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Teacher of physicians and intellect par excellence

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“Those who pursue the higher life of wisdom, who seek to live by spiritual principles, must be prepared to be laughed at and condemned.” ~ Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher (55-135 CE).
 
Following is a rehashed version of an article published in two parts in The Island in the last week of May 2016. The media reported that Professor Carlo Fonseka passed away at the age of 86 at his residence in the morning hours of September 2.

I admired Professor Carlo Fonseka as a socially-committed intellectual who enhanced, with his rare intellect, the quality of his contribution to the good of the society in a multiplicity of roles he was called upon to play. Among hundreds of quotes about intellectuals I looked at in the internet, I found not a single that says something good or positive about them; that’s a subject worth pondering over. But according to Noam Chomsky; “The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests” – well said! Carlo was not among them. This is a compliment he richly deserves. Hence, the Epictetus quote above.

Prof. Carlo Fonseka’s book of essays titled ‘ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME’ (S. Godage & Brothers Pvt Ltd, Colombo, 2016), which was his swang song, encapsulates key ideas about a variety of subjects he had been creatively engaged in during a long lifetime. Of course, he probably had found different, fresh insights and changed his original ideas by then, but that does not detract from their value in relation to the actual contexts of the time in which he conceived and expressed those ideas. Also, there are a few overlaps and repetitions between the essays as the author himself admits in his preface to the book. Naturally, such minor lapses are inevitable in a collection of writings by the same author over as long a period of time as 43 years. The subjects of essays relate to such diverse fields as science, religion, philosophy, politics, economics, arts and even travel and biography. The volume comprises selected specimens of his writings between 1971 and 2014.

I was an avid reader of his newspaper articles, texts of his speeches (whenever available) and on occasion, his scholarly academic papers which struck me as of general interest (to which last, though, my access was extremely limited). As a lifelong learner, I drew inspiration from him, though I am from a different profession. Professor Carlo came within my student radar even before his controversial scientific investigation into the ritual of fire-walking in our country early in the ’70s decade. 

I still have a thin volume of 102 pages entitled “Fire Walking – The Burning Facts” (December 1972) written and published by one Dr. K. Indra Kumar; presumably a protégé of Professor Carlo, attacking his fire-walking experiments including the famous one at Attidiya Dewale on February 8, 1971 and a copy of the 1971 issue of “The Ceylon Rationalist Ambassador,” the annual journal of Ceylon Rationalist Association, of which Carlo was a prominent member along with the likes of Abraham T.  Kovoor. 

For reasons I have no time or space here to squander explaining, I didn’t take Indra Kumar’s criticism (bordering the libelous in their vituperative trenchancy) as valid arguments against Carlo’s courageous attempt to strike a scientific blow at superstition, the bane of our society even today! But, in my silent judgement, Carlo was guilty of too much idealism in believing most ordinary people were that rational minded – let us consign that to the past. Reading Carlo was always an educative experience for me and I was looking forward to the day he would publish a collection of his writings like ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME. Most probably there were many other Sri Lankans who shared my sentiments in this connection.

Carlo regarded ethical values as of prime importance not only in his own medical profession, but in other spheres as well (something that is evident in all the thirty-four essays that constitute the book)

However, universal acclamation is an unlikely reward for a socially-engaged, fearlessly-argumentative public figure like Carlo – despite the fact that he was selflessly dedicated to the values of humanity, fairness and truth in public affairs as well as in his professional life as a medical professor and scientific researcher.

The reason for this is that, just as there were those who genuinely admired him or just tolerated him, there were his detractors who were cynically sceptic about his good intentions, and those who felt uncomfortable about certain ideological and political positions he tried to defend in the arena of public debate as an intellectual and social activist. The thirty-four pieces of writing contained in ‘ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME’ are obviously meant to be representative of the intellectual offerings he made to the general public during well over four decades and they may be taken to reflect some of the reasons for this mixed reception that, I think, was accorded to him by the Sri Lankan society in the sunset years of his life. Nevertheless, the well-deserved celebrity status and public esteem that Carlo was actually honoured with by the vast majority of our people were least diminished by that faint suggestion of societal ambivalence towards him.
From the very beginning, as far as I am concerned (that is, since immediately before 1971, and extending back to my secondary school days), I was attracted by  certain admirable qualities in Carlo as a human being and as a public intellectual (I am using the latter term in the complex, highly-nuanced sense most people understand it) and a man of science: these are his intellectual probity, his freedom from pedantic posing, sharpness of mind, personal humility, generosity towards others, lightheartedness and irrepressible sense of humour, all of which enrich the essays in this selection. One of his major preoccupations in life, I believe, was social development through education by banishing baleful superstition and by promoting rational scientific thinking and ethical conduct. Buddha and his teachings are frequently invoked throughout the book, which reveals an important source of his ethical principles. 

Carlo is deeply ethical without being ‘religious’ in the traditional sense and that is compatible with the rational Buddhist beliefs that he seems to have acquired. Apparently, he identifies these with the ethical essence of the Christian religion to which he was born.  The essay titled ‘The Humanity of Jesus’ (pp. 216-219), which is the text of a convocation address he delivered at a school in 2006, is a case of a rational thinker demystifying Jesus of supernatural mumbo-jumbo with a view to highlighting his message of universal love that embraces the whole human family; he preached this as an extraordinarily moral human being who was subject to birth, suffering and death like other ordinary human beings. Carlo may not have officially abandoned his birth religion (clearly, a meaningless formality he’d hardly think it necessary to perform). But he appears to be an exemplary follower of the Buddhist teaching, where there is no proselytising, nor conversion, and little importance attached to labels.

Needless to say, Carlo regarded ethical values as of prime importance not only in his own medical profession, but in other spheres as well (something that is evident in all the thirty-four essays that constitute the book). Incidentally, the essays are grouped into ten sections of which the first is, appropriately, Medicine (‘appropriately’ because that is his professional field with which he is most familiar). It contains six essays. The first three are almost entirely concerned with the ethical aspect of medicine, while in the others, the ethical aspect is strongly implicit, though his main focus there is on other themes. In the grimly ironic opening essay ‘To Err Was Fatal’ (pp. 13-21), Carlo describes five errors he committed through certain lapses on his part that led to the death of his patients during thirty-six years of clinical practice; he implies he could have avoided those fatal errors if he had followed the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas. Towards the end of the masterpiece, he refers to the Buddha for “the possible sources of intellectual error,” and adduces the Buddha’s famous words of wisdom to the Kalamas. Referring to himself in his characteristically-humorous, self-effacing manner, he writes: 

“Although Alexander Pope did indeed famously preach that “To err is human, to forgive divine,” it will be murmured that only a fool will err fatally five times in 36 years. So the prospect must be squarely faced: this paper may embody nothing more or less than the confessions of a fool. If, however, by confessing to the world a fool could help to promote ever so slightly the ideal of error-free patient care, I believe the fool has a scientific and ethical duty to confess.”

Carlo draws a moral (for doctors) from his analysis of his five fatal errors in the form of the following ‘Key Messages’ as he calls them:

  • All doctors are fallible.
  • The natural reaction of doctors to errors is to hide or rationalise them away.
  • It is unscientific and unethical to refuse to face our errors.
  • There is no cathartic ritual in our profession to expiate the sense of guilt generated by our errors.
  • Since knowledge grows mainly by error recognition, facing our errors squarely is the path to medical wisdom.

(p. 20)

In another essay in the same section entitled ‘Development of Health in Sri Lanka’ (pp. 36-60), which is extracted from a 2003 issue of the Sabaragamuwa University Journal, Carlo takes a glance at our unique history of medicine inspired (as he reminds the reader) by Buddhism, according to whose teaching ‘care of the sick is a meritorious act of the highest order.’ Even kings such as Buddhadasa (362-400 CE) learnt and practised medicine. The very concept of hospitals has been found to have originated in Buddhism. At the end of the essay, under the title ‘Towards a Concept of the Ideal Doctor for Sri Lanka’ (pp. 26-35), which was originally the Deshamanya Nandadasa Kodagoda Fifth Memorial Oration, 2002, Carlo articulates his thesis succinctly in these words: “I conclude that the ideal doctor for Sri Lanka should be an embodiment of western medical science and Buddhist values represented by contentment over acquisitiveness; cooperation over competition; compassion over perfunctory sympathy; and altruistic service over selfish indulgence …” The last two essays in the Medicine section (found on pp. 61-74) are about tobacco and alcohol control. He is the Founder Chairman of National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol to which post he was appointed in 2007, a rare instance of the right person being put in the right place in our country.

The second group of writings is subsumed under Science and occupies more or less the same space (pp. 76-154) as that devoted to Medicine. The first item there is ‘Fire-Walking: A Scientific Investigation,’ which is a reproduction of a paper published in the Ceylon Medical Journal of June 1971. It relates to the fire-walking tests and contests I referred to above. As described in the paper, Carlo applied the usual steps of scientific method in his attempt to prove a hypothesis he had arrived at as a scientist about the secret of certain individuals being able to walk on live embers without sustaining burns.  I think Carlo’s hypothesis is similar to or identical with the scientific explanation of the phenomenon that physicists accept today. Other essays in this section, for example, ‘The Intrinsic Wisdom of Scientific Materialism,’ ‘Of Religious Scientists’ and ‘Eulogy for Richard Dawkins’ also embody the theme of promoting ethical values while fighting superstition.

Among ordinary people, it is taken for granted that doctors are or ought to be particularly humane, compassionate and ethically beyond reproach. Carlo’s concept of the ideal doctor for Sri Lanka well accords with that public expectation. Carlo was not just a physician. He was a teacher of physicians 

I will not touch on all ten sections of the book like this for fear that this article would be too long for accommodation in a newspaper column. But before concluding this piece, I must very briefly suggest something about why I consider Carlo to be one of the few iconic national figures we should be proud to have had among us as Sri Lankans. In any country, at any time, the advent is usually rare of individuals born with the highest intellectual abilities, coupled with compassion for fellow humans, and a desire to serve them. Of course, there are no morally-perfect human beings even among such. That is part of human nature. Carlo was arguably one of those rare individuals, impaired with his own personal limitations, no doubt, like all of us. But since the imperfectability of human nature is a common denominator, I’d like to dwell here only on what distinguishes Carlo from the average majority of us.
Carlo told us that he was himself an early beneficiary of free education introduced a few years before independence, though he was learning in English medium. Initially, free education benefited English medium students more than it did the poor children learning in swabhasha (Sinhala and Tamil) media. This was because English medium schools, which used to charge fees before, did not have to do so after education was made free for all. We have to remember that English medium education catered only to the tiny privileged minority of the population.  The poor swabhasha students already had a sort of free education. 

The replacement of English with swabhasha as the medium of instruction expanded educational opportunity to embrace children from all social backgrounds. Considering the disdain in which Sinhala medium schoolchildren were held and the insulting attitude adopted towards them by the westernised English-speaking elite at that time (about which Carlo must have known well, though absolutely no reference is made to the subject in these essays). I learnt about such discrimination many years later from our teachers, and books. His identifying of himself as a beneficiary of that epoch-making change (i.e., the introduction of free education) is unique. Most local intellectuals of his time and before his time had usually developed a pro-western, anti-national cultural bias. Carlo is free from that, and seems to take a serious interest in educationally modernising our country for the benefit of all its children.

In the first entry under Education titled ‘Reforming Education: Finishing the Unfinished Task’ (originally, the script of Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Memorial Lecture – 2009) pp. 282-297, Carlo mentions his theme: “I propose to suggest ways of finishing the unfinished task of reforming free education, to make it relevant to the globalised world of the 21st century.” A major component of the recommended ‘reforming,’ I believe, involves the best management of the language factor in education (my caution to the reader: this has nothing to do with politics): Education must be bilingual – Sinhala or Tamil, with English. Apropos of university education in the same speech, Carlo quotes (Sinhala professor) Dr. Sucharitha Gamlath from another source as having said: “One who knows only Sinhala doesn’t even know Sinhala.”  In the same context, Carlo refers to Dr. Gamlath quoting with approval a remark Dr. N.M. Perera had made in Parliament: “Teaching in Sinhala is alright, but the government must ensure students acquire a sound knowledge of English.” May our country have the right people in the right positions to bring about this and other reforms recommended in Carlo’s essay just mentioned.

While being engaged in the medical field, Carlo rendered a great service as a bilingual scholar of genius. It was actually his English that first attracted me to his writings in my student days. He is an exemplary master of the English language who is deeply read in its literature. As far as I am concerned, I look up to him, even today, for he modeled good writing in his journalistic contributions as much as in his academic writing. 

Carlo has essays that deal with heroic qualities, great ideas and admirable doings of some genuine Sri Lankan intellectuals of the past such as left politician Dr. N.M. Perera, Sinhala writer Martin Wickremasinghe, rationalist superstition-buster Dr. Abraham T. Kovoor, surgeon Dr. P.R. Anthonis and Buddhist reformer Dr. A.P. de Zoysa. There is no doubt that Carlo owed his special qualities to their influence on his character.

In our (predominantly Buddhist) culture, the medical profession is the most highly-honoured among mundane occupations. Buddha himself is described as a spiritual healer or physician who relieves samsaric suffering. Then, there is the saying: “Rajakama nethnam vedakama,” which roughly means: “If you can’t become a king, become a physician instead.” Among ordinary people, it is taken for granted that doctors are or ought to be particularly humane, compassionate and ethically beyond reproach. Carlo’s concept of the ideal doctor for Sri Lanka well accords with that public expectation. Carlo was not just a physician. He was a teacher of physicians. That fact is not lost on our people.

However, when he heard some people making disparaging remarks about him, especially regarding his politics (he was a Card-Carrying Member of the Samasamaja Party), he must have found solace in the words of Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-135 CE): “Those who pursue the higher life of wisdom, who seek to live by spiritual principles, must be prepared to be laughed at and condemned.”

I strongly feel that ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME will prove a pleasurable read for general readers as much as for professionals engaged in the fields represented within its 368 pages. It will be of particular interest for teachers at all levels and other educational authorities, including politicians handling educational matters.

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