Mon | May 25, 2020

Vodou: fate of the free will Vodou:

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby
Book cover of Vodou Cosmology

Vodou evokes a schizophrenic response among the misinformed. Reactions abound: apprehension, incredulity, and vilification. It is not that Vodou struggles for meaning. Vodou has its own particular ideal. It is primordial sense. It is very much relatable to the First Cause. Its idealism is never far removed from the existential struggles of devotees. Aesthetically, it fashions their lore.

Vodou is part of a larger cosmological experience sometimes misunderstood in philosophical terms. Vivaldi Jean-Marie’s treatise eclipses the period of Enlightenment embodied in the works of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel. He presents Vodou and revolution as a singular, deterministic expression.

The Haitian Revolution cannot be divorced from free will and fate. Neither can it be decontextualised. Vodou was coupled with the revolution.

Jean-Marie explores animism as practised by the African and the unique experience of enslavement that colours the destiny of the oppressed. Here, spirits personify the circumstantial exigency of oppression. Haiti’s indigenous ‘Petra’ spirits are fiery, bellicose, and responsive to the rebellious cry for freedom. The Rada spirits are soothing and unctuous, a balm, for the psychic fragmentation caused by slavery.

Vodou is a rational recourse to circumstance. It is dispensational, teleological, “logically necessary,” and integral to historical determinism, and, supposedly, Hegelian.


But Hegel, according to Jean-Marie, promotes a version of determinism that invites the enslavement of Africans.

Of African spirituality, Hegel writes, “What they conceive of as the power in question is, therefore, nothing really objective, having a substantial being and different from themselves, but the first thing that comes in their way. This, taken quite indiscriminately, they exalt to the power of a “Genius”. It may be an animal, a tree, a stone, or a wooden figure.”

According to Hegel, only that which is rational is real. Africans’ religious reality, he avers, amounts merely to the idolatry of natural artefacts,” and thus, “African spirituality is tantamount to idolatry.”

“Hegel,” Jean-Marie writes, “surreptitiously reduces enslaved Africans to the material basis of Spirit’s unfolding.”

He challenges Hegel, stating that he deliberately excludes any explicit discussion of the complexities of the Haitian Revolution because of his Protestant-laced bias against Africans and African religious reality. This confined him to viewing Africans and people of African descent in Saint-Domingue as inherently unfit to undertake such a large-scale revolt.

Blinded by prejudice, Eurocentric ideals, and the dogma of Protestantism, Hegel wilfully ignored his own theory of synthetic unity to the unfolding of history and the will of the Absolute.

“The history of the world presents us with a rational process,” writes Hegel. “Thus, the rational dimension of world history lies in the logical necessity that makes world events a coherent system.”

Uniformity of character

Hegel speaks of the uniformity in the character of a people and their geographic environment and that the Old and New Worlds as representations of Spirit’s unfolding, but never was he in favour of black liberation.

In respect to Kant’s Moral Philosophy, which, arguably and paradoxically, viewed slavery and colonialism as markers of cultural and historical progress, the author argues that “Vodou adherents’ process of reconciling their individual wills with those of other members of the community is similar to his (Kant’s) strategy as it is laid out in his concepts of obligation and reasonableness”.

In this regard, the possessed (in the ritualistic drama of Vodou) give themselves up to become an instrument in a social and collective drama,” and, “the adherents fulfil the Enlightenment’s ideals to guide their social interactions through an experience of freedom which is collective.”

Vodun as the outlet for collective psychoneurosis through religious practices is defined by “its common African heritage [that is] shared by mulattos and dark-skinned Haitians in an effort to improve social relations”.

Interestingly, Jean-Marie presents marronage through the prism of Jungian archetypes, where “the mountains [are] free places within colonial environment [that] are linked to the secrecy of Vodou cosmology and the elaboration of a common language which articulates collective consciousness among the slaves”.

Dutty Boukman – an authoritative figure that embodied the fears, desires, aspirations, and actions of a people - best represented the collective. “His contribution synthesise[d] religion, systematic organisation, and collective trust in the process of the revolution.” The author’s epistemology clearly centres on the phenomenon of the collective, the common ethos among the oppressed.

Jean-Marie’s richly informative work expounds on the full gamut of philosophical enquiry, raising perennial questions on ethics, morality, God, and fate.

Arguably, Vodou cosmology as played out in the Haitian Revolution offers clues to the ever-pressing question of free will and predestination.


Vodou Cosmology and the Haitian Revolution in the Enlightenment Ideals of Kant and Hegel by Vivaldi Jean-Marie

Publisher: UWI Press, Mona, Jamaica

ISBN: 978-9766406905

Ratings: Highly recommended

- Send feedback to or follow him on Twitter: @glenvilleashby