Moral burden of artist and oracle of wisdom in Nigeria’s democracy – Part 1
The pace of philosophy, morality and democratic governance in Nigeria is one of the most charitable, substantial, iconic and relevant issues of today. This is because a quantum of concerns has been raised over the phenomenal and exponential exacerbation of unethical build up against democracy, spiking of the stakes with unethical democratic practices and the corresponding economic, political and cultural despair, anguish, conundrum and their attendant problematic. We are short of saying therefore that just as there is an aesthetical and intuitive plank or link between morality and governance there is nonetheless a phenomenological bridge among existential questions and semiotics of immorality, bad governance, lawlessness, food insecurity, unaccountability, lack of transparency, religious extremism, insurgency, inflation, corruption, mismanagement, domestic violence, misogyny, gender problems and political instability. It is within the purview of the “despair” of an average Nigerian and the inability of successive Nigerian governments since Independence in 1960 to fix the Nigerian polity as depicted in the foregoing that we considered it existentially, cryptically and analytically humanistic to arrive at the theme, “The Moral Burden of The Artist and Oracle of Wisdom in Nigeria’s Democracy”.
The Oracle of Wisdom
The Oracle of Wisdom is a member of the sagacious intellectual class, the literati, the voices of reason, the philosophers-king and the creative writers, visual and audio artists interfacing with the orgies and contradictions of life. They are the voices of vision, regeneration and moral equipoise in the society and any polity. J.B Akam would describe human condition of persistent struggle out of which unhappiness predominates (Okafor, 2017:1) as an essential philosophic equipoise in his authoritative book titled The Oracle of Wisdom towards philosophic Equipoise (Akam 2017). This is a truism even as he referentially acknowledged the unhappy Duke in Shakespeare saying to his unhappy companion, Jagues:
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy;
This wide and universal theater
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Where we play in.
Although human’s highest good is happiness to majority of the ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary thinkers, it is nonetheless pontificated as a predicament by a class of modern philosophers called the Existentialists who see the highest good as freedom, authenticity and responsibility as against despair, anguish and turmoil. This concern of thinkers, poets, folklorists, sages and writers over the ages underlines the occupation and preoccupation of the voices of reason or wisdom coming from the select few who have the special gift. They are the oracles of wisdom, the sagely characters usually on high moral ground and with unadulterated imagination, intuition, critical understanding and magisterial candor, who are the philosophers, theologians, poets, painters, creative writers and critics of yesterday and today otherwise called the artists. The African counterpart of literary, oracular and sagely activities are culturally vented through the instrumentality of the arts of folktales, fables, riddles, epigrams, myths, poetry and legends. Indeed in African philosophy wisdom, intuition and comprehension of truth are ontologically emotive and artistic. That is why the oracle of wisdom is an avant-garde moral high ground in the society.
In African (Igbo) philosophy, the Oracle of Wisdom is symbolized with a staff, an object, a physical and creative instrument called “Ofor”. It is a traditional staff for affirming or stamping the truth. It is a symbol of holiness and spirit of ancestors, and its relation to God is truth. As part of African philosophy, an ordained Oracle of Wisdom would chant a canticle holding the staff of Ofor as depicted in the poem titled “the Muse of Truth Oracle” (For Gbusaizu Dukor 1830 – 1958) thus:
He is who carry,
The weight of old age,
The expectation of grey hair,
And the duty of wisdom.
There is power in the truth,
The power of the oracle is the truth,
The oracle in him is the truth.
Hence his power is the truth.
The ‘geist’, the spirit which he is,
Has the power of the spoken word,
The animistic version of transcendental reality,
The divine spark and utterance of totality.
The truth of the spoken word,
Is the light and sound of God,
By which all things come to pass.
Raises the symbol of truth – ofo
And the sun rises,
When it returns on the floor,
The sun sets.
When the spoken words are uttered,
The planetary movement completes a cycle,
Neither the symbol nor the word,
Vibrates without the enemies,
Heel on move.
Alas! He carry the symbol of truth,
The symbol of truth,
Is in his hand and in his mouth,
He is an enigma,
His shield and buckler is the truth,
The amour and weapon against enemies.
When the truth oracle pauses,
Truth is uttered.
When the oracle muses,
Everything comes to pass:
Prophecy, curse and blessing take wings,
Life is animated into objects,
Madmen regain sanity and
Trees and rivers chant canticles;
Think not that truth is not God.
Think not that the truth oracle is god,
But a historical person, a centurion,
An African philosopher and poet,
The poetry of the oracle is in his mouth and hand,
Truth is his poetry, word and life,
Think not that his truth is not oracle of God.
-The truth oracle is not God,
He is servant of God,
The chief priest of God,
The quintessence of loyal priesthood.
He is a servant of God,
A prodigy, long legs, long footed,
Long hands, tall fingers and nails and runaway mouth,
Abnormal features and physique?
And the gift of the muse like
Homer and Sophocle?
(Dukor, 2010; 131)..
The artist and the Oracle of Wisdom
Human predicaments generally, whether they manifest as despair, anguish, economic and political instability or social anomies are the consequences of dearth of the oracles of wisdom in particular space and time. The voices of sages, writers, cultural and literary critics in general stand for oracles of wisdom and for good and order in the society. The oracle of wisdom according to Shawn Olson “offers sagely and philosophical advice for personal problems, dilemmas and national disasters”. An oracle is a god or representative of God whose wisdom is unquestionable and appropriated or available for solving human problems.
The human agents of these oracles are men and women with artistic and philosophic imagination who are cast in the mould of Socratic philosophers-king, leading the society with reason to the ultimate virtue and good of mankind. As philosophers, poets or wise men they are a group of contemporary African Philosophers called the “Sage philosophers” or those gifted with philosophic sagacity whose intent and purpose in chanting canticle, poetic verses, producing drama and fictional or historical narratives is to deliver societies from moral conundrums. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and others tried to philosophically achieve this mission through poetic and imaginative depiction of colonial and post-colonial African/ Nigerian societies in the cast or mould of oracles of wisdom.
Achebe’s novels essentially present an Igbo worldview, however they also carry a continental burden which vivify the African society as a valid cultural and philosophical domain. His Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God occupy very significant and distinct positions in the dialectics of history and culture. Both works affirm the existential and material relevance of the African world in cultural politics.
The plays of Soyinka also provide cultural and philosophical validity to the protean propensities of the African mind. His winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 entrenched the validation. In poetry, Okigbo painstakingly calibrates a profound, but troubling if not tragic existential conundrum which colonialism foisted on Africa. A similar existential standpoint sustains the poetry and plays of J. P. Clark. If these pioneer Nigerian artists deliberately set out to codify the essence of the Nigerian being, their successors, especially Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Femi Osofisan and Festus Iyayi turned out to be even more deliberate in their attempt to not only create a regenerative consciousness, but also interrogate the very underpinning of the artistic ideology of their predecessors.
There is on the Nigerian literary scene a consensus on the historical affirmation of literature generally as the handle for tweeting knowledge, the truth severally and collectively as enunciated by Achebe “literature gives us a second handle on reality; it enables us to encounter in the safe manageable dimensions of make-believe the very same threats to integrity that may assail the psych in real life; and at the same time provides through the self-discovery which it imparts a veritable weapon for coping with these threats which they are found within problematic and incoherence selves or in the world around us” (Anyokwu, 2017). Osofisan on the other hand would argue that “literature mirrors reality but not disinterestedly. Its ultimate surreptitious goal is in fact to turn it into a telling code for yet-unseen times of the future. By forewarning of the dangers ahead, it can help to pre-empt them, the writer him-herself must be gifted with and demonstrate, a vision of uncommon profundity and unwavering resilience (Anyokwu, 2017).
Oracles of wisdom are therefore artists, men and women, with strong, burnished imagination whose imaginative productions decipher the path ways out of which their societies can be liberated from the moral, social and political shackles inhibiting progress. As it were they are not in caves and would work through artistic expressions to liberate others from the caves.
The foregoing elucidation and analysis of “Oracle of Wisdom” is a hermeneutic prelude to a rigorous engagement with Morality and
Democracy qua morality and democracy in Nigeria. The question is; is Nigeria blessed with voice or voices of the oracle? There is no doubt that there have been oracles of wisdom and their voices in the search for peace, stability and progress of the Nigerian nation state since its creation as an amalgam of nationalities in 1914 and its subsequent freedom from colonial rule in 1960. These abound in the literary tapestry in forms of narratives, poetries, folk-tales, scriptures, visual arts, dramas, and other works of arts.
In the same vein, the philosopher-artist-poet-imaginative engagement of the ills of the traditional and modern Nigerian society are the natural and anthropological extension of the knowledge of the ethno universal enterprise cum precipitated reason of philosophers–king and academics. There is no doubt or skepticism about the callings of the philosopher artists and the philosophers – king or academics and even their collaborations in critical engagement of post-colonial Nigerian state, because while the former is the product and gadfly of his space and time, society and culture, the later as the philosopher king is the excavator or purveyor of truth in its cultural sublimity. In the critical and or conceptual engagement of the society as it were, both the philosopher-artist or critic and philosopher king or academic are knowledge or wisdom workers for the preservation and innovation of human values and society.
The oracle of wisdom is a philosopher, an artist and scientist. He is the gadfly in every society. He is a product of the society and time; take for instance, the radical regenerative praxis adopted by the trio of Osundare, Osofisan and Iyayi who postulated knowledge cum awareness as virtue. On a global scale Nigerian writers can be viewed with the same functional bent with which Socrates was endowed.
Socrates was the oracle of wisdom of the Ancient Greek era at the period of immense speculations and diversity of learning when the enormous threat to Greece by the Vast Persian Empire had subsided. The knowledge work of his time was to unveil what constitute the fundamental stuff of the earthly substance. For him what constitute knowledge in this direction is virtue i.e. virtue is knowledge as “no one does wrong voluntarily”. (Warner; 1988:55) This knowledge is the truth or the good. This moral philosopher and oracle of wisdom of all times before Jesus Christ so galvanized the society in theory and practice that he became a great threat to the Athenian political leaders and hence was executed. He was quoted to have said “give me philosophy (truth) or death”, and he eventually died for the truth.
Socrates, Archetype of Oracle of Wisdom and the Artist
Socrates was a man who from the primordial and extant Greek literature, could be described as a man of destiny who was on oracle of wisdom assignment. He has continued to earn the admiration of critical thinkers, poets, creative writers and literally giants from Aristophanes (in his clouds) to Erasmus, and had paradoxically incurred the hatred of Nietzsche, albeit in the same literary tradition of the oracle of Wisdom. At about the age of forty, the Greek Delphic Oracle in answer to the question of who was the wisest man alive from a folk affirmed that no one was wiser than Socrates. As this episodic historical revelation was at the instance of Socrates he not only cognized it but also had the passion for it as his divine mission and mandate.
We can, therefore, trace the origin of the concept of “Oracle of Wisdom” to the Delphic Oracle (God) whose portrait is Socrates, the wisest man in his time, and all other wise men in history who are the purveyors and custodians of knowledge, literary vision and normative values that sustain and consolidate the societies; a moral burden in the sense in which today’s writers, philosophers, poets and sculptors try to redirect the societies from the brink of existential catastrophe. More burdensome is the way the ancients Greeks conceived all vocations and disciplines from astronomy, medicine, mathematics, science to logic as arts, and Socrates in truth and spirit was all of this as Oracle of Wisdom.
The allegory of the cave called the myth of the cave, analogy of the cave or the metaphor of the cave would illustrate clearly this artistic and philosophic conception of the Oracle of Wisdom as presented by Plato as form of dialogue between Plato’s brothers Glaucon with Socrates as the principal speaker. It shows that the world we see is only a reflection of the forms the world represents and only understanding the forms can lead to true knowledge and then to wisdom. The metaphor of the cave is an imagery of a cave in which prisoners are kept. Since children, they are all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile and forced to look only at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and the prisoner is a raised walkway on which people (puppeteers) can walk carrying objects, human and animal figures. The prisoners could only see these flickering images on the wall in front of them since they could not move their heads, and so, naturally enough, they presumed the images to be real rather than just shadowy representation of what is actually real. Socrates twist in this plot is when the prisoner got released to turn and look at the fire, he notices that the images weren’t real items on the walkway. If the prisoner is taken from the cave and brought into the open the disorientation would be much more severe as the light of the sun would be much more brilliant than the fire, where the prisoner would be able to see beyond shadows to the knowledge and reality (forms) of the world to the consternation of his former position and his colleagues in the cave.
(Plato, BKS VII & VIII)
Socrates through his disciple, Plato had configured the allegory of the cave to demonstrate that true knowledge is innate in man although he could be in a cave by circumstances of orientation, discipline, education and socialization, and unless he or she is freed from the cave and shackles he or she cannot see the light of the sun nor observe cognitively the forms of things or realities. Socrates and Plato were masters in poetic metaphorical and creative plots and narratives for the purpose of highlighting the truths for good economic, social and philosophical life and ultimately for the moral society and good governance. Truth is the social engine of a good society and the instrument of liberation from the clutches of ignorance and economic and political backwards.
Oracle of wisdom is, therefore, the Oracle of truth and wherein situated the corridor of a moral society where poets, creative writers, actors in Nollywood or Hollywood scriptwriters, dramatist and philosophers are the scavengers and interlocutors of truths that underlie every moral democratic flux. However the best representative or ideal Oracle of Wisdom is Socrates, the Oracle of truth and morality as well as the wisest man in Athens of his time. Literarily and philosophically, he educated and admonished the Athenians to eschew immorality, greed, profligacy and falsehood and live a good life governed by the truth. In the Greek “Agora” or village square or market place he thought every gathering on good life and truth. His artistic and literary vocation was woven into dialogues, drama and poetries as means of teaching and propagating truth and justice in the society. His disciple Plato furthered his ideas on dramatic and poetic teachings on justice and political economy in the Republic. A non compromiser of truth and morality, when the Athenian nobles and leaders became outraged with his teachings and wanted to execute him, Socrates refused a leeway of escape from Athens because, for him it is either philosophy (truth) or death because a man who lived and grew in a society must be subject to its laws. The noose of the Athenian law was enacted to have its way and Socrates was executed in 399 BC. He died under the moral burden of the oracle of wisdom in the ancient Athenian democracy.
The Question of Morality and Artistic Commitment to Nigeria’s Democracy
The allegory of the cave offers us an apt illustration of the ontology of truth which cannot be appropriated by those in the cave but which is accessible to someone who is unshackled, outside the cave and under the direct influence of the sunlight. For Plato, there is a latent truth or knowledge in man but which is inhibited by ignorance and J.J. Rousseau would argue “man is born free but he is everywhere in chains”. The personae of Oracle of wisdom is not in chains, he is out of the cave and that is why he is under the moral burden to literally ex-ray the society and show the path to correctness, liberation and emancipation. In African traditional societies and among ancient African Oracles of wisdom, wisdom was exhibited and truth comprehended through poetries, myths and fables because of their religious and metaphysical bents and not so often through prose and drama because of their circular and non-transcendental nature and motif. Unlike the scientific observatory paradigm the cultural paradigm of the traditional African tapestry is that truth is girded and gauged out of religious and metaphysical poetry and sensation. This cannot be absolutely denied by science without some element of truth.
• Dukor is a Professor of Philosophy at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, Nigeria and Editor-in-Chief, Essence Library (www.essencelibrary.org)