Making the Most of It, by Bryan Magee, Studio 28, 501 pp, £12.00ISBN: 978-1980636137
Few, if any, contemporary intellectuals can claim to have done more than Bryan Magee to bring philosophy to life for the laity. If this was the only service he had provided to the subject he would deserve a place in the pantheon of eminent philosophers of the last fifty years, not because he is an especially original thinker but for his peerless ability to make philosophy both accessible and interesting to the non-specialist.
For those of us fortunate enough to have heard or viewed his radio and TV dialogues with contemporary philosophers about their own ideas or those of their long-dead eminent forebears the encounter was a revelation and a joy; each dialogue (they are all available on YouTube) provided an expert but unpatronising introduction to a particular thinker or theme which managed to pull off the seemingly impossible – to convey the profound interest and appeal of philosophy while avoiding the trap of making it or his interlocutors sound mad, bad or sad. This is far easier said than done given that, as one philosopher aptly remarked, “There is no shallow end to the philosophical pool.” If my own experience of being exposed to Magee’s dialogues is anything to go by, then rarely in the history of modern Anglophone philosophy has so much been owed by so many curious minds to a single intellect.
Making the Most of It completes the life story of this remarkable man and like his incomparable dialogues it doesn’t disappoint. It is the third and final instalment of Magee’s autobiography – Clouds of Glory covered his childhood years in working class Hoxton, one of the most infamous slums in pre-war London, and Growing Up in a War gave us his vivid teenage perspective on life in England during World War II.
After he won a scholarship to one of England’s oldest public schools it was hardly surprising that the clever and cocky Magee succeeded in gaining a scholarship to Oxford. The Oxford that he went up to in 1949 was, as he says, “different from its normal self”. Rather than playing host to the usual cohort of impressionable eighteen- to twenty-one-year-old students it had a far greater share of slightly older and more worldly-wise ex-soldiers like Magee himself. A university of men rather than boys transformed the place; sacred rules ‑ such as not being permitted to patronise pubs ‑ collapsed overnight, while sexual appetites also did not go unsatisfied for long. Magee was typical of his generation and felt no reason to restrain his drinking, partying or libido for the sake of time-honoured institutional rules.
He was far from typical, however, in the uninhibited passion with which he pursued his wide interests. He managed to pack more into his four years as an undergraduate than most of us would in half a lifetime. He published a collection of poetry, became president of the Oxford Union, seduced the woman of his dreams, gained two degrees, one in history and another in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics), and befriended a wide range of people, many of whom were destined to be among the leading lights of their generation. For Magee, Oxford was simply “the most significant happening of my life”.
The power and glory of Magee’s undergraduate years gave him and his peers every reason to expect that his star would continue to shine as brightly after university. But this was not to be. The painful realisation that his success at Oxford didn’t carry much weight in the outside world and that nepotism remained a powerful factor in deciding who got jobs grew with each passing week following his graduation. His failure to gain a first-class honours degree “by a hair’s breadth”, together with the fact that he was now in debt, only added to his rising sense of doom and despair.
In the end he had to count himself fortunate in securing a one-year teaching post in Sweden. Apart from apparently providing Magee with ample opportunities to indulge his seemingly insatiable sexual needs as well as the chance to pay off various student loans, Sweden turned out to be a momentous disaster. He fell into a purely physical, if obsessive, relationship with Ingrid Söderlund. Everything was fine until Ingrid became pregnant and demanded that her lover now marry her. Magee had other plans, none of which included settling down with someone he didn’t love.
At the end of his contract Magee returned to his beloved Oxford, but the contrast between his new predicament and the happy, carefree days of his student years could not have been more stark. Unemployed, unfulfilled and under increasing pressure from Ingrid and her family to return to Sweden and marry her, he suffered a breakdown. His description of this dark night of the soul and the days and months that followed must stand as one of the most moving and eloquent accounts of what it’s like to experience such a trauma, the terrifying awareness that one is drowning, the utter helplessness to prevent the downward spiral and the horrific fear, as he himself says, that “I’ve gone mad”.
Magee gradually recovered, but the experience was to leave a permanent mark on him. After this harrowing episode he embraced life with the zeal of someone who felt he had been given a second chance, his egotism taking on more unbridled forms as he followed his own eclectic passions with a new-found and single-minded intensity.
Magee the man of many talents asserted himself in the non-academic world. After a year of postgraduate study at Yale, followed by a short but lucrative spell as a young corporate executive in Guinness, he became increasingly involved in party politics, distinguished himself as a globe-trotting current affairs TV presenter, and finally got elected to parliament for the Labour Party. He has interesting things to say about all of these experiences and the notable and not so notable people he met along the way.
Among the great and good about whom he has particularly fascinating insights are the celebrated broadcaster Sir Robin Day, who we are told became more and more regretful and finally chronically discontented about having squandered his talents in television rather than applying them to the nobler profession of politics; the former UK prime minister Jim Callaghan, who Magee says suffered from an inferiority complex in the company of Oxbridge graduates; and the eminent philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, who was instrumental in Magee being awarded a one-year fellowship at All Souls so that he could make a start on writing a monograph on his philosophical hero, Schopenhauer. Among the not so famous is David Cooper, who lived in Magee’s Leyton constituency and who was released from jail half-way through his sentence “for a murder which he almost certainly did not commit”. Magee writes that his role in getting Cooper released was his most worthwhile, as well as most difficult, achievement as an MP.
Another of Magee’s major passions is sex. His seemingly limitless sexual appetite is a recurring theme of the book and one that is discussed in an honest if occasionally nauseating manner. The idea of living a life without seemingly endless and erotically charged sex is not one that Magee could ever sign up to. Never without a lover, and occasionally with more than one at a time, he managed to satisfy his voracious desires throughout most of his life. The few and very brief moments in which he was not in an active sexual relationship are described as unremittingly miserable. The following passage gives a sense of just how important sex is or rather was in his life:
During those early periods when I was sometimes without a sexual partner I was obsessed by the need for one; and when there has been sex in my life it has been at the centre of everything. Sex is inexplicable, un-understandable. As a means whereby life itself comes into existence it is miraculous. The roots of the being of each of us reach down into it to unfathomable depths. […] I feel the same incredulous and astonished gratitude for it as I do for music. Even by itself, it makes life worth having lived.
But none of Magee’s deep and diverse passions proved lasting, while all were ultimately subordinate to his underlying intellectual pursuits, writing and philosophy. As he says himself, if he had had independent means he would have devoted his entire life to writing about philosophy. Thankfully, he did find time to write many philosophical books, several of which are superb, including, in addition to the dialogues mentioned above, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Confessions of a Philosopher and Wagner and Philosophy. It is no accident that his best works were written in the latter part of his life, when he had become a full-time author.
Reading Magee is not a dissimilar experience to reading Plato or Nietzsche, in the sense that not only is he a gifted writer but he also succeeds in conveying the magnetic power of ideas. Like all genuine philosophers, he does not perceive philosophy as separate from life; rather it’s about as close to real life as one can get. Philosophy possesses him, and, in the process, shows up the silliness and superficiality of academics who, thinking they can control philosophy, treat it as a game. As Magee reminds us: “What makes philosophy matter is not being right about everything (none is: all the greatest philosophies are false theories) but how close it gets to the bone of truth about some things of the deepest consequence.”
And what of Ingrid and their child, Gunnela? Magee doesn’t shy away from telling us their stories, but what is most striking is how little he seems able to reveal about their feelings, particularly Ingrid’s. He gives the bare facts and some, but one is left wondering what they felt about him. In the absence of knowing their thoughts one can’t help speculating that Ingrid was defeated by and Gunnela required to accommodate a man who was charming, complex and not bereft of a sense of paternal duty but unwilling and perhaps even unable to put their interests above his own. In the same vein, one wonders if his string of lovers felt similarly about him, especially those with whom he was seriously involved.
That may come across as a harsh judgement, but it is the one that Magee’s disarming egotism and honesty invite us to make, though he may not be aware of how much he gives himself away. For the truly wonderful thing about this autobiography is that it can’t help but stay faithful to the traits of its author – irresistible, worldly-wise, irrepressible, arrogant, clever, convivial, resourceful, selfish, fearless, candid, unsnobbish, hedonistic, principled, curious and uncompromisingly himself.
The closing paragraph of Making the Most of It touches on one of the deepest questions of philosophy: what is the point of life? Magee’s response is characteristically perceptive and poignant and, above all, philosophical:
If it could be revealed to me for certain that life is meaningless, and that my lot when I die will be timeless oblivion, and I were then asked: “Knowing these things, would you, if given the choice, still choose to have been born?”, my answer would be “Yes!” I have loved living. Even if the worse-case scenario is the true one, what I have had has been infinitely better than nothing. In spite of what has been wrong with my life, and in spite of what has been wrong with me, I am inexpressibly grateful to have lived. It is terrible and terrifying to have to die, but even the prospect of eternal annihilation is a price worth paying for being alive.
Johnny Lyons lectured in political theory at Trinity College Dublin before joining the commercial world over twenty years ago, where he specialises in corporate communications. He is the author of The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, forthcoming from Bloomsbury. Email: [email protected]