On June 17, 2008, the Boston Celtics broke their huddle with the chant “ubuntu,” just as they had before every game in their gruelling 116-game season. Then, they calmly walked out onto the parquet court of the New Boston Garden and won their 17th NBA championship, demolishing the Los Angeles Lakers by the eye-popping score of 131-92. It was, in the words of one sports writer, a “parquet Picasso.” Ubuntu was their year-long motto and their mantra. It represents a philosophy that emphasizes teamwork and disdains egoism.

Ubuntu, that rejoices in the achievements of others, is the antithesis of envy, that broods over them. Its origin is in the Bantu languages of Southern Africa. The shorthand definition is:  “I am because we are.” Its slightly enlarged 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 philosophical father of modern thought in the Western world is René 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 American philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry, in an “ego-centric 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 enlarging 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, as well as 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 individual, numero uno, the egoist, the fortune hunter, the gold-digger and so on. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.”

Personalism is also categorically opposed to collectivism that absorbs the individual into the group. One of the most important works on personalism in the 20th century is Karol Wojtyla’s The Acting Person. The potential benefits associated with this book, however, are reduced by the challenges it represents to the ordinary reader.

Nonetheless, the basic outline of The Acting Person 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 our personal nature; 4) we are, in reality, a dynamic and dramatic tension between our individual uniqueness and our communal dedication.

Wojtyla 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 Wojtyla is a bit “wordy,” they may be pleased in knowing that he is merely using the long form for ubuntu or “I am because we are.”

Ubuntu is beginning to have its day. Former U.S. president Clinton saw fit to use it at the 2006 Labor Party conference in the United Kingdom. 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 Fairtrade 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 what has been termed our narcissistic 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 inscribed. “I am what I am because of who we all are” is a better bromide for society than, “I think, therefore I am.” At any rate, the world of sports, so often maligned for its over-paid 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 that is most welcome and most urgently needed.

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jeromes’s University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary.