One of the most inspiring and intriguing books on African spirituality is called simply Bantu Philosophy.
I wanted to include passages from Bantu Philosophy in my book, Classic Spirituality for the Modern Man, both because it would have been great to have African spirituality represented, and because of its own intrinsic interest, but unfortunately copyright issues got in the way.
I first came across reference to the work in Norman Mailer’s The Fight, an account of Muhammad Ali’s 1974 great boxing victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Mailer had travelled to Ali’s camp in Pennsylvania to watch his preparation and training for the big event, before heading to Kinshasa to watch the immediate lead-up and the fight itself, all of which he documented.
In an aside, Mailer records how he got hold of Bantu Philosophy from which he extracted the following essential understanding of the world:
The instinctive philosophy of African tribesmen…saw humans as forces, not beings. So a man was not only himself, but the karma of all generations past that still lived in him, not only a human with his own psyche but part of the resonance, sympathetic and unsympathetic, of every root and thing about him.
Bantu Philosophy was written by Placide Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan missionary, and first published in what was then the Belgian Congo in 1945.
There are several aspects of Bantu philosophy as identified by Tempels.
First, the supreme values are life, force, living strongly, and vital force:
Supreme happiness, the only kind of blessing, is, to the Bantu, to possess the greatest vital force: the worst misfortune and, in very truth, the only misfortune, is, he thinks, the diminution of this power.
Every illness, wound or disappointment, all suffering, depression, or fatigue, every injustice and every failure: all these are held to be, and are spoken of by the Bantu as, a diminution of vital force.
Illness and death do not have their source in our own vital power, but result from some external agent who weakens us through his greater force. It is only by fortifying our vital energy through the use of magical recipes, that we acquire resistance to malevolent external forces.
Second, there are ‘laws of vital causality’ which allow for direct influence of one ‘force being’ towards another:
These laws can, I think, be set out as follows:
I. Man (living or deceased) can directly reinforce or diminish the being of another man.
Such vital influence is possible from man to man: it is indeed necessarily effective as between the progenitor a superior vital force,—and his progeny—an inferior force.
This interaction does not occur only when the recipient object is endowed, in respect of the endowing subject, with a superior force, which he may achieve of himself, or by some vital external influence, or (especially) by the action of God.
II. The vital human force can directly influence inferior forcebeings (animal, vegetable, or mineral) in their being itself.
III. A rational being (spirit, manes, or living) can act indirectly upon another rational being by communicating his vital influence to an inferior force (animal, vegetable, or mineral) through the intermediacy of which it influences the rational being. This influence will also have the character of a necessarily effective action, save only when the object is inherently the stronger force, or is reinforced by the influence of some third party, or preserves himself by recourse to inferior forces exceeding those which his enemy is employing.
Third, living beings share their vital influence over everything subordinated to them:
Another law says that the living being exercises a vital influence on everything that is subordinated to him and on all that belongs to him. That is why every injury to anything depending upon a person will be regarded, as has already been said, as a diminution of the being of that person himself. ‘All property is rich in mysterious influences,’ said Burton in ‘L’âme luba’. The fact that a thing has belonged to anyone, that it has been in strict relationship with a person, leads the Bantu to conclude that this thing shares the vital influence of its owner. It is what ethnologists like to call ‘contagious magic, sympathetic magic’; but it is neither contact nor ‘sympathy’ that are the active elements, but solely the vital force of the owner, which acts, as one knows, because it persists in the being of the thing possessed or used by him.
It has always been my view that we don’t need to accept the doctrines of any spiritual tradition outright, but nor – given our general ignorance about what comes before and after life – should we be overly dismissive of such traditions either. Knowledge of ultimate reality may be beyond us; but what we can know, experientially, is the extent to which any particular spiritual wisdom or tradition can assist us as we make our way through life.
What I like about ‘Bantu philosophy’, as explained by Tempels, is its capacity to lead us out of the narrow individualism that seems to be one of the ailments of the late twentieth-century Western world.
It should be obvious that a man comprehends not just the narrow cell of his own limited existence.
Instead, as the Bantu understood, man is a force that acts and is acted upon by his ancestors, his tribe, his community, his property and – above all – his tradition.