Comments on Carlo Fonseka’s “ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME”
Posted on June 1st, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This article was recently published in two parts in The Island daily (Sri Lanka) under the title ‘Carlo Fonseka’s ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME” – A personal appreciation’ as a tribute to the distinguished Sri Lankan  it is about. I am happy to share it with Lankaweb readers, under a new title as they can see. I have added a new opening paragraph with a quote from Noam Chomsky. The rest of the article is as it was carried in The Island. Please desist from making adverse comments.)

I admire Professor Carlo Fonseka as a socially committed intellectual who enhances with his rare intellect the quality of his contribution to the good of the society in a multiplicity of roles he is 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’s a subject worth thinking about. But according to Noam Chomsky The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests”. Well said! Carlo is not among them. This is a compliment that he undoubtedly deserves.

Professor Carlo Fonseka’s recently published book of essays titled  ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME (S. Godage & Brothers Pvt Ltd, Colombo, 2016) encapsulates his key ideas about a variety of subjects he has been creatively engaged in during a long lifetime. Of course, he may have found different fresh insights and changed his original ideas by now, 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 have been 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 has been extremely limited). As a lifelong learner I still draw 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 has always been an educative experience for me and I have been wishing over the past few years that he published a collection of his writings like this. There may be many other Sri Lankans who share my view 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 is 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 are those who admire him or tolerate him, there are  his detractors who are cynically sceptical about his good intentions, and those who feel uncomfortable about certain ideological and political positions he tries 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, is accorded to him by the Sri Lankan society today. Nevertheless, the well deserved celebrity status and public esteem that Carlo is actually honoured with by the vast majority of our people are 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 have been 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, is 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 appears to be an exemplary follower of the Buddhist teaching, where there is no proselytizing, nor conversion, and little importance attached to labels.

Needless to say, Carlo regards  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, while he focuses 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 characteristically humorous, but less than complimentary and less than respectful terms, 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 is 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 even a lay person can understand, in this case, 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 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 is 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 tells 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 some years later from our teachers, and books. His identifying of himself as a beneficiary of that epoch-making change (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 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 does 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 models good writing in his journalistic contributions as much as in his academic writing.

Carlo 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 superstitio- buster Dr Abraham T. Kovoor,  surgeon Dr P.R. Anthonis, and Buddhist reformer Dr A.P. de Zoysa. There is no doubt that Carlo owes 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 will well accord with that public expectation. Carlo is not just a physician. He is a teacher of physicians. That fact is not lost on our people.

Yet it is good to remember the following 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.



One Response to “Comments on Carlo Fonseka’s “ESSAYS OF A LIFETIME””

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:


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