Zara Yakob: Rationality of the Human Heart, Book Review
Zara Yakob:Rationality of the Human Heart (Red Sea Press, 2005);
156 pp.Author: Teodros Kiros, PhD.
Reviewed by Veritas
The book under review is a slim volume yet it contains lots of insightful ideas on one of the few Ethiopian philosophers we’ever had, Zara Yacob.Teodros Kiros has done a tremendous service by writing this book, which, I’d like to think, could well be a source of inspiration for more works on Ethiopian philosophy to be done by a new generation of Ethiopians in the years to come.That is my hope.In this review, I’ll highlight some of the key points in the book and share, at the end, a few points by way of refelection on the book.
The book is divided into Seven Chapters. Chapters I & II, are stage setting and I’ll only mention the issues they touch briefly. Chapter III is on Zara Yacob, the main subject of this book. Chapter IV focuses on Walda Heywat, Zara Yacob’s student and his work. Chapter V focuses on Zara Yacob’s work in light of African Philosophy, while Chapter VI highlights his place in the history of philosophy in general. Chapter VII concludes the book by touching on Zara Yacob’s distinct contribution to philosophy as a philosopher of the rationality of the heart. My review does not necessarily follow the above chapter divisions.
In chapter I, “Classical Ethiopian Philosophy and the Modernity of Zara Yacob”, Kiros sets a stage for his exposition of Zara Yacob’s work and his exposition of classical Ethiopian philosophy is accordingly short. Consequently, Kiros contrasts Zara Yacob’s radical break from tradition by emphasizing classical Ethiopian philosophy’s focus on tradition and a subtle appropriation and integration of Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic and Arabic philosophy into that of classical Ethiopian philosophy.
Kiros emphasizes the fact that classical Ethiopian philosophy has never been a pure work of translation. He writes, “Ethiopians never translate literally; they adapt, modify, add, subtract. A translation therefore bears a typically Ethiopian stamp: although the nucleus of what is translated is foreign to Ethiopia, the way it is assimilated and transformed into an indigenous reality is typically Ethiopian.” (P. 12). Kiros reiterates that anything that gets ethiopianized is through a transliteration more than translation and in the process gets fundamentally changed, that is, becomes ethiopianized.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>
Kiros also notes that classical Ethiopian philosophy focuses on moral values which is the feature of Fisalgos, that is the transcription from the Greek Physiologos that contrasts with The Book of the Philosophers, which is “a collection of sayings that illuminate tradition as a source of philosophy and philosophy as orality” (p. 2). Most of the sayings in The Book of the Philosophers are ethiopianized interpretations of the works of classical Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras (p.2).
Kiros pays attention to two major elements of classical Ethiopian philosophy. Accordingly, he briefly discusses three main moral categories such as wisdom, moderation, and faith as examples of the classical Ethiopian philosophy. He also highlights the key place the story of Skendes occupies in classical Ethiopian philosophy. The story of Skendes, Kiros notes, has been the subject of Greek, Syrian, Arabic and classical Ethiopian philosophy. Kiros remarks, “The pervasive philosophy of wisdom through silence, the need to control the tongue, discourse on the nature of women, the miseries, slayings, excess and abstention of desire, fear and anger, which Skendes delicately analyzed, became powerful ethical and septennial [sic] themes in classical Ethiopian philosophy.” (p.9).
It is in the background of such classical Ethiopian philosophy that Zara Yacob emerges, in the 17th century, whose radical break from the way philosophy was conceived in Ethiopia before him was a point of departure and the subject of Kiros’ work. Kiros says, Zara Yacob was “…the first rationalist and modernist [who] simultaneously appropriated and transcended the sapiential tradition that engulfed him.” (p. 11) Modernity contrasts with tradition or being traditional and it’s progressive and it’s, more or less, identified with scientific rationality.
Kiros underscores two methods of interpretation of existing philosophical work that Zara Yacob introduced as a way of doing philosophy, viz., Hassasa and Hatata. Claude Sumner, who has done more than any other person to bring together much of the extant literature on Ethiopian philosophy, alongside Kiros, contends that “…Zara Yacob along with Descartes was a founder of modern philosophy”, to which, Kiros adds, that “Zara Yacob and Walda Heywat are the first rationalists and modernists in Ethiopian history.” (pp. 17-18)
Now Kiros notes that by the modernity of Zara Yacob he, Kiros, refers to Zara Yacob’s rejection of tradition if and when tradition and traditional beliefs and values fail to meet the standard of reason, or rationality. For Zara Yacob, as it’s the case for philosophers in general, reason should play a key role in our reflective appropriation of what has come before us through the tradition of our fathers and forefathers. But Zara Yacob’s rationality is that of “the rationality of the heart”, which is the theme of Kiros’ work. More on that below.
Philosophy is a reflective and critical activity and hence Zara Yacob’s use of philosophy to critically engage the beliefs, thoughts, and values in the context of which he was born in the 17th century Ethiopia. Zara Yacob’s starting point for his philosophical activities and philosophizing in general was his conviction that God exists and reason is God-given and God rewards those who seek truth, truly, so to speak, and most of his reflective activities were informed and infused by his faith in God and in his desire to be a wise person recognizing God as the fountain of wisdom all the way. Kiros writes, ‘He [Zara Yacob] prayed to God to make him intelligent and wise so as to use reason accurately and fairly and decipher human nature and inform it with moral wisdom and depth. This was the test of Rationality.” (p. 20)
According to Kiros “[Zara Yacob’s] fundamental conviction is that God exists”, which Kiros contrasts with that of the modern philosophers’ attitude to God and faith in God that is dismissive. Though Zara Yacob starts with his faith in God, his philosophizing was meant to make his faith rational, reasonable. For Zara Yacob true faith is always reasonable or rational or should be consistent with reason if reason is also directed at seeking truth.
For Zara Yacob human actions reflect human rationality which is flawed if it does not reflect the rationality of God and if humans are irrational their actions would also be irrational. Kiros remarks on Zara Yacob when he writes, “On this view rationality is not a given, what are given are intelligence and will, and it is the proper use of both that makes it possible for us to develop a rational way of life, as a habitual way of existence.” (p. 27) Again, Zara Yacob is emphatic as to how our choices and our actions are reflective of our thoughts in that they show where they spring from, our hearts. Zara Yacob says, “…God created man to be the master of his own actions, so that he will be what he wills to be, good or bad.” (p.64). Hence human thoughts and choices and actions are intimately related according to Zara Yacob.
Kiros underscores the fact that for Zara Yacob praying to God is a path to thought and God discloses himself for those who intensely engage in prayer with a desire to seek the truth. Kiros remarks that for Zara Yacob prayer is a modality of philosophy, a mode or a means by which philosophy is done and prayer “is a highly concentrated and disciplined exercise in thinking.” (p. 41). Hence prayer plays a key role in Zara Yacob’s philosophy.
- It was facing conflicting truth-claims by people who embraced different faith-commitments, e.g., Christians, Muslims, and Jews, that led Zara Yacob to engage in Hassasa, that is searching as a method of discriminating which truth-claim is true. Zara Yacob shares his reflections on the human tendency to lie, speak untruth as follows: “We cannot, however, reach truth through the doctrine of men, for all men are liars…God sustains the world by his order which he himself has established and which men cannot destroy, because the order of God is stronger than the order of men.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>
<!–[endif]–> (p. 47). Kiros notes that only if humans rely on God’s reason and are guided by God’s reason and God’s doctrine, besides using their own reason, that they can be protected from liars or lies since all men are liars. In other words, relying on human reason in seeking truth about God and other things is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one according to Zara Yacob.
Kiros contrasts Zara Yacob’s work with his French contemporary, Rene Descartes, and he goes on to note that Zara Yacob’s Treatise addresses philosophical issues such as metaphysics (study of what reality is), morality, and the nature of knowledge. As we’ve already observed, knowledge, according to Zara Yacob, can be obtained through prayer, and meditation on the doctrines or teachings of God, and by using our human reason at the same time relying on God’s reason. As for reality, that is, what exists and what does not, Zara Yacob starts with God’s existence and the existence of all the creatures God has created and sustains in existence. As for morality Zara Yacob was concerned as to how to live our lives rightly and rationally and how the human search for truth following God’s precepts can guide human life and action. Kiros writes, “Zara Yacob portrays humans as potentially reasonable—but only if they work on the potentiality, otherwise, they are evil and disposed to lying.” (p. 62). One cannot miss the emphasis Zara Yacob places on truth and the value of truth.
Among the features of Zara Yacob’s philosophy is his focus on the heart as the seat of reason and rationality and hence his philosophy being characterized as the rationality of the human heart. Kiros notes that “Intelligence, for Zara Yacob is centered in the heart. The heart as opposed to the brain is expected to enable us to choose correctly. The relocation of intelligence in the human heart is a measured redefinition of reason according to Zara Yacob. Intellection itself is an activity of the heart.” (p.57).Again, Kiros underscores that the heart is the source of feelings and passions thus: “Zara Yacob is contending that thinking is an activity of the heart, and that genuine thinking is passionate, and passion as an expression of feeling is an integral part of thought and not separate from thought. Thought itself is passionate; thought is a passion for truth and feeling grounds truth.” (p. 70). These preceding ideas capture the rationality of the heart according to Zara Yacob.
Kiros devotes a chapter to the work of Walda Heywat, Zara Yacob’s student who went on to transform his teacher’s work. Walda Heywat drew out implications of Zara Yacob’s work mainly for social ethics. He like his teacher emphasizes the value of intelligence and reason in human life. Kiros notes that “Walda Heywat was an accommodationist whereas Zara Yacob was a radical critic of traditions.” (p. 86). Walda Heywat’s ethical teachings underscore the fact that in order to live rightly we need to develop self-awareness. Kiros remarks that critical awareness of oneself is indispensable for one to develop character since character development requires knowledge of one’s vices.
Kiros considers how Zara Yacob’s and Walda Heywat’s philosophical work can be seen as an example of doing African philosophy that shares the value and universal role of reason in philosophy against the prevailing view that holds African philosophy as being based on emotions without reason. He also discusses Zara Yacob’s place in the history of philosophy as he compares Zara Yacob’s work with that of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle especially Kant’s emphasis on the faculty of reason which is also Zara Yacob’s as we’ve so far observed.
The book concludes with Kiros’ contention that the heart as opposed to the brain is the seat of rationality, reason, and thought and passions with which he captures Zara Yacob’s work. He argues that among Zara Yacob’s contribution to philosophy is the recognition that “The heart as part of the body is a muscular pump, as the house of the mind, [it] is an organ of thought…the human heart is both part of the body and the mind”. (pp.118-119).
Kiros finally contrasts rationality of the heart, following Zara Yacob, with that of scientific rationality. Scientific rationality Kiros argues is exclusively concerned with meeting the economic and psychological needs of the individual with a focus on devising means to meet the individual’s needs. Scientific rationality is indifferent to the suffering of the other and hence at the end self-centered. Rationality of the heart, on the other hand, issuing forth from the human heart, offers what scientific rationality lacks such as compassion and concern to the other and that is due to the fact, according to Kiros, that thinking and feeling and passion affect the actions of a human being as these originate from the human heart.
Kiros adds a short appendix in which he addresses the debate about the authenticity over the author of Yacob’s Treatise and he supports his conclusion for Zara Yacob’s authorship of the Treatise by providing some textual evidence.
Now it’s time for me to share a few points by way of reflection on the book under review and will leave it for another occasion to fully develop a more philosophically informed evaluation of the book.
First off, personally, it’s been quite an experience for me to have been exposed to the work of Zara Yacob, which is a remarkable achievement for a person given the historical context in which he had lived and also developed such a critical work. Any philosopher who works in the contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, while reading Zara Yacob’s work, cannot help thinking about Zara Yacob’s philosophical predecessors of the European medieval period and how similar his work was to that of his predecessors.
Consequently, Zara Yacob seems to belong to a tradition of doing theistic and Christian philosophy known as “Faith Seeking Understanding”, or in Latin, Fides quaerens intellectum, originated with another African Christian philosopher, St. Augustine of Hippo (of present day Algeria) in the 4th century, which was also adopted by St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury who lived in the 11th century, who is also known as the founder of European scholasticism. The most famous living contemporary Christian philosopher who belongs to the tradition of “Faith Seeking Understanding” is the American Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
I’d call Zara Yacob the first Ethiopian theistic (Christian) philosopher to be followed by his student Walda Heywat. Zara Yacob’s work distinctly belongs to that of theistic (Christian) philosophy tradition of the medieval times and that of the contemporary Christian philosophy that has experienced unprecedented renaissance in the last three decades or so under the leadership, among others, of Alvin Plantinga. If Zara Yacob has independently developed all his philosophical reflections without any contact with the works of his mainly European predecessors his work is truly a remarkable achievement.
At this moment I leave for historians to determine whether Zara Yacob had any contacts with any literature by any one of his predecessors from outside of Ethiopia. Since philosophical work is usually done in response to and in interaction with other philosophers’ works, even if one establishes that Zara Yacob was exposed to an outside philosophical work, that does not undermine the fact that he was the first Ethiopian theistic (Christian) philosopher. By theistic philosopher I mean a philosopher who’s committed to belief in God and by a Christian philosopher I’d refer to a distinctly Christian philosopher as one who does not only believe in God but who is also committed to a Christian understanding of who God is as opposed to that in Islam and Judaism.
The reason I call Zara Yacob a theistic (Christian) philosopher as opposed to simply calling him an Ethiopian philosopher might raise some questions for some. A very short answer to such a question would be this: all philosophers start their philosophical work with some givens or starting points to which they are committed. Some start with belief in God while others start with believing all that exists is the universe plus nothing else, or no God as understood in a Judeo-Christian tradition. The former could be called theistic philosophers while the latter naturalistic philosophers. The point is that both are philosophers. There is no philosopher who does his/her philosophical work in a vacuum of fundamental intellectual commitments. Zara Yacob starts his philosophical work with his belief or faith in God. Hence he can rightly be called a theistic and also a Christian philosopher. From what has been presented about Zara Yacob in the book under review it seems more reasonable and more accurate to call him a theistic philosopher (as opposed to calling him a Christian philosopher) since Zara Yacob’s emphasis is on a generic understanding of God to all the major theistic traditions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Finally, though this book contains number of insightful ideas on Zara Yacob’s contribution as a theistic philosopher I’ve also found some areas that the author can take into consideration for future revised edition that can improve the quality of the book significantly: there is a tendency by the writer to repeat the same ideas throughout the book. That could have been avoided and the book could have been shorter, concise, if the writing was more precise, and more rigorous. Most analytic philosophers would be put off by writing that does not aim at precision and rigor of argumentation and my hope is that the future edition of the book will consider adding such valuable things to make the book a contribution also to philosophy as practiced in the analytic philosophy tradition to which this reviewer belongs.
One other problem that I’ve noticed is about multiple avoidable typos and there are words miss-spelt on many pages and I hope that they’ll be corrected for the subsequent edition. There are a number of ideas in the book to take issues with but not now as I’ve indicated above. Otherwise, I think the book can serve as a source for more work on philosophy by a new generation of Ethiopian philosophers in the years to come. It’ll particularly be an inspiration for future theistic and Christian philosophers in Ethiopia.
<!–[endif]–> <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> Some caution here: I take it that Kiros’ comment on Ethiopians never translating literary is to refer to Ethiopians in the context of the translation work he’s talking about and not to refer to contemporary Ethiopians for that does not seem to be right. <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–><!–[endif]–> The statement “all men are liars” is very problematic if it’s taken literally to mean all men are liars. If it’s true that the all men are liars, then this very statement that is written or uttered by a man is a lie, and therefore, false, since lies are untrue. That, is if it’s true, then it’s false. On the other hand, if it is false (i.e., if it’s a lie) that all men are liars, then this very statement written or uttered by a man is true. That is, if it it’s false, then it’s true. These both generate contradictions. Such statements, if unqualified, lead into what philosophers and logicians call a Liar Paradox. It’s possible for Zara Yacob to escape this contradiction if he meant that “all men are liars” in a hyperbolic way or as meaning all men have a tendency to tell lies but they do not lie all the time.