A great public intellectual passed away last month. Magee spent his life wonderstruck by the sheer fact of existence, for questions about the nature of reality are “obviously the most important and interesting there are”by John Maier / August 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
When I met him, Bryan Magee was nearly 89, marvellously lucid, curious to hear about my time at Oxford, and paralysed from the waist down: in many ways the ideal interviewee. For a generation of young viewers, Magee’s legendary television series about philosophy were a baptism in the waters of the subject, and he the urbane and worldly gatekeeper to a realm of theoretic abstraction and grounded, vigorous discussion such as had never before been entered—a watershed moment in a primetime slot.
“I wouldn’t rely on television for my introduction to anything,” Magee confided in me, blinking from behind glasses so thick they appeared to be double-glazed for warmth. “It seems to me a completely unimportant medium.” Bryan! I wept internally… It was like being told there was really only ever one Ronnie, or watching David Attenborough kick a pigeon. But—remembering what television is generally like—it was hard to disagree. Magee smiled grand-paternally back at me from where he sat, inside a small arms-reach fortress of books and papers, wielding a copy of Dumas the size of house-brick; the television screwed to the opposite wall was, I assumed, purely ornamental.
Bryan Magee, who died last month, had a career of intimidating sweep. He came up to Oxford in 1949, a particular post-war moment when the university’s unofficial monopoly in the production of trademark-ruling-elite seems to have been a little overstretched, as Magee found he had to take up several careers almost at once. He was watched by millions as a television journalist on This Week and began his 30-book literary career, making considerable contributions to scholarship on Wagner and Schopenhauer, all the while keeping up friendships with figures like Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell. The television series, Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers, together took five years to produce, some of which time overlapped with Magee’s ten-year stint as a Labour MP.
Given his pick, he would have liked to be foreign secretary, but in 1982 he defected to the SDP, a heavy-hearted move that he knew would result in losing his seat. He had in fact by that stage already discovered that politics “was a way of life that I didn’t really want for myself… I realised—and I think this was an aspect of maturing—that the pursuit of power was in some very deep way a mistake.” The political career was a school-boy ambition that palled in the wake…