Philosophers Throughout History You’ve Probably Never Heard Of: Part II

Posted on October 15, 2020

by Ian Olasov

There are at least three reasons to read philosophers from other times and places. The first is that they are sometimes right (and sometimes in surprising ways), and we can learn from them when they are. The second is that their perspectives and habits of thought are sometimes very different from our own, and it’s a useful skill, and often a mind-bending experience, to try on those perspectives and habits for ourselves. The third is that philosophy has shaped and continues to shape the larger world. We can only understand that larger world when we understand the philosophical currents it drift on.

There are a lot of great resources out there if you want to get a fuller, more detailed story about the history of philosophy. But here are two philosophers most readers have likely never heard of, a little bit about some of their ideas, and why we might find them interesting today.

Chromolithograph of Sagoyewatha (also known as Red Jacket) by Corbould from a painting by C.B. King; printed by C. Hallmandel
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons

Sagoyewatha (c. 1750-1830)

Sagoyewatha (“He Keeps Them Awake”) was a Seneca leader and sometime lawyer, renowned for his eloquence and persuasiveness. We have a great deal of biographical information about him, as well as some of his letters, political speeches, and quips (In response to an eager proselyte: “If you white people murdered the Saviour, make it up for yourselves. We had nothing to do with it. Had he come among us we should have treated him better.” Advocating for the apprehension of a murderer: “You must not think hard if we speak harsh. The words come from a wounded heart as you have stuck the hatchet in our head, and we can’t be reconciled until you come and pull it out.”)

The most remarkable, and most philosophically interesting, record of Sagoyewatha is his famous speech on “The Religion of the White Man and the Red.” He argues, in firm, compelling, but agreement-seeking language, that, while the Seneca and Christians worship the same God, the Great Spirit must not want indigenous people to adopt Christianity. It is a brilliant plea for religious toleration. It’s not long, so I’ll just quote the relevant sections: 

Brother, continue to listen. You say you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind, and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right, and we are lost; how do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book; if it was intended for us as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us, and not only to us, but why did he not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit; if there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book? […]

Since [the Great Spirit] has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may we not conclude that he has given us a different religion according to our understanding. The Great Spirit does right; he knows what is best for his children; we are satisfied.

Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you; we only want to enjoy our own.

Henry Odera Oruka (1944-1995) 

Who counts as a philosopher, anyway? Can we distinguish neatly between philosophy and science, religion, or folk wisdom? Or, more to the point, how does a person change, in our eyes, when we treat them as a philosopher? And how does philosophy change when we treat new people as philosophers?

Henry Odera Oruka offers exciting, provocative answers to these questions. Oruka is perhaps best remembered today for his development of sage philosophy. Oruka visited communities around Kenya looking for what he called sages – people who were regarded by their communities as wise. Oruka believed that if these sages were really philosophers, they should be able to answer fundamental questions about the world and how we ought to live, and they should be able to defend those answers rationally. His book Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy collects some of the remarkable conversations Oruka recorded with the sages he met.

 Here’s just one example, from a conversation with the sage Ali Mwitani Masero, a practitioner of traditional medicine with formal education. 

Q: And now, Mzee Mwitani, what do you think is good for man – what every man seeks to have in this world?

A: “Eloba” (soil or earth). Money is loved by many. But it comes from eloba… We eat from the soil. We build houses on it. Right now, our feet rest on it (if not directly, at least indirectly).

Q: But some philosophers (e.g. the Greek Socrates) say that wisdom is good for man. Others (e.g. Aristotle and John Stuart Mill) think that good is equated with happiness. What do you think?

A: No. Wisdom cannot be for man. You cannot seek wisdom. Wisdom is just what you cultivate in the world as you live. It is there in you – you do not seek it from any place. It is given at birth.

As for happiness (Obusangasfu), it is even more inconceivable to regard it as good for man. You cannot live to seek happiness – where do you get it, where can you get it? You pass here and a person laughs at you. The next minute another person is scolding you. Where do you look for it? It is not like earth (eloba) which you can seek and find. And anyway, without eloba to produce, for example, your maizemeal, your happiness would not exist at all – not even as an illusion!

And even if we were to grant happiness as the good for man, it is unattainable anyway. For only a people – a society – can be happy; when all its individuals live together in harmony and in unity. One man cannot be happy (there are too many loads on his shoulder).

This single conversation is just incredibly full of surprising, fertile ideas – that eloba is the good, that we cannot seek wisdom, that happiness is primarily a property of societies and not of individual people, and (reading between the lines) that what is good for a person is only what they can actually seek and find, not what is either unattainable or acquired in the natural course of things. There is a lot to think about here!

Of course, we might object to Oruka at various points. Aren’t his questions a bit leading? Why look only at people that are regarded by their communities as wise? But this one conversation with Mwitani does so much. It challenges conventional wisdom, not just about happiness and wisdom and the good, but about who philosophers are, and where you can find them. Like so much of the best philosophy, it points the way forward, to new horizons, new questions, new conversations.

Interested in reading more? Check out Part I of the series where Ian Olasov discusses philosophers Mozi and Anne Conway!

Credit: Jen Ortiz

Ian Olasov is an adjunct professor and doctoral candidate at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. His writing has appeared in SlateVoxPublic Seminar, and elsewhere. He won the American Philosophical Association’s Public Philosophy Op-Ed Prize in 2016 and 2018. He runs the Ask a Philosopher booth in locations around New York City and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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