By Douglas Anele
Probably because my script last week contained more words than what could be accommodated within the available space for this column, Jide Ajani, the amiable editor omitted the concluding part of my tribute to late Prof. S.B. Oluwole, my “intellectual mother” and teacher. That omission made the essay read like what the English novelist, Thomas Hardy, describes as a fraction looking for its integer or, according to the Igbo, like finishing a very delicious meal of pounded yam and ukazi soup without licking one’s fingers. Therefore, this sequel brings the tribute to a close and simultaneously outlines what I consider to be a rational perspective on the dreadfully irreversible phenomenon of death.
As I stated in last Sunday, Prof. Oluwole has a surprising sense of humour. On one occasion several years ago, both of us were discussing in Arts Block with my friend, Dr. John Otu. I cannot remember what prompted her to call my friend ‘Johnuel,’ and she mentioned other names that ended with ‘uel,’ such as ‘Samuel’ and ‘Emmanuel.’ We all started laughing simultaneously. That is Mama for you, a genuine human being who really enjoys a good laugh anytime in response to a good joke.
Although Prof. Oluwole is a Christian, she is not exclusivist and dogmatic about it at all. On the contrary, she celebrates the positive aspects of African traditional religion, particularly its tolerant character and relevance to the cultures and traditions of indigenous Africa. Indeed, Mama endorsed the view that every conception of God is culturally relative. In her book Witchcraft, Reincarnation and the Godhead, she expressed her conviction that “the move towards unification theology and the religious tolerance it breeds does not rationally justify the reduction of all characterisations of God to one local version or to a single metaphysical conception.
The name ‘God’ is like a peg on which different connotations can be legitimately hung… .” To the best of my knowledge, her attitude towards religion and life generally is best encapsulated in the philosophy of “live and let live.” For those of us she impacted positively upon, we can honour and preserve her legacy by exhibiting those very virtues that made her an omoluabi. To be specific: we must cultivate her humble, humane and tolerant disposition, her love for home-grown education and her commitment to humanitarian values. I wish family members and relatives of the departed philosopher-queen the mental strength to bear the irreparable loss with stoic equanimity.
Having paid my respects to the departed, it is time to outline a rational perspective on death bereft of the fairytales contained particularly in religious scriptures. My understanding of our mortality can be slotted within the theoretical framework of humanistic philosophy, which entails a naturalistic theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of death and an emotional response towards it. Humanistic philosophers interpret death differently, but most of them tend to regard the biological approach as inescapable, legitimate and illuminating. John Hick, in his well-researched book, Death and Eternal Life, provides a convenient window into humanistic approaches and understanding of death. From the biological point of view, death is a necessary component of evolution.
If new members of all species, including homo sapiens, were continually brought into being without being balanced by a continual loss by death, the earth would soon have neither space nor sustenance for them and the species would exterminate themselves through overpopulation. It is therefore essential that each generation in its turn be removed to accommodate the next. From the moment life emerged, there has to be this continual succession of new individual members of specie, because it is through the small random differences occurring in each generation that the species have been able to improve their adaptability to the changing environment.
The tradition of rational, philosophical and non-religious acceptance of the fact that each human being will die at some point dates back to the ancient period, ably represented by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. According to Epicurus from whose teachings Epicureanism originated, the pain associated with our mortality is exaggerated given that “death does not concern us because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.” Seneca, a stoic Roman philosopher and statesman, argues that “Death is not something we can control.
It will happen and we do not know when it will happen. Thus, thinking of our demise is a poor use of one’s time.” He argues further that the dead suffer no evils, and all those stories which make us dread what is to come after death are mere fables, and that death is complete freedom from all those worries. Consequently, death is neither a good nor a bad thing, “for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing; but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work on.” Now, according to theistic faiths, Man is a being created for eternal fellowship with God or, according to non-theistic religions, a “spark of divinity” temporarily separated from the Eternal Mind, or a consciousness capable of attaining to the perfect state of nirvana.
Humanism holds a contrary view, because it holds that a human being is an animal, destined to perish like all other living species. The consciousness and personality of a human person depend on the functioning of the brain and cease to exist when the brain, and the body as a whole, dies. Accordingly, consciousness is a temporary by-product of the mammalian nervous system when this has evolved to a certain level of complexity, meaning that the question about the conscious personality surviving when the body dies does not arise.
Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, probably more than any humanist has faced the wider and far-reaching implications of the humanist conception of human life and death. In one of his famous essays entitled “A Free Man’s Worship,” he outlines a courageous pessimistic outlook which, in my opinion, should be the humanist manifesto on the phenomenon of death. According to him, “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of human achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation be safely built.” Although the view outlined by Russell can easily lead to the conclusion that human life is meaningless and absurd, it is also possible to distil from it a powerful incentive for meaningful life. For example, the noted psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp of the Nazis, Viktor Frankl, endorses the view that within the context of cosmic purposelessness, the search for meaning can render an individual’s life purposeful, joyous and worthwhile as a whole despite its inevitable brevity.
So, although available evidence from astronomy, biology and other relevant sciences tend to indicate that human existence is a fleeting and contingent phenomenon in the infinity of space and time, nevertheless, love, friendship, loyalty and goodness, perception of the amazing beauty of nature and artistic creations, and human intellectual and scientific achievements, are worthwhile and their value is not diminished by the humanistic understanding and attitude towards death. On the contrary, it invests them with a deep and profound significance because it means that humans can accomplish so much despite, and in spite of, the ever present bottomless dark abyss of nothingness opened up by death.
The humanistic conception has been criticised as representing the point of view of the fortunate few, that is, of those who inhabit affluent societies especially in the west where life is relatively comfortable without any reference to the idea of an afterlife. In otherwords, it is true that humanism often appeals to individuals that enjoy the necessities of life, who have received good education that opens to them many of the riches of human culture and engaged in purposeful rewarding work in which the bonds of familyhood and belongingness can flourish. Yet, I am convinced that if children are exposed to humanistic ideas right from infancy rather than the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of religious superstition, a more rational understanding of the phenomenon of death would spread in the society notwithstanding socio-economic disparities that may be present. A paradigm-shift from the present dominant irrational attitude towards our mortality fostered by religions to the humanistic attitude is urgently needed to save humanity from the toxic effects of mystification and fear of death. The fear of death is an error in itself because hidden within it is the fear of authentic living!