Could The Age Of Reason Have Roots In Ethiopia?
The 16th version of Tour d’Afrique is now well under way and in a few weeks the Tour will enter Ethiopia, one of the most intriguing places on the African continent.
The word Ethiopia comes from Greek meaning ‘people with burnt faces’ though anyone who has been in the country would probably alter it to ‘people with stunning faces’. It is not only the ancient Greeks who spoke of Ethiopia. The Bible has all sorts of references to Ethiopia, including a reference to an apparently amorous encounter between King Solomon and Ethiopia’s Queen Sheba. Locals believe this is the truth and the story has become an important part of the Ethiopian cultural tradition.
Ethiopia is a fascinating country, famous for many things, starting with the ancient Aksumite Kingdom (one of the greatest of ancient African civilizations), continuing with an early form of Christianity that is still practiced today and on to its wonderful cultural and culinary traditions.
Ethiopia’s Literary and Philosophical Traditions
Ethiopian literary and philosophical traditions, and the high level of scholarly knowledge that originates in the country, are not widely appreciated. I recently came upon an interesting take on this phenomenon in a magazine called Aeon, was an article called – The African Enlightenment.
The article by the historian of ideas, Dag Herbjørnsrud, points out that there is a strong possibility that “the ideals of the Enlightenment the basis of our democracies and universities in the 21st century: belief in reason, science, skepticism, secularism, and equality” may have originated, not in Europe, but in Ethiopia. In the article, Herbjørnsrud explains that he came upon the work of Ethiopian philosopher Zera Jacob which predates the work of European thinkers René Descartes, John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Voltaire and Kant.
According to Dag Herbjørnsrud, in 1630 Jacob, who was teaching that no religion was “more right than other”, had to flee persecution and spent two years hiding in a cave. There he developed his ‘rationalist’ philosophy. “He believed in the supremacy of reason, and that all humans – male and female – are created equal. He argued against slavery, critiqued all established religions and doctrines, and combined these views with a personal belief in a theistic Creator, reasoning that the world’s order makes that the most rational option. In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarized by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632.”
These ideas were written down in a book called Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’) in 1667 and translated into English only in 1976 by the Canadian professor and priest Claude Sumner. He published it as part of a five-volume work on Ethiopian philosophy through the Commercial Printing Press in Addis Ababa.
Dag Herbjørnsrud goes on to write “The words ‘all men are equal’ were written decades before Locke (1632-1704), the ‘Father of Liberalism’, put pen to paper (indeed, he was born the same year that Jacob returned from his cave)”
The Tour d’Afrique Connection at Debre Libanos
Apparently Jacob went into hiding in the Shewa region near the Tekeze River. The Tour d’Afrique route passes through the Shewa region and participants on the tour will have an opportunity to visit the Debre Libanos monastery. The site has many caves in the rock face where food is passed to monks using a ropes and ladders. I like to imagine that Jacob spent his two years in similar caves.
I visited the area many years ago, pondering what it was that drives people to live a monastic life, never for a second considering the idea that one ancient inhabitant could actually have had such an impact on modern life and the way I live. It would be fitting that the cyclists on the tour visit the caves and hopefully are enriched by the experience.
And for those of you who suddenly have three weeks of vacation, you can still join the tour and visit this remarkable country.