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Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of February. My name is David and I’ll be your host for this monthly newsletter.
I started the new year in a tent at Garibaldi Lake, an alpine lake in the mountains north of Vancouver. Watching the sun rise over the frozen expanse was a sublime start to the year. I got back to Vancouver on the evening of the 1st and then had a couple days to clean and pack before driving south to California. I’m now in my fourth week of teaching at Deep Springs College and loving it. I’ve milked a cow, fed some chickens, and discussed humans, animals, and Homer with some of the brightest and most engaged students I’ve ever worked with.
Meanwhile, there’s more discussion of human and animals (but not Homer) happening online. Today we’re holding the third or our weekly discussion sessions in my winter online course on humans and animals. We’ll be discussing animal rights theory and considering how it contrasts with utilitarianism, multiculturalism, and ecological arguments, among other things.
About a week ago, I added a post to the “starting points” section of my blog on Effective Altruism and the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of FTX, is an enthusiastic proponent of Effective Altruism, a philosopher-driven movement dedicated to doing as much good as possible. The post provides a brief explainer on Effective Altruism and offers some thoughts about what the collapse of FTX does and doesn’t say about the movement.
In late December, I had a freewheeling chat with Chris Jeffries for his Homeless Romantic YouTube channel, which went up online in early January. Our conversation touched on technology, conspiracy theories, existentialism, animal ethics, and much else besides.
Between the online and in-person teaching I’ve been pretty busy here, but I’ve also been making a point of getting out and exploring. The semidesert mountain landscape in and around Deep Springs Valley is a shift from the temperate rainforest climate back home, but the absence of trees allows for some stunning vistas. Here’s a view of the college from the ridge above campus.
February in the United States is Black History Month. So for this monthly newsletter I thought I’d contribute a short essay on Zera Yacob (1599–1692), one of Africa’s greatest philosophers. I should say before I begin that Yacob is a relatively new discovery for me and learning about him is just one of the many treasures that await you on Peter Adamson’s wonderful History of Philosophy podcast.
Ethiopia has a remarkable history and cultural tradition that’s unknown to most outsiders. In the early 4th century, the Kingdom of Aksum in northern Ethiopia became the second state to adopt Christianity as its official religion—after Armenia but before the Roman Empire. The 3rd century Persian prophet Mani (whence the word “Manichean”) named Aksum as one of the four great powers of his time, alongside Rome, Persia, and China. Ethiopian royalty claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant is claimed to reside in a sacred church in Aksum to this day.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has close ties to the Coptic church in Egypt but evolved independent of the Western church based in Rome. Those divergent paths reconverged when Portuguese Jesuits arrived in Ethiopia in the 16th century, and collided forcefully when Emperor Susenyos I converted to Roman Catholicism in 1626. His son and successor, Fasilides, restored Orthodox Christianity as the state religion and expelled the Portuguese Jesuits, but inter-religious strife continued through the 17th century.
As is so often the case, politically tempestuous times made for philosophically fruitful times.
Born into a poor farming family near Aksum, Zera Yacob received a traditional Ethiopian education and showed great intellectual promise. A rival falsely denounced him to the Emperor Susenyos as an anti-Catholic rebel, and Yacob had to flee for his life. Yacob escaped to a cave, where he lived as a hermit for two years before Fasilides’s rise to the throne in 1632 made it safe for Yacob to return. During his period of isolation, Yacob developed a philosophical outlook he would later publish in the Hatata (“Investigation”) of 1667.
Scholars have drawn parallels between Yacob and another major thinker of the 17th century, René Descartes. Descartes begins his Meditations by withdrawing into a room where he undertakes a program of methodological doubt so as to reconstruct his beliefs upon a more secure rational foundation. Yacob did something similar in his cave. He began by calling all his beliefs into question, including his belief in God. Using a variant of the cosmological argument, by which one infers the existence of God from the necessity of a first cause, Yacob restored his confidence in God’s existence but determined to rebuild this faith on a rational foundation.
Reflecting on the religious conflicts of his time—in addition to rival sects of Christianity, Islam had also made inroads in the Horn of Africa—Yacob resolved to use reason to determine which aspects of these religious traditions did indeed derive from God and which were the inventions of contentious humans.
Consequently, Yacob challenged many of the received practices of his times on rational grounds. Polygamy can’t have been part of God’s plan, he reasoned, since God made an equal number of men and women. Likewise, God created them equal, and so, he reasoned, far ahead of his time, that men and women should be equal partners in marriage. (His own marriage seems to have been an equal and happy one.) Similarly he opposed slavery on the grounds that God would not have created all people equal if he had intended some for slavery.
Central to Yacob’s thought was a principle of harmony. What makes an action good or bad is the extent to which it increases or diminishes the harmony in the world.
Yacob’s writings first came to be known to European scholars in the 19th century thanks to an Italian, Giusto d’Urbino, who brought the thinking of Yacob and his student Walda Heywat to wider attention. Since the early 20th century, controversy has surrounded d’Urbino’s discovery, with some scholars describing the Hatata as a forgery perpetrated by d’Urbino himself. The controversy remains unsettled but the scholarly consensus seems to lean toward the authenticity of Yacob’s and Heywat’s writings.
I spent a month in Ethiopia in 2013 and visited Aksum and many other of the country’s wonders—I visited the historic cities of Bahir Dar and Gonder, spent a week hiking in the Simien mountains, and several days gaping at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, among other things. It’s a country like none other. Many who haven’t visited are familiar with its distinctive cuisine of stews laid out on spongy injera flatbread and with the haunting gallop of Ethiopian jazz. But there are things you can only discover by visiting. Like the food and the music, the art and architecture of Ethiopia are unlike anything anywhere else, and of an ancient pedigree. The rugged landscape is even more ancient. I kept a blog of my journey, in case you want to read more, and compiled a collection of photos.
During my visit, a number of Ethiopians told me proudly that theirs was a country of over eighty different ethnic groups, but that they lived in harmony, unlike neighbouring Somalia, which is composed of just one. Ten years later, there’s less cause for celebration. A combination of ambition, political overreach, and blinkered stupidity has resulted in violence across the country, nowhere more so than in the northern region of Tigray. The ancient capital of Aksum is in the heart of Tigray and was the site of a massacre in late November of 2020, in which Eritrean forces killed close to a thousand civilians. The total death toll from the conflict is in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing casualty numbers of the more widely reported war in Ukraine.
If bad times make for good philosophy, Ethiopia may be due another Zera Yacob. But one could hope instead that the country might benefit from Yacob’s teaching about harmony.