Posted: April 5, 2011
Books by Chinua Achebe discussed in this essay:
Things Fall Apart
Anthills of the Savannah
Postcolonial literature is often thought to be hostile to the Western classics. After all, its very name suggests that it is written in reaction to "colonial literature," works from the European empires that once carved up the non-Western world. And it is true that in the past half-century or so, literature from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean has challenged the European civilization that for centuries tried to impose its will on the world. Sometimes postcolonial literature has taken the form of a provocative rewriting of specific works of European literature in order to expose and counter their colonialist biases. The Anglo-Caribbean author Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, providing a sympathetic portrait of the Creole woman (Bertha Mason) whom Brontë unceremoniously confined to an attic as a madwoman. The South African writer J.M. Coetzee rewrote Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe under the title Foe (1986), retelling the story partially from Friday's perspective and crediting it to a female writer named Susan Barton, thereby laying bare Defoe's race and gender biases. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) has been interpreted as a postcolonial revision of Rudyard Kipling's Kim. In these cases and many others, the postcolonial author tries to reveal how unjustly the European author portrayed people from other parts of the world. Critics have amused themselves by labeling this literary strategy "The Empire Strikes Back."
Chinua Achebe seems to be another example of this anti-European animus. Born in Nigeria in 1930, and educated in his native country and in Britain, he quickly became one of the most celebrated of Africa's authors and intellectuals. He famously condemned Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as racist, and criticized other European authors, including John Buchan, Joyce Cary, and Graham Greene, for the distorted images of Africa in their fiction. Achebe has made it clear that he wrote his novels to redress the balance and show that Africans can be presented with dignity in literature. His first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), juxtaposes a superficial European view of the events it chronicles—a pseudo—anthropological account of the story—with a genuine attempt to portray the African characters from their own viewpoint, taking their customs seriously and appreciating the nobility of their way of life. The fact that Achebe took the title of his novel from a European writer—it comes from William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming"—might suggest that the book is another example of the empire striking back.
But here things get complicated. Yeats was Irish, and thought that he was a victim of British colonialism himself. He participated in the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, even becoming a senator in the Irish Free State. For all their seeming hostility to European culture, postcolonial authors have always made an exception for the Irish. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett have been among the greatest influences on Coetzee and Rushdie. Some of the most interesting criticism of Irish authors in the past few decades has treated Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett as postcolonial. In the case of the Irish, the sharp opposition between European and postcolonial authors begins to break down, leaving one wondering if postcolonial authors actually draw upon the European traditions they at first appear unequivocally to condemn. Perhaps the title of Things Fall Apart is a tribute to Yeats, not a swipe at him. In fact, the most famous postcolonial novel actually has deep roots in European culture, the deepest roots possible. Things Fall Apart has become a classic because of its ties to the ancient Greek classics.
The Unexamined Life
Many critics have pointed to the way Things Fall Apart unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Its hero, Okonkwo, is a larger-than-life figure, whose deeds as a warrior are honored by his community, until his fatal flaws of anger and rashness first get him exiled and then lead to his suicide, when he finds that he cannot accommodate himself to the new British colonial order. Achebe took pains to find points of contact between the classical Greek world and the Igbo village, Umuofia, in which his novel is set. Both are pagan communities, with oracles, prophecies, priestesses, nature deities, and taboos. Like Oedipus, Okonkwo is exiled by his community for committing a crime inadvertently. Moreover, Achebe recreates the world of classical epic in his African village, where war is celebrated in true Homeric fashion, according to Okonkwo:
He thought about wars in the past. The noblest, he thought, was the war against Isike.... Okudo sang a war song in a way that no other man could. He was not a fighter, but his voice turned every man into a lion.... "Those were days when men were men."
Things Fall Apart shows that an African story is worthy of taking its place in world literature by emphasizing its epic and tragic dimensions. Okonkwo is a kind of Achilles and Oedipus rolled into one.
Achebe's engagement with the classical Greek world resurfaces at other points in his career, especially in one of his novels set in a fictional version of contemporary Nigeria, Anthills of the Savannah (1987). In a speech to an academic audience, a character named Ikem Okodi criticizes the current regime's demagogic policies, including tribal quotas at the university. He challenges his listeners to reject political slogans and learn to think for themselves:
"No I cannot give you the answer you are clamouring for. Go home and think! I cannot decree your pet, text-book revolution. I want instead to excite general enlightenment by forcing all the people to examine the condition of their lives because, as the saying goes, the unexamined life is not worth living."
Educated readers will recognize the last words in this speech. They come from Socrates' address to the Athenian jury in Plato's Apology, when he gives one of his most famous formulations of philosophy as a way of life. But Achebe doesn't credit the words to Plato; instead, with the phrase "as the saying goes," he treats them as an African proverb. Things Fall Apart is filled with proverbs; Achebe presents them as the chief form taken by the wisdom of the tribe. By having Okodi turn Socrates' wisdom into an African proverb, Achebe seems to be trying to pass off Greek philosophy as traditional African lore.
One might be tempted to interpret this moment as a postcolonial gesture along the lines of Martin Bernal's Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1991), the controversial book in which he claims to trace the great achievements of the ancient Greeks back to origins in Africa (Egypt in particular). Perhaps Achebe is similarly out to suggest that Plato stole his idea of philosophy from Africa. But a more generous reading of this passage is possible: by recreating Socrates' wisdom in an African setting, Achebe may be suggesting the universality of philosophy, its ability to transcend political borders. Rather than worrying whether this wisdom arose in Europe or in Africa, he may be pointing precisely to the fact that, as a genuine truth, it might have arisen anywhere. It is not a European truth or an African truth, but simply a truth.
The particular form this wisdom takes—"the unexamined life is not worth living"—supports this reading of the passage. Achebe presents it as a proverb, but it is a very peculiar and indeed paradoxical proverb—a proverb that calls into question all proverbs. In context, Okodi is challenging his audience to question the received truths of their community, especially political beliefs. Although Achebe is often praised for having employed Things Fall Apart to recreate the Igbo people's traditional way of life, that does not mean that he approved of it uncritically. In fact, a careful reading of the novel reveals that Achebe is skeptical about many Igbo customs, especially the traditional treatment of women in the tribe. If anything, he is even more skeptical about developments in postcolonial Nigeria, and is deeply worried that his compatriots might blindly follow the dictates of corrupt rulers, even though they are now native Nigerians rather than the British.
Anthills of the Savannah is a bitter indictment of postcolonial politics and suggests that contemporary Africa needs the wisdom of Socrates, the commitment to leaving no assumption about politics unquestioned, even if that means rejecting the patriotic fervor that normally sweeps a nation when it achieves independence. That is why Achebe contrives to make Greek philosophy masquerade as an African proverb. He no doubt felt that this would make the lesson more palatable to his Nigerian audience. He makes questioning his country's native wisdom appear as itself a form of native wisdom. But far from trying to assert the superiority of African to European wisdom, Achebe is actually insisting on the relevance of European wisdom to contemporary Africa. Taking the title of his novel from Yeats is a gesture in the same direction, toward universality.
Achebe's references to European culture—especially to Greek epic, tragedy, and philosophy—show that the problems he is portraying in his novels are not uniquely African but perennial aspects of the human condition. They may have specifically African inflections, but that does not mean that European literature and philosophy are irrelevant to African concerns. The worldwide success of Things Fall Apart, despite what appears to be its almost ethnographic focus on the mores of a small Igbo village, is testimony to Achebe's grounding in universal issues and his ability to translate that concern into a form of aesthetic universality.
The Armenian Socrates
The "African Socrates" passage in Anthills of the Savannah has a curious parallel in a work of classical Greek philosophy, Xenophon's Cyropaedia, "The Education of Cyrus." It is common today to accuse the ancient Greeks of ethnocentrism. After all, they are famous for having divided the world into Greeks versus barbarians, implying that only people who speak Greek are civilized. It is strange, then, that Xenophon, a Greek, chose a Persian king, Cyrus, as his subject when he wrote a book exploring the problem of securely governing a realm. The Persians were in fact the greatest enemies of the ancient Greeks—the barbarians par excellence—and yet Xenophon calls their king Cyrus "worthy of wonder" and presents him as a model of how to rule large numbers of people successfully. Whatever the complexities and ironies of the Cyropaedia may be, like Achebe's work it seems to recognize the relevance of "foreign" wisdom to one's home country when it suggests that Greeks could learn political wisdom from barbarians.
Xenophon takes this gesture toward universality even further when he narrates Cyrus' visit to Armenia, a land about as barbarian as a Greek could imagine. He asks Tigranes, the son of the King of Armenia, about an old friend "whom you seemed to me to regard with such wonder." Surprised to learn that the Armenian king had this nameless man executed, Cyrus wants to know what his crime was and Tigranes says of his father:
"He said he was corrupting me. And yet, Cyrus, he was so noble and good that even when he was about to die he called me to him and said, ‘Tigranes, do not be hard toward your father because he kills me; he does this not out of malice toward you but out of ignorance. I, at least, believe that the wrongs human beings commit out of ignorance are all involuntary.'" [trans. Wayne Ambler]
Tigranes goes on to explain that the Armenian king killed this remarkable man out of jealousy, feeling that "he seemed to me to make my son wonder at himself more than at me."
Just as Achebe silently attributes the wisdom of Socrates to an African, here Xenophon does so to an Armenian. The clues are all there. Athens executed Socrates for the crime of corrupting youth, and one of his best-known doctrines is the idea that evil-doing is the result of ignorance. Earlier the nameless Armenian is referred to as a "wise man" (sophistes in the Greek). Xenophon's anecdote is a Socratic parable of the relation of the wise man, the philosopher, to the political community. The Armenian king views the nameless man as competing with him for the allegiance and admiration of the youth of his community, specifically in the form of his own son. Xenophon in effect explains why Athens put Socrates to death, despite the fact that he was such an admirable man—or rather precisely because of it. Xenophon lays bare exactly what the Athenian charge against Socrates of corrupting youth really meant: that the philosopher is a rival to the city for the loyalty of its youth.
In the idea of an Armenian Socrates, Xenophon suggests the universality of philosophy. Contrary to what is said of Greek ethnocentrism, this anecdote is his way of denying that philosophy is a uniquely Greek invention. He shows that a wondrous man like Socrates, who could compete with a king for people's admiration, could arise even among the barbarians in the wilds of Armenia. The man remains nameless in Xenophon's account. Unlike Socrates, he lacked a Xenophon or a Plato to chronicle his sayings and his deeds. The idea resembles what the English poet Thomas Gray intended when, in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, he wonders if some "mute inglorious Milton" lies buried there. Whether a man is remembered as a great poet or a great philosopher may depend on the accidents of history—whether he lives long enough to develop his talent or whether someone is present to record what he achieves. Xenophon's nameless Armenian is his mute inglorious Socrates.
As Xenophon's example suggests, we do not know how many times and in how many places philosophy has arisen, only to be stamped out by hostile rulers who felt threatened by its challenge to their authority. After hearing Tigranes' explanation of his father's actions, Cyrus tells him to be sympathetic to the Armenian king. As for Cyrus, as a king himself he has presumably already identified with the Armenian's need to eliminate his competition. Xenophon's Armenian parable is both a tribute to the perennial power of philosophy to arise in any circumstances and a warning against the perennial threat it faces from jealous political forces.
In a movement that is itself suggestive of some kind of universality, Achebe's African Socrates and Xenophon's Armenian Socrates converge on the same idea—that philosophy is not confined to a single historical tradition, but is possible at all times and all places. Leo Strauss gives perhaps the most eloquent expression of this idea, when, in Natural Right and History (1953), he traces the emergence of philosophy out of the quest to distinguish what is natural from what is conventional: "it can be said that the discovery of nature is identical with the actualization of a human possibility [philosophy] which, at least according to its own interpretation, is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious." Strauss argues that some people inevitably begin to question their most fundamental conventions—the divine codes that govern their lives—when they start noticing how the many different divine codes in the world contradict each other. These enquirers then set out to distinguish what is truly or naturally just from what is merely just by convention. Thus for Strauss, the proto-philosopher is an Odysseus-like figure, "a traveler, a man who had seen the cities of many men and recognized the diversity of their thoughts and customs."
The Origins of Philosophy
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe gives a similar account of what can only be called the first stirrings of philosophy among the Igbos. Although he set out to portray a traditional Igbo community of the 19th-century precolonial period, chronicling its marriage practices, burial customs, religious rituals, and kinship patterns, Achebe did not want to present the village of Umuofia as incapable of questioning these customs. For Achebe that was the mistake that Europeans, beginning with Hegel, typically made—picturing Africa as a world without history, whose people never departed from their traditional way of life and hence, unlike Europeans, never could achieve any kind of progress on their own. By contrast, Achebe makes a point of showing his Igbos experiencing doubts—we would say philosophical doubts—about their own customs.
For example, a character named Obierika cannot help wondering why Okonkwo must be exiled for killing a kinsman unintentionally:
Obierika was a man who thought about things.... Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife's twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed.
Europeans unthinkingly assume that they are superior to Africans; Achebe corrects that false assumption by offering positive images of the traditional way of life of a precolonial African community. But Things Fall Apart portrays many Igbo customs, including the exposure of twins at birth, in a negative light, even, as in this passage, in the eyes of some Igbos themselves. In Strauss's terms, Obierika is here making the first tentative steps toward philosophy by wondering about the justice of his gods.
Like Strauss, Achebe focuses on the way people come to question their customs by observing the diversity of ways of life in their vicinity. Although Things Fall Apart generally portrays Umuofia as largely cut off from the wider world beyond its borders, the book includes several scenes that suggest that the Igbos of this village are aware of other ways of life and curious about how they differ from their own.
Consider, for example this interesting exchange:
As the men ate and drank palm-wine they talked about the customs of their neighbors.
"It was only this morning," said Obierika, "that Okonkwo and I were talking about Abame and Aninta, where titled men climb trees and pound foo-foo for their wives."
"All their customs are upside-down. They do not decide bride-price as we do, with sticks. They haggle and bargain as if they were buying a goat or a cow in the market."
"That is very bad," said Obierika's eldest brother. "But what is good in one place is bad in another place. In Umunso they do not bargain at all, not even with broomsticks. The suitor just goes on bringing bags of cowries until his in-laws tell him to stop. It is a bad custom because it always leads to a quarrel."
"The world is large," said Okonkwo. "I have even heard that in some tribes a man's children belong to his wife and her family."
"That cannot be," said Machi.
In what amounts to a Platonic dialogue in embryo, Achebe shows that a wide range of opinion is possible even within a single Igbo village. Several of the characters are in the grip of local prejudice and believe that their ancestral way of life must be the best. Machi is truly bound by the horizons of Umuofia—he cannot bring himself to imagine an alternate way of life. Another Igbo recognizes the possibility of different customs, but rejects them as "upside-down," assuming uncritically that his village must have things rightside-up.
A philosophical disposition seems to run in Obierika's family; his elder brother proves to be the most enlightened of the interlocutors when he acknowledges: "what is good in one place is bad in another place." This at first seems to be the doctrine Strauss identifies as conventionalism, or what is often labeled cultural relativism. Obierika's brother seems to be saying that one custom is as good as another. That would mean that there is no way to distinguish nature from convention in comparing different ways of life—all ways of life are equally valid and purely conventional. This is the doctrine of "multiculturalism" that often drives efforts to turn to postcolonial authors such as Achebe as a corrective to the Eurocentrism of the traditional literary canon, which supposedly refuses to accept the validity of other cultures.
But notice that Obierika's brother in fact criticizes Umunso's ways and offers a reason for doing so: "It is a bad custom because it always leads to a quarrel." Here he is making a functionalist argument: if the purpose of bride-price is to achieve peace in the village, then a bride-price custom that causes quarrels is dysfunctional and in that sense can be called unnatural ("contrary to the nature of bride-price"). The statement of Obierika's brother concerning good and bad may not be an expression of relativism after all. What is good in one place may be bad in another place because the two places actually differ and therefore require different customs. It all depends on what function the custom is supposed to serve in the community and how it works in the local circumstances. This is a different understanding of "multiculturalism"—one that acknowledges the plurality of cultures, but recognizes the possibility of finding a standpoint outside all of them from which to assess their relative merits—in other words, the possibility of Socratic philosophy.
Perhaps the most important exchange about differing customs in Things Fall Apart emphasizes functionality as a criterion for evaluating a tribe's conventions:
"My father told me that he had been told that in the past a man who broke the peace was dragged on the ground through the village until he died. But after a while this custom was stopped because it spoiled the peace which it was meant to preserve."
"Somebody told me yesterday," said one of the younger men, "that in some clans it is an abomination for a man to die during the Week of Peace."
"It is indeed true," said Ogbuefi Ezeudu. "They have that custom in Obodoani. If a man dies at this time he is not buried but cast into the Evil Forest. It is a bad custom which these people observe because they lack understanding. They throw away large numbers of men and women without burial. And what is the result? The clan is full of evil spirits of these unburied dead, hungry to do harm to the living."
We know from the Iliad, the Odyssey, Antigone, and many other ancient Greek texts how important burial rites are to a pagan community. In general, Achebe shows the Igbos wondering about their tribe's most fundamental customs, the ones that constitute them as a community: their burial and marriage customs, their ways of punishing a crime and settling an argument. Thus within the limits of his tribe's superstitions, Ezeudu is here practicing an elementary form of political philosophy, which grows out of his observation of how customs vary from village to village. He feels justified in criticizing a custom that is self-defeating. If a custom is supposed to keep the peace, it should be rejected when it does just the opposite. Similarly, a custom that prevents the burial of the dead can be appropriately criticized if it ends up harming the community it was supposed to protect. That is how Ezeudu determines when a tribe "lacks understanding."
The Path to Enlightenment
In these "proto-philosophic" scenes in Things Fall Apart, Achebe is thus preparing the way for his later idea of an African Socrates in Anthills of the Savannah. He shows that before the intervention of the British in Africa, the Igbos were capable of making the first steps toward philosophy on their own. Hegel to the contrary notwithstanding, the Africans do have a history; they are not locked into an unchanging way of life; their customs do change over time and can change for the better (note that Ezeudu concludes from what his father told him that their tribe once had different customs and that the "modern" customs are an improvement). Some of the Igbos could look around at their world, compare their customs with those of their neighbors, note the differences, and reflect upon the suitability of those customs to differing circumstances. This is exactly the route to philosophy Strauss outlines in Natural Right and History. Whether or not Achebe's account is historically accurate, there is nothing in it that is at all impossible and in fact he makes it seem quite plausible that the Igbos might have pursued this path toward enlightenment. He portrays the way philosophical questions grow out of the most ordinary aspects of their lives and flow naturally from their normal interaction with other tribes.
In any case, Achebe thought it salutary to offer this image of the Igbo past to the Nigerian people in 1958 on the eve of their independence from Britain, which came in 1960. At a time when Nigerians might have been tempted to embrace their old tribal traditions uncritically in a fit of national pride, Achebe sought to suggest that it was traditional among his people to question those very traditions. He correctly foresaw that postcolonial Nigerians would need to question authority just as much as they had under British rule, if not more so.
In crafting his first novel, Achebe drew upon Greek material partly because he wished to gain the prestige of classical precedents for the cause of African literature. But he had a deeper reason for turning to the Greeks in Things Fall Apart. He wished to offer Greek philosophy and its challenge to question authority as a model to his newly independent people. He hoped that a Socratic wisdom might help guide them through the political difficulties he correctly foresaw they were about to face. Unfortunately, almost 30 years later, after a disastrous series of military coups and a full-scale civil war in Nigeria, Achebe found himself trying to teach the same lesson again in Anthills of the Savannah. One can see why Achebe had reason to hope that the wisdom of Socrates is indeed perennial. The way his presentation of philosophy as transhistorical accords with Xenophon's is itself evidence for the claim. Indeed, as we have seen, Achebe's portrait of philosophical speculation arising naturally out of the daily activities of a supposedly primitive tribe strongly points to the idea that philosophy is a perennial human possibility. If he has succeeded in creating a classic in Things Fall Apart, one of the reasons is that it is rooted in classical wisdom and the Socratic idea of philosophy. At a time when academic reformers are calling for colleges to replace the European classics in the curriculum with postcolonial literature, Chinua Achebe teaches an important lesson. Far from being at odds, the European classics and postcolonial literature can in fact be mutually re-enforcing, as Achebe and Xenophon shake hands across the centuries.