Certainly, all human choice can be traced back to customs or social conditioning. A man is merely the product of his culture. Therefore, superior conditioning will unarguably produce a superior human product.
This has been a prominent Western perspective. Many believe government, religion, and other systems of conditioning will evolve and progress over time to benefit humanity. Because past systems are deemed inferior to modern developments, it is made the human responsibility to destroy her traditions and advance.
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe offers a counter perspective. He moves his reader to reconsider the very presupposition that catalyzed this mad Western race for the future.
Is society the mother of man?
Of course Achebe was physically born of a woman and not of his town. His first contact was her embrace. Yet he was fed and nourished by the Igbo culture of Ogidi throughout his growing years. One can reflect on human growth and position in culture by marking the character interaction in his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart.
Chinua Achebe’s protagonist, Okonkwo, is a respected wrestler and a strong male authority in his village. Though plagued with misfortune, he labors diligently for his wealth and position. The whole community of Umuofia commends him for “the work of his hands,” attributing nothing to “luck” or born condition (27). His distinguishing ambition is shown to be internal.
Okonkwo’s wife, Ekwefi, holds her own internal fire. Although she lives in a culture where “women [look] on from the fringe like outsiders,” she openly confronts Okonkwo and resiliently takes his assaults (87). Later, she faces the wrath of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills, that she might follow and protect her only daughter. Ekwefi is not a slave to her culture; she is an individual.
But what is culture if it is not the congregation of individuals? In Umuofia, even the great ancestral spirits seated in court are only masked village members. They must impersonate the spirit of the village consensus to judge disputes according to the “persistent and unchanging … pulsation of its heart” (44). Society is then the mutual agreement among many individuals, by which they are united.
Things fall apart when the agreement is lost. Confined individuals must either cooperate or conflict with one another, and in Achebe’s novel, British missionaries “put a knife on” the Igbo cooperation system (176). In the name of progress, they renounce the village traditions and its “bond of kinship,” enabling the people to “curse” and “turn on” the social pact between them (167). The result is violent chaos.
Ironically, the British missionaries deny that very chaos. Through Christianity, they promise order and restoration for the individual soul, which is the heart of society. However, in practice they enforce “not only … a religion, but also a government,” (155). This government is the evolved British conditioning system. With it, they believe they can mold the people of Umuofia in their image of “superior” living.
Though the missionaries fight to shape and liberate the people, they ignore the individual consensus. Consequently, the British colonial regime becomes Umuofia’s burden of slavery and disorganization. Their well-intended intervention was their oppression in the end. This is because human freedom originates not in the outside realm of conditioning and government, but in the hidden realm of the individual will.
The individual preserves its freedom against opposition by aligning its common values with another. Rights and titles and finally a society is agreed upon, whereby cooperation is possible. In Umuofia, only the “worthless, empty men” refuse to stand in alliance, and they are the first converts to the “strange faith” (143). They are like one who “sold his machete and wore his sheath to battle.” By inaction, they cosign their own slavery.
It is human action that liberates and propels him. But his unadjusted course is bound for collision with the will of another. By necessity, they will build an agreement of course, and are both protected as a result. The human is lost, however, if he abandons himself for his construction. He will feed it the freedoms of his fellow humans, and his structure will grow and evolve while the spirit of the people withers and falls apart.