Zera Yacub: A 17th-Century Ethiopian Philosopher Who May or May Not Have Existed
Justin E H Smith, Justin E H Smith

March 28, 2022, 5:00pm - 7:00pm
CREMT, Ca' Foscari University, Venice



  • European Commission, Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 892794


University of Venice
University of Venice

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Venue: online Zoom meeting

Zoom link: https://unive.zoom.us/j/84571640858?pwd=MWFJbFgxRjlnaVJLWUpIOWJwQlZVUT09

Zoom meeting ID: 845 7164 0858; Passcode: gMi180


Considerable debate persists as to whether the extant works attributed to Zera Yacub were in fact composed by the 19th-century Italian missionary Giusto d'Urbino. There are several ways by which to approach the question of authenticity. One is philological, by careful attention to the linguistic hints in the manuscripts that the work is not by a native writer of Ge'ez, or that otherwise suggest a later invention or conscious fabrication. Another is so to speak psychobiographical, by close attention to the character of d'Urbino himself, particularly as revealed in his correspondence from Ethiopia with the Parisian manuscript collector Antoine d'Abbadie. In a series of articles, Anaïs Wion has compellingly adopted both of these approaches. Less developed in her work is the approach informed by the history of philosophy, to wit: are there philosophical concepts in Zera Yacub's work, the circulation of which in 17th-century Ethiopia we might have reason to doubt? In this talk I will argue that there are perfectly plausible pathways for the circulation of ideas in Ethiopia that appear to resonate more or less contemporaneously with those of René Descartes, and that indeed we might do well to see Zera Yacub's “meditations” as sharing a common ancestor with the more familiar Cartesian contribution to this genre: to wit, both derive from 16th-century Iberian approaches to the individual cultivation of Catholic spirituality, most notably in Teresa of Avila and in Ignatius of Loyola, which then radiate out towards France and Ethiopia at more or less the same speed. I will argue that our hesitation when confronted with this suggestion has to do with an enduring bad habit of thinking of early modern philosophy, particularly in its extra-European inflections, as something that happens in a vacuum, rather than in a world that is already significantly globalized and interconnected.

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