he is absent, and thanks Him when He reveals Himself. Zara Yacob’s method further entails holding on to God’s presence through thankfulness and meditation (hatata). In Zara Yacob’s view, God is always present in our hearts, but we must look for Him, and thankfully meditate on His Greatness, so that He will listen to us. When He listens, He answers our hassasa and appreciates our hatata.
The Treatise of Zara Yacob is guided by this method, which is present as Zara Yacob thinks deeply about existence and human nature, two powerful themes that engage his philosophical imagination and inform his literary gifts. In the treatise, Zara Yacob is revealed as a writer of writers, very much like Skendes. Both combine philosophical depth with writerly imagination.
(2) Existence and Existential Seriousness
Zara Yacob’s belief in God is anchored by what I call existential seriousness, by which I mean 43 “that human lives are sacrosanct and that no regime has the right to violate the dignity of the human being who is fated to die, and the inevitability of death imposes the imperative on regimes to feed, cloth and shelter…Existential seriousness extends moral and material attention to their daily lives consistently and compassionately. Compassion, care and principles are the pillars of Existential seriousness.” 44
Before Zara Yacob begins thinking about the existential condition of others, he reflects on a monumental event he experienced. This event led him to believe in a creator who created all things, and is the cause of all things.
Here is a beautifully written passage in which the writer shares this experience:
“…for as I was playing with my friends I fell into a ravine, and I do not know how I was saved except by a miracle from God. After I was saved I measured the depth of the ravine and found it to be twenty-fathoms and one palm deep. Thanking God for saving me, I went to the house of my master.” 45
This event is the foundation of Zara Yacob’s belief that God exists and that nothing is beyond him.
There are other events that fortified Zara Yacob’s belief in God and made him existentially serious:
He writes,
I surpassed others in knowledge and in love of one’s neighbor and I was in good terms with all, even with the Frang (whites) and the Copts. And while I was and teaching and interpreting the Books, I used to say: “The Frang say this and this” or the Copts that and that, “ and I did not say: This is good, that is bad”, but I said,” All these things are good if we our selves are good”. Hence all disliked me; the Copts took me for a Frang and the Frang for a Copt. “They brought a charge against me many times to the King; but God saved me. At that time a certain enemy of mine, Wolda Yohannes, a priest from Aksum and a friend from the King, went to bring a charge against me since the love of Kings could be won by a perfidious tongue…Truly this man misleads the people and tells them we should rise for the sake of our faith, kill the King and expel the Frang…I took three measures of Gold which I possessed and the Psalms of, with which I prayed, and fled at night…I reached a place close to the Takkazi River…On way to Shoa, I found an uninhabited location. There was a beautiful cave at the foot of a deep valley…I lived there for two years until King Susaynos died. 46
In both passages, Zara Yacob informs the reader that God guides him, first by saving him from death in the ravine, then by protecting him from the human wrath and jealousy.
In the second passage, Zara Yacob further explains how God brought him to the cave where he began hassasa and hatata, thereby originating methodic belief, a philosophical method founded on existential seriousness. Zara Yacob’s faith begins through experiencing events, and is framed by the language of existential seriousness. He practices the care of the self-supported by compassion, care and principles as the pillars of his existence.
Believing humans are essentially bad, Zara Yacob avoided their company, while praying for them to become good. Meanwhile, he protected his cave with a fence made of stones and thorny bush, in order to protect himself from wild animals. He also prepared an exit through which he could secretly escape should enemies find him.
There, “I lived peacefully praying with all my heart on the Psalms of David and trusting that God was hearing me” 47
These last lines are lucid announcements of Zara Yacob’s philosophical method of looking for God. For him, it is prayer founded on faith, and on the hope that God will answer his prayers. He tells us of how God did in fact answer his prayer’s, when He saved him from the dungeon. Zara Yacob’s enemies lost and he won, because God listened and guided him to the cave, where he philosophized in solitude, refining his philosophical method of combining hassasa and hatata, a monumental contribution to philosophical method in general.
Existential seriousness led Zara Yacob to think deeply about others. Divisions among believers on the important topic of the Eternity of God particularly disturbed him.
As he put it by using hatata, “After prayer I was not engaged in any kind of work, I used to meditate (italics emphasis of the author) for whole days on conflicts between men and their depravity and on the wisdom of their creator who is silent while do evil in his name and persecute their fellow men and kill their brothers.” 48
Zara Yacob saw these events as flagrant violations of the existential rights of all those who were persecuted and killed. His existential seriousness is manifest in this eloquent passage, in which he meditates and appeals to God to help him understand the depravity of the killers, the violators of the sacrosanct existential rights of others.
He prayed and asked God, “O my Lord and my creator, who endowed me with reason, make me intelligent, reveal to me your hidden wisdom. Keep my eyes open lest they slumber until the moment of death.” 49
This passage reminds me of Skendes, who advised that we should always surround ourselves with the presence of God, so that He will always put us on the right path. Zara Yacob also asserts that mood.
While in hatata and prayer, the metaphysical question of Zara Yacob’s own existence haunts him. He asks himself,
Who created me? Was I created by my own hands? But I did not exist before I was created. If I say that my father and mother created me, then I must search for the creator of my parents and of the parents of my parents until they arrive at the first who were not created as we are and who came into this world in some other way without being generated. 50
Upon further hatata, it is revealed that,
I know nothing of their origin unless I say, ‘ He who created them from nothing must be an uncreated essence who is and will be for all centuries to come the Lord and master of all things, without beginning and end, immutable, whose years cannot be numbered. And I said, “Therefore, there is a creator who endowed us with the gift of intelligence and reason and cannot be himself without them. 51
Again the agreement between Skendes and Zara Yacob is striking. As we recall, for Skendes also, “God alone is the essence which proceeds from the essence.” 52
Let us ponder a bit on the status of this argument. Zara Yacob has asked himself the following questions:
(1) Did I create myself?
(2) Did I come in some other way?
(3) Did my hands create me?
(4) Who created my hands, then?
(5) Did my parents create me?
(6) Who created their parents and the parents of my parents?
(7) Did God create me?
He dismisses the first question because he is not perfect enough to bring himself into being. Imperfection is the incapacity to create existence, whereas perfection is the capacity to do so, and only God has this capacity.
To the second question, he responds by noting that it is too vague, and that he does not know and cannot know anything about origin. It is a dependent proposition, which cannot explain itself.
The third possibility is implausible because, in order for his hands to create, he must exist first
There is no answer to the fourth question because it shares the problems of the third.
He considered the possibility in the fifth question that his parents created him, but then he must answer the question of who created the parents of his parents. He realized, however, that this is a futile exercise, which would lead to infinite regress, without locating the original creator.
Therefore, there is only one possibility left, that there must be an original creator who Himself is not created but has the capacity to cause His own existence and the existence of a human being by the name of Zara Yacob.
He concludes by answering question seven. Yes, there is a creator who created himself from nothing, and that creator is God.
After settling the question of creation, Zara Yacob confidently developed hassasa and hatata as tools of interacting with God.
(3) The Investigation of Faith and Prayer
After he settles the question of the existence of God, he prays to Him, and asks Him,
“O My creator, make me intelligent.” Zara Yacob then asks a foundational question, which he will examine through prayer: “Is everything that is written in the Holy Scriptures true?” 53
Zara Yacob reports then than he began immediately consulting learned scholars, intelligent laypersons, religious people and others, sadly discovering that each only praised his own faith while disparaging others. In these individuals, Zara Yacob saw the search for absolute truth sacrificed to the advancement of subjective truth. They all say, “our faith is right, yours is false.”
Frustrated, Zara Yacob consulted the Creator. When he asked the Lord why men prefer falsehood to truth, he learned the nature of human beings, writing, “The cause seemed to be the nature of man, which is weak and sluggish.” 55
He meditates further and writes, “Man aspires to know truth and the hidden things of nature, but this endeavor is difficult but can only be attained with great labor and patience.” 56
Most humans, being sluggish and weak by Zara Yacob’s estimation, do not embark on a path of enlightenment. They are not willing to use the intelligence God gave them. And yet, in Zara Yacob’s view, truth can be attained only through seeking enlightenment and avoiding the acceptance of falsehood by critically examining what we hear.
Here, we should recall Skendes’ answer, that we should be guided by what we hear; we must avoid hearing falsehoods. Most individuals listen the proclamations false prophets and ciphers, who spread lies; they hear them, believe in them, and abandon intelligence. The wise man, on the other hand, believes only what he directly investigates, and what he learns by praying to the Creator for help deciphering truth from falsehood. Zara Yacob chides all those who believe in astrology and calculations without examining the status of the falsehoods masquerading as truth. 57
Zara Yacob further writes, “To the person who seeks it, truth is immediately revealed. Indeed, he who investigates with the pure intelligence set by the creator in the heart of each man and scrutinizes the order and laws of creation, will discover the Truth” 58 He proceeds to examine miracles and other practices and subjects to a critical rational examination. 59
The book continues as Zara Yacob meditates on the nature of false faith, and how to recognize it. His argument is based on the premise that,
All men are equal in the presence of God; and all are intelligent since they are his creatures; he did not assign one for life, another for death; one for mercy and another for judgment. Our reason teaches us that this sort of discrimination cannot exist in the sight of God, who is perfect in all his works. But Moses was sent to teach only the Jews, and David himself said, He never does this for other nations…At this very time Christians say, “God’s doctrine is only found with us, similarly with the Jews, the Mohammedians, the Indians and the others. Moreover, Christians do not agree among themselves: the Frang tell us, God’s doctrine is not with you, but with us…God in his wisdom has not allowed them to agree on what is false, lest it appears to them as truth. When all people agree on one thing that thing appears to be true but it is not possible that all men agree on falsehood, just by no means do they agree on their faith. Likewise when I found that my faith was adulterous or false, I became sad on account of it and of the children that were born from this adultery, namely, hatred, persecution, torture, bondage, death, seeing that these had forced me to take refuge in this cave. 60
He concludes this sparkling paragraph with the view that, “However to say the truth, the Christian faith as it was founded in the days of the Gospel was not evil, since it invites all men to love one another and to practice mercy towards all” 61
This brilliant passage is a model of self-criticism and humility. Zara Yacob does not spare anyone, including himself, for believing in the appearances of truth by confusing them with truth itself. Falsehoods are not examined critically, they are simply believed and propagated through self-righteous evangelists of truth. The method of hatata and hassasa, however, demands that we search through prayer and meditate in humility with the pure heart to stay on the path of the creator. Truth, whatever it may be, is the characteristic of God. It is the companion of His perfection. The Creator who is perfect cannot possibly teach falsehood. Perfection implies that God does not lie, does not discriminate, does not justify torture, death and suffering to His children. God protects the existential rights of his children instead of transgressing them. It is we the imperfect, sluggish and weak human beings who violate the existential rights of babies, adults and all others.
His observation is as sharp as the solution that he offers. Only love can save us from ourselves and prayerfulness is the answer.
For Zara Yacob, prayer is a modality of philophizing with the aid of hatata and hasassa. This is the centerpiece of his metaphysics and his way towards God.
As he put it, “I know that God answers our prayer in another way. If we pray to him with our whole hearts, with love, faith and patience.” 62 He recalls the many sins that he committed reminiscent of St. Augustine’s Confessions. He then confessed these sins and prayed with all his heart for days and nights and begged God to release him from his sins and towards God’s path and “God heard me and saved me completely; and I for my part praised and wholeheartedly turned towards him.” 63
The key terms in this passage are, begging God for forgiveness, and praising him and thanking him. From this passage emerges a powerful definition of thinking as thanking and thanking as thinking, a point that Martin Heidegger made later in Discourse on Thinking.
Zara Yacob tells us God can be reached through authentic prayer. He himself prayed day and night. Indeed, he perfected the art of prayer through constant practice. He praised God for creating the sun, which shines over the world and cleanses us of darkness; he thanked God for creating the Sun which shines over the world, brightens the day and gives life to trees and plants; he thanked Him for creating the moon, the stars and the clouds, which we use to measure time; he thanked God for removing sadness from his burdened heart and replacing the sadness with joy; he thanked God for creating the trees, which flourish, bloom and spread food over all the earth. 64
Zara Yacob thanks God for all His splendid creations and praises Him for his perfection and abundant intelligence, writing “I am little and poor in your sight, O Lord; make me understand what I should know about you, that I may admire your greatness and praise you every day with a new praise.” 65
Zara Yacob lived in the cave for two years, praying and perfecting his hassasa and hatata, searching and meditating. Every meditation is an event of thanking and every thanking leads to thinking.
(4) Human Nature.
Zara Yacob’s view of human nature is a complex blend of cautious optimism and firm pessimism. He informs us that humans are weak and sluggish, and also prone to jealousy and cruelty. Indeed, Zara Yacob himself suffered in the hands of an enemy who was intent upon killing him. His view of human beings is therefore directly experiential, as is his belief in the existence of God.
As we recall, Zara Yacob asserts that humans are attracted to falsehood. Indeed, it comes easily to them. Although humans are intrigued by truth, e they are unwilling to put in the time required to discover it, nor do they know how. Human nature, therefore, is attracted to falsehood, and to using falsehood to lie. Men, writes Zara Yacob, “cannot…reach truth through the doctrine of men, for all men are liars”. 66
He then argues that there are two kinds of laws, those of God and those of man. The law of God is eternal, unchanging, perfect and infinite, whereas the law of man is contingent, ever changing, imperfect and finite. Furthermore, the law of man leads to errors and falsehoods, and affects human nature.
Men, for example, are naturally drawn to marriage, do not like fasting and are not suitable for monastic life. Those who preach otherwise, including monks who are caught fornicating, are spreading falsehood when they preach that marriage is bad, and the monastic life is good. The fact is that this preaching follows the imperfect law of man, whereas the sanctity of marriage, the naturalness of eating follows the perfect law of God. As he puts it, “But the creator laughs at them, the Lord of creation derides them. God knows the right way to act, but the sinner is caught in the snare set by himself” 67
According to Zara Yacob, when we discipline our nature by the law of God, we learn that our soul continues living after the death of our flesh; we created not just for this world, but also for the other world, and our soul is endowed with the capacity of seeing God mentally, that we can conceive immortality, that in this world complete justice is not obtainable, that many starve, that some good men are sad and bad men are happy, that wicked men exult in joy, and the righteous weep. 68
In Zara Yacob’s world, these violations of existential rights seem to be exonerated by the law of man. After death, however, God will invoke His perfect laws and punish all those who exulted with joy when killing others, all those who wept will laugh, and all those who starved will eat the food of eternity. The law of God will reorder the law of man. In death, human nature will be redesigned in accordance with the law of God. He concludes, “ …those who have fulfilled the will of the creator revealed through the light of reason and have observed the law of their nature will be rewarded. The law of nature is obvious, because our reason clearly propounds it.” 69
Unfortunately, as per Zara Yacob, humans are such that they do not seek the law of nature. They do not engage in hassasa and hatata. Instead, they hide themselves by believing in the imperfect law of ma. This is one of mankind’s supreme defects; rather than seeking truth through God, men prefer to practice absurdities such as “eat this, do not eat this; today eat, tomorrow do not eat; do not eat meat today, eat it tomorrow…our Reason tells us that we should eat of all things which do no harm to our health.” 70
Summed up succinctly, when we follow the law of God, we are living by the light of reason; when we follow the law of man, we live by the absence of light and the abundance of absurdities.
Furthermore, for Zara Yacob, men prefer appearances to reality, falsehood to truth, and they particularly like to be deceived. As he put it, “men want to be deceived; if I tell them the truth, instead of listening to me they will curse me and persecute me, it is useless to open my thoughts to them; it will harm me greatly. And therefore, I shall be with me as one of theirs; but with God I shall be as he taught me.” 72
(5) Knowledge
The nature of knowledge occupies a central position in Zara Yacob’ s philosophy of mind. How can we know?, How do we know?, and What we can know?, are perennial philosophical questions, and Zara Yacob has left us some thoughts on these matters.
From the fact that God has created us as imperfect, Zara Yacob argues, it follows that we cannot know completely, nor do we know how to know. Neither, do we know that we cannot know. One thing is certain: our capacity to know is limited, but we are created such that we must strive to know limitless things; God created us to endeavor towards perfection following His light and the light of reason. We must always search him, look for him, hope for his disclosure (hassasa), wait upon him and meditate about his nature (hatata). To wait upon him is to seek to know him – it is an attempt to know the law of God.
Zara Yacob teaches that the soul, deathless and endowed with intelligence, knows that there is a God who knows everything and created the very idea of knowledge. The knowledge of this God is itself a kind of knowing. The person who knows of His existence tries to reach God through heartfelt prayer, perpetually seeking Him and praising his greatness. God knows all, teaches all those who come to him, guides those who seek his guidance and protects all those who patiently wait upon him. Zara Yacob’s God is loving, merciful, kind and understanding. He knows all that is in our heart. He delights in our patience and in our thanks.
As Zara Yacob elegantly puts it, “God created us intelligent so that we may meditate on his greatness, praise him and pray to him in order to obtain the needs of our body and soul. Our reason, which our creator has put in the heart of man, teaches all these things to us. How can they be useless and false.” 73
There is much to be unpacked from this compact paragraph. Zara Yacob contends that we are capable of knowing certain things because God created us with this capacity. But this capacity is limited by our imperfect our nature. What we can know is as imperfect as our very nature. Yet, God has also created us with the imperative of striving to know, what we can know.
Now I move on from the highly individualistic philosophy of Zara Yacob to the social ethics of Walda Heywot.


Second Treatise, The Treatise of Walda Heywot
From Philosophy to Social Ethics and Pragmatism
Whereas Zara Yacob’s philosophy is modern and guided by critical rationality, his student Walda Heywot is a social ethicist. Where Zara Yacob thought in the solitude of cave, away from human beings, meditating in nature, Walda Heywot was surrounded by human beings, trying to guide them. Whereas Zara Yacob was a religious existentialist, Walda Heywot was a pragmatist. Their methods are as different as the content of their philosophies; in the end, however, they complement one another, with Walda Heywot attempting to be a transformer of the hearts of men.
Walda Heywot begins by telling us that he will share with us what God has taught him. Following the teacher he teaches that falsehoods are many but there is only one truth, and that is seen by asking God to unravel it.
(1) Knowledge
(2) Faith
(3) Custom
(4) Prayer and the teaching of Zara Yacob
(5) Love, work and culture

(1) Knowledge
Walda Heywot’s fundamental premise is, “All justice and knowledge are from God, without God all wisdom collapses.” 74 This premise is fundamental to Classical Ethiopian Philosophy and Walda Heywot, who characteristically follows tradition.
Following Zara Yacob, Walda Heywot advises that we should not blindly follow what is written in books, since men lie. There is no substitute to self-examination; knowledge can be attained only through examination. We should read books, but we should not blindly believe everything we read.
Closely following his teacher, he notes that an infinite essence created all that exists, and that this essence is God, and everything He created is necessarily good, because He is good. 75
Walda Heywot concludes that knowledge demands we study our souls carefully. On close examination, we will discover that the soul is immortal and deathless, that life emanates from His light, and that upon death, the soul returns to the house of the Creator, and that it is not destroyed. That the soul is rational and it houses knowledge. In fact, the soul itself is knowledge, since it is thought.

(2) Faith
It is true that there are as many faiths as there are men, and that all of them cannot be true. How, then, do we know the faith that is true? One must search for the faith that is true, because it emanates from God. He writes, “reason teaches me that my soul is created rational that it may know its creator, praise him, thank him at all times…investigate and understand his will in all the things it does, worship without deceit as long as it will be in this life and in this body.’’ 76
For Walda Heywot, to believe in God is to serve him. Faith demands that we live with others as brothers and sisters, by caring for them, by cooperating with them, by treating them as equals and by loving them. We must love others the way God loves us. 77
He demands as well as that we thank God everyday for everything He does and for all that He has endowed. According to Walda Heywot All our endowments are His. Even we belong to Him. We do not own ourselves. We are unconditionally His. We should not complain when He chastises us. He does not do so out of malice. He punishes only our deeds, when we fail to choose correctly by the light of reason.

(3) Custom
Walda Haywot observes that in order to live peacefully within a country, you must carefully observe and respect its customs. Reject only those customs that are not in accordance with God’s doctrine. Always keep your heart pure and strive to be perfect, since that is what the Creator expects from you. Here Walda Haywot disagrees with Zara Yacob, who insists that one uses the God given intelligence to think freely.
For Walda Heywot, custom and culture are closely intertwined. He writes, “They asked a wise man, ‘What is time?’ He answered ‘Time is you: if you yourselves are good, time is also good; if you yourselves are evil, time is also evil.”
Walda Haywot’s point is that time and culture influence each other. Human action produces time – good actions are good not because the time is good, rather because the human beings are good. The same applies to customs. Customs are neither intrinsically good nor bad – the humans who cultivate them are good and/or bad.
Walda Heywot continues, “be good and time will be good to you; do not rail at the customs of your times, but let time pass with its own wisdom.” This is keen advice with a pragmatic bent.

(4) Social matters
Walda Haywot’s thoughts on social matters and the dissemination of social ethics is quite extensive. Some of counsels on social matters are: listen to the advice of elders, and respect them with a humble tone and lovable behavior, and be consistently good to them; work hard and earn your living honestly; fasting is not good for you; help your fellow humans; do not commit adultery or desire another man’s wife; marriage is holy, while monastic life is unnatural; divorce is not good, avoid it and instead honor the wife that God chose for you; love your children as you love yourself, and provide them with all necessities and treat them with great care; do not be afraid of death, for death is a liberation of the soul from the body and an opportunity to return to God, your creator. 78


This brief introduction has attempted to judiciously seek important fragments from the corpus of Classical Ethiopian Philosophy and provide a helpful interpretive essay, which will entice the reader to seek the original texts. The introduction has left much out, but I have deliberately stayed away from controversial passages, leaving them to readers’ interpretations.
Teodros Kiros is a philosopher, writer, and producer of African Ascent, an international television program. He is professor of Philosophy and Literature at Berklee College of Music. He has published ten books and hundreds of articles. Among his books are Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Values: Truth, Language and Desire , winner of 1999 Michael Harrington Book Award and Hirut and Hailu and Other Short Stories (2014). Cambridge Days (a novel) is forthcoming (2015).
  1. ^Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, (Double Day: New York, 1959)
  2. ^Teodros Kiros, Editor, Explorations in African Political Thought, Routledge, New York, 2001. In “ The Wisdom of African Sages,” Gail M. Presbey makes a compelling case for the dynamic existence of philosophical oratory, in the modality of the wisdom of African sages. Presbey and George F. MacLean underscore this important contribution in the memory of Claude Sumner, in African Philosophy in Ethiopia: Ethiopian Philosophical Studies, II, Edited by Bekele Gutema and Charles C. Verharen, The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, Cardinal Station, Washington, D.C, 2012.
  3. ^Claude Sumner, Classical Ethiopian Philosophy, (Tsehai Publishing Company: Los Angeles, 2013).
  4. ^Philosophy in Africa Now: Volume 1: African Philosophy in Ethiopia Edited by Bekele Gutema and Charles C. Verharen, pp, 185-239
  5. ^See Teodros Kiros, Zara Yacob: Rationality of The Human Heart, (Red Sea Press, Lawrenceville: New Jersey), 2005, p, 1.
  6. ^Ibid, p, 2.
  7. ^Claude Sumner, Classical Ethiopian Philosophy, (Tsehai Publishing Company, Los Angeles: California), p, 20
  8. ^Classical Ethiopian philosophy, p, 46.
  9. ^Ibid, p, 65
  10. ^Ibid, p, 65
  11. ^Ibid, p, 65
  12. ^Ibid, p, 65
  13. ^Ibid, p, 66
  14. ^Ibid, p, 66
  15. ^Ibid, p, 68
  16. ^Ibid, p, 78
  17. ^Ibid, p, 80
  18. ^Ibid, p, 88
  19. ^Ibid, p, 117
  20. ^Ibid, p, 117
  21. ^Ibid, p, 117
  22. ^Ibid, p, 147
  23. ^Ibid, p, 163
  24. ^Ibid, p, 166
  25. ^The full story is told in The Introduction to the Life of Skendes, in Ibid, pp, 166-180. I have also commented on this in Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart.
  26. ^Ibid, p, 180
  27. ^Classical Ethiopian Philosophy, p, 181
  28. ^Ibid, p, 181
  29. ^Ibid, p, 181
  30. ^Ibid, pp. 181-186
  31. ^Ibid, p, 188
  32. ^Ibid, p, 194
  33. ^Ibid, p, 198
  34. ^Ibid, p, 199
  35. ^Ibid, p, 199
  36. ^Ibid, p, 200
  37. ^Ibid, p, 202
  38. ^Ibid, p, 203
  39. ^Ibid, p, 203
  40. ^Ibid, p, 206. His answers to this question in question 38.
  41. ^Ibid, p, 223
  42. ^Ibid, p, 230
  43. ^I have developed this theme in Teodros Kiros, Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Values, (Connecticut; Greenwood Press, 1998) and recently in Ethiopian Discourse, (Red Sea Press, 2011)
  44. ^Ethiopian Discourse, p, 101
  45. ^Classical Ethiopian Philosophy, 231
  46. ^Ibid, pp, 231-232
  47. ^Ibid, p, 231
  48. ^Ibid, p, 232
  49. ^Ibid, p, 232
  50. ^Ibid, p, 233
  51. ^Ibid, p, 233
  52. ^Ibid, Section II, Question 1, p, 181
  53. ^Ibid, p, 233
  54. ^Ibid, 234
  55. ^Ibid, p, 235
  56. ^Ibid, p, 235
  57. ^Ibid, p, 235
  58. ^Ibid, p, 236. The heart is a powerful source of knowledge for Zara Yacob; I have devoted an entire book, Zara Yacob: Rationality of The Human Heart to the examination of the human heart as a transcendental organ
  59. ^Ibid, p, 235-236
  60. ^Ibid, p, 239
  61. ^Ibid, p, 240
  62. ^Ibid, p, 243
  63. ^Ibid, p, 243
  64. ^Ibid, pp. 245-246
  65. ^Ibid, p, 246
  66. ^Ibid, p, 240
  67. ^Ibid, p, 240
  68. ^Ibid, p, 241
  69. ^Ibid, p, 241
  70. ^Ibid, p, 238
  1. ^Ibid, p, 252
  2. ^Ibid, p, 243
  3. ^Ibid, p, 255
  4. ^Ibid, pp, 255-256
  5. ^Ibid, p, 260
  6. ^Ibid, p, 261
  7. ^Ibid, pp, 261-287