Ancient African Philosophers

Philosophy is the study of life, morality, and the reasons why people live the way they do. Philosophers are what we call people who study the field of philosophy. Throughout history, many philosophers have made huge contributions to the way we live our lives.

Philosophers like Socrates, Descartes, Voltaire and Confucius have had a lasting impact on what we view as right and wrong in the western world – many of the things we take for granted, like the idea that killing is wrong, or that stealing things is bad, come from the work of ancient philosophers.

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Africa is no exception to the rule – many ancient philosophers lived and worked in Africa, and spread their teachings across the continent and then to the rest of the world. In North Africa, the philosophical concept of “Ma’at” (meaning balance) was central to the work of Ancient Egyptian philosophers.

“Ma’at” governed what people believed was right or just, which is why the image of a god holding a set of scales was so important in Ancient Egypt.

When scales are balanced, it’s seen that things are right and “Ma’at” is in effect. One of the world’s earliest philosophical texts, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, was taught to Egyptian schoolchildren to help them learn right from wrong.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region
The Yoruba people of Africa had their own unique way of looking at the world, which was based on the concept of “omoluabi.” The concept of “omoluabi” is used to describe what the Yoruba people thought of as a good person, one who was courageous, hardworking, humble and respectful.

An omolubai is a person who believes in hard work and in the importance of integrity. To measure the worth of a person, the Yoruba would use the moral code “Iwapele” to measure how good they were.

The iwapele was a list of qualities that an omoluabi should hold: some of these included the ability to speak well, to be respectful, to show goodwill towards others, to be honest, to be brave, to be hardworking, and to be intelligent.

Many of these traits are synonymous (closely connected) with the idea of what makes a person good in the western world.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region
A philosophy which emerged from Ethiopia (an African country) during the first millennium was very different from any other philosophy seen in Africa at the time. The work of the 17th-century philosopher, Zera Yacob, is heavily based on this concept. In his writings, Yacob argued his case for the existence of a God, and for the good of all living creatures.

He also detailed a belief that all men are created equal, and will therefore all believe their religion to be the only correct one. His writings made the argument that most religions were focused on the same thing – the divine Creation – and all had good qualities.

This philosophy, in comparison to many others of the era, is surprisingly tolerant and accepting of other worldviews, and is very similar to what we call a “moderate” worldview today.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region
Philosophy can be a very complicated topic to research, particularly for historians; because the world has changed so much in the last few centuries, the moral codes of ancient civilizations are often outdated, and hard to apply to our daily lives.

However, just as with the most famous European philosophers, some of the philosophers of Ancient Africa showed a keen awareness of the “human condition,” and a willingness to discuss different worldviews. African philosophy, in particular, had a huge impact on the Christian teachings of southern Europe and Asia, as their teachings blended together.

In this way, the philosophers of Africa would go on to help shape the laws of the western world that we know today.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

Facts about Ancient African Philosophers:

  • There were three main philosophies from Ancient Africa that had significance for the rest of the world.
  • The first of those philosophies came from Ancient Egypt.
  • The concept of “Ma’at,” meaning balance, governed what the Egyptians viewed as right and wrong.
  • One of the world’s earliest philosophical texts, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, were centered around this concept and was taught to Egyptian schoolchildren to help them learn right from wrong.
  • The Yoruba people’s concept of “omoluabi,” or the things that made a person good, dictated how they lived their lives.
  • If a person lived by the Yoruba moral code, “iwapele,” they would be seen as honorable and just – and therefore, become “omoluabi.” The iwapele was a list of different qualities that, when added together, would make a good person.
  • The Ethiopian philosophy of Ancient Africa emerged during the first millennium and was very different from other philosophies of the time.
  • This philosophy was detailed in the work of the 17th-century philosopher, Zera Yacob. The philosophy was based around the concept that all men were created equal and that all religions addressed the same thing – the divine Creation.
  • In the years following the end of Ancient Egypt, African philosophy would go on to have an impact on the spread of the Christian faith, and later make its presence known in the laws/moral codes of the western world.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region


What does the concept of “Ma’at” mean?

“Ma’at” means balance, or in other words, the concept that things ought to be equal and fair to be good.
What country did the concept of “Ma’at” originate from?

– Egypt.

What was an “omoluabi,” and what was the name of the moral code that Yoruba people used to assess one?

– An omoluabi was a good, honorable person. The Yoruba measured the worth of a person (and decided if they were an omoluabi) by comparing their qualities to those listed in the “Iwapele” moral code.

What was the name of the 17th-century philosopher who detailed the different elements of early Ethiopian philosophy?

– Zera Yacob.