Professor Tam David West And The Examined Life

By Segun Ayobolu

It was the great Greek philosopher, Socrates, who is quoted as famously declaring that the unexamined life is not worth living. I take the profound thinker as implying that man cannot be truly human when he exists only at the level of the instinctual and reflexive, living thoughtlessly without reflection on the meaning and purpose of life – if any. This was also probably what the immortal philosopher meant when he urged his fellow men to pursue self-knowledge through his famous phrase, ‘Man, know thyself’. But the challenge of living the examined life or coming to true knowledge of the self is certainly no easy task and only a minority of men across time and space even bother to make the effort.

For example, the philosopher, Cornel West, in an interview with Astra Taylor, in her collection of dialogues with eight contemporary thinkers published in 2009, declares, “How do we examine ourselves in a Socratic manner? How do you examine yourself? What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin calling into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person? You know, Plato says philosophy’s a meditation on and a preparation for death. By death, what he means is not an event, but a death in life because there’s no rebirth, there’s no change, there’s no transformation without death, and therefore the question becomes: How do you learn how to die”?

Professor Tamunoemi Sokari David-West, whose phenomenal life came to an end on November 11, 2019, at the age of 83, was surely one of those rare human beings who was able to look life squarely in the eye, ask himself uncomfortable questions about his mission this side of eternity and derive motivating values and ethical standards that as much as humanly possible he guided his life by. My interactions with the late Professor were from a distance. I never met him in person but his views and values had a significant impact on my attitudes to and perspectives on life.

Ever before he began reading my columns in The Nation newspaper and calling me fairly regularly to express either his consent or disagreements with some of the views and ideas I espoused, Prof. had made a deep impact on my young mind through his book, ‘Philosophical Essays’, which I had acquired as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan in the early 1980s. During one of our discussions on telephone, I had casually mentioned that his book as well as two others, ‘Philosophical Essays’ by the late Professor Sanya Onabamiro, the biologist and educationist also of the University of Ibadan as well as ‘Popular Fallacies in the Nigerian Social Sciences’ by Dr. Patrick Heinecke who taught Public Administration at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in the 1980s, had been of tremendous impact on me as an undergraduate. Unfortunately, I said, I had since lost my copy of his book and had sought in vain in various bookshops over the years to obtain another copy without success.

To my utter surprise, within a short period, on 19th April, 2012, a beautifully bound copy of Professor Tam David West’s ‘Philosophical Essays’ was delivered to my address in Lagos in blue hard cover and my named inscribed in bold letters on the cover page. Inside, Prof. had written, “Mr. Segun Ayobolu; my compliments as promised. Out of print since 1980. A veritable periscope to situate the ME. Hope you find it worth your while”. Although Prof. was a scientist and not a trained philosopher, it is impossible for anyone of any age but particularly those of a young and impressionable mind not to be thoroughly informed and impacted by the strong ethical values as well as passionate, patriotic and humanistic sentiments, obviously a product of rigorous and honest self-examination, expressed in the book.

In his characteristic honesty and modesty, Professor David-West, in his acknowledgements in the book paid fulsome tribute to the then Head of Department of Philosophy at the University of Ibadan, Dr. P.O. Bodunrin, for reading through the essays and offering constructive criticisms as an academic philosopher. He equally acknowledged the roles of the editors of the various newspapers – The Daily Sketch in Ibadan, The Sunday Tide and Nigerian Tide in Port Harcourt as well as the Sunday Times in Lagos – in which the compilation of essays had first been serialized at various times between 1974 and 1978. The philosophical essays take the form of dialogues between the author and his son over diverse issues of life raised as questions by the son and the thoughtful responses of the wise and reflective father.

Prof. explains his choice of the dialogic form with his ‘son’ thus, “…although I have a number of options open to me in this exercise, I have, however, decided to adopt the Dialogue Method, in which I am going to attempt providing answers to a number of questions about Life put to me by “My Son”, and crystalising thereby my personal, ethical, moral or philosophical views or positions on these subjects”. There are 80 chapters comprising diverse topics on various issues of vital importance to life, living, justice, religion and spirituality, morality, greed and acquisitiveness, politics, patriotism, ethnicity, the godfather syndrome and much more in this book that runs into 224 pages.

Professor David-West writes with a simplicity and vividness of style that does not in any way detract from the profundity and vigor of his thought.  Let us just consider one or two of Prof’s responses to his son’s questions just as an appetizer to those who may want to get a copy of the book either for themselves or their children. For instance, the author’s son asks ‘What constitutes the Good Life, Dad’? After first discussing the ethical implications of Bertrand Russell’s definition of ‘Good’ as the “satisfaction of desire”, David-West advises his son, “Therefore, son, my advice is that you must first of all decide what you want out of life. But I must caution that whatever your desires, you must always ensure that you do not “destroy” or hurt your fellow man in the pursuit of these desires”.

Continuing, the author advises his son further on the essentials of the ‘Good Life’ saying “Son, Happiness, the philosophers (e.g. Aristotle) maintain, is an end in itself. And the good life is the one that gives you happiness: “Good” being defined by Aristotle in his ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ as that “which everything aims”. You can achieve this by studying your options and alternatives, and then selecting your priorities. Once you have done this, son, faithfully work towards the goal, being guided all the way by the “Three Treasures” of the Chinese Taoist, namely, Love, Moderation and Humility”.

And in our excessively acquisitive society where money has become the ‘be all and end all’ of existence, the philosopher earnestly admonishes his son that “Finally, son, I must tell you that the greatest legacy I would leave behind for you is a generous investment in your education- a SOUND EDUCATION – which I firmly believe would equip you with the necessary tools kit for the battle of life…Son, I must warn you that you should not expect me to hand over to you impressive Bank Passbooks of Savings or Keys to this or to that estate or landed property. I do not believe that my happiness and thus, my Good Life, is inextricably tied to the massive acquisition of such material advantages. However, Son, I guarantee you a comfortable living before you are weaned enough to independently face the challenges of life”.

How about the idea of God and belief in His existence? The elder David-West advises his son after extensive philosophical excursions: “Furthermore, although it is fashionable among some scientists to grow to doubt the existence of God, I must tell you that as a medical scientist, and specializing in the study of sub-microscopic “lives” and their pathological manifestations,  I have come across nothing in my professional discipline that argues against the existence of God, and so render otiose my belief in God, or also in my name “TAMUNOEMI” meaning “There is God”. Thus, I identify myself with the Psalmist when he concluded, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14:1) – Bible.

However, on the possibility of life after death, David-West’s scientific cast of mind comes to the fore although he extensively discusses the concept of death and the afterlife across space, time, cultures and religions. But the experimental scientist in him cautions his son, “In conclusion, Son, logically, the only person who can be definite and dogmatic about life after death is one who had crossed the barrier and come back to us, as we saw him cross the said Life-Death barrier. Just like an astronaut successfully rocketed to the moon and back, can feed us with authentic account of the moon. Anything short of this empirical approach is at best mere romanticism and speculations”. My personal conviction is that the Lord Jesus, in his death and resurrection, met David-West’s standard of proof in this regard.

It is a pity that Professor Tam David-West’s book is out of print. He lived the examined life and shared his life affirming values with readers as his imperishable legacy. There can be no better way of honouring him than making this book available in schools and bookshops nationwide especially for the benefit of thinking Nigerian youth. May Prof’s soul rest in peace.

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