An Oral Tradition in Philosophy

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.”

  • Deuteronomy 13:1-4

Abner called out to Joab, “Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realize that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”
Joab answered, “As surely as God lives, if you had not spoken, the men would have continued pursuing them until morning.”

  • 2 Samuel 2:26-27

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the ark of the covenant law, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.”
So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law.
The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.

  • Numbers 17:1-8

“Henry Odera Oruka was born in Kenya in 1944 and he was interested in metaphilosophy, or philosophizing about philosophy. In his book Sage Philosophy (1994), he looks at why philosophy in sub—Saharan Africa has often been overlooked, and concludes that it is because it is primarily an oral tradition, while philosophers in general tend to work with written texts. Some people have claimed that philosophy is necessarily connected with written recording, but Oruka disagrees.
“In order to explore philosophy within the oral traditions of Africa, Oruka proposed an approach that he called ‘philosophic sagacity’. He borrowed the ethnographic approach of anthropology, where people are observed in their everyday settings, and their thoughts and actions recorded in context. Oruka himself traveled into villages and recorded conversations with people who were considered wise by their local community. His aim was to find out whether they had systematic views underpinning their perspectives. Those sages who had critically examined their ideas about traditional philosophical topics, such as God or freedom, and found a rational foundation for them could, Oruka believes, be considered philosophic sages. These systematic views deserve to be explored in the light of wider philosophical concerns and questions.

  • Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained

As for the Scriptures, the first two talk about things that were spoken.  The third speaks of writing the name of the tribal leader on each of their staffs, and Aaron’s staff sprouted and even produced almonds.  It is not that the written word produces more fruit than the spoken word, but there is a record of the event or the ideas conveyed afterwards.

Henry Odera Oruka (1944-1995) makes a wonderful point, but the focus is not at the center of the target.  Philosophy started largely as an oral tradition.  The theaters of Asia Minor and Greece, especially in Miletus and Athens became the ground where philosophers had their battle of words.  Many early philosophers are long since forgotten, or nothing of their ideas is recorded, due to only expressing those ideas orally.

It is a shame that the sub-Saharan African philosophers had no publisher to record their philosophy.  Their philosophy might be equal to that of the Greeks if they had a written language and a tradition of recording what was said.  It is not that Greek philosophy is better.  It is that Greek philosophy was recorded.  Even among the Greeks, there could have been philosophers that might have achieved greater accolades than Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle if only they had an agent to pitch their ideas to a publisher.

The argument is not that of the Mediterranean philosophers being exalted and the African philosophers being ignored.  It is the same problem that we have today.  You need to have written something or an agent will not pay attention to you.  And publishers will not deal with you if you are not represented by an agent.  It is a virtual Catch-22.  Two rules cancel each other so that the desired goal becomes impossible.  Of course, there are contests for unpublished authors and collections of short stories and such that may not require an agent, but now that those are gaining some ground, the agents see that you have only published a half-dozen times in such poorly distributed journals and compilations and now that is not good enough.  There is self-publishing, but then you are labeled as a person who cannot work within the system.  After spending your own money, your “publication” works against you with the mainstream publishing houses.

But when we consider these arguments with those who wrote the Bible, being God-breathed, we find a divine intervention.  There were other books written.  They may have mostly disappeared when the texts became moth-eaten or washed away.  Some survived, but they did not glorify God and illustrate what the rest of the text illustrates, including quotations from the New Testament and such.  What we have in the Bible is what God meant to survive among the various books that were written.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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