Intellectual history Think Piece

“Zamanawi-Seletane”: Three Intellectual Responses to Modernity in Ethiopia

By Fasil Merawi

By Fasil Merawi 

This piece has the goal of introducing three groups of intellectuals who hold distinct views on Ethiopia’s venture into modernity. If one wants to understand the general spirit of Ethiopian notions of modernity, zamanawi-seletane [modern civilization] emerges as a major concept. Used to characterize the nature of Ethiopian modernity, zamanawi-seletane signifies adopting instrumental rationality in the face of a threat posed by Western colonizers, while simultaneously recognizing the backwardness of one’s nation. It also implies introducing the latest achievements of the Western world in order to uphold the independence of the Ethiopian state. Realizing zamanawi-seletane to this extent requires the introduction of strong institutions, systems of education and forms of administration. In this think piece, I argue that modernity in Ethiopia did not emerge within the moral fabric of the community; however, it was not also animated by the attempt to introduce a direction for a nation’s development from above. 

When Western education was introduced in Ethiopia, the previous focus on church teaching was effectively sidelined. With the arrival of Ethiopian modernity, there was a shift from church education to modern Western education that was inspired by the need to develop an instrumental form of rationality. I follow here Paulos Milkias who characterizes Ethiopian modernity as the emergence of societal rationalization that displaced the power of religion and existing societal beliefs. Being guided by the goals of zamanawi-seletane, Ethiopian intellectuals wondered, in a country that once had a refined ancient civilization, why they were lagging. How can we introduce a conception of Ethiopian modernity that can restore our cultural pride and dignity while also learning from the instrumental achievements of the Western world? Besides the developmental ventures that were carried out by Ethiopian rulers, the question of Ethiopian modernity mainly occupied Ethiopian intellectuals. In the following, I discuss three major groups of thinkers who were involved in shaping the notion of Ethiopian modernity. 

The first group of intellectuals saw their task in explaining the cultural lag found in their nation. They believed that a country which was once known for the Aksumite civilization is currently in a state of backwardness. The believed that one is able to lay the foundations for a process of societal modernization through an appropriation of the instrumental rationality of the western world. The solution they believed in was to simultaneously preserve our cultural values and to learn from the material, scientific, and technological advancements of the West. These intellectuals, including Gebrehiwot Baykedagn (1886-1919), used the cultural lag thesis in order to explain the underdevelopment of Ethiopia. They also suggested that instrumental rationality was a unique contribution of the West to human civilization. Bahru Zewde argues that most attempts by Ethiopian intellectuals to learn from the instrumental rationality of the West tried to adopt the model of “Japanization,” which was a movement spearheaded by few Ethiopian intellectuals in the 1930s. 

Japan was considered the perfect model by intellectuals like Kebede Michael (1916-1998) because it was seen as the only nation that had attained instrumental progress without necessarily embracing Westernization. Nevertheless, Bahru makes the important point that attempts to emulate Japan’s developmental model lacked a sufficient understanding of its particular history and context. Regarding the impact of the works of the intellectuals Bahru admits that it is difficult to determine and that their works were mostly inaccessible to the masses. Still some reformist ideas suggested by intellectuals like Gebrehiwot were introduced within government policies later on. Among the major reformist intellectuals that tried to learn from the instrumental advancements of the West was the doctor, economist, and intellectual Gebrehiwot Baykedagn.

Gebrehiwot’s visions of societal modernization are brought forth in his works አጤምኒልክናኢትዮጵያ (The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia; 1912) and መንግስትና የህዝብ አስተዳደር (State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia; 1924). I argue that two main motives dictate Gebrehiwot’s conception of modernity in The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia. The first one is the need to learn from the success that colonizing nations attained in introducing modernization. Gebrehiwot believed that independence alone cannot lead into modernity and that one could learn even from the colonized. Secondly, there is the need to realize material development without necessarily abandoning one’s own cultural tradition. To meet the goals of a modern project that is founded on a sense of cultural pride, Gebrehiwot suggests there is a need to introduce a new form of history writing that shows a commitment to one’s cultural values. He further contends that there is a need to establish a modern government in Ethiopia that recognizes societal enlightenment as the foundation of processes of democratization. 

As part of his modernization program, Gebrehiwot generally lists ten radical measures that must be practically implemented. First of all, the wealth of the nation and the ruler’s private property must be separated from one another so as to avoid a possible conflict of interest. Secondly, there must be a parallel relation between the level of income of citizens and the amount of taxation levied on them. Thirdly, a uniform form of currency needs to be implemented. Fourthly, there must be a serious effort to further promote the Amharic national language. Fifthly, there is a need to harmonize existing and modern laws. Sixthly, there is a need to establish a modern army. Seventhly, there is a need to introduce a more functioning economic system. Eighthly, the economy needs to be regulated by law. Ninthly, there must be a strong central government and tenthly, the freedom of religion needs to be realized.

In his second work State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia, Gebrehiwot argues that human history is characterized by the dominance of the powerful over the less fortunate. I think that a Eurocentric view manifests itself in three major ways in Gebrehiwot’s approach. First of all, Gebrehiwot’s understanding of human history as a movement from a state of potentiality into actuality uses an analysis of cultural lag and underdevelopment in order to explain Ethiopia’s predicaments. Secondly, again in using the cultural lag thesis, Gebrehiwot seems to assume that there is a universal path to progress and that Ethiopia is lagging behind. Thirdly, Gebrehiwot also implicitly assumes that the West had an exclusive possession of instrumental rationality and that we need to learn from this. I therefore suggest that Gebrehiwot’s analysis is founded on a Eurocentric conception of modernity and that he did not pay enough attention to alternative conceptions of modernity found in the different parts of the world. Having identified the ideas of the first group of intellectuals, now let us move to the second group.

The second group of intellectuals shared the assumption that ancient Ethiopia, which rivaled the achievements of the greatest civilizations of the world, could provide inspiration for a process of cultural revival and renaissance. One of the intellectuals in this group is Asres Yenesew. In his  1958 work ጠቃሚ ምክር (Useful Advice), Asres develops a theory of modernization that is founded on ascribing a unique role to the Ethiopian intellectual. The task of such writers is to resist Western modernization and to provide the intellectual edifice for a cultural renaissance. They should particularly expose the ideological functions of Western education. Asres thinks that the role of a writer is to enlighten the masses. By evoking an analogy between a bee and the writer he argues that just like a bee needs a flower to produce honey, the masses also need the writer in order to realize societal progress. He still cautions that the writers and critics should be careful so as not to propagate Western ideology to the masses in the name of providing knowledge. 

Asres also warns us against equating Ge’ez education, which he saw as a particular form of education, with church education and makes a plea for studying Ethiopian history and texts. He criticized a new generation of Ethiopians for only being interested in studying the modern Western canon and gradually securing a position in the government offices. Asres also criticized his society for entertaining negative attitude towards craftsmanship and at least not being able to attain self-sufficiency. Primarily he thought that Ethiopians need to study our language for it gives us an access to our wisdom and also the hidden medical knowledge that is found in our forests. Asres saw those intellectuals who are educated in the West as the allies of the colonizers. I argue that among Ethiopia’s intellectuals Asres stands out as a unique scholar in developing an explicit criticism of Western modernity. He demonstrated that Western modernity is antithetical to the Ethiopian lived reality and that there is a need to develop a new foundation for social progress that is founded on the revival of the past. 

The third group of intellectuals unites those that tried to attain a unique synthesis between what they perceived as Ethiopian values and Western progress. Modernizers like Eguale Gebreyohannes aimed to develop a new conception of progress that equally accommodates Ethiopian cultural values and Western science and technology. Eguale believed that such a conception of progress should be primarily carried out in the field of education. In his 2003 የከፍተኛ ትምህርት ዘይቤ [Yekefitegna timihirt zeyibe], Eguale argued that if a nation has a system of education that balances different intellectual traditions, then all the problems of our society will be resolved. Using Plato, Eguale argues that knowledge is the foundation of virtue and societal justice. In such an effort to meet the goals of education and enlightenment, Eguale credits Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1974, for making a lasting contribution to modern education. Eguale believed that our program of modernization must allow us to determine the social functions of knowledge. 

The Athenians, Eguale suggests, embodied the principle of an intrinsic interest in knowledge as the foundation of societal progress. Based on a comparison between Western and Ethiopian systems of education, he argues that one problem in our knowledge system is that oral wisdom is not easily transferred from one generation to the other. He saw Ethiopian education as mainly being founded on oral tradition. Furthermore our existing system of education is founded on hostility towards modern Western scientific education. European modernity, according to Eguale, was able to learn from different intellectuals traditions although its primary gaze is oriented towards the controlling of the natural world. Eguale argues that technology is the unique possession of the West. He believed that we need to learn from Western system of education and that the task of the Ethiopian intellectual is to identify the limitations of Western and non-Western, material and immaterial forms of knowledge to then form a creative synthesis. 

Eguale’s approach differs from the modernizing programs brought forth by Ethiopia’s reformist intellectuals like Baykedagn in that what he is trying to attain is not the defense of the nation by the appropriation of Western knowledge. He also differs from the renaissance and revivalist intellectuals in that he does not try to elevate Ethiopia’s cultural past as the source of perfection. Despite such differences, just like most Ethiopian intellectuals, Eguale believed that modernization can be attained by instituting a new system of education. I argue that Eguale was not able to attain a synthesis between Ethiopian and Western conceptions of knowledge since his approach, just like other Ethiopian and third world intellectuals, presupposes that technology and instrumental rationality are unique capacities of the West. 

Rather than ascribing a particular form of orientation to a given culture, Eguale tried to recount for the pragmatic interests that animated different forms of knowledge in various parts of the world. Once there is transcultural contact, there is a need for a creative synthesis. Eguale seems to assume that there is a single trajectory that dictates the developmental paths of different societies of the world. He views the instrumental rationality of science and technology as an exclusive possession of the Western world. I argue that we need to instead explore alternative approaches that assume that there is the simultaneous existence of different paths towards modernity.

Fasil Merawi holds a PhD in philosophy from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His areas of interest include post-metaphysical thinking, ontological pluralism, and multiple modernities. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor and the Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University. Some of his recent publications include “Reflections on Glock’s Conception of Analytic Philosophy” (2021), “An Analysis of Hountondji’s ‘The Struggle for Meaning, Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa’” (2021), and “The Sage and Philosophy in Africa: Revisiting Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli” in Ethics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Development An Evaluation, edited by Abdul Shakil (2021).

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Mar Di Aethiopia Vulgo Oceanus Aethiopicus, 1650. Wikimedia Commons.