Our Traditional Philosophers (Felasfas)

People tend to philosophize from time to time without knowing it. But not many are those who can formulate it in a way that can inspire people to follow them. Many are called to talk and to blabber; unfortunately few are chosen to attract disciples.

But what is it that makes people to become philosophers? A searching mind? A perpetual debt? A nagging wife? Socrates was lucky (or maybe unlucky) to have all three at the same time. That’s why he started to philosophize. So he got many followers and produced many enemies. Finally, they made him drink the hemlock. His last words to his friend were: “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Now, Asclepius was the Greek god of curing illness. In other words, Socrates was telling his accusers that death was a time-tested cure for the pain one suffers in this vale of tears.

Philosophers come not to change the world but to confirm or affirm or boost the change already taking place or even to explain the change which is already in the air. They crystallize, as it were, the thoughts of people, and set up a standard by which the current ideas may be verified, weighed or measured.

Based on this, it looks that every nation has a philosophy and a philosopher. It doesn’t matter what and how the people think but there is someone in the crowd who stands up and embodies the thoughts or articulates the current ideas and concepts in a clear and comprehensible language depending on the maturity and the complexity of the people’s way of thinking.

However, it can be said that there are two kinds of philosophers: the local and the universal. Local philosophers help in the crystallization of the current thoughts of their surroundings, while universal philosophers look beyond the border (we can call them philosophes sans frontières) and encapsulate universal thoughts. 

In our country there might have come and gone many philosophers without visibly causing a ripple in the society. Their unnoticed appearances and disappearances could be due to: (a) a low-level intellectual output of their people, and/or (b) the absence of a receptive public.

Our philosophers (felasfas), therefore, belonged to the little noticed ones who, unable to sway the thoughts of the people through a carefully arranged and composed body of thoughts, resorted to the formulation of simple proverbs and parables in order to paint their universe.

Many became wits as a result, and to make their points they laced their arguments with all kinds of simile, imagery, allegory and the like.

But on the face of it, our local philosophy was anything but rationalistic. Religion played an important role in this. For if you stick to rationalization, there is a risk of disbelief in the Creator. So whatever you do, someone up there is watching you. In such a situation, the popular philosophy would be confined to morality and to ethical guidelines only.

Cold and brutal reasoning based on simple logic in the tradition of Descartian intellectual culture has had no place in our society in the past. Humanism, where man was considered the measure of all things, had no place in Africa. How can man be a universal yardstick when he is no smarter than the chimp and no stronger than the lion? That’s stark blasphemy! How can one try to find God with the naked mind? That’s a divine affront!

When my friend (he was 12 at the time) once asked his father whether there is someone who created the Creator, the father simply took up the cudgel and beat the daylights out of him.

“In the 8th Era or Simintenya Zemen (probably the 20th Century) children will be born who will challenge God” the father shouted as he belted his son. Such belief is based on some apocryphal writings which divide time into fixed eras that will each terminate in a universal cataclysm. And now, sex maniacs, here is one just for you: when the branches of the sycamore tree in a market place (in Gondar?) bend under their own weight and touch the ground, women will unashamedly ask men to sleep with them, etc…..

Strangely enough, we had philosophers in our country who went around provoking the people in the manner adopted and cherished by Socrates. They would ask questions feigning ignorance and then come up with full force to confound their hearers or interlocutors. And sometimes they would act out a drama by way of activating the mind. By such means, they were able to transmit their thoughts to one and all.

One such falasfa was Abboy Mengesha of Abba Shawl. The old man who was a master of words and a prankster to boot, took his mat out one early morning and let the warm sunshine caress his cold and crumpled skin.

In our culture, sitting outside on a mat is a sign that someone has died in the family and you are acting like Job who in the Old Testament sat on course rug and ashes to mourn his sons.

Thus many passersby who didn’t want to insult tradition by ignoring the situation sat by the side of Abboy Mengesha indirectly (they were quiet) expressing their sympathy and conveying their condolences.

After a significant lapse of time a restless soul among the mourners ventured: “Who is the deceased person, Abboy Mengesha? Is he a relative or a family member?”

“My friend,” replied Abboy Mengesha, “just what is the problem with you? Can’t an old man with one leg in the grave take his morning sun bath in peace and quiet calm?”

The mourners, one and all, got the message. Lessons 1-3: try to look at things from different angles; think twice before you jump; all that glitters is not gold……

Abboy Mengesha made his point without raising a finger. Such simple looking acts are sometimes more powerful than voluminous treatises and lengthy dissertations.

I remember also of an old relative, Girmu, who, when one day he was told by his friends to change his manners, (the old man was past 70) began all of a sudden to wail and sob.

“What’s the problem, Girmu? What have we said that could make you weep?” his friends asked in bewilderment.

“I am crying because you are telling an old man to change his ways,” he sobbed. ”I will soon be turning to dust and be no more, so why change now when all is over and done with?”  

His friends learned that day a new lesson and it was imprinted in their mind because the lesson was accompanied by a wailing which acted as a catalyst.

And then we had the ambulant or roving philosopher in the form of the traditional beggar. By the way, the beggar can be said to be the first philosopher in the world, because either he has to fight to earn his living or else philosophize to get his alms. Philosophizing went well with beggars, as long as the hearers were believers and givers. 

When I was young, I used to hear some beautiful chanting (comparable to the Gregorian chants of Medieval Europe) by certain ambulant beggars that wafted fragrances of wisdom and deep philosophy to those who listened to them.

I remember in particular this one chanted by a stationary leper (dewye): “Alms to the poor! Alms to the poor! In the name of Him who destroys what he has made with His own hands.” The meaning is that the Potter (God) was destroying His own pot (man) with leprosy. So pay now because your days are numbered and you will soon crumble down to dust like me. That’s what the beggar was saying.

Once when I was in a teashop in Cairo a certain white-clad and turbaned ‘personage’ stood at the entrance and began to chant in a manner that would make the denizens of heaven to weep in remorse and the Devil to have second thoughts about God. 

”Who is he?” I asked the owner. ”Is he some kind of local sage or seer?”

”He is simply begging by reciting verses from the Holy Koran” answered the owner.

I wish I understood what he was saying (I don’t speak Arabic). One thing however was for sure. This time it was the ultimate wisdom from above. He was telling us, mortals that we were, that our days are like those of the lilies of the field which today are here in their full glory, and tomorrow they are gone. So practice charity while there is still time.

But it seems that we didn’t have those types of philosophers who shocked their societies with unheard-of theories and ideas like they did in the West. Of course, there were some, but they belonged to the Church and were labeled as heretics.

For example, no one from our felasfas ever came to tell us that the earth revolved around the sun or that everything is relative, or again that the best government is this or that, or that matter is made up of atoms, etc.

But on second thought, why should anyone tread on such unexplored and ‘mined’ territory while the Christian or Islamic Scriptures are there to explain everything without much toil and nagging doubts?

The Greco-Roman civilization upon which Western thoughts have been reared did enable all kinds of photospheres to sprout in Europe. That could be one of the reasons why Western Christianity which had been already steeped in Hellenistic culture did not deter Copernicus or Galileo from challenging the Church.

In our case, we didn’t have neighboring countries with speculative or rationalist philosophy similar to that of the Greeks and the Romans on which to base our thinking at best or to borrow from at worst. Even for Eritrean Moslems, Bagdad was too far and Granada even farther.

But the main reason is that the wisdom of the ancients and the Scriptures were enough for our felasfa to be able to formulate their world and universal outlook and to keep them and those who listened to them continue walking safely along life’s tumultuous path.

It was if-it-was-good-for-my-forefathers-it’s-good-enough-for-me kind of philosophy. But in a changing world, with or without our own philosophers, we are condemned to change all that.


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