Orí as Potentiality and Naturalism (Series Part 3)

First Scholastic Approach: Weakening the Reach of Ori

One attempt at making sense of the Yoruba worldview is to vitiate what the creation account appears to say Orí is, often by redefining it. In fairness to the scholars who take this approach, Yoruba literary corpus has instances that appear to weaken Ori as an unalterable, all-pervading force that governs humans’ lives. For instance, consider the following Yoruba saying:

Ayé ò le pa kádàrá da wọ́n kàn le fa ọwọ́ ago ṣẹ́yìn ni

(Evil forces cannot change destiny; they may only delay its fulfilment)

If we understand “destiny” as that thing which determines every detail of an individual’s life, then the concession that something else can delay its fulfilment is troublesome. Suppose, for instance, that Taye’s Ori dictates that she will get married at 22 years of age. (Marriage is a key element of a successful life in Yoruba thought.) Further, suppose that some village witches could know this and worked to prevent this from happening. If they changed the timing to even, say, 23 years of age, it would be the case that this crucial event in Taye’s life did not happen per her destiny. Now, suppose that in Àjàlá’s house there was another Orí that is almost the same as the one Taye chose (and embodies a different destiny) with the only difference being that Taye would get married at 23 years of age instead of 22 years. In what sense are the real-time events in Taye’s life better explained by her chosen Orí than the other Orí that she did not choose? The Orí she did not choose perfectly explains her life, whereas the chosen Orí does not. In other words, if anything can change destiny in the tiniest details, it is changed completely! So, the Yoruba doctrine that destinies can be delayed only makes sense if “destiny” is not an unalterable thing that determines people’s life courses with finality. However, if the concept of destiny is weakened in this way, the creation account that teaches that Oníbodè doubly seals a chosen Orí becomes otiose for the act of doubly sealing an Orí at the gate of heaven seems to indicate precisely that the content of an Orí is permanently sealed and unalterable.

Babatunde Lawal, a Yoruba art historian and scholar, is a proponent of Orí as a potentiality. He writes: “The choice of a good or bad Orí is no more than a potentiality for success or failure. To achieve anything in life, a person must struggle” (Lawal, 101). Moses Makinde is another philosopher who attempts to situate the Yoruba worldview within a coherent framework by defining Orí as a potentiality. Potentiality describes the inherent capacity of something coming into existence. As opposed to an actuality, a potentiality may never, in fact, come into being. So, the conception of Orí as a potentiality amounts to the realization that the prenatal trip to Àjàlá’s house may be an exercise in futility since the Orí one chose, good or bad, may never come to fruition. The motivation for scholars’ weakening of Ori in this way partly comes from the fact that Yoruba believe that certain personality traits are necessary to bring destiny to fulfilment. For instance, Yoruba believe that a man that would become wealthy would be hardworking, honest, and patient. Such a person is called Ọmọlúàbí. So, Orí as potentiality is conceived of as explaining a portion while ọmọlúàbí traits explain the rest of someone’s life course. It can, however, be argued to the contrary that one’s good Orí and the destiny it entails could include factors and details that will ensure the development of those characteristics in life. Ekanola writes in response to Makinde:

When an individual works hard or consults with Òrúnmìlà before he is successful in life, he is merely following the path of destiny. He would not have worked hard or consulted with Òrúnmìlà if it was not so preordained. Hence, the actions and inactions, which Makinde classifies as acts of free will in his effort to make the Yoruba belief in predestination coherent, should be classified as part of what has been pre-determined (Ekanola, 44).

That is, consistent predestination, as the creation myth seems to teach, can explain the development of personality traits required to fulfil destiny. Scholars typically link human personality with chosen Orí, including proponents of Orí as potentiality like Babatunde Lawal (91). 

It is interesting to observe that African Christian preachers, especially the Yoruba ones, seem to assent to this conception of destiny as a potentiality. When speaking of destiny, their speeches often smack of Gnosticism—where they appear like they have certain inside knowledge of something (about people’s destinies) that others do not have. They encourage the parishioners to do things that will help bring their (good) destinies to fulfilment. As I will argue, however, this doctrine of destiny as potentiality is certainly not biblically informed. If the Bible would be taken to teach destiny at all, it would only do so in the thoroughgoing deterministic sense where an individual can do nothing about an allotted destiny. Every attempt to improve upon one’s destiny by prayer, fasting, money, or gift-giving would be part of the details scripted into the fulfilment of destiny. 

Second Scholastic Approach: Non-Literalist Understanding

Ekanola seems to have invoked naturalism to make sense of the Yoruba worldview claiming that “there seems to be no good reason supporting the Yoruba prenatal thesis” (48). He invites us to understand the creation story in a non-literal, allegorized sense. He builds up his position by observing that absolute freedom (of the will) is an illusion since there are hereditary and environmental factors that shape humans and predispose them to act in some ways (46). He further explores how people may be said to be free in decision-making and actions, providing a legitimate means of praising or blaming people for their actions. He writes: 

a more plausible sense in which individuals may be said to be free, consistent with the Yoruba concept of Orí, is that each person has the power to introduce a new energy or to make an effort of the will to transcend environmental or hereditary factors that may want to constrain, compel, or predispose him or her to do or not do certain things” (47).

He notes, as an example, that even though war times typically make people selfish and violent, there have been instances of people being pacifist (47). These are people exercising the power of the will to transcend the boundaries of genetics and environment. He concludes, regarding the Yoruba practice of praising or blaming individuals that it is how an individual exercises his free will, made manifest in his various free choices and free actions, which determines his character; each person’s character (iwa) is formed by virtue of his past acts of free choice, and it is in recognition of this that the Yoruba praise and blame people for their good and bad characters (48).

As opposed to a chosen Orí determining someone’s character, Ekanola argues that it is the repeated pattern of closely related decisions and acts over a sufficient period that forms a character. “For instance,” he continues, “a habitual thief may be blamed for his stealing habits because it has formed part of his character through his past acts of theft” (48). Ekanola reasons that, “Rather than maintain that there is a prenatal choice of Orí which determines one’s destiny, personality, and entire life course, I argue that the idea of a chosen Orí is no more than a combination of all the various acts of free choice made by an individual up until any specified time in his life” (48). He continues, character is what “determines the destiny of persons” (48). He concludes that the Yoruba use Orí in conversation in two very different senses. One use is to refer to what Ekanola has now identified as “character;” the other use is as an ever-ready explanation for what the Yoruba cannot otherwise explain (50). The “concept of Ori,” he writes, “is meaningful only in a retrospective sense. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can plausibly say that an individual is predestined to be one thing or the other” (49).

Ekanola does not so much solve the problem of situating the Yoruba worldview in a metaphysical framework as he dissolves it with the acid of naturalism. In equating the prenatal choice—which is supposed to take away an individual’s life course and destiny from her control—with pre-birth hereditary and environmental factors that an individual cannot control (48), Ekanola immediately raises questions regarding the realism of the deities mentioned in the creation myth. In replacing the deities with natural forces, Ekanola is arguing that those deities and personalities do not exist. But if these deities do not exist, the ubiquitous Yoruba practice of offering sacrifices to deities and the entire practice of Ifá divination would seem irrational since these practices assume that deities exist and can help to improve human conditions. 

Furthermore, it is debatable that Ekanola’s naturalistic alternative successfully invokes character as the destiny-maker. For instance, perhaps a chosen bad Orí is why a thief would be born into an environment where he would grow up to develop the traits of a thief! The ultimate explanation of destiny could still be an allotted Ori, even if the mechanism of manifestation is naturalistic. Had the thief chosen a good Ori, he could have been born to different parents and grown up in a healthy environment that would shape his good traits. But for this counter-argument to succeed, one will have to assume the veracity of the creation myth which Ekanola has allegorized. I think, however, that Ekanola’s observation that humans have no means of knowing what an individual’s destiny is a priori is correct. As he puts it, I too believe that “it is only with the benefit of hindsight” (49) that humans may fully appreciate an individual’s destiny. But this is not an argument against the existence of destiny. In fact, it is straightforwardly definitional and cannot be otherwise if we grant that “destiny” refers to a scripted master plan that will unfold over time. So, in summary, Ekanola’s naturalistic paradigm dissolves much of the worldview it is trying to explain. The associated costs seem to outweigh the benefit derived.

Works Cited

Ekanola, Adebola Babatunde. “A Naturalistic Interpretation of the Concept of Ori.” Philosophia Africana, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 41—52. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.

Lawal, Babatunde. “Orí: The Significance of the Head in Yoruba Sculpture.” Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 41, no. 1, 1985, pp. 91–103. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/3630272. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

Makinde, Moses Akin. “An African Concept of Human Personality: The Yoruba Example.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, vol. 7, no. 3, 1984, pp. 189-200. University of Toronto Press. https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/uram.7.3.189. Accessed 9 Sept. 2018.

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