COVID-19 and Consolation of Philosophy

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By Tunji Olaopa

These are indeed terrible times, the like of which most of us have never known. We are well into the trauma of the second wave of the pandemic, with the onslaught of a new variant of COVID-19 ravaging our lives and emotions. Many people have died already. And many more lives are on critical lists at various isolation centers across Nigeria. Many more are cowering in their homes, not knowing what to expect from a virus of whom not much is known. Just recently, there have been discussions about the rising Covid-related fatalities among eminent Nigerians, and especially among professors. This is not just a mere discourse for me. Many of those who have died are those I have had the privilege of knowing and relating with at deep intellectual levels. After trying to get over the untimely death of Professor Habu Galadima, the late director-general of NIPSS, for whom I had to engage in the emotionally traumatizing task of writing a tribute, the number of deaths that have followed takes the steam out of eulogies for me. Professor Oye Ibidapo-Obe was the chair of the Governing Council of the Technical University, Ibadan where I am a member; Professor Duro Ajeyalemi was a renowned educator with whom I worked closely at the Federal Ministry of Education; Prof. Femi Odekunle provided technical support when I was desk officer on AU Anti-Corruption in the Presidency; while I personally received Prof. Ebere Onwudiwe at ISGPP and NIPSS in succession to speak on a range of policy concerns at different times in recent past.

Someone once said that when a griot dies, an entire library goes up in flame. The demise of these professors diminishes the intellectual space of the Nigerian society. Many libraries have been unfortunately consumed by death! And what better consolation in a most terrible time of pandemic than the consolation of philosophy? Circa AD 524, the great Roman philosopher, Boethius, wrote what has been considered one of the most significant works on medieval philosophy and Renaissance Christianity—The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius wrote this work while he was undergoing a most traumatic moment in his life. He was the magister officiorum (Master of Offices) to Theodoric the Great. Court treachery brought him low and into prison, having been charged with treason. Boethius was eventually executed. But while awaiting his death, Boethius dealt with his trauma by engaging in philosophical reflection on theodicy—how evil could possibly exist in a world created by a good God.

Imagine Boethius in prison wondering why he had to be in prison, and imagining his eventually death. And of all possible ways to relieve his grief, he turned to philosophy. And his discussion with the female personification of philosophy was on what eventually matters in life—virtues, and the life of the mind. Boethius was able to shift his grief into a deep reflection about God and life and goodness and happiness. Indeed, philosophy took the sting of death away, and gave him the fortitude to wait for his final end. Lady Philosophy told Boethius, “No man can ever truly be secure until he had been forsaken by Fortune.” In other words, it is through misfortune that we come to terms with who we are and what we came into the world to do. The deepest lesson that Lady Philosophy taught Boethius is simple but hard to come by: happiness is not conditioned by misfortune. One can still be happy even in the midst of the worst experience.

In the midst of unfolding trauma, this is a good lesson to learn from Boethius. This is the moment in time to be grateful for life, while mourning those who have departed. Indeed, this is the moment to be grateful for those little things we take for granted. Life is too fickle to wait for the great events before we have time to be happy or to appreciate God for the little things. At a moment like this, I find myself returning to my love for philosophy, and the historical trajectory that brought me in contact with my initial contact with the best of all philosophers, Plato. I have had many opportunities to narrate the events that led to my first encounter with Plato’s classic, The Republic. I had found a copy sitting right there in my Uncle’s library. When I expressed interest, he willingly loaned me his copy until I found out a few days later, in my usual visit to the bookshop, that many copies were available for purchase. I got a copy and returned his.

Plato’s Republic opened up to me a vast space of reflective possibilities about life and existence, about politics and social order, and about what could or could not be. The insight I got from threading through the dialogic book goes beyond Plato’s attempt at reimagining the Athenian city-state. Indeed, that very attempt signals the possibilities that philosophizing makes possible. And this is even more tantalizing when applied to different sociocultural and political contexts. It did not take my eager mind too long to decide that I wanted to study philosophy and then be a philosopher. Of course, my parents could not fathom how such a crazy idea entered my head, what philosophy is all about, and how it could transform my life or, simply put, put food on the table. There was no way I could convince them that studying philosophy and taking it up as a vocation was beyond earning a livelihood for me. It was more about exploring the possibility of reflective attempt to open up alternatives for human existence. I later realized I do not need to study philosophy to be a philosopher. That realization was a unique compromise between my parents’ disciplinary preference and my aspiration. In retrospect, my reformer’s sensibility must have taken its first strike from my Plato utopian moment.

My voracious reading regime in secondary school indeed had also led me to Martin Luther and Thomas More. Martin Luther’s famous challenge to the Catholic theology of sin and salvation would later be a classic historical lesson in institutional reform. Nailing the 95 theses to the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg challenged significant foundations of Catholicism. And it was so easy to connect Luther’s agitation about the theological excesses of the Catholic Church with Plato’s worries about Athens’ democratic overloads (compared to Sparta’s lean and efficient autocracy). But it was with Thomas More’s Utopian imagination that my philosophical yearning for a reform template became all the more consolidated.

In 1516, Sir Thomas More—social philosopher, Renaissance humanist and statesman—wrote his classic Utopia. Interestingly, More’s theological tenor was more in support of the Church, and against the theological disputations and protestant affirmation of Martin Luther. And surprisingly, More fails to see the similarity in the reform sensibility that linked him to Luther. While Luther was minded to rehabilitate the Catholic Church and its excesses, Thomas More wrote Utopia as a sharp social rebuke to what he considered to be the modern ills plaguing Antwerp, and other European societies. The orderly social arrangement and dynamics of Utopia is contrasted to what existed in Europe.

Between Plato, Thomas More and Martin Luther, I began to piece together my reform interest and focus. I was enjoying the philosophical disputations encoded in the rumination of these philosophers who had the reflective audacity to challenge what they considered malformed or incoherent. And what is more, they were prompted not only to see what is wrong, but to also construct how the wrong could be corrected through the prism of philosophical engagement that brought the real and the ideal into conversation in order to fabricate the possible. This essentially define my love and eternal fascination with philosophy and philosophers. Philosophy’s love of wisdom taps right into the reformer’s search for the wisdom to rehabilitate what is malformed in order to facilitate a social arrangement by which people—citizens—could orient their lives and live peacefully and productively.

For me, philosophy’s implicit tenor is reformist. I learnt that from Plato. His most famous statement is apposite: “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” Reform becomes effective within the collaboration between the power for visioning, that philosophy represents; and the political support for execution that politicians hold. Thus, when kings and politicians wield the capacity to imagine and reimagine their sociopolitical space, and backstop that capacity with the political will to push that vision through the complexity of policymaking, then reform becomes the handmaiden to living the good life that Aristotle insisted is the end of politics.

And so, I am lucky to have found philosophy as the most foundational element of my reform advocacy. Essentially, it takes the technicist sting out of my reform theorizing and recommendations. In other words, reform is not all about technical suggestions and appraisals. It is meant to make the institutional arrangement better and efficient not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to the end of human flourishing.

  • Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos (tolaopa2003@gmail.com, tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)