Much has been said and written on the subject of immortality of the soul. From Plato to our present time erudite scholars of different disciplines have conducted discussions on the subject. Philosophers, theologians, religionists, psychologists, poets and scientists have made contributions on this theme. In spite of the efforts made so far to unravel the mystery of personal immortality, the veil demarcating the spatio-temporal world and the world that lies beyond is yet to be lifted. Here, we shall explore the traditional African solution to the problems of personal immortality. It seeks to show that traditional African concept of personal immortality is anthropocentric. Unlike the Western concept, it does not always involve the idea that life beyond the grave is a better or worse life than the life here. And unlike the Oriental concept, it does not involve the idea that the human soul (after death) passes through a sequence of transmigrations which culminate in a state of nirvana (eternal bliss).
To the African, personal immortality, which is the goal of existence, is achievable in this world through procreation and rites of remembrance accorded the departed member of a family. When all who knew him have died, personal immortality gives way to collective immortality (spirit hood). Beyond that point, African traditional philosophy is silent.
Immortality is sometimes interpreted to mean that the identity, the consciousness, the memory of the individual persists after death. Immortality is different from transmigration which is the belief that the soul of the deceased is capable of transferring into the body of another person, and animal or any other lower creature. It is also different from reincarnation which is the belief that while the spirit of the deceased lives in the spiritual abode, some of his physical and/or character traits are manifested in the grandchildren. The new born baby is sometimes seen to posses some of the essential features of the departed grandfather, and sometimes both posses more or less similar characteristics. It is believed that the reincarnated person can take on a new destiny, especially if things were bad with him in the previous existence.
The problem of personal immortality has been subject of philosophical discussions from the period of ancient Greece till date. It occupied a prominent place in Plato’s thought. With his contention that the real is the spiritual and not the material. Plato to defend personal immortality argued that the soul is indestructible. Plato maintains in the Phaedo that the soul is akin to the Forms. Both the soul and the Forms are perfect and hence not subject to change. At death, the soul leaves the perishable body to find rest with other Forms. Because of his scientific bias. Aristotle believes that the soul could not exist outside the body, though he holds that reason is external.
The Europeans who were materialist par excellence hold that consciousness terminates at death and therefore death should not be feared. The Stoics reject personal immortality, but hold that the rational universe is eternal. The Neoplatonists and the medieval “Fathers” hold that the soul of man is eternal in essence. Johannes Scotus Eriugena argues that personal immortality can neither be proved nor disproved. According to Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, we ought to be perfect, and following his principle that we can move from the realm of “ought” to the realm of “is” or “can”, it means that it is possible to be perfect. But this perfect state is not possible in this present life, but in the one to come. For Hegel, finite spirits will finally be absorbed into the Absolute Spirit. Because of their belief that all is physical, the Marxists reject spiritual continuity and adopt a definite materialism. Gilbert Ryle dismisses the soul as a mere ’ghost in the machine’. Contemporary science upholds the interaction of body and mind, calling the possibility of a disembodied soul. These two realms are assumed to be so casually related that the possibility of a disembodied soul is unimaginable.
Not all world religions emphasize personal immortality. The Oriental religions (notably, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism) do not stress personal immortality, though there is the belief in transmigration of the soul. This belief is associated with the law of Karma which states that conditions that one finds himself in this life are the consequences of one’s attitudes and conduct in previous existences. One, therefore, has to look forward to a sequence of future lives and by one’s spiritual efforts one may be able to terminate this sequence eventually and attain the state of nirvana (eternal bliss). In some of the Oriental religions, this ultimate goal is the consciousness of complete identity or oneness with the Ultimate Reality – the One. The Christian belief in personal immortality is premised on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His victory over death (1Cor. 15: 12 – 27). The Christian hope is that in the world to come (heaven), Christians will enter into a fuller personal relationship with God and fellow Christians that is possible in this present life. The Muslims believe that after death, reward and punishment will be accordingly given to individuals.
The list of contributors to discussion of the problem of personal immortality is by no means exhaustible. One fact that clearly stands out from the historical trend of the problem is that there have been supporters and opposers of the belief in personal immortality. It will not be out of place to briefly look at the arguments for and against personal immortality.
Many reasons or arguments have been put forward to lend credence to the belief in personal immortality. These reasons are all premised on the duality of man. That is, that man is a composite of body (the physical man) and soul (the spiritual man). It is believed that while the physical frame of man is corruptible, the spiritual frame of man is incorruptible, while the body of man is mortal, the soul of man is immortal. When a person dies, the soul departs the body leaving it lifeless. John Haynes Holmes has advanced ten persuasive reasons to support the belief in personal immortality. The reasons will not be discussed in details. But shall be stated briefly.
Clarence Darrow has written a rejoinder against this position of Holmes. In her “The Myth of Immortality,” she argues that there is no evidence upon which to build a positive belief in immortality. One is told to rely on faith, and no doubt this serves the purpose so long as one can blindly believe whatever he is told. To Darrow, science abounds with facts that clearly disprove immortality. The belief in immortality is warranted by the will or urge or desire in man to keep on living. This urge is innate and is also found in every animal and in every plant. Darrow concludes that whatever our faith, we mainly live in the present – in the here and now. Those who hold the view that man is mortal are never troubled by metaphysical problems, but by matters of daily living which are the real things that affect their happiness.3 The position of Darrow notwithstanding, the problem of personal immortality still continues. It is interesting to know that “The Myth of Immortality” was first published about sixty four years ago. Between that time and now, men have not stopped believing in immortality. The continued downward trend of average-life expectancy all over the world has further strengthened the yearning for a life beyond the grave. We shall now examine African concept of personal immortality.
It was Kagame who remarked that African philosophy had long recognized and solved the problem of immortality and deathlessness. To one, African solution or attempted solution to this problem is anthropocentric and two-pronged. Firstly, in African thought, personal immortality is associated with the acts of remembrance performed by members if a particular family on behalf of a departed member of the family. The departed member of a family is remembered by throwing portions of food, pouring out libation and carrying out messages or related instructions when he appears in dreams or in visions through a medium. By carrying out such external acts, it is assumed that although the grave has physically separated the dead person from the living members of the family, he is alive in a way. Such a person is called living-dead in traditional African thought. The living- dead is a person who, though physically dead, is nevertheless living in the memories of those who knew him, especially his children and relations. So long as he is remembered by those who had intimate relationship with him, he is in a state of personal immortality. It is, therefore, the members of his family who keep him going. “The personal immortality of living-dead is for all practical purposes dependent on his progenies.”4
Secondly, personal immortality consists in the act of procreation. This explains the significance attached to marriage in African societies. Unless a person has people to put him in remembrance after his death, he is regarded as a Mr. Nobody, and like water-vapour he easily sinks into oblivion. It, therefore, behoves every matured African to get married as soon as practicable. Even after marriage, if he has no child or has only female children, he needs to get another wife to raise male children for him. This explains why polygamy has continued to thrive among Africans till date. For the Africans, therefore, “procreation is the absolute way of ensuring that a person is not cut off from personal immortality”5
For the Africans, the life beyond the grave is neither better nor worse than the life on this side of the grave. Although some have painted the world beyond as blissful, traditional Africans consider it as unattractive. So, the goal of life is not the post-mortem life in the spiritual world. The fulfillment of the goal of existence takes place in this world. It does not however, consist in the accumulation of wealth because wealth is not a substitute for life no matter how much of it is accumulated. The goal of life is not in possessing physical strength, or having fame or popularity, because when death strikes, strength or fame fades into insignificance. It is not in having many mansions or a fleet of cars, because the grave cannot accommodate all these. The real goal of life consists in the accumulation of children. No matter how wealthy a person may be, if he has no children to survive him, he has missed the goal of human existence. Having many children ensures interminable life here on earth. A childless life is a hopeless life. The worse that can befall a man is to be barren or impotent. So, the solution to the problem of personal immortality is “self-perpetuation through one’s children, grand children, great grand-children and so on.”6
The traditional African approach to the problem of personal immortality is anthropocentric. Traditional Africans believe that the departed members of their community do not go to live with God in heaven or perish in hell fire as is held by Christians; neither do they believe that their departed members grow spiritually until they become one with the Ultimate Reality as is held in some of the Oriental religions. When all who knew the departed persons have died, personal immortality ceases, and the person enters into a state of collective immortality. He now becomes a member of the family of spirits who are believed to occupy the ontological state between God and men. As far as African ontology is concerned, this is the destiny of man. Beyond this, many may not develop. Thus, according to the traditional African concept, death is “the beginning of a permanent ontological departure of the individual from mankind to spirit - hood. Beyond that point, African religious and philosophy are absolutely silent, or are most extremely vague. Nothing can reverse or halt that process, and death is the end of real and complete man.”7