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Claude Sumner's Classical Ethiopian Philosophy Teodros Kiros Boston University It was June 1962. I was then writing the manuscript of The Philosophy of Man—a vast inquiry on the notion of man throughout history, from the Upanishads of ancient India to logical positivism in our days. At that time I was completely ignorant, not only of the content of Ethiopian Philosophy, but even of its very existence ... I therefore went to the archives of the National Library. At that time the archives section was poorly lit . . . The halo of my flashlight was gliding along the shelves when suddenly it quivered on a rather big manuscript covered with wooden boards whose title startled me: "The Book of the Philosophers"! Well then! there was a philosophical manuscript in Ethiopia! ... It was written ... in the ancient Semitic language called Geez which survives only mostly in the liturgy of the church . . . This is how my adventure started. I was searching for the human, I found the African.' Thus began the long career of the author of Classical Ethiopian Philosophy. This book is a rare example of an extraordinary synthetic power bearing the deep marks of scholarly seriousness, patience, hard work, honesty and respect for its subject matter. Its author is a special person, who fell in love with Ethiopia, its beauty, its people, and most particularly its rich philosophical tradition, the main source of African philosophy. Claude Sumner, "Canadian by birth, and Ethiopian by choice," has been a professor of philosophy at the University of Addis Ababa since 1953. He recently gave an interview to the Ethiopian Review (July 1994) in which he vividly recalled his arrival in Ethiopia: "I think I fell in love with the country. There is such a phenomenon as love at first sight. I remember when I alighted from an Ethiopian Airlines plane on 15 September 1953 at 4.00 p.m. I immediately felt at home amongst the people I met and the bit of country I entered into: the cool weather, the green fields, the mountains, the exquisite politeness of the Ethiopian people."2 Classical Ethiopian Philosophy is a synthesis—in a singularly effective style—of®Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 3, No. 2 (New Series) 1996, pp. 39-5239 40 Teodros Kiros Sumner's life-long work on Ethiopian philosophy. In it are represented the themes of Ethiopian Philosophy previously published in four volumes: Volume 1, The Book ofthe Wise Philosophers (1974); Volume 2, The Treatise ofZar'a Ya'eqob and of Walda Heywat: Text andAuthorship (1976); Volume 3, The Treatise of Zara Ya'eqob and of Walda Heywat: An Analysis (1981); and Volume 4, The Life and Maxims ofSkendes (1978). Thematically, these works are guided by and grounded on the epistemological and ethical conceptions of the person. In addition, Sumner has written 16 individual books ranging from Antigone de Sophocle (1943) to Du crépuscle a l'Aube (1992). At the International Seminar on Philosophy and the Development of Sciences in Africa in Cotonu, Bénin, December 1978, Sumner gave a paper on "Modern Science and Ethiopian Wisdom." During the discussions that followed, he was asked if his work on Ethiopian Philosophy can be categorized as "Ethnophilosophy." The question was not an innocent one, considering that Ethnophilosophy had been severely attacked as mythical and unphilosophical by Paulin Hountondji in 1974 in his well-known article, "The Myth of Spontaneous Philosophy."3 However, the question was adroitly and shrewdly answered through the subtle analytic refinement of the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophy, Sumner suggested, has a strict and a broad meaning. In the broad sense, all world cultures have philosophical dimension to their existential selfunderstanding . Ethiopian oral traditions are philosophical in this broad sense. The oral literature of the Oromos, very much like traditions of Akan and Yoruba, is a philosophy with sophisticated conceptual frames and highly refined philosophies of the person. They are African works of wisdom with logical frames, which can be uncovered by the tools of analytic philosophy and phenomenology. Sumner has done both in his expositions of classical Ethiopian philosophy as well as recent forays into Oromo oral literature. To this category belong The Physiologues (Fisalgos); The Book of...


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