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28 July 2021

Pensées by Bryan Magee

The late Bryan Magee, populariser of philosophy and communicator of complex ideas, grappled with the fundamental questions and mysteries of existence – as these notes, written over years in private notebooks and published for the first time, reveal. 

By Jason Cowley

Introduction by Henry Hardy

It is two years since the death, at the age of 89, of Bryan Magee (1930-2019), the celebrated philosopher, politician, journalist, author and broadcaster. His was (and still is) a household name among the chattering classes, especially for his brilliant television interviews with prominent philosophers – a triumph of uncondescending popularisation. He was a consummate interviewer and discussion chairman, and one of the most articulate and engaging expositors, especially of ideas, who ever lived.

Born a cockney in Hoxton, east London, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex, and Oxford, where he was elected president of the Oxford Union. Early in his career he presented the ITV current affairs programme This Week, made documentaries about social issues, and wrote books, including the hugely successful Popper (1973) for Fontana Modern Masters. In 1974 he was elected as Labour MP for Leyton, but in 1982 defected to the SDP, losing his seat in 1983.

He talked to philosophers for the BBC in the radio series Conversations with Philosophers (1970-71) and in the two TV series Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). Substantial volumes on Wagner and Schopenhauer were highlights in an eventual total of 23 very various books, including The Story of Philosophy (1998), Ultimate Questions (2016), and three volumes of autobiography: Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood (2003); Growing Up in a War (2007); and Making the Most of It (2018).

Magee was a man of many parts who cannot be summed up by a single label, but his most enduring achievement may be his explanation of philosophy to non-specialists. He made the subject exciting and accessible without dumbing the material down. Many of his TV programmes are on YouTube, compensating for the BBC’s shameful failure to repeat them.

Magee was also a notable egotist whose favourite subject was himself, and who put his own desires and interests first. He also took a testy pride in seeing alleged truths obvious to him but not to others. These tendencies were usually disguised by his great charm and conversational brilliance, but they did erupt disagreeably from time to time. He wanted to do what he wanted to do, and when he wanted to do it, and nothing else. But this was probably a condition of his successes. He was driven by the urge to write, and this required discipline and even obstinacy. The value of the legacy he has left us, in printed and recorded form, is so great that we should not begrudge him his purposeful selfishness, which may have been due in part to a dash of autism that he and I agreed was a productive part of both our make-ups.

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He left a large body of unpublished work: finished and unfinished books; essays, poems, correspondence. It falls to me as his literary executor to publish the best of it. Two genres of his writing in particular seem to me to suit the New Statesman: his short pensées on philosophy and life, accumulated over many years in a series of notebooks; and his pen-portraits of contemporary figures whom he knew well, or met and sharply observed. What appears below is a selection made from the notebooks by your editor, Jason Cowley, who admired Magee and interviewed him for the magazine not long before he died. The plan is to post more from this source on the NS website in due course. Magee may be no Pascal: but then Pascal is no Magee.

Henry Hardy is an honorary fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford


Editor’s Note by Jason Cowley

I met Bryan Magee only twice and, on each occasion, we had long conversations about philosophy, politics, ambition, failure, social mobility, his working-class Hoxton boyhood, and much else besides. I recorded these conversations and one day I intend to listen to them again. At our first meeting, one summer afternoon in his spacious, airy flat in west London, I was struck by Magee’s intellectual and personal restlessness and perhaps even by his loneliness: here was a writer, broadcaster and former Labour MP who, to me at that stage of my life at least, seemed to have achieved so much, and yet appeared in his own estimation to have fallen short. Or not to have achieved what he wanted. As I left his flat that afternoon, he told me that he was still capable of “doing great things”. He was aged 67.

The second time we met, just over two decades later, was at a nursing home in Oxford, where he was living. He was as lucid as he had been at our first meeting. In spite of his physical deterioration (he could no longer walk), he was still grappling with the fundamental questions and mysteries of existence.

I admired Magee greatly for his work as a populariser of philosophy, public educator and communicator of complex ideas. This edited selection of some of the thoughts and observations written in his private notebooks over many years reveals the interests and obsessions familiar to anyone who has read his books or watched his BBC television series Men of Ideas and The Great Philosophers.

I have selected, ordered and numbered these thoughts, or pensées – Magee called them “notes” – as he would have wished. “If a day comes when I prepare them for publication, I shall try to put them into an order that adds to their readability, and will then renumber them,” he wrote. “If anyone else performs this task he should do the same thing.” He wanted each one numbered, “but only to make it possible to refer to it without having to quote it”. There are deliberate repetitions in my selection: here is a mind working away at the same dilemmas, over and over.

The obvious model is the 17th-century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, which are among the most compelling aphorisms about the human condition ever written. As Henry Hardy says in his introduction, Bryan Magee was no Pascal. But, as the writer and columnist Matthew Syed said of Magee at the time of his death aged 89, “He’ll be remembered for many things but, for me, nobody wrote more hauntingly about mortality.”

The closing paragraph of Ultimate Questions, his penultimate book and final philosophical statement, is perhaps the most haunting one he wrote because in it he contemplates his own death. “I can only hope that when it is my turn, my curiosity will overcome my fear – though I may then be in the position of a man whose candle goes out and plunges him into pitch darkness at the very instant when he thought he was about to find what he was looking for.”

If anything unifies the work of Bryan Magee, it is curiosity: he kept asking ultimate questions until he could ask them no more.

Credit: Barbara Gibson

I. Ambition

1. My natural drive is to conquer the world, not to change it. Put this another way: given any situation, however unpleasant, my first felt need is not to alter it but to come to terms with it and master it. This shows a basic insecurity. It shows also – and clearly the two are related – a macro-conservatism in that it accepts the status quo. It shows a micro-radicalism in that it aims to supplant the existing order.

2. My trouble is I’m a borderline case: I’m on the fence between talent and genius. If I get down on one side, I shall step into worldly success but turn my back on the possibility of greatness. If I get down on the other, I shall be giving up a life with other people, status, security, money and power in return for isolation and the probability of failure.

3. The great dead, like the great living, are our equals, not our superiors.

4. In what really matters I am like a poor man with expensive tastes.

5. I have bigness without the self-confidence of bigness. And since what chiefly impresses others is self-confidence…

6. I’ve got self-confidence like an incurable disease.

7. Unless you live on equal terms with the great dead you can’t really get to know them, and hence understand them, and hence appreciate them.

8. Failure can be a precondition of success.

9. My intellectual apparatus is not good enough. There is a whole class of intelligence above mine. Whenever I think seriously about something I feel like a great motor-racing driver at the wheel of a second-hand car.

10. Failure is an important and valuable experience. People who have never had it tend to be more noticeably limited in their outlook and sympathies, and harsh in their judgements. Failure sharpens people’s awareness of their own fallibility, their own common humanity, and deepens their understanding of those in others.

11. The most dangerous moment of all is when you’re on the point of victory, because that’s when you stand to lose everything.

12. If you’re falling short of your aim, raise your sights, don’t change your target to one you can hit.

13. My need for significance is cosmic, not social.

14. I can only do.

15. Perfection is not available, so let us settle for improvement.

16. I don’t want to become a repository for other people’s hopes: I’ve disappointed too many of my own.

17. I could easily go mad and think I was God.

18. Why aren’t I mad? Going mad won’t help.

II. Terror

19. For me, terror is a permanent fact of life, because death is inevitable.

20. People who have not really lived, not been themselves, rage and feel cheated at the thought of never living, and are therefore terrified of death; but people who have really lived are not afraid to die.

21. I want adventure without venture, danger without risk. I can face catastrophe provided I don’t have to.

22. A lot of people kill themselves because they are afraid of dying.

23. Being fatally ill makes you live your life. It forces you to face facts which would have applied to you anyway in the longer run, but which otherwise you might have never faced.

24. All my life I have been afraid of other people – all other people. But, not surprisingly, the people I have been afraid of most are those with power to hurt me or order my life.

25. Death is the ultimate authority. Becoming mature includes ceasing to fear death.

26. If death is the end, then all this is a miracle.

27. That I exist is utterly fantastic.

28. Only mortality can give me courage.

29. From what we know we cannot make sense of life. Therefore either life has no sense or there is more to it than we know.

30. Not being yourself kills you.

31. If death did not exist it would be impossible to imagine it.

32. Dying can be a form of escapism.

33. “Does the world exist independently of experience?” An undecidable question.

34. If the world does not exist independently of experience, there is a grain of truth in solipsism.


35. If music did not exist it would be impossible to imagine it.

36. Music is the soul of the world.

37. Music is the voice of interior reality.

38. Music starts where metaphysics leaves off.

39. Sound is my medium: music is my ruling passion, and my greatest gift is for public speaking.

40. The view that art is of ultimate importance is frivolous: what is of ultimate importance is what art is about.

41. Great music is valid metaphysics.

42. Wagner’s works are like those high-tension cables that go striding across the hills on their great pylons, disfiguring the countryside and bringing warmth and light to people, saving the lives of some and killing others.

43. Wagner’s art is truthful and whole in a way no other art is. To reject it for the evil in it is to reject it for one of the things that make it greater than other art.

44. Art doesn’t say things, it shows them. And what it shows can’t be said.

45. Creative art is metaphysics. A successful work of art embodies insights and understandings that are not available to analytic thought, and cannot be expressed in concepts. Works of art that consist of words – such as poems, novels, and to some extent plays – communicate their meaning to us in just the same way as works of art in other media: they exhibit those meanings but do not state them, and could not state them. No one can usefully answer such questions as “What is King Lear about?” or “What is Hamlet about?” Their meanings are indeed exhibited, presented, by the works, but cannot be stated.

46. When I say my ruling passion is music the question often comes straight back: “Do you play an instrument?” or even: “What instrument do you play?” The immediacy betrays misunderstanding of the nature of music.

47. I have written two books on Wagner, but what is supremely important about his work is the life-changing beauty of the music, and about that almost nothing can be said.

48. Wagner says somewhere that art addresses itself primarily to the emotions, so if it is responded to primarily on the level of intellect it has already been misunderstood. This is a profound truth.

49. Even the best jazz promises more than it delivers: it is thrilling but not fulfilling – exciting but not satisfying.

50. The interwar American popular song is one of the musical glories of this century. Hundreds of them will live, and dozens of them will remain popular.

51. One of the most exciting sounds in the world is that of the oboe playing A.


52. Suppose I go into politics in the next few years, which is possible; and suppose, if I do, that I achieve prominence, which is also possible; then people will write about me. One day, some person or persons born after my death will write my biography. How will they possibly be able to know what it was like to be me?

53. I’m a man with a genius he doesn’t want. I’ve got a genius for politics, and I don’t want to be a politician.

54. Why is the subject matter of so much great art political?

55. There is something complacent in the mere fact of being a politician.

56. The government of most human societies in the course of history has been tyrannical, oppressive, reactionary, or at very best conservative, and yet it is under such governments that most of civilisation has developed.

57. Socialism was a tragedy. And it was such an appealing idea. Its dictionary definition was common ownership of the means of production, and the attraction of this idea for many was like that of a religion. They believed it would solve most of the major social problems. It was tried in countries at widely different levels of economic and social development, from the brutish underdevelopment of newly liberated colonies in Africa to the sophisticated societies of Scandinavia, and in not a single one of them was it a success. Underdeveloped societies were impoverished even further by it, and new social problems created. And the fact that this happened everywhere showed that failure was not due to local circumstances. There was something intrinsically wrong with the whole idea.

58. A belief in equality is as deeply flawed as a belief in common ownership, and the pursuit of it in practice does as much practical harm. Equality can be established and maintained only by coercion, by a mass of rules and regulations that have the backing of law, by the stifling of initiative, and it is therefore at odds with personal freedom. The society which more than any other is a byword for the freedom of its members is the United States, which is an unequal society.

59. I am pretty sure that if a single word is used to sum up what most of the people who for centuries have migrated to the United States have been in search of it has to be not “freedom” but “opportunity”. They wanted a better deal, better prospects in life. And usually they found them. The most magnetic thing about America has always been as a land of opportunity for most of its people. In consequence, individuals there reach widely differing situations. Obviously, opportunity for the individual is not compatible with equality of outcomes. This has caused much muddled thinking on the part of those who want to believe both in equality and in freedom, because freedom confers opportunity. In practice equality, even of opportunity, let alone of outcomes, can be achieved and maintained only by regulation and control – which means, if only obliquely, coercion. This is why equality in general cannot be a prime political value for people whose first allegiance is to either freedom or opportunity. Nevertheless, for opportunity to be maximised, some degree of equality is essential: for instance, equality before the law, and a decent level at least, of equality of opportunity.

60. Politicians, their parties and their governments nearly always begin any presentation of themselves by putting forward their policies. But this is the second stage, not the first, in the political process as correctly understood. The first stage is to identify accurately the problems to be confronted. The second stage is to propose solutions to those problems – and it is those proposed solutions that are policies. Real politics begins with problems, not with solutions.

61. The society in which I live has so much wrong with it that it comes naturally to me to be socially critical of it. Yet when I look at it in the round, in the perspective of its own past, or by comparison with other societies, past or present, I am almost lost in admiration. Truthfully, there is no contradiction involved.

62. In politics it is common for people to affect misunderstanding of an opponent in order to denigrate or attack him. But such criticism is insubstantial, because based on misrepresentation.

63. You can’t think your way to salvation.

64. The worst thing a government can do is treat its subjects as objects.

65. Trying to understand the world through reasoning alone is like trying to make bricks with only straw, or like setting off across the Sahara with a limitless supply of water but nothing else.

66. Equality is a false value. What is most important for people over and above survival and the elements of well-being are freedom and opportunity; and this is as it should be because opportunity and equality are at odds with one another; usually, an opportunity successfully taken reduces equality.

67. All political parties are coalitions.

68. No regime has difficulty in finding executioners.

The candidate: Bryan Magee campaigning for Labour in the 1960 Mid Bedfordshire by-election​. Credit: Brian Worth


69. Most men are addicted to orgasm. In spite of themselves, in the last resort, they’ll do anything to get it.

70. What isn’t felt isn’t lived.

71. My trouble isn’t that nobody loves me, it’s that I don’t love anyone.

72. Better to live in any intimacy, even a failed one, than alone.

73. If you think you’re unlovable you become so.

74. The physical relationship between men and women is of the utmost intimacy not only in sexual intercourse but, even more, in creation and gestation: every man who has ever existed was formed inside the body of a woman, and came out from there into the world.

75. I suspect that women are biologically programmed to be carers in a way that men are not, and that this affects what personal relationships mean to them. This would explain, incidentally, why women tend to think men are selfish.

76. Far and away the most important thing that most people do in the course of their lives is create other human beings. And for most of them it will be an achievement with lasting effects, consequences that will go on making themselves felt until the human race itself comes to an end.

77. Women want love, men want sex.

78. There’s no such thing as “just sex”. Sex is momentary.

79. In matters concerning erotic love, openings are all important.

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80. It is not possible to be just a human being. One has to be something less than that – one has to be either male or female.

81. It is sex that brings the human race into existence and then keeps renewing its existence. For humanity, sex is the most basic thing of all.

82. Marriage to an unremarkable woman must have sheet anchored many great men.


83. I have lived against my life.

84. No one’s there when you lose.

85. I’m an injured optimist.

86. Be yourself and see where it gets you.

87. By doing everything you become nobody.

88. Charm is a mode of submission.

89. I am the presence of my past.

90. I have the courage of my convictions but not of my emotions.

91. You can have a strong personality and a weak character.

92. The defeated live in the past.

93. Adults are burnt-out children.

94. If you have just enough independent money to live on you can get by without common sense.

95. Work gives meaning to your life however unimportant the work.

96. It is a deeply important fact that before one can be disillusioned one needs to be illusioned.

97. Status is a substitute for achievement.

98. You can’t fool your unconscious.

99. The unlived life is not worth examining.

100. What I want to know in the end is not how to live but what the truth is.

101. I have everything I want except for everything I want.

102. Most people’s lives are lived by default.

103. Only a depressive knows true joy.

104. Pain is unbearable music.

105. The world is an impossible object.

106. The metaphysical is all there is.

107. The eyes are the character, the voice is the soul.

108. I’m going to be myself or die in the attempt.

109. The divine is within.

110. I’ve forgotten what happiness is like.


111. As a philosopher, I am like a deep-sea diver who is not very good. I struggle under the water with heavy bullion and colossal chests, and then return to the surface empty-handed.

112. The first philosopher thought that the most important maxim was “know yourself”. It is far more important to be yourself without knowing yourself than it is to know yourself without being yourself.

113. Analytic philosophy is an intellectual pastime for people who are clever but do not want to think seriously.

114. My attempts to gain some understanding of science, and in particular quantum theory, have made me realise that a time may come when the wall crumbles between physics and metaphysics. Already physics is presenting us with an empirical world the reality of which is non-material, undetermined, and so counter-intuitive in its workings that no one is confident that they understand the already-available science of it. That science has itself become so abstract and so counter-intuitive that if it develops much further (as it is bound to do) we may find ourselves unable to conceive of there being any explanatory space outside its possibilities.

115. In the second half of his life, Wittgenstein held that it was illegitimate for philosophy to produce explanatory theories; its task was wholly analytic. Popper, on the contrary, held that explanatory philosophical theories could be deeply illuminating, and that the search for better ones was the most important single task of philosophy. These two approaches polarised the 20th century’s most significant conflict with regard to the nature of philosophy. It is a conflict in which I am wholly on Popper’s side.

116. Reality, whatever it is, is not primarily something existing, it’s something happening. Something is going on.

117. Our true identity is masked from ourselves, and so we associate with one another as if we were masks wearing masks. [After Schopenhauer – see Parerga and Paralipomena ii 55.]

118. Far and away the most important thing about a language or an idiom is what you cannot say or think in it.

119. For human beings, the ultimate questions are about our own existence, or our own happening. The most basic is: does it cease altogether when I die, or does something about me carry on? Am I heading for total nothingness – or not? Is this all there is – or not?

120. The notion that logically necessary statements convey no information about the world is hopelessly wrong: the world is precisely what they do convey information about. Necessarily true statements like “either this box is empty or it is not empty” tell us something absolutely fundamental about the structure of the world, and therefore of all possible experience. They do not tell us how things actually are within that structure but what they tell us is more important than that.

121. From the fact that no proposition is certain it does not follow that nothing is certain. Not everything is a proposition.

122. If we think that anything as wonderful as the existence of the cosmos, or even just of ourselves, must have a creative intelligence behind it, then the existence of such a creative intelligence is even more wonderful and more difficult to explain.

123. The supremely difficult thing in philosophy is to grasp that the epistemological object is not, and cannot possibly be, a part of any independently existing reality. The modes and forms of everything in experience are subject-dependent, and therefore to suppose that independently existing reality is even “like” what is experienced is self-contradictory and, because of that, empty of meaning.

124. I have never mocked belief in reincarnation, because it might be right. But I have never seen any reason to think it is.

125. Great philosophers create new explanatory theories that deepen our insight into fundamental aspects of human experience, and the greatest philosophy consists in: explanatory theories. These do not need to be right about everything, and it is almost certain that none of them ever is, but from each one we can learn something important. However, thousands of people are professionally engaged with philosophy, and few have the creative ability to produce new explanatory theories; so the majority teach what the others have done: they devote themselves to exposition, criticism, discussion and argument, and through these the education of new generations. These are invaluable activities, and their most demanding requirement – constructive criticism of great philosophy – calls for rare understanding and intelligence, though not for the originality or creativity of the great philosophers. The best of the teachers, scholars and critics, outstanding though they are, are not on a par with the original creators, nor are they engaged in the same primary activity.

126. There is a serious piece of philosophy to be written on the metaphysics of shit.

127. For a long time now, most professional philosophers have no longer occupied themselves with ultimate questions, or even with big questions. They have made themselves at home in an intermediate realm of representation and reference, expression and communication. Even here they have occupied themselves largely with minutiae. When I look at a philosophy journal I find myself thinking: “What has all this to do with anything that matters? Or even with anything interesting?”

128. In general, academics are tiresome people.

129. Academics often have good minds, but they are seldom high-calibre people.

130. What gave a unique quality to my conversations with Isaiah Berlin is that we were probably the two best understanders of philosophy around. Neither of us was a great philosopher, but our understanding of philosophy was exceptional, and imbued with a love for it.

131. Philosophy is the conquest of death.


132. When people compare the present with the past, what they say is usually right about the present but wrong about the past.

133. Money’s important when you haven’t got it, and unimportant when you have.

134. Only through specialisation or luck can the average person distinguish himself.

135. Life isn’t something which you sit outside, as a spectator, and watch. You’re involved in it as one of the participants. You’re not in the audience: you’re on stage.

136. If you say what you mean, it creates misunderstanding, because most people don’t, and don’t expect you to either, and therefore they take what you say as meaning something else.

137. The Eiffel Tower is ugly – but it’s Paris.

“The Eiffel Tower is ugly – but it’s Paris”. Credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / gift of P/K Associates. / Bridgeman Images

138. Never assume that an opponent is going to do what you expect him to, still less what would suit your book. It is in his interest, being your opponent, to do neither.

139. The process of human understanding defies human understanding. We do not know how we know what we know.

140. Man is like a chimpanzee holding a Ming vase and looking at it in wonderment, baffled. The vase is life. And there is no possible way the chimpanzee is going to understand it.

141. Whatever your abilities, other abilities are infinitely numerous, and you do not have them.

142. Charm is only a small thing, and you should not press it.

143. Fame won’t leave you alone, but it leaves you alone.

144. Money is what you can do with it.

145. Middle age is every bit as enjoyable as youth, and every bit as ephemeral. Its evanescence is more tragic, though, for youth has middle age to come.

146. No one who knows and loves the real America can be anti-Semitic.

147. Do not expect to see all the apples appear on the tree at the same time.

148. We’re all psychopaths in our attitudes to the animals we eat.

149. The most important activities in life take place characteristically in the evening – making love, being with friends, going to opera, theatre, concerts, and listening to music at home; or just sitting undisturbed in quiet reflection.

150. Crisis reveals character.

151. Do not say to me: “You have changed recently.” We have all changed recently.

152. If you tell me unpleasant things about a person you present me with two alternatives: either your allegations are true, in which case he is unpleasant, or they are untrue, in which case you are unpleasant.

153. Architecture is not frozen music but frozen history.

154. Every child is a mystic.

155. There’s no such thing as a waste of time.

156. Having a minor illness is like being at the steering wheel of a car, without brakes, running down a hill: you can’t stop it, it has to run its course, but you can keep control of it otherwise, so the course taken depends partly on your personal qualities – common sense, self-control, peace of mind, skill, courage and so on. But a really major illness is like being helpless in the back seat with no one at the steering wheel at all: you are simply at the mercy of what happens to you.

157. What we do, not what we say, shows what we are.

158. You should treat other people properly even when they volunteer to the contrary: for instance, if someone who ought not to pay offers to pay, it is wrong to let him.

159. People talk of “the pageant of life”, but the metaphor is misleading. Life is not something which unfolds itself before us. We ourselves are in the pageant, every one of us. And there is no audience.

160. London is my continuity.

161. England is my college.

162. The beautiful are deserving.

163. People always want you to play their game, and are disappointed with you if you don’t.

164. It’s a doubly bad sign if a friend refuses to tell you how old she is: it suggests not only an inability to face reality, but also a lack of candour in personal relationships.

165. We always have to pay for our mistakes, and usually the way to pay least is to pay promptly.

166. If you are to live life to the full you must find the company that suits you.

167. One of the most reliable signs that you need a holiday is the conviction that you cannot spare the time to take one.

168. Doing what you can means being who you are.

169. Not without going too far can you find a limit to how far you can go.

170. Everybody wants to die of old age, but nobody wants to grow old.

171. What is repressed is always present, although it is not expressed and not even apprehended.

172. There is no kind of fame that is at one and the same time so universal and so limited as television fame. You can be a household face and name in a whole country, even in one region of a country, and be totally unknown outside it.

173. In Europ one feels that the towns have been there from time immemorial, and that travel routes came into existence in order to link them up. In much of America it is the other way round: a huge continent was opened up by pioneers who established far-flung travel routes across enormous distances; and then, in the course of time, towns grew up along the routes. So whereas in Europe it was already-existing towns that brought the communications into being, in much of America it was already-existing communications that brought the towns into being. This is reflected in the character of the towns. It also gives rise to deep and lasting differences between Europeans and Americans in their feelings not only about inhabited places but also about travel and communications.

174. When we tread on a squirming fly we say it is to put it out of its misery, but really it’s to put us out of ours. We find watching it distressing, and it’s our own distress we want to put an end to. The same feelings are at work when somebody dies after a long illness and we call it a merciful release.

175. Wit is a form of presumption. It requires a certain self-confidence. One can be frightened of being witty.

176. The most worthwhile people to argue with, or even just to talk to, understand what you’re saying and don’t agree with it. It is a waste of time and goodwill to talk to people who dispute what you’re saying without understanding it.

177. Other people’s conception of you is an artefact which they make and put to use.

178. Most things that get lost in the post were never posted.

179. How can I know what I believe till I see what I do?


180. I started these notes because I would often have what seemed to me worthwhile insights that I could afterwards not remember, so I thought I should write them down. But it has made little difference: I still fail to remember most of them. There is something puzzling about the fact that thoughts which one judges to be so valuable are so easy to forget.

181. I write because it is the only way I can live deeply. I would not know how to confront the basic facts of life, like death, consciousness and personality, if I did not write about them.

182. I want to live my life, not write it.

183. Reading involves me with the world, writing cuts me off from it.

184. The books that have taught me most are not those that have given me new knowledge but those that have changed my way of looking at things.

185. Nearly all written history is journalism about the past.

186. If you write with your ears and say what you mean, style will take care of itself.

187. I regard a day on which I haven’t written anything for publication as a day on which I haven’t done any work. This has been so ever since I left university. On the other hand, I have never regarded work as the most important thing in life. On a day in which I work all morning and afternoon, go to a marvellous play or opera in the evening, and then make love, work is not the most important thing of that day for me, nor even the second most important.

188. A writer writes what he can, and this is not necessarily what he would choose to write. I have done more or less the best I could with the hand I have been dealt, but I could have done better with better cards.

189. However clearly I write, I encounter persistent misunderstanding, and then misinterpretation, from people with religious tendencies. They seem incapable of understanding anything that differs from what they think.

190. Screen adaptations of Jane Austen often upgrade the social world of her novels into that of grand houses, big estates and liveried servants. But this is a serious error. Her main characters are not grandees, not powerful figures with imposing titles and great estates; they have no thought of going into government via parliament and running the country; they do not aspire to be magnates of any kind, or ambassadors abroad. Essential to Jane Austen’s art is the fact that it is about unglamorous people: local squires, small landowners, village clergymen, and their wives and children. These people live most of their lives in an area accounted for by a few villages and the small local town, with occasional visits to London and Bath, and to relatives in another country. They have no particular ambitions, nor are they especially able. They are ordinary people. And Jane Austen is the supreme novelist of the ordinary.

191. Finishing the writing of a book is like leaving home: there is a whole world in which you have lived and are suddenly now outside.

192. If a person claims to have read something but is unable to explain it to you, or tell you about it clearly, your natural tendency is to think that he has not read it at all, or at least not read it properly, or else not understood it. But in fact it is normal, given any large body of detailed information, or any complicated argument, to be able to understand it in the act of reading it but not to remember it all and be able to reproduce it accurately after only one reading.

193. When you are talking or writing you have to use specific words. I have made use of this fact all my life as a way of reaching or at least approaching understanding. As a child I used to say things over and over to myself, improving the formulation of them each time until they seemed about right. As an adult I have written for publication in the same way, to improve and clarify my own understanding.

194. For me, poetry is the continuation of philosophy by other means.

195. Prose is an attempt to conquer the world: poetry comes to terms with the essence of things.

196. Books are the memory of mankind.

197. I compose my sentences as if they were music. Perhaps I am a composer manqué.

The model: the pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) were published posthumously in 1670. Credit: alamy


198. Most people can’t cope with knowing more than they ask.

199. The reason some people care so much about status is that it’s all they’ve got.

200. It’s what you do without effort that’s the important thing.

201. Intellectual honesty can kill the people who practise it. To be very honest you need to be very tough.

202. If you say what you mean, it creates misunderstanding, because most people don’t, and don’t expect you to either, and therefore they take what you say as meaning something else.

203. Perceptiveness about other people’s emotions and their motivations is organically linked with awareness of one’s own, because perceptions that get beneath the surface of others require empathy, and this involves self-identification. People who are good at understanding others understand themselves, and people who lack a sympathetic understanding of other people also lack self-knowledge.

204. People’s assumptions about you tell you a great deal about them.

205. Some people are traitors by nature: they cannot restrain the urge to stick a knife into their friends.

206. Entertainment is a serious matter, a fundamental need for human beings.

207. The facial expressions of others communicate things to us that cannot be put into words. So does their body language, more generally. A squeeze of the hand at a particular moment can communicate something inexpressible in language. All this is commonplace. So why are there people who insist that all communication can be expressed in language? (Among other things, they must be people to whom the arts mean nothing.)

208. Young people embark on life full of hope and ambition and curiosity. They set out as if on a voyage of adventure, to discover the world. And they assume that sooner or later they will also find their own feet and discover their true selves. The right man or woman is bound to come along and forge with them the central relationship of their lives. Their work will develop, and they themselves will grow bigger through it. And in one or another, even all, of these ways they will find fulfilment for themselves and a meaning of life. The years go by. Things take longer to happen than they expected. An intimate relationship is formed but turns out not to be the right one. There are disappointments at work. It does not as yet occur to the ageing young that their aims are not going to be realised, but they begin to change their expectations: goals will take longer to reach, they begin to think, and perhaps only some will be achieved. One day each such person wakes up to the fact that he is no longer young. He has, without noticing, crossed the border into middle age. Ahead of him lie only middle age and old age, periods of life in which adventure and love are less likely to come to him than they had been in his youth.

209. Most people are incapable of understanding the fact of creativity and original thought: they have no experience of it, and cannot imagine it.

210. Most of my fellow human beings live as if what really matters is not how things actually are but what other people think, whereas I believe that what matters is not what other people think but how things really are.

211. Some people kill themselves because they are afraid to die.

212. The defeated live in the past.

213. Although it may be disconcerting to find that something you have believed is mistaken, it is at the same time thrilling, because it opens up new worlds of re-evaluation and fresh thinking, new understanding and insight.

214. People misrepresent the arguments of their opponents, and in consequence fail to understand them.

215. We are all the time disclosing things about ourselves and those close to us without realising that we are doing so. Such disclosure may be highly personal and private. For example, the Jewish wife of a non-Jewish friend of mine once told me an anecdote that rested on the assumption that among the British only Jews were circumcised. This told me at once that her husband was uncircumcised, since in our society millions of non-Jews were circumcised. In the course of a longish life I have acquired much private information in ways that have a logical affinity with this – information about people’s marriages and infidelities, their children, their business activities, all kinds of things. When I was a young interrogator in the Intelligence Corps on the Iron Curtain, the person I was interrogating would often say something that seemed to him of no use to me whatsoever, yet when I put it together with something I knew and he didn’t (or didn’t know I knew) it gave me significant information. This was common enough for me to go fishing for it sometimes. But the people who gave me information never realised that they had.

216. The reason why people who persistently misjudge things do not learn from experience is that each time something goes wrong they misjudge the reason for it. Foolishness is not cured by experience.

217. Dislike is usually mutual, so if you dislike someone it is probable that he thinks no more highly of you than you do of him.

218. People always exaggerate the difference that has been made by what they lack. They often ascribe almost magical powers to transform their situation to whatever it is they have missed out on, whether it be education, money, height, looks or birth.

219. A good 90 per cent of the lying perpetrated in the course of the world’s business is done not to promote someone’s nefarious aims but to cover up mistakes, or to make things go smoothly, and is done by ordinary, decent people whose intentions are quite rational.


220. I know that I exist, but I do not know what I am. Or rather, I do not know what “I” is.

221. I am in thrall to experience, and the miraculousness of it, and the enigma of it. The only experience I actually have is my own, so this is what I examine and try to understand, and to write about.

222. The end of self-consciousness will be the beginning of self-confidence.

223. Our powers of apprehension are contingent. What they, in the totality of their possibilities, can apprehend is the empirical world. Whatever exists apart from that we can never have any apprehension of.

224. I may be as closely surrounded by realities I do not apprehend as a congenitally blind man is by the visual world.

225. We are on death row for the whole of our lives.

226. I am a physical object that knows itself from inside.

227. I am a physical object that is aware of its own existence.

228. I am a physical object that is aware of the existence of other physical objects.

229. What is the future of my consciousness?

230. I myself am the miracle.

Analytic mind: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Credit: bridgeman art library


231. The older I get, the more strongly I suspect that the key to what happens to us when we die lies in the nature of time. We know already that time – like everything else in the empirical world – is not what it presents itself to us as being. But – again as with everything else in the empirical world – we do not understand its relationship to the non-empirical world. Yet it is in that relationship, or absence of relationship, that the answer lies to our most fundamental questions.

232. The present seems so important when you’re in it, but when it becomes the past, it eventually gets lost to view altogether, usually.

233. The future is transcendental: it exists, but cannot be known.

234. The truth about the future is transcendental: it cannot be known.

235. Fear is inappropriate as response to the inevitable.

236. By reality I mean what is, and what is the case. Trying to understand it with human apparatus is like spooning an ocean into a teacup and hoping to get it all in.

237. Dying may terrify in prospect, but I doubt whether it is unusually difficult to do.

238. Life is not lived in terms of abstract conceptual systems, such as time and language. The reality of existence is an eternal present, and cannot be represented in words.

239. We’re all living only temporarily.

240. What will there be when I have no time?

241. The question is, can I live in time?

242. Time exists only for the living.

243. Time is what we are.

244. It can never not be now.


245. The most important fact about any human being is that he or she exists. The second most important is that he or she dies.

246. My most fundamental drive has been not to create but to understand.

247. Karl Popper once said to me: “Understanding anything difficult requires effort, and this means you’ve got to be willing to make the effort. Understanding calls not only for intelligence but also for goodwill.”

248. After a lifetime of struggle with the metaphysical questions of ultimate concern I can express my conclusion simply. Behind this life of ours, and this world of ours, lies something which – in this world, and in this life – we cannot acquire knowledge of, something that remains unknowable to us. Whether it ever does become known, in other circumstances, is also unknowable to us.

249. I do not know how good my work is. If I have made clearer than anyone else things that are basic to the human condition insofar as we claim to understand it, that is an achievement. But I do not know if I have done that. And if I have, I do not know whether the content of what I have said includes anything original. I reached my views not in response to the writings of others but by living. My chief interest in other people’s work has always been the extent to which they helped me to form my own views.

250. All life comes to a dead end. Depression in the face of this is a giving up. Breakdown is an opting out. This makes it easy to say that we ought to embrace life on whatever terms it comes to us, for as long as we have it. But to actually do this can be so challenging as to border on the impossible. Whatever is going on is so much bigger than we are; and we are not in control of it.

251. Questions, not answers, are the deepest level we can aspire to. Ultimate questions are ultimate because they are valid and yet do not seem susceptible of answers. For instance: “How does it come about that anything exists at all?” is a valid question, but we are totally unable to conceive of anything that could possibly be an answer to it. We are always left, in the end, with unanswerable questions.


252. At my age, trying to avoid death is bound to fail in quite a short run. I could live a life of running away from it, but couldn’t escape for long. On the other hand, if I try to get as much pleasure out of life as I can, in the full knowledge that it will end quite soon, I have some chance of succeeding.

253. Death is the most important thing in life.

254. Being in advanced old age is like being in a country you don’t want to be in, and having no way of getting out except by killing yourself.

255. From the fact that the transcendental exists it does not follow that there is a God, nor does it follow that human beings are immortal. Ethics is transcendental; great art is transcendental; experience itself is transcendental; but from this it does not follow that humans have a significant existence after death.

256. I don’t know what I feel. I don’t know what I think. I don’t know what I believe. I’m full of questions, but I don’t have answers.

257. The most significant fact about life is that it ends.

258. Nobody ever wins the battle of life.

259. The most extraordinary thing about life is death.

260. The idea of death does not correspond to anything we shall ever encounter in experience, and that is why death is not to be feared.

261. The reason why our death in this life is not to be feared is that we shall not experience it.

262. I am not just confronted with the riddle of existence, I am the riddle of existence embodied.

263. Old age is a losing battle.

264. My body is decaying while I am still alive. It is like hearing one’s house slowly fall down about one’s ears.

265. The whole cosmos consists of intelligible structures engaged actively in intelligible processes. This is miraculous – both it and the fact of its being so. However, I am not sure that there is, or could be, a moral purpose in any of it.

266. Ceasing to exist is metaphysical. Just as it is impossible for nothing to become something, so it is impossible for something to become nothing.

267. All religions function as, among other things, ways of coping with the inevitability of death.

268. You cannot prepare yourself for oblivion.

269. I have already been dead. There was an indeterminately long time before my conception when I did not exist; and it looks as if the situation will be the same again after I die – except that I shall then have existed.

270. Why the mystery?

Star gazing: “the whole cosmos consists of intelligible structures… This is miraculous”. Credit: Getty Images

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special