Ubuntu: Something our society needs


On June 17, 2008, the Boston Celtics broke their huddle with the chant, "ubuntu", just as they had before every game in their grueling 116-game season.

Then, they calmly walked out onto the parquet court of the New Boston Garden and won their seventeenth NBA championship, demolishing the Los Angeles Lakers by the eye-popping score of 131 to 92. The performance was, in the words of one sports writer, a "parquet Picasso". Ubuntu was their year-long motto and mantra. It represents a philosophy that emphasizes teamwork and disdains egoism.

Ubuntu, which rejoices in the achievements of others, is the antithesis of envy, which broods over them. The word originates in the Bantu languages of southern Africa. The shorthand definition is: "I am because we are." A slightly longer version is: "I am what I am because of who we all are." It is consonant with the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu ("A person is a person through other persons").

The father of modern philosophical thought in the Western world is Rene Descartes, whose deathless phrase, "I think, therefore I am", is perfectly congruent with the radical individualism that plagues our current society. It is a view that has trapped us, to borrow the words of the American philosopher Ralph Barton Perry, in an "egocentric predicament".

Cartesian individualism, of course, is not our only philosophical legacy, though it surely is a dominant one. Jacques Maritain, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Nikolai Berdyaev, and John Paul II, to name a few, have laboured with care and commitment to enlarge this narrow view of man so that it is co-extensive with his whole nature. Personalism, therefore, is strikingly similar to ubuntu in that it describes the human being as simultaneously a unique individual and a responsible member of society. Personalism is categorically opposed to radical individualism and all its specific incarnations: the self-made man, the self-reliant individual, the rugged individualist, numero uno, the egoist, the fortune hunter, the gold-digger, and all those who seem to live by Oscar Wilde's aphorism, "Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself."

Personalism is also opposed to that collectivism that absorbs the individual into the group. One of the most important works on Personalism in the twentieth century is The Acting Person, by Karol Wojtyla. Its potential benefits may be lessened, for the ordinary reader, by its challenging intellectuality, but the book's basic outline is readily understandable: 1) we reveal who we are, not through thinking, but through our actions; 2) the Cartesian notion that we are mere individuals does not conform to our nature as persons; 3) neither does the Marxist notion that we are merely part of the collective conform to it; 4) we are, in reality, a dynamic and dramatic tension between our individual uniqueness and our communal dedication.

Ubuntu, Personalism and solidarity are realistic and harmonious concepts. Moreover, they offer a vitally needed antidote to the narcissism of a culture in which one person's "right" to kill another is considered progress.

The author and pope-to-be does not employ the word ubuntu, but he does elaborate on its equivalent -- "solidarity": "Solidarity is, so to speak, the natural consequence of the fact that human beings live and act together; it is the attitude of a community, in which the common good properly conditions and initiates participation, and participation in turn properly serves the common good, fosters it, and furthers its realization." For those who think the author a bit wordy, they may be pleased to learn that he is merely enlarging on the long form for ubuntu, or "I am because we are."

The word ubuntu is beginning to have its day. Former president Clinton saw fit to use it at the British Labour Party conference in 2006. It is the founding principle of the Ubuntu Education Fund, a non-governmental organization working with orphans and vulnerable children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It is also connected to the idea of an African Renaissance. The Ubuntu distribution of the Linux computer operating system is inspired by the concept, since it purports to "bring the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world". The motion picture In My Country, featuring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche, dramatizes the merits of ubuntu. Finally, a soft drink made with Fair-trade sugar from Malawi and Zambia is called Ubuntu Cola.

Ubuntu, Personalism and solidarity are realistic and harmonious concepts. Moreover, they offer a vitally needed antidote to the narcissism of a culture in which one person's "right" to kill another is considered progress.

During the Celtics' victory parade, some people were holding placards on which the single word, ubuntu, was written. "I am what I am because of who we all are" is a better maxim for society than "I think, therefore I am." At any rate, the world of sports, so often maligned for its overpaid and over-pampered stars, has given us an image of solidarity and teamwork. It is a bright and shining image. a veritable icon for a better and more humane society, and it is most welcome and most urgently needed.




Donald DeMarco. "Ubuntu: Something our society needs." Social Justice Review. (September/October, 2008): 132.

This article is reprinted with permission from Social Justice Review: A Pioneer Journal of Catholic Social Action and Donald DeMarco.

Social Justice Review was founded by the Catholic Central Verein of America in 1908:

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Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario. He also continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Acadmy for Life. Donald DeMarco has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

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