The conventional narrative is that Enlightenment values are uniquely Western values. But this narrative becomes questionable when we look at Zera Yacob, an Ethiopian philosopher who predated the Enlightenment but came to many philosophical views that would form the core of Enlightenment values. Zera’s methodology closely resembles Rene Descartes and comes to conclusions that echo John Locke’s theory of natural law and religious toleration. In some ways, Zera even surpasses his western counterparts with a firm commitment to anti‐racism and anti‐sexist attitudes.
Libertarianism and Liberalism, in general, are political ideologies firmly anchored to the Enlightenment, the intellectual and philosophical revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries. The central project of the Enlightenment was to replace dogma and superstition with the application of reason. With this ethos of reason as mankind’s great guide, Enlightenment thinkers began to question the traditional mores of European society. They envisioned a world where the particularism of tradition and custom were subordinate to the dictates of reason. In this enlightenment vision of the world, blind adherence dogma was to be substituted with the rigors of free inquiry.
Through the intellectual efforts of people across nations, the Enlightenment bequeathed the modern world with a broad commitment to institutions such as free speech, constitutional government, religious toleration, and the separation of church and state. By no means was the Enlightenment perfect, issues such as women’s rights, universal suffrage, and imperialism were often left undiscussed by the predominantly wealthy male Christian membership of the Enlightenment’s finest. But despite its flaws, the Enlightenment is an obvious net positive for the world as a whole; it was a major force that uprooted absolute monarchy and feudalism.
But today, I am not talking about the European Enlightenment. We do that all the time. A change is needed. Despite their commitment to free inquiry, philosophy departments rarely offer classes on topics outside of the philosophical canon. Don’t get me wrong, I love so many of the great books in the western canon, but this restricted selection often excludes entire continents. Often what is called the canon in realty excludes all but the western nations of the earth.
But there is no use in just lamenting this, instead, let us talk about someone brilliant outside of the western canon who deserves praise and recognition to be heaped upon them. That person is Zera Yacob, a 17th‐century Ethiopian philosopher who isolated himself in a cave, and amazingly, came to startlingly similar conclusions held by many of the foundational enlightenment thinkers that we revere today. Even the most well‐read philosophy buffs will blush when asked to name an African philosopher. Much of African philosophy was orally transmitted, and a huge amount of it was lost during the European colonization of Africa during the 19th‐century. By and large, African philosophy had been mostly ignored. The narrative was that Africa, as a continent, did not have a robust philosophical tradition. This view was exposed to be completely false when the Canadian scholar Claude Sumner began publishing his research on Zera Yacob during the 70s.
Zera left one essay to the world, but it’s a potent one. He displays all of the attitudes which would come to form the backbone of Enlightenment thought, reason as the final arbiter in all matters, a critical attitude towards unexamined knowledge, and a philosophical methodology centered around stripping back one’s biases. What emerges from all of this is a thinker who strongly resembled the pivotal philosopher Rene Descartes while also predating many of the great Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and David Hume.
Zera was born on August 28th, 1599, near the ancient capital of Ethiopia, Aksum. At the time of Zera’s birth, Ethiopia was a powerful nation that had conquered other kingdoms and was quickly becoming a major power. Unlike many other African nations, Ethiopia would not be colonized in the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. But Zera did not belong to the ranks of the wealthy or powerful. His family were poor farmers. In spite of that, at a young age, Zera distinguished himself at school as an extremely quick learner. His teacher explained to his father that if he continued his education, he would become an excellent scholar. Zera was encouraged to continue his education beyond the basics to study rhetoric, poetry and critical thinking for four years. One day while playing with his friends, Zera accidentally fell into a ravine. Miraculously he emerged unharmed despite the ravine being 26 fathoms deep or about 50 meters. Amazed he was alive, Zera then decided he would thank God by dedicating his life to studying Holy Scripture.
At the time of Zera’s studies, Ethiopia was a place of great religious unrest. Ethiopia, alongside Armenia, is one of the oldest Christian nations belonging to the Orthodox tradition, with many Ethiopians such as Zera being Coptic Christians. As Zera spent a whole decade studying the Bible, he observed the endless religious debates between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Each time scholars would argue according to their faith and their scripture with little reference to any universal principles. Zera was a curious person, constantly asking what others believed and patiently listening. He realized that many people held their faith simply out of habit, tradition, and worst of all, from his perspective, dogma. Zera rejected all labels explaining that he “did not believe in anything except in God who created all and conserves all, as he had taught me.” Zera’s skepticism of organized religion can be seen as a parallel to the American founder Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, which similarly aimed to make religion reasonable and individualistic.
Completing his studies, Zera returned to his home of Askum to teach for about four years. Sadly for Zera, this was a time of much religious tension, not the best environment for a free thinker like Zera, who wished to discuss each religion’s merits and issues openly. He explains that he used “The Frang say this and this orThe Copts say that and that, and l did not say: This is good, that is bad, but l said: All these things are good if we ourselves are good.” This more open‐minded approach did not win many friends, and people often misunderstood that Zera was not part of any particular religion. He loved and worshipped God; there was no need to be part of any group in Zera’s eyes. Like many other great thinkers throughout history, who were ahead of their time, Zera attracted a great deal of confusion and ire.
Portuguese Jesuits had been trickling into Ethiopia, attempting to convert people to Catholicism. By 1626 the reigning king Susenyos was converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. A period of unrest began as the king tried to convert his subjects to the Catholic faith despite their protests. Zera attempted to stay neutral in the matter, but this made him even more unpopular than he already was. Eventually, for his freethinking that potentially threatened the status quo, Zera was denounced by a priest named Walda Yohannas, who accused him of misleading people akin to Socrates who supposedly corrupted the youth of Athens. Thus Zera was forced to flee for his life, grabbing some gold and his trusty Book of Psalms; Zera fled south towards Shoa another Ethiopian kingdom. While on the road, he found a cave surrounded by the gorgeous scenery of the Takkaze river. Being completely uninhabited Zera decided this would make an excellent place to lay low until he could return home, whenever that would be. Zera began his new life of solitude, spending his days contemplating and only occasionally seeing people when he visited towns where people took him as some sort of indeterminate religious hermit giving him food and clothing. It is during this two year period of solitude in which Zera came to the stunning conclusions he would later record in his short yet potent book entitled Hatata, meaning The Enquiry.
Zera begins his enquiry by giving a brief account of his own life and how he ended up in this slightly odd situation in a cave. After building a fence to keep out any wild animals, there was not much left to do but wait around. He explains that without much work to occupy him, he spent a great deal of his time meditating, and one of the first things he meditated over is all of the persecution, strife, and misery committed in the name of God by men. The religious persecution Zera observed was intensified by the pernicious influences of dogma and tradition, which made it impossible for people to rationally argue about religion in a constructive manner.
Zera explained that God has endowed “ us with the gifts of intelligence and reason.” The gift of reason was not bequeathed to us by chance. Reason is a tool that we use to uncover and examine fundamental truths. But if God gave us reason it logically follows that God must also be rational. Zera explains that the “creator who endowed us with the gift of intelligence and reason and cannot be himself without them.”For Zera, God is a rational being. His existence does not need to be affirmed through omens, soothsaying, or ritual. Contemplation will bring one to the correct conclusions on the nature of the world. So why is there so much conflict over religion if all we need to do is contemplate? The simple answer is in Zera’s words that human nature is “weak and sluggish.” The effort of thinking for ourselves is daunting, and so many people “hastily accept what they have heard from their fathers and shy from critical examination,” retreating to comfortable falsehoods. But by isolating himself from all cultural sway and pressure of others’ opinions, Zera could clearly apply reason without any hindrance. He explained that “I have learned more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars.” Fourteen years’ worth of learning paled in comparison to unbiased contemplation.
Zera criticized the religions of his day for strict adherence to arbitrary rules that had no real rational basis for existing. God, as the highest being, ought to be rational. Therefore, he could not possibly permit any absurdities to be committed in his name. Yet, there was a multitude of rules spanning across religions that Zera believed were at best absurd and, at their worst harmful to life itself. For example, in Christianity, the law of Moses deemed a woman impure when she was menstruating, but Zera pointed out the obvious fact that this was a perfectly natural part of a woman’s life which God intended.
Another prominent example in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the importance of fasting or abstaining from certain foods. Still, Zera yet again states that eating could never be wrong as it is a required and natural part of life. Zera explains that “God does not order absurdities, nor does he say: eat this, do not eat this; today eat, tomorrow do not eat; “ ‘do not eat meat today, eat it tomorrow.” Zera was criticizing these religions for the sake of it. He wanted to show that these ideas could not possibly belong to God because of their logical inconsistencies. If everyone became a Christian monk, the human race would die out due to celibacy. Therefore it would be highly irrational for God to command us to be celibate. These rules and laws were merely falsehoods created by men, which were perpetuated through generations until they were normalized.
But his critique of religion goes even further, explaining that any religion which relies upon God explicitly revealing his teachings onto certain people is necessarily absurd. In language extremely close to John Locke and the American Constitution stating all men are created equal, Zera emphatically believes that “All men are equal in the presence of God, and all are intelligent, since they are his creatures; he did not assign one people for life, another for death, one for mercy, another for judgement. Our reason teaches us that this sort of discrimination cannot exist in the sight of God.” Revelations of God reserved for a particular sect of humanity are absurd because, by nature of our natural faculties, all of humanity is deserving of equal respect.
But Zera’s goes further than people such as Locke. Unlike people such as Locke, who personally benefitted from the slave trade, Zera roundly condemns slavery as an irrational practice that subverts God’s will “who made us equal, like brothers.” In yet another parallel to Locke, Zera expounds a theory of natural law. Zera establishes a dichotomy of the laws of God and the laws of men. The laws of God are eternal, unchanging, and perfect, while the law of man is contingent, ever‐changing, and imperfect. The laws of men are based upon nothing more than the will of fellow men, while God’s law is based upon the natural order of things. What Zera was arguing is that laws created by humans, will always be inferior to the natural, immutable law of God, which is based on reason. The guidance of this natural law is accessible to all peoples, races, creeds, or genders because, as Zera beautifully puts it, “the law of nature is obvious, because our reason clearly propounds it.” On the other hand, the law of man is often fickle, self‐serving, and more often than not based on irrational premises.
Zera’s idea of contemplation bears a striking resemblance to the famous French philosopher Rene Descartes’ seminal Discourse on the Method from 1637, which is often referred to as one of the foundational texts of the Enlightenment. Descartes wrote Discourse on Method during his winter stay at Neubourg, where he was hopelessly bored with little entertainment. In his seclusion, Descartes began to introspect on the importance of stripping away biases and preconceived notions before thinking philosophically. This method reaches its zenith with what is now called methodic or Cartesian doubt, which describes the process of closely scrutinizing beliefs, which we believe are true. Even seemingly apparent beliefs, such as the idea that we exist, are not to be taken for granted.
But Descartes argued that even with this extreme doubt, we could reach certain unshakable truths such as our existence, which is proven by our ability to think. Descartes famously argued that “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He neatly summed up this idea as ergo cogito sum in Latin, which means I think therefore I am. Descartes’s method divorced philosophy from relying upon the authority and wisdom of the past when it was commonplace to bolster arguments by liberally quoting high authorities who had previously made similar points to your argument. Descartes’s radical skepticism denied the validity of custom and tradition, arguing in true Enlightenment fashion that reason is our only trustworthy guide in the quest for knowledge.
The parallels between Zera and Descartes are obvious. Both experienced periods of seclusion from which they emerged equipped with a lean method that cut to the heart of philosophical issues. For both Descartes and Zera, reason was to be our only guide, not blind faith, dogma, or tradition. This belief in reason as the only valid method of testing and proving knowledge is known as rationalism.
Zera critiqued organized religion, affirmed the supremacy of reason, argued in favor of natural law as the basis for morality, and roundly condemned slavery. In short, a man in a cave theorized about what would come to be the highest ideals of the Enlightenment before Locke could even walk. Impressive, to say the least, but Zera did not write his conclusions down until a much later date.
After two years of solitude, the king Susaynos who had persecuted Zera died and was succeeded by his son, who expelled the Jesuits and firmly reestablished Coptic Christianity as the religion of his kingdom. With a semblance of peace restored, Zera left his cave and traveled north to a town called Emfraz. While here, Zera met a wealthy named Habtu who, upon finding out Zera could write, asked him to copy the Psalms of David. Being one of the only people nearby who could transcribe texts, Zera became happily busy.
While living alongside Habtu and his family, Zera decided he needed a wife, believing that married life was a natural virtue. He found a maidservant working for Habtu named Hirut, who he described surprisingly bluntly as “not beautiful…but she was good‐natured, intelligent and patient.” Habtu saw no issue with this and told Zera from this day forth, and she will be your maidservant. Zera replied that she would not be his maidservant and that the two would‐be husband and wife who are “equal in marriage.” Zera asked Hirut if she wished to marry him. Asking for a woman’s content for marriage in the 17th century was a surprisingly rare occurrence, so it is significant that Zera did it at all and shows his commitment to both men and women’s fundamental dignity. Hirut happily said yes, the pair married, and Zera loved her unrelentingly saying that he did not believe there is “another marriage which is so full of love and blessed as ours.” Yet again, Zera outdid his European counterparts in his modest commitment to the equality of women, a topic even the most enlightened would either outright ignore or would espouse atrociously sexist beliefs.
Eventually, Habtu asked Zera if he would teach his two sons to read and write. One of these sons was named Walda, who became entranced by the sage wisdom of Zera. Walda constantly asked him to write down his thoughts. Thankfully for us, Zera loved Walda and happily wrote down his thoughts and experiences of his time in the cave for Walda, who would go on to be a philosopher very much in the same vein as Zera eventually writing a treatise applying Zera’s thought to more practical issues of everyday life. Until his death, Zera was a second father to the curious Walda. Zera lived out the rest of his days peacefully with his wife and family dying in 1692 at the impressive age of 93.
During the 19th century, when Africa was unjustly ravaged and colonized by European powers, a Euro‐centric philosophical narrative emerged. Supposedly, Africa had not produced the wonderful philosophical thinking that the West cherished so dearly. Africans were thought of as impervious to logical and systematic thinking. Colonizers ignored the rich tradition of oral philosophy that had existed throughout places such as Ethiopia because they considered that philosophy had to be written down to count, conveniently ignoring the fact that Plato’s works are all dialogues and the finest work of poetry, the Iliad, was not written down until hundreds of years after its composing. Zera Yacob and his later successor Walda Heywat completely demolished their narrative.
At times there is a worrying degree of Eurocentrism in philosophy which through often restricted curricula teaches only one point of view, the western one, which can at its worst lead to an unhealthy attitude of the West is best. But philosophy is, by its very nature, a collective, universal quest for knowledge that draws in people from all nations. Zera’s work is truly an amazing piece of history, his rationalist principles, the idea of natural law, and openness to religious discussion and toleration make him seem like a messiah of the Enlightenment despite his geographical and cultural isolation. Zera uncovered his rationalist principles roughly around the same time Descartes wrote Ergo Cogito Sum for the first time. He critiqued organized religion a hundred years before Thomas Paine wrote the age of reason. He wrote that all men were created equal before the American constitution and even before Locke. For these and many other reasons, I believe Zera Yacob deserves an honorable mention as the African precursor to the Enlightenment values we cherish so dearly today.