Inventing philosophers and their works

[I posted this yesterday and then soon after seem to have inadvertently overwritten it with the Tuberville post, so I am reposting it. Apologies to ahcuah who commented on this post before it got over-ridden and thus his comment became irrelevant to the Tuberville post. Also apologies to Steve who responded to ahcuah’s comment and that also became irrelevant through no fault of his own.]

I was intrigued by this article by Jonathan Egid titled Forging philosophy about questions that have been raised as to whether a 17th century Ethiopian philosopher who was credited with writing an influential work really existed or whether he and his work were invented in the 19th century by an Italian monk.

The Ḥatäta [Zera Yacob], or ‘enquiry’ (the root of which, ሐ-ተ-ተ, in the ancient Ethiopian language of Geʽez literally means ‘to investigate, examine, search’ ) is an unusual work of philosophy for a number of reasons. It is not only a philosophical treatise but also an autobiography, a religious meditation and a witness of the religious wars that plagued Ethiopia in the early 17th century; it presents a theodicy and cosmological argument apparently independent of other traditions of Christian thought; it employs a subtle philosophical vocabulary that is virtually without precursors. Finally, and most perplexingly, the progenitor of these ideas, the Zera Yacob who is the subject of the autobiography and gives his name to the title, may never have existed.

Why might we think this? The text is composed in the voice of one Zera Yacob, a man born to poor parents in ‘the lands of the priests of Aksum’ in northern Ethiopia around the turn of the 17th century.

The troubled afterlife of the text begins when the work is ‘discovered’ in 1852 by a lonely Capuchin monk named Giusto da Urbino in the highlands of Ethiopia. Before this date, there is no mention of the text in the historical record. The work was sent off to da Urbino’s patron back in Paris, the Irish-Basque explorer, linguist and astronomer Antoine d’Abbadie, and placed in the Ethiopian collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Over the next couple of decades, scholars flocked to consult this fascinating, seemingly unprecedented text. The Ḥatäta was edited and translated into Russian and Latin, and began to gain a wider readership among European intellectuals.


Problems began in 1920 when another European cast doubt on the authenticity of the author.

Then in 1920, an Italian Orientalist named Carlo Conti Rossini published an article in the Journal Asiatique, claiming that, far from being a masterpiece of 17th-century Ethiopian thought, the Ḥatäta was in fact a forgery, composed by the man who had claimed to discover it: da Urbino.

This has resulted in a fierce debate in philosophical circles in which Rossini’s motives have also been brought into question and in which geopolitics and colonialist mentalities play a role.

Conti Rossini was the pre-eminent Ethiopianist of interwar Europe, and his arguments were eventually accepted by almost all scholars, including those who had spent so long translating and commentating upon the work. But Conti Rossini was also a colonial administrator in Italian East Africa, and a supporter of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, even going so far as to publish an article in 1935 titled ‘Ethiopia Is Incapable of Civil Progress’, arguing that the country could, indeed should, be colonised by a ‘civilising’ power, explicitly invoking his refutation of the Ḥatäta as part of his argument.

In Europe and the United States, philosophers keen to diversify and decolonise their curriculums have seized on Zera Yacob as evidence of an ‘African Enlightenment’, as an African Descartes or Kant. As Sumner put it, the Ḥatäta demonstrates that ‘modern philosophy, in the sense of a personal rationalistic critical investigation, began in Ethiopia with Zera Yacob at the same time as in England and in France.’ If the work is a forgery, it seems that the Ḥatäta cannot fulfil this lofty role allotted to it. The implication seems to be that, if it is not written by a 17th-century Ethiopian scholar, it is not all that interesting or important after all.

The field of philosophy is muddied by the fact that many of the ancient philosophers also wrote under various pseudonyms and even put words into the mouths of historical figures.

While it might seem odd in the world of contemporary journal publication, smuggling ideas under someone else’s name is rather more common in the history of philosophy than you might think. Medieval philosophy in particular abounds with texts that blur the boundaries between anonymity, pseudonymity and straightforward authorship. Consider the various ‘pseudos-’ – from pseudo-Augustine, pseudo-Aristotle, pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite – that proliferated in the late antique and medieval periods. Many of the medieval scholars used this kind of device to invoke the authority of an older figure for their ideas; humble monks who wrote (if writing under any name at all) under the names of the mighty dead to gain intellectual clout and authority.

Indeed, in a slightly different form, this practice has far deeper roots. Any philosophical dialogue using the names of real figures does something similar: is Plato’s Socrates the ‘real’ Socrates, or a mouthpiece for Plato’s own views, or somewhere in between? Was Plato’s Protagoras the ‘real’ Protagoras, or just a foil for Plato’s own ideas? And, if the latter, is there really anything wrong with this?

And what about when the name under which a philosopher writes does not refer to a real individual? Søren Kierkegaard wrote under a great many names: Johannes Climacus, Constantin Constantius, Victorin Victorius Victor, Johannes de Silentio are a few of them, none of whom is anything but the creative imagining of Kierkegaard himself.

Even in contemporary times, philosophers have written under other names and even ethnicities in an effort to try and see the world through an alternative lens. The problem is if their intent is to commit some kind of fraud such as sockpuppetry, where one writes under a different name to praise one’s own works.

When it comes to ancient texts, does it really matter as to whether the works are correctly attributed?

Ultimately, the words on the page should be more philosophically interesting than the identity of the person who wrote them, and therefore the Ḥatäta (and, by extension, other such contested texts) should be judged on the philosophical quality and linguistic innovations, not on the name at the top of the page. There is a sense in which the identity of an author matters. Rorty wrote Tov-Ruach and Zhang LoShan into existence, and in doing so created two distinct philosophical voices, just as Kierkegaard conjured countless original perspectives. Plato wrote the perspectives of Glaucon, Protagoras and Thrasymachus in a way that may or may not have corresponded to their real views. Zera Yacob may be one such voice that is an unknowable mix of real historical individual and literary creation. But, then again, so is Socrates.

This is similar to the debates over the authorship of the body of work that we attributed to William Shakespeare. One can dismiss these debates as not having any tangible consequences. But for academics, these things matter. And since we have so many examples of colonial powers taking away artifacts from the colonies and keeping them in their own museums and refusing to return them to the original countries, this effort to deny authorship to Zera Yacob can be viewed as yet another form of colonial theft, depriving those countries of their intellectual heritage.


  1. anat says

    Zera Yacob is Hebrew for ‘seed of Jacob’, so obviously a pseudonym, the only question is whose.

    I find it interesting that Ḥatäta seems to be of the same root as a Hebrew word of a similar meaning. I knew Ge’ez was a Semitic language (or more correctly an Afro-Asiatic language) but I have never seen examples.

  2. cartomancer says

    Well, I have to admit I’d never heard of this text and the debates surrounding it before. But, purely from this summary, from my standpoint as an historian of ideas (albeit my speciality is ancient Rome and medieval western Europe), I am skeptical as to its authenticity. We can apply some basic insights into intellectual history to the case.

    Why? Because having one single surviving example of work from an entirely lost intellectual culture almost never happens. Philosophy, or any other intellectual discipline, does not occur in a vacuum. It emerges from communities of scholars with shared assumptions, shared views and shared language and conventions. If there were precisely one Zera Yakob and nobody else to read whatever he wrote, we would not have a text in the first place. The fact there is absolutely no mention of this work, or anything like it, in the historical record of early modern Ethiopia is very suspicious. At no point was Ethiopia ever cut off from the rest of the world’s cultures. The chances that nothing but one, single text, not even a mention of a thriving philosophical community in the region, got out beyond its borders is so incredibly unlikely as to be a strong argument against its authenticity. The only thing that would make such a situation at all plausible is if there were some kind of very thorough and targeted destruction of that culture and its memory in later periods (which itself would be impossible to hide from modern scrutiny).

    There is something of the “great man” fallacy to the debates Mano outlines above. The idea that philosophers are brilliant, pioneering firebrands whose thought bubbles up entirely out of their own personal genius, rather than from their culture, discussions, debates and interactions with others. This is not how it works.

  3. John Morales says

    Well, a forgery in one sense, but not in another.

    Still a work of philosophy, either way.

  4. Silentbob says

    @ 3 Morales

    No one is claiming the philosophy per se to be forged you dope. If one forges as Shakespeare play, that does not make it not a play.

  5. John Morales says


    No one is claiming the philosophy per se to be forged you dope.

    Did you truly imagine I thought at least some one person was supposedly claiming the philosophy per se to be forged, you dope?

    If so, how you got to there from what I wrote is left to speculation.

    But no, I did not claim anyone claimed what you imagine I claim at least someone claimed.

    (How it follows that when you can’t follow what I write it entails I am somehow a dope also remains speculative)

    If one forges as Shakespeare play, that does not make it not a play.

    It might, were the forgery bad enough.

    To harken back to another little misconception that you have exhibited, what if an AI forged one?

    I know you would call it plagiarism, but then: is an AI someone? Heh heh heh

    Now, let’s talk some more about me and my dopiness.
    After all, whyever pop into a thread to comment if not about me, bob?

  6. seachange says

    It matters, because it tells you that the person doing it is known to be a manipulative liar. From black to white to shades of grey, such a liar tends towards blackish grey than the average human.

    It matters, because continuity-of-personhood is a way that humans deal with one another. In particular it is one of the ways in which human beings shorthand deal with the issue of there never being enough time and energy to conclusively determine all of the factors going into determining the truth or falsehood of any proposition.

  7. John Morales says

    [seachange, I take it you address this:
    “When it comes to ancient texts, does it really matter as to whether the works are correctly attributed?”]

  8. John Morales says

    [It’s obvious to me as I addressed that very same question, just as implicitly, @3. Not obvious to everyone, of course.]

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