This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Odubela, Olubusola Matric No: 152605
Being a paper presentation to the Department of Philosophy of the University of Ibadan
In partial fulfillment for the requirement of course no: UI/PHIL/7
OCTOBER, 2010 LECTURER IN CHARGE: DR UDEFI
ABSTRACT Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy concerns itself with the study of the totality of being and the study of nature and structure of reality as a whole. One of the many of these abstracts concepts that philosophy takes on, is our focus: concept of human person from the African perspective with particular reference to the Yoruba worldviews. That we are making particular reference to Yoruba culture, from which a generalization of African culture is inferred does not mean Africa or even Yoruba has one homogenous culture. But like Wiredu has pointed out in his article “Philosophy and an African Culture”, there are certain basic common elements that permeate all African culture which justifies our inference in this work. Some of the underlying affinities identified by Wiredu include: “Kindness to strangers; reverence for ancestors and other departed relatives who are believed to be able to affect the living; the belief in the existence and influence of lesser gods as agents of the supreme God…….; the notion that human beings are born into the world with an unalterable destiny bestowed in advance by God. We shall be considering the major elements that constitute a human person according to the worldview of this ethnic group namely: Ara, Okan, Ojiji, Emi, Eemi and Ori inu. Attempts shall be made to draw out the metaphysical implications and what appears as inconsistencies present in their thoughts if indeed they can be regarded as such. The Yoruba(s) are the ethnic group that occupies the south western part of Nigeria (West Africa), predominantly, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Ekiti, Ondo, Lagos, Kwara and Kogi States of Nigeria. They however expand into a significant portion of the Coutononu, the Republic of Benin. As a people, the Yoruba ethnic group lay claim to indigenous reasoning which guide their perceptions of reality and the world around them. The language is Yoruba and their thoughts are contained in their proverbs, aphorisms, folklores and mythologies.
When Reverend Father Placid Temples sometimes ago suggested by calling a body of an indigenous thoughts of the Bantu People of southern Zaire “Bantu Philosophy,”1 he little knew then that he was opening a huge can of warms. The warms crawls out effortlessly each time a thinker tries to justify the profundity of other indigenous thoughts such as affirming the existence of African philosophy. This paper supports the claims that indeed the Yoruba generations have thoughts as logical, sequential, rational and dialectical as the ancient Greeks, or European or Asian philosophers; and submit that their thoughts can pass muster as philosophy. This paper will therefore not endeavour to engage in the endless discussions whether or not Yoruba have a philosophy that expresses how they conceive the concept of human person in the same manners that the Europeans did. This paper will merely assume that arguments have been sufficiently exhausted in this wise and broadly review the Yoruba cosmogony of the human person. Human Person The idea of human person in linguistic terminology is some worth straightforward. Hardly would anyone ask for the meaning of “human person” when the term comes in-between conversational phrases. But when the same expression enters into philosophy, it becomes more complex than just its linguistic coinage. Human person in philosophy comes in as a concept. And as a concept, it needs to be explored in its various dimensions. Some of the possible questions that relates to this concepts even in its exploration in Yoruba thoughts includes the following: Is there such a thing as Human Person? If there is, what is the nature? Many cultures provide what M. J. Field has aptly called a ‘dogma of human personality 2. Human personality concerns the physical and psychical constitution of human beings, or the visible and the invisible aspects of human beings. There exists the concept of human person in the thoughts and beliefs of Yoruba, and it literarily translates as Eniyan. The dogma of human personality as held by Field in Yoruba thought delineates the physical and non
See T. Placide, Bantu Philosophy, (Paris: Presence Africaine 1959) Pg 23.
M.J. Field, Religion and Medicine of the Ga People, (London Oxford University Press 1961)Pg. 72 3
physical parts of a human person. There are two senses in which the word eniyan is used by Yoruba. On one hand, there is the normative use while on the other hand there is the ordinary or literary meaning. The former is the plane on which the moral status of a person is queried. One can for instance say Ayo se eniyan or Ayo se omoluwabi which means Ayo is a good person. If we however say Ade o ki’n se eniyan, then we are saying such a person lacks a moral standing that is necessary to qualify him as a human person. Famous musicians in Nigeria have vigorously promoted the concept that human beings are the best form of shield around one’s nakedness. For example: King Sunny Ade: Eniyan, o dara Ju aso lo ,( human beings are better than clothes) Eniyan laso iyi mi ti mo fin bora (humans are my honorary clothes) Chief Ebenezer Obe Eniyan boni lara jaso lo (3 times) (humans are better covers than clothes) O ma jaso lo...( they really cover better than clothes). When they refer to human person like this, they are not merely saying, human beings are cloths or forms of wraps, but they refer to the metaphysical nature of the human person in totality and the extent to which social interaction and mutual dependence among them are seen to be indispensable. In ordinary usage however, eniyan could be used to designate the structural components of a person. In typical Yoruba thought process, a human being is compounded of six entities. These entities are though related, they are not identical3. 1. ARA – THE HUMAN BODY ‘Ara’ is one of the prominent features that characterize a human person in Yoruba thoughts. It is the physical part of a human being which can be perceived by the senses. It can be described generally by anatomy. Its components include both external features (Head, arms, legs and anything that can be seen or touched), and internal features (hearts, bones, intestines, brain etc). It is tangible, divisible, and extended in space. It is also describable in physical terms as heavy/ light, strong/weak, hot/cold etc4. It is the ara that houses other constituent parts (including the senses which is the most essential parts, for it is through the senses that a
E.B. ldowu, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, (Ikeja: Longman Nigeria Ltd 1982) pp169ff. 4
person acquaints themselves with the external world). Ara enables a person to act and react to his/her physical environment. And when a person dies, ara is lowered into the ground and it perishes, it is on this basis that it is said to be susceptible to corruption. The internal organs of ara also play certain roles which enhances the proper functioning of eniyan. The intestine of a person is believed to have certain significance in regards to their strength. If Yoruba say eniyan o ni ifun or ko ni im ninui, it means such person is weak or he/she is in fact a weakling. Opolo is also one of the internal physical components of Ara and can be located in the head. It is extended in space and is susceptible to corruption. With the death of an individual comes its end, thus it has no eternal nature. Opolo is responsible for the process of thinking, reasoning and interpreting signals sent by the senses. If a person is incapable of logical reasoning, Yoruba’s will regard the person as “Alailopolo” which literarily means one without brain or one whose brain is not functioning. A mentally retarded person is one whose brain is incomplete, while one who suffers insanity has his Opolo disrupted. However, Ara is sometimes used to refer to the totality of a human person. One can for instance say: Iru eniyan wo ni Ade je? – what kind of person is Ade? The appropriate answer to this kind of question would include a description of Ade as an entity, his physical appearance, his moral status, his financial status in the society, his likes and dislikes etc. We will therefore have something like: Ade ga ni iwon bata mefa (he is six feet tall); Ade je olooto ati eni ti o se fokan tan (he is faithful and trustworthy); Ade o la beeni ko sagbe (he is not poor, yet cannot be regarded as rich); O feran lati ma wo aso ibile (he likes appearing in native wears); Ko feran oselu (he does not like politics); and so on.
S. Gbadegesin “Eniyan: The Yoruba Concept of a Person” in Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang 2000) Pg. 28. 5
Okan is another element in the structure of the human person. In Yoruba language, this concept appears to have a dual nature. First, it is described in terms of body anatomy, as the organ responsible for blood circulation i.e. okan as the English equivalence of heart which performs the hollow function of circulating blood. In this case, it will qualify as one of the internal organs of ara. On the other hand, it is also conceived as the source of emotional and psychic reactions and also the seat of intelligence.5 Although some philosophers argue against the view that okan is the seat of intelligence. Oyeshile opines that it is opolo that performs such functions6. One can question this position on the basis that when Yoruba use certain expressions, it is quite obvious that they are not referring to opolo since it is believed to have a limiting nature and is thus incapable of transcending beyond physical objects of knowledge. Yoruba could use okan in the following ways: Okan re ti lo (He is buried in thought); Okan mi so pe yoo wa (My mind tells me that he will come; I think he will come); Se okan re giri (Be brave); O lokan (He is brave; He courageous). In each of these expressions, it is not the physical okan (heart), nor opolo that is being referred to but the immaterial okan. One’s opolo cannot for instance handle the second example given above. One cannot meaningfully say: Opolo mi so pe yoo wa – my brain tells me he will come, or say; se opolo re giri - Make your brain brave. Ero in Yoruba means Thought. To think is ‘to ronu’. Ironu means thinking or reflecting. To ‘ro’ is to stir. Literarily therefore, ‘to ro inu’ will mean to stir the inside of person. By this literary understanding, one may want to grant that reflection or thinking is a function carried out in the inside of a human being with the aid of all the physical internal organs of ara. But it is strictly not so. ‘Kini Ero Okan re” means what are the thoughts on your mind? One could also say “Ero rere n wa lati inu okan mi” – “Good thoughts are emanating from my mind”. Okan in the sense been used in these expressions is definitely the intangible, non physical one. Oladipo seem to have made a notable clarification that could aid our understanding by suggesting that okan and opolo are connected with regards to human conscious activities such as thinking and feeling7.
Gbadegesin (2000) – Opus cit pp 30.
T. Oyeshile, “ the physical and Non-physical in Yoruba’s Concept of Person in Philosophia”, An International Journal of Philosophy, De la ssalle University Philippines Vol. 35, No2 (2006) Pg.153-165
O. Oladipo, “Yoruba Conception of a Person, An analytico- Philosophical study”, International studies in Philosophy, Vol.2, 2002. 6
Okan is also used to denote that part of man called iye (consciousness, mentality or rationality). When for instance someone exhibits irrational traits or behaves like someone who has lost his/her consciousness, they say ko ni iye- he lacks consciousness or he is irrational. Okan is also used to refer to that substance which propels conscience in the individual, to warn him against engaging in actions that may consequently be detrimental to his being or that of others. Okan in this sense is the English equivalence of guilty conscience. 3. EMI – SOUL / LIFE The third entity that constitutes a human person in Yoruba is emi which translates to spirit, life or being8. Gbadegesin has however opined that this kind of translation as given by Dopamu confuse more than it clarifies. He argued that the way emi is conceived in Yoruba and by thinkers is better approached by attending to how it comes into the body, and this cannot be separated by the religious worldview of the Yoruba9. Emi literarily translates to life as an active principle given by Olodumare. Historically as it is held and transferred to generations through oral tradition, eniyan is a combined effort of Olodumare, the Supreme Being and some other smaller deities. After a lifeless body – ara is constructed by Orisa nla the arch divinity, Olodumare gives the lifeless body emi- which now constitutes the vital principle and seat of life. The significance of emi is that once present, the human body which was previously lifeless begins to exist. When it is recalled by Olodumare, humans cease to exist. All existing humans have emi. It serves as the source of life and conscious existence of a human person as long as it is in force. There are arguments that suggest that emi may contain quasi physical attributes.10 There are also arguments that suggest that Emi can either be physical or quasi physical if it chooses11. From the above, there are indications that emi in
A . P Dopamu (2006). Continuity and Change. Available at www.metanexus.net, accessed on 29th of September 2010.
Gbadegesin (2000) – Opus cit pp 34
Ibid – Gbadegesin makes an attempt to explain this by comparing emi with invisible sprits capable of flying out of the body like in the case of witches or like in cases of iwin and oro which are beings regarded as spirits inconceivable by naked eyes except inner eyes . These spirits are believe to occupy space and time even though they do not appear in material forms.
Ibid He argued that one may also understand Emi as the spiritual entity which is capable of changing forms unlike a material entity. In this sense, it could assume a physical nature when there is a need to do so and will still revert to the spiritual nature thereafter. This he claimed would be possible by virtue of its spiritual nature which endows it with power of changeability 7
the Yoruba belief is capable of independent existence and believed to be spiritual. These two claims are philosophically contestable. First, the claim that it is spiritual can be debunked on the basis that it is embodied in a being and thus occupies space and time. Secondly, it can be argued that emi can have no independent existence since it is just as a principle or force which activates. How can it be an entity? Gbadegesin argued in response that if Yoruba entertain the belief that Olodumare is spiritual and has an independent existence, then there should be no difficulty in conceiving emi which is a portion of Olodumare as capable of independent existence outside the bodily frame. If also we do not deny the consciousness of Olodumare, then having no body cannot be a basis for denying the consciousness of Emi12. The spiritual and independent nature ascribed to emi flows directly from the religious beliefs of the Yoruba that emi is a portion of Olodumare – the Supreme Being who can also be regarded as the sacred. First, emi is seen as a portion of Olodumare. Olodumare is conceived as spiritual, therefore emi is spiritual. The denial of emi as spiritual will amount to inconsistency except Olodumare is denied as a spiritual being in the same regard. Secondly, the sacred, in any religion constitutes the basis upon which religious subjects place their religious beliefs. The principal components of the notion of sacred are: the fear of the infinite power, that which nobody can approach without taking precautions, the need for a ritualistic approach towards the sacred and the feeling that the sacred is unknowable, unexplainable and transcendental. Olodumare in Yoruba worldview is seen as sacred. Emi is a portion of Olodumare and so cannot but be seen as sacred, unknowable and transcendental. 4. EEMI – BREATH This is the fourth element that constitutes a man. Eemi should not be misconstrued as emi as the latter usually signifies the presence of the former in a human person. Accordingly, once a person ceases to breathe or have eemi, it signifies the end of such person’s life, and the person’s life (emi) is believed to have retuned to its source – Olodumare. His death is afterwards announced. Idowu explains the concept of eemi as it is related to emi when he says:
“Emi is closely associated with the breath and the whole mechanism
Ibid pp 34
manifestation. But although the fact that a man breathes shows that emi is in him, the breath (eemi) is not emi (life). Emi is causative of breath and so it is the “breather”, that which breathes in man” 13
5. OJIJI- HUMAN SHADOW Ojiji is a reflection of the human body and it accompanies him everywhere he goes as long as he is alive. It can only be given a physical representation with a reservation because it is an epiphenomenon of the human person. Yoruba believe that ojiji is the visible representation of the invisible human essence. It disappears at death. It can also be manipulated by the use of magic and sorcery to injure the physical body. It is also used in determining if a person is a real human or a ghost since a ghost is usually believed not to have ojiji.
6. ORI Ori is another element that constitutes a human person. In a sense it could be used to refer to the physical human head and in this case it falls under ara. The other way in which ori is being used in Yoruba thought is the one that generates controversy and has metaphysical implications. Ori in this regard is referred to as ori inu – the invisible inner head. According to the latter use, ori inu is seen as that part of human person that control, rule and guide one’s life activity. Ori inu in this regard can also mean one’s ayanmo,( akunleyan, akunlegba… depending on whichever one chooses to use as they are synonymns) – destiny. It is believed that all that we end up doing in this world is a reflection of what one’s ori has chosen in heaven at the time it was created and preparing to come to the world. Such choices made by ori inu are believed to be unchangeable. This is why Yoruba say: Akunle a yan ipin lorun – we knelt in heaven and made our choices Ayanmo o gbebe- Our destiny is therefore unchangeable. Yoruba believe that after the moulding of ara by the (arch divinity), emi is introduced by Olodumare. Man afterward proceeds to Ajala store house of different moulded heads; ( Ajala is the head baker believed to be incorrigible). At that point, man chooses the ori he prefers and Olodumare seals his choice before he proceeds to earth. On getting to earth, he is neither conscious of any choice he has made nor his he conscious of the end he has chosen. All is now the business of ori inu – his guidance and protector. Oduwole explains this nature of
E. B Idowu, Opus cit 9
forgetfulness the resultant effect of ma seeping the water of forgetfulness at the gate of heaven before he proceeded to the world14. There is however a problem of determining how ori came to make such alleged choices. This leads us to the thrust of this paper. Since the notion of personhood in Yoruba worldview is attached to his Ori and destiny, we ask: to what extent can a person be said to be free or determined when considering events that happen to them on earth? The approach that attempt to present the concept of destiny in Yoruba can be regarded as a religio – anthropological approach15. This approach suggests a belief that Olodumare is the source from all things emanate. This belief is expressed in forms of myths and folklores to convey imaginary realities that are mysterious and cannot be understood. The approach process through which destiny was designed as one that inculcated man’s freewill, but that post natal he is determined to live the package he had freely chosen. The argument can be substantiated by an Ifa Corpus which states that: Omo eniyan a yan ipin – The son of man knelt down and chooses his portion O yan iku to ma paje – He chooses the death that will kill him Olodumare se to si – Olodumare seals it O wa di aipada – It becomes unalterable Ori mo ibusun ikeyin – Ori knows his lasting place Alaaru re ni ko mo – It is the carrier that does not know16. The implication of this view is that man is totally determined. His possession of freewill terminates at the point of choosing his ori in heaven. It suggests further that all of the events that characterize man’s existence were predetermined by him but are now out of his control. How then can he be said to be responsible for his actions here on earth? That people possess different preferences, capacities, inclinations, talents, behaviours and so on can be explained by the degree at which their ori inu has empowered them. How? The corpus cited above
E.O Oduwole, “The Yoruba Concept of Ori and Human Destiny” in Journal of Philosophy and Development. Vol. 2, Nos 1 & 2. (1996) Pg 45-6
B. Aina ‘The Debate On The Concept of In Yoruba Culture’ in Journal of Philosophy and Development Vol 9, Nos 1&2 (2007) pg 39.
M.A Orangun, Destiny: The Unmanifested Being; A Critical Exposition, (Africa Odyssey Publisher, Ibadan 1998) pg 131. 10
clearly points out that each ori is pre ordained to fulfill a given destiny and purpose that is distinct from others, even without them knowing. This is why Yoruba say that even twins born on same day and of same parents do not share the same destiny – Ayanmo Taye o papo mo ti kehinde. But before we hurriedly conclude that the conception of human person as imbedded in his destiny tends towards fatalism17, let us consider contrary views. The Yoruba believe that the destiny of a person altered or modified through three major ways as briefly discussed below;
Consultation of the god of divination – Orunmila Influence of wicked re creators – Atunnibi or Atunnida.18 One’s character – Iwa.
Orunmila in Yoruba traditional religion is believed to be capable of revealing the kind of destiny one has chosen in heaven. So when a he or she is taken to the priest who consults the oracle on the child’s behalf. If the divination reveals that the child has a bad destiny, sacrifices are suggested to modify it to a good one. That is why Yoruba say; Ifa Olokun, a soo dayo - Ifa that turn sorrow to joy A tun ori omo ti o sunwon se – One who repairs the bad destiny of a child. Another way through which Yoruba believes that a person’s destiny can be changed for worse is through the evil activities of Atunnida. This category includes witches, wizards ( Aje and Oso), Alaroka (gossipers), and Elenini ( those who hate one for no just cause and attempt to debar his progress at all costs). Yoruba also believe that a person’s destiny no matter how good or bad can be destroyed or enhanced. A good destiny requires the support of good character, otherwise it becomes worthless. An Ifa, excerpt emphasizes that no matter how good or successful a person’s
E.O Oduwole. Opus cit
Oduwole argued that the concept of one’s personality – ori is purely fatalistic. She opines that the destiny cannot be changed and attempts to change it by any means usually turns out as means of aiding the total fulfillment of the destiny. This view is what Ola Rotimi’s “gods are not to blame” expresses.
M.A Makinde, “Immortality of The Soul and the Yoruba Theory of Seven Heavens” in Journal of Cultures and Ideas. Vol. 1 (1983) pg 45 11
destiny may be, lack of good character will spoil it - Eni lori rere, ti ko niwa rere, Iwa ni yoo bori re je19. Ebijuwa argues along this trend by arguing that character is associated with one’s personality build up20. He opines that there fatalism does not hold any sway in in the Yoruba concept of personhood located in his destiny. A fatalistic interpretation will be insufficient in that it does not recognize the fact that sacrifices and human efforts play prominent roles in the alteration or modification of person’s ori. Oladipo however argued that the paradoxical nature of destiny is compatible with freewill and determinism21.His analysis recognizes the pre- existing stage of man when he chooses is destiny before proceeding to the world. He however also argues that there is a stage of compatibility of such determined stage and one’s freewill. This position finds solace in Wiredu’s view also that; “It is conceivable that what our traditional philosophy of man implies is not that man as such has freewill but only that man is, in principle, capable of attaining freewill”22. The pragmatic interpretation of these views is evident in how Yoruba handles issues of morality, responsibility, punishments and rewards. People who act immorally in Yoruba societies are appropriately criticized and sanctioned, or even ostracized. And people who act decently and morally are adequately praised and rewarded. In both situations, one’s action as manifestations of ori inu comes not to foreplay. CONCLUSION The thought process of a particular race cannot be divorced from their religious and cultural beliefs. For Yoruba, culture and faith are inextricable. Although many moral decisions taken by them seem more influenced by their culture than by the ideas of their faith, this distinction may not be as clear as it seems. If we however insist on maintaining that certain Yoruba beliefs or any cultural belief for that matter, is irrational, then the very foundation of such traditional religion is illegally contested. Yoruba culture and religion are some of the methods
M.A Orangun, Opus cit pg 138.
T. Ebijuwa. “The Yoruba Concept of Ori and Human Destiny: An Analysis Of Oduwole Fatalistic Interpretation” in Darshana: An International Quarterly, Vol. xxxii. no.1.Jan ( 1997).
O. Oladipo, The Idea of African Philosophy, (Molecular Publishers, Ibadan 1992) pg 36-49
K. Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1980). Pg 19 12
with which they attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and their place within it. And this also entails their definition of a human person in such an ontological manner discussed above. Human personality is really complex and it is so even if we detach it from the realm of spiritual and metaphysical. The incomplete understanding of the human nature as presented in psychology and other social sciences that study man is convincing proof of this fact. We cannot therefore regard contrary opinions expressed by different quarters in Yoruba worldview as inconsistencies or contradictions. They are rather affirmations of the fact that our existence is a mystery, even to us. All we claim we know are only iota and minute detail of what reality actually entail. We should acknowledge the fact that the concept of personhood and the way it is ontologically represented by his ori inu is dynamic and not closed. It gives room for fresh analyses that are capable of aiding the modification of anachronistic beliefs and increasing the pace of societal development.
Aina, B. “The Debate On The Concept of Ori in Yoruba Culture” in Journal of Philosophy and Development Vol 9, Nos 1&2. (2007) Dopamu, A. P. Continuity and Change: Perspectives on Science and Religion, June 3-7, 2006, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, a program of the Metanexus Institute. Available at www.metanexus.net Ebijuwa, T. “The Yoruba Concept of Ori and Human Destiny: An Analysis Of Oduwole’s Fatalistic Interpretation” in Darshana: An International Quarterly, Vol. xxxii. no.1.Jan. ( 1997) Field, M. J, Religion and Medicine of the Ga People, (London: Oxford University Press, 1961) Gbadesin Segun, “Eniyan: The Yoruba Concept of a Person” in Traditional Yoruba philosophy and Contemporary African Realities – ( Peter Lang, New York, 2000) ldowu, E. B, Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, (Ikeja, Longman; Nigeria, 1982) Makinde, M. A, “Immortality of The Soul and the Yoruba Theory of Seven Heavens” in Journal of Cultures and Ideas. Vol. 1(1983). Oduwole, E.O, “The Yoruba Concept of Ori and Human Destiny” in Journal of Philosophy and Development. Vol. 2, Nos 1 & 2. (1996) Pg 45-6 Oladipo, O., “Yoruba Conception of a Person, An analytico- Philosophical study”, International studies in Philosophy, Vol.2, 2002. Oladipo, O., The Idea of African Philosophy, (Molecular Publishers. Ibadan,1992)
Orangun, A., Destiny: The Unmanifested Being; A Critical Exposition, (Africa Odyssey Publisher, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1998) Placide, T., Bantu Philosophy. (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959). Wiredu, K., Philosophy and An African Culture, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980).
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.