Jonathan Egid (King's College London)
Fellow in Research Area 4: “Literary Currencies”
September 2023 – February 2024
In Search of Zera Yacob: On a 17th Century Ethiopian Philosopher, and Whether or Not He Existed
In 1852, a strange and remarkable manuscript was discovered by a Capuchin monk in the highlands of Ethiopia. The Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, written in 17th century Ethiopia, recounts the life and thought of a priest named Zera Yacob, forced to flee his homeland and take up residence in a mountain cave where he constructs a system of rationalist metaphysics with radical ethical and religious consequences. If the text is authentic, then modern philosophy was invented in Ethiopia at the same time as in Europe, changing many assumptions about the global history of philosophy. Why then, have we never heard of Zera Yacob?
Over the last century, a scholarly debate has raged over the authenticity of this manuscript. Commentators have suggested that the text is, in fact, a forgery, not discovered but composed by the monk who sent the manuscript back to Europe, whilst other have reasserted the Ethiopian character of the text. This debate was itself bound up with the shifting cultural-political currents of the 20th century: in the thirties, colonial scholars rejected the very possibility of such a sophisticated work of philosophy originating in Africa, while in the seventies its Ethiopian authorship was reasserted as part of the decolonial movement. Today the work lingers in a kind of limbo, with scholars disagreeing on the true authorship of these fascinating works. This research project seeks to resolve the authorship debate, unravelling its politics over the course of the twentieth century.
Jonathan Egid is a doctoral student in philosophy and comparative literature at King’s College London, writing his PhD on a 17th century Ethiopian philosopher, and the question of whether or not he existed. His research more broadly focuses on this history and historiography of philosophy in a global orientation, the philosophy of history and comparative metaphysics. He is writing a book about the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, and has an edited volume forthcoming with de Gruyter on the same topic, in collaboration with Lea Cantor and Fasil Merawi. His essays and book reviews about philosophy, art and politics appear in the Times Literary Supplement, the New Humanist, Radical Philosophy and other venues. He also runs the interview series "Philosophising In…,", on philosophy in lesser studied languages.