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Socrates and Orunmila… Putting Premium On Africa’s Indigenous Philosophy

Orunmila-CopyAfrica has long been the butt of western hegemonic narratives and designated the dark continent from which nothing good ever comes. Unfortunately, Africa’s sons and daughters trained in European schools and inducted into European ways of life see nothing good in Africa’s indigenous knowledge system and continue to view Africa from the prism of western prejudice. So, it is taken for granted that Africa has no philosophy, no science, no art and no religion worth studying and categorising to help solve local problems prevalent on the continent.

But the good news is that Africa is vigorously writing back both to its malicious European historiographers and its wayward, Eurocentric African intellectuals who believe nothing good ever happened in Africa worthy of scientific investigation and categorising.

This writing back is best captured by one of Africa’s leading philosophers Prof. Sophie Bosede Oluwole, with her new book Socrates and Orunmila: Two Patron Saint of Classical Philosophy (Ark Publishers, Lagos; 2015). In it she further problematises a quest for a retrieval of Africa’s knowledge system. This way, she argues, the continent can contest with Europe on the basis of ideas and knowledge. Oluwole’s book is important for its singular boldness in throwing doors open and pointing the gateway to indigenous African knowledge systems and how the race to their retrieval is key to repositioning the continent on the progressive path. The old lament that Africa has no recognisable science, philosophy, medicine and mathematics is no longer tenable in the face of overwhelming evidence available that only needs to be re-examination.

Her starting point is locating Socrates, unarguably the father of western philosophy and Orunmila, also the Yoruba father of wisdom, whose modes of philosophising bear similarity and whose philosophising were aimed at solving problems in their locate environments that also have universal application. Her book is a comparative study that puts these two eminent men side by side on a scale. Oluwole states from the onset, “Our working hypothesis is that scholars would do well to suspend all ideological paradigms and become non-partisan in the study of texts to be compared”.

Orunmila formulates Ifa codification, which contains wisdom for living and practical handle on a wide range of human experiences. What is more, Odu Ifa is now known to be “a computerized storage of Yoruba ancient knowledge in all areas of their rational endeavours”. The significant thing Oluwole has done in this book is to call attention to, not new evidence, but a close scrutiny of the evidence already in existence, and give it its due regard rather dismissing it probably because it doesn’t fit too comfortably into western-generated ideas and mode.

The author argues in Socrates and Orunmila… that both men did not write down their own philosophy. Socrates’ students and detractors wrote his thoughts down some 30 years after he died; Orunmila’s 16 faithful acolytes or students also committed to memory Odu Ifa that runs into thousands of verses, which the author asserts that “it is consistent to treat Ifa literary corpus as Yoruba scripture produced by holy men and women under divine inspiration. The works of these ancient Yoruba thinkers could never have been products of mythical characters. In line with the popular knowledge that there are no revealed religion in Africa, Ifa is a good example of a people who conceives and presents their religion as a human institution formulated by God-inspired people”.

Oluwole notes 12 parallels in the lives of Socrates and Orunmia for which she states that although both men were great teachers, they wrote nothing down themselves; their disciples did. She is able to delineate three major characters of both men. She summed up Socrates, as Fictitious (in his dramatic representation by Aristophanes in Clouds and Birds), Corporate (as advancing the body of thoughts and ideas prevalent at the time in ancient Greece) and Historical Socrates (who is a recognisable historical figure). While the latter two characteristics also apply to Orunmila, the author substitutes Mythical for Fictitious in how the people see Orunmila, as a member of the celestial beings (an Orisa, a human being who excels and is later worshipped as a national hero or heroine after death) sent by Olodumare to help intervene in the affairs of men.

The central thesis of Oluwole, as it explicates Orunmila and Ifa is expressed thus, “The divination system was designed as a process of knowing God’s Will. The act of Ifa divination is, therefore, not a process of speaking directly to God like a medium. The goal is that of choosing relevant verses from a large expanse of oral texts stored in a computer system. The technique formulated by Orunmila is one in which predictions are arrived at through the use of mathematical probability”.

In chapter three, Oluwole presents the thoughts of these two classical philosophers side by side to bring out the similarity of their thoughts on various subjects which western scholars regard as distinguishing their the Socratic philosophy from those of ‘others’. The two men spoke about the ‘nature of reality’, truth’, ‘human knowledge’, ‘classification of ideas’, ‘education’, ‘virtue’, ‘human destiny’, ‘death’, ‘good and bad’, ‘honesty and kindness’, ‘leadership quality’, ‘political rights’, ‘obedience to the state’, ‘the rights of women’ and many more.

Also, Oluwole addresses the basic question whether there is African philosophy. The resounding answer is Yes! As she puts it, “What needs to be characterized and critically examined are African ideas and beliefs. This warning is sacrosanct since philosophy is about what people say rather than what they do… The implicit answer is… because scholars hardly study African oral expressions as the material in which to discover their inherent intellectual features”.

Oluwole goes on to state the distinguishing features of western and African philosophy. She argues that while western philosophy works on the binary opposition or ‘either/or’ while African philosophy works on the binary complementarity proposition that does not exclude but is inclusive.

No doubt a bold and assertive book, Oluwole has stated what ordinarily ought to be obvious, but which the continent’s oral method didn’t quite help. But with her effort it is hoped that Africa will begin to be seen in new light and it wealth properly appropriated for development.

However, many typos and grammar errors tend to mar the success of a great book, which a new edition can put right.

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