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Zara Yaqob and The Rationality of the Human Heart

According to the Ethiopian philosopher, the heart is a cradle of wisdom, not irrationality
zara yaqob and the rationality of the human heart
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

To Zara Yaqob – a seventeenth-century Ethiopian rationalist, the heart is, broadly, a symbol of wisdom. But surprisingly, in analytic terms, the heart is, for him, also a symbol of reason.

That is: 

1. The Heart is a symbol of reason.

2.  Humans can reason.

3. They reason with the heart.

Before Yaqob, ancient Egyptians also embraced the heart as a cradle of thought. They mummified the human heart and sucked out the brain. The heart captured their imagination and stimulated their reasoning power and wisdom. It is said that hearts were lifted and soaked in wines and herbs, preserved for worship by saints. The Egyptians were cardiocentrists. They considered the brain worthless, and worshipped the heart instead.  

Aristotle too thought of the heart as the symbol of thinking. As the son of a biologist, and influenced by his father, and accustomed to shrewd observation, he dissected and studied animal hearts, his Historia Animalum and De Patrubs Animalum, are a wealth of empirical evidence and detailed documentation of the structure and function of the heart. He disagreed with his teacher Plato that the heart is a cushion, by arguing that, in fact, the heart is the seat of the soul and, therefore, the seat of wisdom and rationality. 

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"Aristotle argued that the heart is the seat of the soul and, therefore, the seat of wisdom and rationality..."

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Was this just an error caused by little biological understanding? In the age of scientism, we place thought in the mind, and believe it to be separate from, and in opposition to the heart. Might we benefit from reimagining the link between our reason and our ‘hearts’?

As a physical organ, the human heart beats 100,000 times, and pumps 2,000 gallons of blood, through 60,000 miles of blood vessels.But as the seat of the soul, and as a transcendental symbol, the heart carves out the right moral path and is the originator of thought impulses in the form of emotion. It is the ultimate house of what moderns have come to call moral intelligence. 

The body and mind dichotomy, which raged in the seventeenth century, was made prominent by Descartes.  As he puts it, “it is certain that I, that is, my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.”

However, in contrast, and in the same period, Yaqob argued that ‘leb’ (which means ‘heart’ in Geez, a classical Ethiopian language) is in fact the seat of both emotion and thought.  He wrote, “God has illuminated the heart of man with understanding by which he can see the good and evil, recognise the licit and illicit, distinguish truth from error, and by your light we see the light oh Lord! If we see the light of heart properly, it cannot deceive us.”

In this way, the dichotomy between the body and mind is overcome inside the heart. Yaqob sees the heart as part of both the body and the non-bodily – the penetrating intelligence which originates and dissects thoughts, and directs them to the brain, where thought impulses are processed and linguistically articulated, thereby facilitating communication and producing discourses. For Yaqob, a spiritual and religious thinker, the transcendental (thinking function) is given by God to us, so that we can think wisely and act rationally. “God gave us intelligence so that we can use it to look for him and to meditate upon his greatness,” he said. 

I call this particular Yaqobian view the rationality of the human heart (RH) which I distinguish from the popular modern scientific rationality (SR). I do not wish to draw the line too deeply but will briefly contrast these modalities of rationality. When it is not purely instrumental, SR could draw from the RH. After all, scientists have hearts also. When science is calculating, then these distinctions are plausible. When it is not, then the dichotomy is unnecessary. RH and SR could work in tandem when we choose wisely and efficiently. 

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"The Rationality of the Heart and Scientific Rationality could work in tandem when we choose wisely and efficiently. "

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In the moral and rational sphere, we consult the heart before intervening in the flow of life to realise our possibilities and life chances.  We think deeply before we act to correct an injustice or articulate a vision of the good life boldly but humbly. The penetrating human intelligence located in the human heart, we learn from Yaqob, propels us transcendentally, to change the consciousness of the world and address human miseries, which SR for the most part ignores. It is at this level that SR and RH give us irreconcilable articulations of the human condition. 

Generally, I contend that SR is not motivated by the goal of becoming wise. Its goal is figuring how the physical world works, efficiency, practical results, maximising profit and benefit at work places. In contrast, RH is centrally guided by wisdom. If one is religiously inclined, the quest for wisdom is accompanied by a committed passion to reach God prayerfully, so that one’s speech and action is purely motivated by Yaqobian Hasasa (looking for God) and Hatata (praying and meditating). For Yaqob, we must have faith in a transcendental power, located in the heart, in order to realise wisdom and rationality.  SR on the other hand, is not guided. 

Why do I say that rationality, and not just wisdom, comes from the heart? It’s because we intensely feel our principles and life plans as thought impulses. In this sense the heart produces intelligent life plans and seeks to realise them. As it does so, it wears a meditative and prayerful mood to empower the urge of its agency. These plans and principles of moral action produce Noesi’s, meaning understanding.  

Whereas SR restricts itself to the relationship between means and ends to produce cost-effective outcomes, RH seeks to change the consciousness of the world to minimise, and if possible, eliminate unnecessary human suffering, such as poverty, disease and exploitation.  RH is committed to the idea of making means and ends themselves rational.  

When we consult the heart, and say, it is from the heart, what we mean is: the feelings which ground the thought impulses are authentic and deeply felt; we intuitively feels that we must act; we have carefully distinguished authentic thoughts from inauthentic ones intuitively; our intuition is informed by guidance originating from Hasassa and Hatata; that we mean what we say and act in accordance with what we feels, following an intuition penetrated by wisdom, and; finally, the thought impulses provoke moral action, they compel us to act in the world. 

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"There is an insurmountable conflict between the ideal rationality of the heart and the actual irrationality of human nature."

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There are further differences between SR and RH. The most salient features of SR are: (a) humans are desiring beings, that is their natural constitution, therefore, (b) humans are economic animals and their psychological and material needs can be satisfied by the relationship between means and ends, (c) the desires of these beings must somehow be satisfied, even at the expense of destroying the environment, as long as money and wealth are procured, the masses are somehow minimally satisfied, and revolts and revolutions are systematically averted.

In direct contrast to SR, (a) the human is potentially peaceful and justice loving, but this potential has to be patiently evoked out of the recesses of the unconscious where it is covered by desire, (b) humans are in fact caring and sensitive beings, evident in the language of the heart, if they are inclined to consult the heart before they act, a capacity, that critical education could unravel, patiently and lovingly, (c)  humans are drawn to mystery, which includes the possibility of discovering a Transcendental power, such as God to put them on the right moral paths, and change the consciousness of the world, (d) humans, when correctly challenged and critically enlightened, can and are willing to explore extraordinary possibilities motivated by the power of the intuition to discover the Good on their own. The Good is inside them, and consulting the heart with a reflective, meditative mood could get them there.  Following Yaqob, I modestly contend that the possibility of the best in each and every one of us begins with engaging in Hassasa and Hatata as self-imposed moral projects propelled by the quest for moral excellence as a lifelong quest for cultivating new habits covered by the weight of SR, which has become our second nature.  

Rh has the power to redeem us all from ourselves, from the slumber of our sleep, our callousness and indifference. These are turbulent times. Indifference is the signifier of our age. Game playing is the name of our alienated human relations. Marketing everything is our new nature. We play people, as opposed to caring for them and helping them, when we can. We even like to say, sadly, “do not be emotional”. By saying so, we think that to be emotional is to be foolish, thoughtless. But that is not always the case. Like ancient Greeks, Yaqob considered that some emotions are rational. 

There is however, an inherent conflict between the potential rationality of the heart and its actual irrationalities. For Yaqob, the cause seemed to be the nature of man which is "weak and sluggish.”  Our imperfect nature leads us to enter into religious and political conflicts which we seek to justify rationally, but the rationalities are themselves in conflict and they lead the potentially rational heart to combat the actually irrational heart which follows the weak and sluggish human nature.

Commenting on the religious conflicts of his time, he wrote, “These days the Franj (foreigners) tell us our faith is right, yours is false, we on the other hand will tell them ‘it is not so, your faith is wrong ours is right…”

These conflicting answers caused Yaqob to wonder about the philosophical status of faith as a vehicle of knowledge. Convinced that he could not resolve it on his own, he patiently and lovingly awaits for guidance from God.

When our politics divide our societies, we act propelled by our sluggishness and the weakness of human nature, which Yaqob’s rationality of the human heart cannot overcome.  There is an insurmountable conflict between the ideal rationality of the heart and the actual irrationality of human nature. This is a tragic dimension of our human existence.

These conflicts compel RH and SH both to humbly resort to relentless questioning when rationalities become hardened by the dogmas of the heart and science, inherent in our very existence. Both rationalities in the end must be guided by a critical understanding of our imperfect human nature.

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