Igbo Philosophy of Life and psychological Parameters of Individual Wholeness

by Sohila Faghfori , Esmaeil Zohdi

December 4, 2012


“Igbo Philosophy of Life and the Parameters of Individual Wholeness” investigates cultural and cosmological dimensions of the Igbo community portrayed by Chinua Achebe in his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in the light of Jung’s archetypal psychology. By analyzing the traditional mores of Igbo, this study argues that the indigenous people of Igbo conducted their lives very much similar to the ways Jung was to posit about half a century later as the best way for conducting a healthy and meaningful life. As such, the Igbo philosophies of life and their religious and social practices will be considered as very contiguous to Jung’s posited principles for having a well-balanced society. In addition, it will be argued that this traditional African community provides a very good opportunity for its people to experience the journey of psychological growth, what Jung called the process of individuation. So, the Igbo society is a very high functioning and well-balanced community prior to its confrontation with the Western culture. But regrettably, the British colonial power’s advent to Igbo disturbs seriously its integration and equilibrium, by forcing the western unbalanced ways of life on the Igbo; hence, making “things fall apart” for them.


Sohila Faghfori, Assistant Professor, Department of English,
Vali-e-Asr University, Rafsanjan, Iran

Esmaeil Zohdi, Assistant Professor, Department of English,
Vali-e-Asr University, Rafsanjan, Iran

Zahra Hosseini, Scholar.



Igbo Philosophy of Life and psychological Parameters of Individual Wholeness

... African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; … their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and beauty … they had poetry and above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African people all but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must now regain…. the writer’s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. (“The Role of the Writer” 7)


As the above quotation illustrates, for Achebe the main task of an African writer is to restore “dignity” to his people; people who have been dehumanized by European imperialists during the colonial period.

In addition to looting Africa and taking its people to slavery, Europeans did a huge task of robbing the black people of their dignity and humanity. They did so in different ways, but mainly through their literature. As Achebe put it, “sensational writing about Africa and Africans by European travelers and others has a long history” (Home and Exile 26). It started from about 1600 when the first Europeans stepped onto African soil and has continued well into the 20th century. From the beginning of their discovery of Africa, Europeans didn’t accept the blacks as humans, equals of themselves. Rather, they regarded them as sub-humans who were in great need of Western civilization.

In response to his own question: “Why did this kind of writing … catch the European imagination and hold it through into our own day?” Achebe maintains that, as any other tradition, the “tradition of British writing about Africa” didn’t “begin and thrive,” unless it served a “certain need.” And, certainly, the major need for writing “sensational” stories about Africa by Europeans was justifying themselves for looting the continent. As such, the Western literature from the sixteenth century onwards so drastically brainwashed the mind of his reader that “[t]he enslavement and expatriation of Africans” seemed to him “a blessing; and not even a blessing in disguise; but a blessing that is clearly recognizable. A blessing that delivered the poor wretches from a worse fate in their homeland” (Home 27-30).

What awakened Achebe to this fact more than anything else were his studies at the College University of Ibadan. There, the growing nationalism affected him profoundly. He who had taken “a false step at the university,” by enrolling “to study medicine,” switched to the Faculty of Arts, “after one academic year of great sadness” (Home 21). At that time, in his literature courses Achebe “read some appalling novels about Africa and decided that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else, no matter how gifted or well-intentioned” (“Named for Victoria” 117). The most “appalling” novel which inspired Achebe to write the story of his people from an insider’s point of view was Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939). Cary was a colonial officer who served in Nigeria from 1910 to 1920. His novel depicted the African tribal society in sentimental terms and served as an “ideological justification of the [colonial] status quo” (Jan Mohamed 11). Upon its publication, Mister Johnson was hailed as “the best novel ever written about Africa” by the Times magazine (Home 22).

For Achebe, Mister Johnson, which was set in Nigeria, was “a most superficial picture of ­­– not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character” (Pieterse 3). Reading Cary’s novel opened Achebe’s eyes to the fact that he had to do something to help his “society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement” (Chua 12). Therefore, Achebe set upon writing Things Fall Apart.

Immediately after its publication, Things Fall Apart was recognized as a masterpiece, “one of the iconic works of postcolonial fiction,” in David Whittaker’s words (xi). It was influential mostly for presenting a new depiction of Africa as a complex and dynamic society, one which countered her distorted depiction by European literature. And, since Achebe’s approach was realistic, and that he resisted the temptation to portray his tribal past in sentimental and romantic terms, it could effectively tackle the stereotypical and caricaturist representations of native Africans made familiar to Western readers. Besides, Things Fall Apart was the first work of African literature “marked with the seriousness of the purpose and the depth of vision” (Okpewho 7). Hence, it became “the progenitor of a whole movement in fiction, drama, and poetry” in Africa which focused “on the reevaluation of traditional African cultures” (Whittaker xi). For this reason, today Achebe is regarded as the father of modern African fiction.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents a vivid picture of Igbo and its culture. Indeed, his presentation is so authentic that many anthropologists and historical scholars approach it as a reliable source for getting familiar with pre-colonial African communities. By writing Things Fall Apart Achebe succeeds in presenting to the Western reader, formerly just familiar with the distorted depictions of those like Cary and Conrad of Africa, a new and completely different view of a people with a highly complex and vigorous way of life. Hence, it is crucial to have a full knowledge of the Igbo social customs, traditions, and cultural milieu of its people to be able to have a full measure of the appreciation of the novel. To do otherwise makes vague and imprecise the significance of Okonkwo’s actions and his tragic demise and, also the final destiny of Umuofia in confrontation with the Western culture.  To reach to a better understanding of the Igbo way of life, this study is going to analyze Igbo culture and cosmology in the light of Jungian psychology, investigating how the Igbo conducted a well-balanced life based upon Jung's theories for a healthy life, arriving at the solid conclusion that the colonial presence destroyed this high functioning, healthy society by the imposition of its own imperfect, unhealthy systems of religion, government, and education.

According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, culture is defined as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” (277). Another concept very akin and interrelated to the concept of culture is cosmology, which is used to convey the sense of a society’s perception of the world in which it lives. “Such a concept usually explores the complex interlocking relationships between human beings and the pantheon of forces that function within their society’s universe” (Okafor 68).

About the Igbo society, it could be argued that what more than anything else defines the relationship of its people to their “society’s universe” is their religion. Indeed, the Igbo are a very religious people. They don’t separate their religious life from their secular life. And, this is exactly what Jung emphasized as the “ultimate accomplishment in one’s life” (Stevens track 3-22). For, Jung considered spirituality and seeking the Infinite as essential for psychic health. He insisted that people must develop their spiritual dimensions, especially in the second half of life, if they want to make their lives rich and meaningful. In Jung’s view, numerous instances of neurosis arose just because people limited themselves to the narrower aspects of life, like marriage and bearing and rearing children, while all the time neglecting their spiritual side. In Jung’s view, the decisive question for mankind was this: Was he related to something infinite or not? According to him, “this ultimate question for mankind has given rise to all the myths and religions ever created” (Stevens track 3-22). And, as such, it could be said that the Igbo religion was also created as an attempt on the part of the Igbo to relate to the Infinite, the Eternal.

Besides, Jung recognized that all religions manifest God: “I could give none preference over the other” (Letters 1: 127). The Igbo’s God is Chukwu, or ama ama amsi amasi (the one who can never be fully understood.) Chukwu has a double being, Chinaeke. According to the Igbo’s religious beliefs, Chukwu and Chinaeke created the universe and the human beings together. But Chukwu is thought to be beyond the comprehension of human beings. He dwells above and beyond the heavenly dome. He is omnipotent and omniscient, but he is not omnipresent. The Igbo do not feel his presence in their daily lives, for they believe he got far removed from human beings after creating them. Rather, for the Igbo, the lesser deities are more present and active in their living affairs, though they get their being and power from Chukwu.

Chukwu in Igbo religion is the same as the Supreme Being in Christianity. But it is interesting to note that the Igbo’s concept of Chukwu is much more acceptable as a whole God, according to Jungian factors, than is the Supreme Being of Christianity. For Jung objected to the Christian insistence that God the Father and Jesus Christ were sinless beings. In his view, this represented an unbalanced attitude, “a total denial of the shadow” (Snowden 121). According to Jung the God had to have a dark side, too. To do otherwise is against the theory of balanced opposites that is so important in Jungian thinking. Thus, for Jung, “God was both ‘the annihilating fire and an indescribable grace’” (Snowden 122). And, Chukwu is both loving and fearful.

This darker side of Chukwu is alluded to in the novel, in a conversation between the Reverend Mr. Brown, the first head of church in Umuofia, and Akuna, an elderly Umuofian. As the two talk about their different religions, they point to this matter (because of the importance of the conversation, it’s necessary to cite the passage in whole):

“You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,” said Akuna on one of Mr. Brown’s visits. “We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.”

“There are no other gods,” said Mr. Brown. “Chukwu is the only God and all others are false. You carve a piece of wood--like that one” (he pointed at the rafters from which Akuna’s carved Ikenga hung), “and you call it a god. But it is still a piece of wood.”

“Yes,” said Akuna. “It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.”

“No,” protested Mr. Brown. “The head of my church is God Himself.”

“I know,” said Akuna, “but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like you must be the head here.”

“The head of my church in that sense is in England.”

“That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country. He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.”

“They have a queen,” said the interpreter on his own account.

“Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help Him because His work is too great for one person.”

“You should not think of Him as a person,” said Mr. Brown. “It is because you do so that you imagine He must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.”

“That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka--

“Chukwu is Supreme.”

“You said one interesting thing,” said Mr. Brown. “You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do His will.”

“But we must fear Him when we are not doing His will,” said Akuna. “And who is to tell His will? It is too great to be known.” (Emphasis added) (126-127)


As illustrated in the above passage, from the point of view of Jungian thinking, the Igbo’s Chukwu is more whole than Christianity’s Supreme Being, because he is both loving and fearful. In other words, Chukwu has a dark side, a shadow which the loving father of Christianity lacks. Besides, the Christian concept of God is based upon the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit,) while, the Igbo concept of God is based upon duality (Chukwu and Chinaeke.) Again, the idea of balanced opposites is true about the Igbo God, but not about the Christian God.

In fact, the principle of dualism and pairism, manifested in the Igbo concept of god, is deep-rooted in all aspects of Igbo life. And its natural consequence is the existence of another basic principle, the principle of balance. These two principles have drastically affected the Igbo’s way of living and their relationship to their gods, and also to each other. As Achebe has pointed out several times in his essays and interviews, the principle of balance is enshrined in Igbo culture. He has on different occasions referred to “the central place in Igbo thought of the notion of duality,” often stated in the form of “Wherever Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it” (Morning yet… 99).

The Igbo firmly believe that whatever exists, something else exists beside it. As such, they see everything with an eye to the “other” aspect of it. Thus, they always strive to take the middle path and not to disturb the equilibrium of their personal, natural, and social worlds. This is exactly what Jung emphasized throughout his writings as essential for conducting a healthy life. In Jung’s view, the personality contained opposite and conflicting aspects, the keeping in balance of which was essential for individual health and progress. Though it might be said that Jung’s theories were on the nature of the human psyche and its dynamics, it must be emphasized that he got his theories from nature and “always stressed that the psyche has evolved as a part of the world in which we live” (Snowden 66). Thus, it is logical to say that the dynamics of the psyche work in nature, too. Hence, in the following pages the centrality of the principle of balance and dualism in Igbo culture will be elaborated upon.

As Akuna explained to Mr. Brown, below Chukwu are the non-human spirits, deities, and oracles. These lesser gods and goddesses get their power from Chukwu, and act as intermediaries between him and human beings. According to Kalu Ogbaa,

The Igbo believe that their gods, goddesses, and oracles are sons and daughters of Chukwu who are powerful and intelligent beings that roam the world but have their permanent homes in the rivers, mountains, caves, forests, and trees, which worshippers regard as the shrines of individual divinities. (130)


Each one of these gods and goddesses has a shrine for itself. They also have priests and priestesses who protect their shrines, divine their wills, and accept sacrifices brought to them by their worshippers.

It is interesting to note that the principle of balance and pairism is so enshrined in the Igbo religious system that always a male deity is served by a priestess, and a female deity by a priest. For example, within the novel, Ani, the Earth Goddess, has the male Ezeani as her priest, while Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves is served by the priestess Chiello. Indeed, as Robert M. Wren puts it, the balance of the masculine and the feminine is “the central paradox in Igbo culture.” According to Wren the other balancing principles take their existence from this major feminine/masculine duality (32-33).

Jung believed that life organized itself into fundamental polarities, because “life, being an energetic process, needs the opposites, for without opposition there is, as we know, no energy” (CW 11: par. 197). He also argued that each side of polarity contained the seeds of its opposite, or stood in intimate relation to it. And, concluding from the theory of opposites, Jung regarded the maintenance of balance as vital for a healthy living. He further stressed the equal reality, power, and struggle between the opposites, and maintained that both sides of the opposites needed to be reclaimed through the conflict between them. This theory was deeply acted upon in Igbo traditional life. As Clement Okafor argues,

Arising from the duality phenomenon is the Igbo concern for the maintenance of balance in one's life. Because Igbo cosmology envisages the simultaneous functioning of numerous and sometimes antagonistic forces, one is counseled to thread one's way cautiously so as not to offend any of the contending spirits. Extremism of any kind is thus perceived to be dangerous…. (70)


Thus, the Igbo see things as grouping into opposites, as Jung did. And, again like Jung, they maintain that keeping balance between them is of the utmost importance. The Igbo act upon this principle in all aspects of their lives: personal, social, religious, and cosmological. For example, they believe that the world is made up of two distinct but interrelated worlds, “the World of Man, and the World of Spirits” (Ogbaa 78). The geographical Igboland in Southeastern Nigeria, located on both banks of the River Niger, is the Igbo’s World of Man. This world is thought to be peopled by all created beings and things, both animate and inanimate. On the other hand, the World of Spirits is thought to be the abode of Chukwu, gods and goddesses, evil and malignant spirits, and ancestral spirits. It is the abode where the living will go after they die. In fact, these two worlds are not separated from each other. Rather, there is constant interaction between them. As Victor C. Uchendu argues, “ Existence for the Igbo…is a dual but interrelated phenomenon involving the interaction between the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the living and the dead” (12). In fact, the dead are part of the Igbo social world and; hence, the living feel their presence in every aspect of their lives. The living pour libations for them on the ground, and prey for them, and ask them to get incarnated in the body of their future sons and daughters. On the other hand, the ancestors protect their living relatives from malignant spirits, and prosper their lineage. Therefore, the interaction between the two worlds is a reciprocal one.

According to Uchendu, “The world as a natural order which inexorably goes on its ordained way according to a ‘master plan’ is foreign to Igbo conceptions. Rather, their world is a dynamic one ­– a world of moving equilibrium” (13). But this equilibrium might get disturbed by natural disasters, or individual and social calamities. For instance, natural disasters like long periods of famine, or individual deviations from the accepted norms may disturb the equilibrium of the Igbo world. As such, the Igbo are always careful to take the middle path. If in any case the equilibrium is disturbed, it must be restored by ways like divination, getting help from ancestors, sacrifices… Therefore, “the maintenance of social and cosmological balance in the natural world becomes … a dominant and pervasive theme in Igbo life” (Uchendu, 13)

As Jung saw neurosis as an indication of an imbalance within the human psyche which had to be restored to balance, the Igbo see whatever threatens the life of an individual and his security or that of his society as a sign of warning that things must be set right before they get out of hand.

Nothing supports the point we have been trying to prove about the existence of duality and pairism in Igbo life more than their concept of chi. According to Igbo philosophy, each person has a chi which is given to him by God before he comes to this world. As Achebe has said in an interview, the term chi has two distinct meanings. One is “day or daylight,” and the other is “often translated as god, guardian, angel, personal spirit, soul, spirit double, etc” (Lindfors 84). Chi is a generic word for god. It comes from Chiaku or Chuku (the Great God). Hence, chi is the part each person shares with God. Then, in Igbo thought, even a person is a duality: a human being and a spirit being. The human being lives in the human world, and the spirit being lives in the spirit world, all the time protecting its human “other.”

Igbo belief in chi bears testimony to the duality that pervades all things in Igbo life. As Major Arthur Glyne Leonard indicates about the natives in his book The Lower Nigeria and its Tribes (1906):

…It is in their own personalities most of all that they see and feel this dualism. For in the production of one human or animal entity ­– one life in other words­ – two factors of opposite yet attracting forces are essential; for neither of these energies representing a so-called unit, which is in itself powerless to reproduce its own species without the co-operation of the other, is even in all its other physical and mental characteristic merely an organism, in which these different features either oppose or balance each other. (133)


In addition, the Igbo strive all the time to “live righteously by conducting their lives in accordance with the ethics of the community and by avoiding social taboos” (Okafor 69). It is very important for these people not to disrespect their gods and goddesses. Since, if anyone disrespects a deity or defies him, disaster may befall not only himself but the whole clan. Therefore, when one offends a deity he must quickly offer the necessary sacrifices to atone for his offense. By doing so, the atoning individual restores balance to his own life and that of the clan.

It is exactly because of this belief that when Okonkwo breaks the Week of Peace, held in Igbo in respect to Ani, by beating his youngest wife, he is so harshly rebuked by the villagers. In accordance with the laws of Ani, Ezinea, her priest comes to Okonkwo and tells him:

“Listen to me,” he said when Okonkwo had spoken. “You are not a stranger in Umuofia. You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbor. We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow. You have committed a great evil.” He brought down his staff heavily on the floor. “Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her.” His staff came down again. “The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.” His tone now changed from anger to command. “You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.” He rose and left the hut. (22)


Though Okonkwo’s punishment seems to be a heavy one, actually in the view of Ogbuefi Ezeudo, “who was the oldest man in the village,” the punishment for committing such a serious offense had been much harsher in the past (22).

The Igbo are afraid of breaking the Peace of Ani, because she is the Earth Goddess, and may as a result of an offense to her ordains withdraw her bounty from the clan. Ani is the most powerful deity in Igbo religion. She is in charge of the fertility of the womb and of the soil. Besides, she is the Mother Earth because she bears in her womb the dead-living ancestors. She is also the arbiter of morality and ethical conduct. As such, violations of morality like adultery, killing of one’s clansman, robbery, or giving birth to twins, are all nso ala (offenses against Ani). As pointed out earlier, Chukwu, the Great God is considered to be omniscient and omnipotent, but he is not omnipresent and the Igbo do not feel his presence in their daily lives. Thus, Ani is the most omnipresent deity in Igbo religion, whose presence is felt in every minute of the life of an Igbo. As Kalu Ogbaa remarks, they feel Ani’s presence, "when they plant their crops, bury their dead kinsmen, wrestle in the village ilo, dig up the earth and turn it into mud for building homes, take oaths or make pacts between clans and villages, or even walk on the earth in their everyday activities" (131). It is clear how deeply the Igbo have integrated spirituality in their everyday lives.

This is the same “joining of local life to great life,” which Jung considered as the most important achievement of human beings (Houston X). As he wrote: “if we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change” (Houston X). An Igbo firmly believes that his daily life is not separate from the higher, metaphysical life. For him, rather, his daily and spiritual lives are closely intertwined. As Achebe states in an interview about the Igbo world,

It's a world of men and women and children and spirits and deities and animals and nature …and men and women both living and dead – this is very important – a community of the living and the dead and the unborn. So it is both material and spiritual, and whatever you did in the village took this into account. Our life was never compartmentalized in the way that it has become today. We talk about politics, economics, religion. But in the traditional society all these things were linked together – there was no such thing as an irreligious man. In fact, we don't even have a word for religion in Igbo. It's simply life. (Lindfors 79)


In addition, the major role which Ani plays in the life of the Igbo attests to the importance they give to the feminine. As G. D. Killam put it, in The Writings of Chinua Achebe (1969, 1977),

While continuing emphasis on male activities­ – acquisition of wealth and wives, the production of children, courage and resourcefulness in sport and war­ – informs the surface interest in the novel, all activity in Things Fall Apart is judged by what is or is not acceptable to ‘Ani, the Earth Goddess….’ In other words a powerful ‘female principle’ pervades the whole society of Umuofia…. (19-20)


In Igbo philosophy of life it is quite deep-rooted that male and female complement each other, and the fact that Okonkwo as the hero of the novel undervalues the feminine principle and seeks to repress it should not obscure its centrality in Igbo life. As Isidore Okpewho points out: “there is a studied ontological balance between male and female principles” in Igbo (26). As stated earlier, this balance can best be observed in the major divinities of Igbo religion that are served by servants of their opposite sexes.

Even Okonkwo who so blindly tried to be an embodiment of masculinity in Umuofia is forced in one stage of his life to take refuge in his mother lore. After he inadvertently kills a clansman he has to flee from Umuofia, because “it was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman and a man who committed it must flee from the land” (87). As such, Okonkwo cannot return to Umuofia until seven years. The only place he can go is Mbanta, his mother lore, having been ostracized from the father lore.

In Mbanta, Okonkwo’s maternal uncle, Uchendu who notices his nephew’s great sadness for being exiled, gives a thoughtful speech on the importance of the role of the mother and the feminine in life. He explains to his children and Okonkwo that “why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka or ‘Mother is Supreme’ “(94). Uchendu says,

It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme. (94)


In this way Uchendu consoles Okonkwo and teaches him a great lesson which he unfortunately neglects.

Thus, feminine and masculine completed each other in traditional Igbo society. But this harmony was disturbed by the advent of the colonizers. As Achebe put it in another context, one of the “unhappy results” of confrontation between Igbo and Western cultures was the weakening of the former’s feminine principle. In Achebe’s view, the pre-colonial Igbo life was a highly materialistic society. But at the same time, “a strong spiritual dimension” controlled its materialistic aspects. And the culture was successful because there was a complementary balance between the two; the materialistic dimension of Igbo life being related to its masculine principle and its spiritual dimension being related to its feminine principle. But, the colonizers bring with them a new system of trade and impose it upon the Igbo. This new system of trade encourages “unfair rivalry and bellicose materialism” among them. And, as such, the colonizers disturb the balance between the masculine and the feminine in Igbo (“The Role of the Writer” 12).

All in all, the traditional Igbo philosophy of life was a highly well-integrated one, based upon the principles of balance and dualism and avoidance of extremism. Of course, this doesn’t mean that this society was a perfect and immaculate one. Rather, it had weaknesses too, like killing the twins and making human sacrifices. And, later, these same weaknesses which had caused dissatisfactions among some of the Igbo precipitated its transformation by the coming of the colonizers. But generally, it could be argued that the Igbo had succeeded in harmonizing their life in accordance with what Jung was to put some half a century later as the most basic factors for conducting a healthy and meaningful life, namely, maintenance of balance and avoidance of extremism, and joining of the local life to the great life.

With these considerations in mind, in the following section the relation of this pre-colonial African community to the process of individuation will be elaborated upon, mainly drawing upon Polly Young-Eisendrath’s essay, “Gender and Contrasexuality: Jung’s Contribution and Beyond.”

According to Eisendrath, individuation can be described as the recognition and integration of the opposing aspects within psyche in a way that one is no longer dominated by any of those opposites, but rather finds a balancing position between them (231).

For getting encouraged to get individuated one must first feel self-divided within one’s psyche. Since Jung maintained that, “neurosis is self-division,” (CW 7: par. 21) “the door to individuation often opens through the experience of neurosis” (Eisendrath 231). That is, when one comes to feel that everything within him is not as orderly and clear-cut as he expected to be, one will come to notice self-division within one’s psyche. As Eisendrath puts it, in such cases, “relational disillusionment, lack of agency, the inability to meet one’s goals no matter how hard one tries, and enactments of negative complexes … are the usual wake-up calls” to the existence of self-division in the psyche (231).

In Jung’s view, a person who is unable to experience self-division is not a “psychological individual.” Such a person cannot experience self-reflection, and hence, is not able to reach personal meaning. In Eisendrath’s words, “there is no awareness of the frame of reference, the assumptions [and] the emotions that color the ‘truth’” for such a person (231). This person believes in things as they are, unwilling to question the validity of anything.

Jung believed the kind of society one lives in can have a very great influence on one’s experience of neurosis. According to him, societies like the democratic, North American ones invite neurosis in their people, while the communist societies prevent the experience of self-division within their people. Democratic cultures invite neurosis, because people are more likely to encounter conflicts about what is true, ideal, and acceptable when they live in such cultures. Democratic cultures treasure diversity and individuality of their people and encourage them to develop such characteristics within themselves. Difference among individuals is considered as a unique sign of their individuality. As such, individuals are encouraged to experience things from their own points of view rather than to accept others’ viewpoints unconditionally. In this way, individual freedom is valued in democratic societies more than anything else. Hence, those who live in such cultures are more likely to feel inner conflicts and self-division. As such, they get encouraged to do self-analysis and self-reflection. So, it is more likely that those who live in democratic cultures arrive at individuation.

By contrast, communal societies which value sharing and non-competitive ideals are an impediment for the individuation of their people. Such cultures are against conflicts and differences, and, rather encourage their individuals to develop common desires and ideals. As such, the way for an orderly development throughout life is provided by collective traditions in communal cultures. Hence, “there may be no acute awareness of self, self-division, individual needs and truths” among those who live in such cultures (Eisendrath 232). In most cases, people are encouraged to develop through ritual and tradition. And, therefore, though Jung argued that it was possible to get individuated on the way of ritual and tradition, actually in his view, sticking to tradition impeded people from feeling the subjective factors of their experiences. Hence, ritualistic and traditionalist people are more likely to remain psychological children throughout their lives.

From what was discussed above, it could be concluded that democratic societies will have more individuated individuals as a result of their inviting of neurosis among their individuals.

This conclusion is completely compatible with Jung’s ideas on the significance of the role of the individual in the society, and also with the results of individuation. Jung always stressed the utmost importance of the individuals, and warned against their weakening role in communal societies. He was of the opinion that “the individual is all-important as he is the carrier of life, and his development and fulfillment are of paramount significance” (Letters 2: 323). In another context Jung writes:

In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch. (CW 10: P. 149)


It was exactly because of the importance of the role of individuals in making history, that Jung put such a great emphasis on the necessity of their undergoing the process of individuation. As he said, “It is vital for each living being to become its own entelchia and to grow into that which it was from the very beginning” (Letters 2: 323). He insisted that an individual must strive to reach to his highest potentials as a human being, since this could affect not only his own life, but also the life of a whole generation. But unfortunately for Jung, he observed in the society of his own time that:

The present day shows with appalling clarity how little able people are to let the other man’s argument count, although this capacity is a fundamental and indispensable condition for any human community. Everyone who proposes to come to terms with himself must reckon with this basic problem. For, to the degree that he does not admit the validity of the other person. He denies the “other” within himself the right to exist – and vice versa. The capacity for inner dialogue is a touchstone for outer objectivity. (The Transcendent Function)


As stated earlier, the Igbo philosophy of life conceives of a dualism of entities: wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it. The Igbo are always aware of the existence of an “other,” and this drastically affects their attitude towards life. One of the most important places in which this principle affects the Igbo way of life is in their approach towards the rights of an individual and the demands of the community on him. As in all other aspects of their life, the Igbo take the middle path here, too. For them, both the individual and the community are important. Neither shall be overlooked at the expense of the other. As Victor C. Uchendu observes about the social system of Igbo,

Because reciprocity is the organizing principle of Igbo social relationships, near equality is their ideal. Domination by a few powerful men or spirits is resented by them. A relationship that is one-sided, either in its obligation or in its reward system, does not last long among them. Imbalance, either in the social or spiritual world, is considered a trouble indicator. Through mutual interdependence and his ability to manipulate his world, the Igbo individual tries to achieve equality or near equality in both the world of man and the world of the spirits. (15)


It is for this reason that the Igbo have never had a king in their history; most considerably expressed in the famous statement, Igbo enwe eze (the Igbo do not have kings). Their society has always been highly egalitarian and democratic. Any major decision that is to be taken must be accepted by the majority. In Wren's words, “the will of the clan is collective” (35). Igbo is a society tolerant of diverse points of view as a result of its valuing of individuals. They treasure individual accomplishments more than anything else. “Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered,” (6) the narrator of Things Fall Apart explains, or that, Umuofia “judged a man by the work of his hand” (19). These are indications of the importance of the role of the individuals in Igbo. They highly treasure individualism.

But it should be remembered that the Igbo’s individuality has an “other” aspect to it: communalism. Achebe observes in an essay that “the Igbo are unlikely to concede to an individual an absolutism they deny even to chi.” He further states that “The obvious curtailment of a man’s power to walk alone and do as he will is provided by another portent force—the will of the community. For Wherever Something stands, no matter what, Something Else will stand beside it. No man however great, can win judgment against all the people” (Morning yet…139). That is why, again in his words, “The limit (of a man’s aspirations) is not the sky, it is somewhere much closer to earth. A sensible man will turn round at the frontiers of absolutism and head for home again” (Morning yet…135). Obviously, the true worth of a person is not decided by himself or herself, but by the community. What all of this comes to is that there is a balance everyone has to strive for between the demands of the self and those of the community. Therefore, as Patrick C. Nnoromele states, “the Igbo community is a society that is at once communal and individualistic” (44).

The result of this attitude was that when colonials for the first time stepped into Igbo land, they faced people who were “maddeningly difficult to deal with, proud, confident, self-satisfied, disinclined to proper humility, disdainful of any authority save their own, apparently indifferent even to their own leaders” (Wren 32). To the colonials who were just familiar with the political and social systems of Western countries, this special stateless system of Igbo seemed “anarchistic” (Wren 32). Hence, they called the natives backward savages who had to be civilized according to European ways. They were unaware how well-integrated and civilized Igbo community was.

It can be strongly argued that this advanced level of democracy one observes in traditional Igbo is largely due to their cultivation of individuality. Such a high level of political development couldn’t have been achieved unless by their treasuring of individuality.

But it must be taken into account that Jung distinguished between individualism and individuation. In Jungian psychology, individualism has negative connotations. For, Jung argued that while the goal of individuation was reaching to the self, and the experience of psychic wholeness, the end of individualism was egoism and neglecting the “others.” Hence, Jung disapproved of individualism. In his seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Jung remarked:

the self is like a crowd … being oneself, one is also like many. One cannot individuate without being with other human beings…. Being an individual is always a link in a chain… how little you can exist… without responsibilities and duties and the relation of other people to yourself…. The self… plants us in otherness – of other people, and of the transcendent.


Therefore, Jung is of the opinion that when one reaches to the highest points of individuation, one cannot neglect the others. One will become totally oneself, and at the same time like others. About the difference between individuation and individualism, Jung writes in some other context that, individuation is not the same as individualism,

which is essentially no more than a morbid reaction against an equally futile collectivism. In contrast to all this, the natural process of individuation brings to birth a consciousness of human community precisely because it makes us aware of the unconscious, which unites and is common to all mankind. (CW 16: par. 227)


Certainly the kind of individualism the Igbo have developed in their community is not the negative one Jung disapproves of. It has the qualities of the process of individuation since, it doesn’t result in the rejection of others, but rather accepts the community as equal to the individual. Moreover, though this community is a highly traditionalist and ritualistic society which expects its individuals to develop on the way of ritual and tradition, actually its cult of individualism opens the way for the psychological growth of its people. Then, considering the advanced level of democracy in Igbo community and their treasuring of individualism, we can come to the solid conclusion that the Igbo society has had high potentials for leading its individuals towards individuation, helping them to become psychologically whole, totally themselves and yet in relation to others.

Such a high-functioning and well balanced society was the Igbo upon which western culture imposed itself. Out of ignorance of this complex way of life, the colonials stepped into Igbo and changed the course of life profoundly for its people. They did so first, by converting them into Christianity and, then by imposing their own system of government by the help of their superior might upon this highly egalitarian community. To ensure their complete and eternal change of life in Igbo they also established a new system of education for the Igbo, teaching them the civilized ways of living, robbing them of their dignity and pride. As such, they made “things fall apart” for the Igbo. The white men were ignorant of the high level of psychological, social, and religious growth the Igbo had achieved through their traditional way of living.

Finally, it is interesting to note what Jung thought about the practice of colonization in Africa. Jung who travelled to different parts of the world to get familiar with primal cultures, observed in his travel to Africa that the black Africans lived “so much close to life,” their lives and being centered in emotion; while, he further observed that, Europeans had gained “a certain measure of will and directed intention” at the cost of “intensity of life.” In Jung's view, the western rationalist found “much that is human alien to him.” As a result, a sense of vitality and “a forcing underground of the primitive parts of the psyche” were lost to him. Jung described this Kind of “cut-off European” as a “technological savage,” and “intellectual barbarian” (Dunne 67). About colonization, Jung said, “what we from our point of view call colonization, missions to the heathen, spread of Christianity, etc. has another face ­– the face of a bird of prey seeking with cruel intentness for distant quarry­ – a face worthy of a race of pirates and highway men…” (Memories 247).









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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Sohila Faghfori "Igbo Philosophy of Life and psychological Parameters of Individual Wholeness". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/faghfori-igbo_philosophy_of_life_and_psychologica. December 4, 2012 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 2, 2012, Published: December 4, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Sohila Faghfori