Professor Carlo Fonseka – A Tribute
Posted on September 3rd, 2019

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

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 an updated version of an article published in two parts in The Island in the last week of May 2016.)

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 one that says something good or positive about them. That may be because it is usually intellectuals who are quoted, and are they likely to utter something quotable about themselves. But Noam Chomsky looks askance at a certain type of intellectuals: The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests”. Carlo was not among them. To say this is a compliment that he richly deserves, for he did not follow social or political or intellectual norms unquestioningly or adapt his behavior in order to please those who exercise power. Hence the Epictetus quote above.

Professor Carlo Fonseka’s book of essays titled  ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME (S. Godage & Brothers Pvt Ltd, Colombo, 2016), which was his swan song, encapsulates his 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 writer over as long a period of time as 43 years. The subjects of the 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 of the ritual of fire-walking in our country early in the 70’s 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 former student 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 the 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 criticisms (bordering on 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 that 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.

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 sceptical 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 in the recent past 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.

Right  from the 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 his irrepressible sense of humour, all of which enrich the essays in this selection. One of his major preoccupations in life, I think, 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 under the title 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 was an exemplary follower of the Buddhist teaching. 

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 clearly 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 other three, 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 that he could have avoided those fatal errors if he had followed the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas. Towards the end of the piece, 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 that 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 them or to rationalize 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 King Buddhadasa (362-400 CE) learned and practiced 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 was the founder chairman of the 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 the 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.

I will not touch on all the 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, although he was learning in the English medium. Initially free education benefited the English medium students more than it did the poor children learning in the swabhasha (Sinhala and Tamil) mediums. This was because the 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 the Sinhala medium school children were held and the insulting attitude adopted towards them by the Westernized 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 was free from that, and took a serious interest in educationally modernizing 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 for the globalized world of the 21st century”. A major component of the recommended ‘reforming’, I think, 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 know even Sinhala”.  In the same context Carlo refers to Dr Gamlath quoting with approval a remark that Dr N.M. Perera had made in parliament: Teaching in Sinhala is alright, but government must ensure that 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 was an exemplary master of the English language, who was deeply read in its literature. As far as I am concerned, I look up to him, even today, for he used to model good writing in his journalistic contributions as much as in his academic writing. 

Professor Carlo’s book has essays that deal with the 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 naethnam 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.

However, when he heard some people making disparaging remarks about him, especially regarding his politics (he was a Card-Carrying Member of the Lanka Sama Samaja 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.”

One Response to “Professor Carlo Fonseka – A Tribute”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    It was a sad day for me to hear of Carlos sad demise. Carlo was my class-mate at St. Joseph’s College Darley Road. We sat together for two years I believe, and he was a most lovable friend. We had a click in class, and it was Clive Fernando, Sri Kantha De Silva, Carlo and Myself. Every last day of the term we go to Medina Hotel, opposite Maradana Railway Station for a Buriyani lunch. We give the waiter Rs6.50 to bring a bottle of Port Wine from the store next to the Police Station Gate. Carlo gives us prior intimation to have the Rs5.00 ready for the day. So after lunch we go to the Maradana Station and travel ticket-less to Fort, and we slip away through the Regal Cinema side, gate. We go to the Regal for the movie, and it is the Gallery seat that we go to,paying .50cents per seat. After the movie, we part with sadness, as we will not see each other for a month. Carlo handles the Rs.20.00 for the above expenses. Not bad for Five Bucks each, a Buriyani Lunch, a glass of Port, and a movie to boot.

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