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Even in old age, philosopher Bryan Magee remains wonder-struck by the ultimate questions

A broadcaster, politician, author and poet, Magee once occupied many prominent roles. Now, in old age, he lives in one room in a nursing hospital – yet his mind still roams restlessly free.

One summer afternoon in 1997, on assignment for the Times, I visited Bryan Magee at his flat in Kensington, west London. I read philosophy at university in the late 1980s and my understanding of the subject was transformed through watching Magee’s BBC Two series The Great Philosophers (1987) and then reading the subsequent book adapted from it. He is unsurpassed in the postwar period in Britain as a populariser of philosophy, and I learned more from the 15 episodes of that series as well as the book than from any lecture or seminar I attended. It achieved, as the philosopher and biographer Ray Monk has written, the near-impossible feat of presenting to a mass audience the recondite issues of philosophy without the loss either of accessibility or intellectual integrity.

The format was extraordinarily simple. Magee sat alongside an eminent philosopher (“two boffins on a sofa” was how the Guardian’s witty TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith described the set-up in a favourable review) and together they interrogated the work of one of the greats: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and so on. Magee asked the questions and clarified or summarised the replies. The series was revelatory – at least to me. So, this is how to read and talk about philosophy!

Magee and I chatted for a couple of hours that afternoon as bright sunshine streamed through the high windows of his sitting room. What I liked about his approach was his willingness to demystify philosophical problems by demonstrating that they were not theoretical but existential – about the nature of reality, encountered in the course of living. Yet as I prepared to leave that afternoon, Magee, who through choice lived alone having once been briefly married, said something that I’ve never forgotten. “I get the impression,” he said, “that you feel I am lonely and unfulfilled.”

There was some truth in this: he did seem unfulfilled, and not because he lived alone. There was something restless in his manner: an irritable reaching after fact and reason, as Keats wrote in a different context. And he’d never committed himself fully to one discipline, preferring instead to occupy many different public roles as a broadcaster, politician, teacher, author and poet. And he told me – he was 67 at the time – that he believed himself still to be capable of “doing great things”. He used a German word to describe how he felt about his own potential, MachtgefühlMacht = power, Gefühl = feeling or sense. So, in broad translation, Machtgefühl: a feeling of or having a sense of power. I have also seen the word translated as “feeling of superiority” (even though I haven’t seen macht translated as “superiority”).

As an impressionable younger man, I was pretty impressed by what Magee had achieved already. What more could he do or have done? Why even now such restlessness and vaulting ambition?

In his book, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), which is a history of Western philosophy told through his own intellectual journey, Magee offers what could be a partial answer to these questions when he describes how in his late thirties, despite having a passionate attachment to life, he was driven to the edge of mental illness, even suicide, by metaphysical terror. He learned to control his terror, which, though he did not say so, recalled Blaise Pascal’s fear of “immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me”, through reading the writings of others, notably Arthur Schopenhauer. “I think the feeling of meaninglessness is worst of all, worse than the fear of death itself,” Magee said. “The feeling that nothing matters, that there’s no point to anything. Certainly, I have experiences, in the forms of extreme existential terror, states of mind that bordered on the intolerable.”

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Magee, who will be 88 on 12 April, now lives in one room in a nursing hospital in Oxford. It was there that I went to see him one recent afternoon. He’d re-entered my thoughts a couple of years earlier when he wrote a letter for publication in the New Statesman. Not long after that, he published a short, haunting book called Ultimate Questions, which would serve, he told me in another letter, as his final statement on philosophy while also being, he hoped, an original contribution to the subject. Then, in February, John Cleese tweeted: “One of my heroes, the philosopher Bryan Magee, has just written a new book. It’s called Ultimate Questions and I strongly recommend it.”

It was poignant encountering Magee in his hospital room after all this time. He cannot walk and sat with a blanket across his legs in an armchair directly opposite a television – he was watching the BBC news when I arrived, the sound turned up loud. He was wearing a pink open-necked business shirt and on a table before him were a telephone connected to a landline, a copy of that morning’s Times, a hardback of Ultimate Questions and several books of PG Wodehouse stories. Magee is still lucid and his voice is as warm and mellifluous as it ever was. He wears thick-framed glasses that magnify his eyes like marbles, just as they did back when he was performing as one of the boffins on the sofa.

Philosophy has been fundamental to his life for as long as he can remember. Even as a young boy he was absorbed by ultimate questions. The world and its mysteries perplexed and tormented him, from the nature of time (does it have a beginning?) to the riddle of why we sleep. He has described lying awake as a child for hours at night, longing to experience the moment at which he fell asleep, in “the same sort of way as people try to catch the light in a refrigerator going out” as its door closes. “An ever-present curiosity became for most of the time my strongest-felt emotion, sometimes the mode I lived in,” he wrote.

Even now, alone in his one room, late in life, he remains wonder-struck. “What the hell is it all about?” he asked. “What are we doing here? What’s going on? I feel the weight of these huge questions. And I know I can’t get the answers to them, and I find that oppressive.” In Ultimate Questions, Magee writes of being “driven to the view that total reality consists of some aspects that we are capable of apprehending and others that we are not”.

Philosophy is by its nature improvable: it is perpetually being revised as each generation makes its discoveries and re-evaluates the best of what has been thought and written. In this sense, with the exception of the permanent truths of mathematics and logic, human knowledge cannot be definitive. As Karl Popper argued, to demand certainty is to demand something you can never have. At best, all we can have is conjectural and provisional knowledge permanently open to improvement. For Magee, “There aren’t explanations for everything; indeed, there are no explanations for anything, and we should be far more agnostic in our way of living.”

Martin Amis, formerly an atheist, said something similar in a 2006 interview with Bill Moyers. Being an agnostic, he said, was “the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast… We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.”

 Inquiring minds: clockwise from top left, Bryan Magee, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper. Credit: Dan Murrell

Magee was brought up in a working-class family in Hoxton, east London. Home was a men’s clothing shop, owned by his grandfather and worked in by his father, who was an anti-communist socialist, highly cultured, and ambitious for his son. Magee adored him but disliked his mother. “She was a loveless person who never loved anybody,” he told me. “She had no affection for her children, and she told us so – she told me and my sister.”

He grew up in the street, surrounded by groups of other children. “My mother would give me a meal in the morning and then she’d shut me out on to the street, and say, ‘I don’t want to see you again until it gets dark.’ All the time she was telling us that she didn’t love us, didn’t want us and that we were in the way.”

Magee was a clever boy and, at the age of 11 and encouraged by his father, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, a traditional public school founded in 1552 which, because of its generous system of bursaries, attracted boys from all social classes (today it is a co-educational day and boarding school). There, he was educated “out of the class system”. “The way I spoke changed – I learned to speak like everyone around me, but not consciously. It just happened. I knew too that after I’d gone to Christ’s Hospital I could do anything I wanted to do. I could be a doctor, anything.”

During his national service, he served in the army and Intelligence Corps. Magee then went up to Oxford, where he became president of the union, was a committed socialist, and “took it for granted that sooner or later I’d be a member of parliament”. After a year of graduate research in the United States, he worked in television as a “backroom boy, scriptwriter and editor” and later as an on-screen reporter and presenter because he knew that he would not earn enough from writing to support the sophisticated lifestyle he desired. “I wanted to travel, to go to the theatre, to restaurants, to have a much more metropolitan life.”

During this period, he had many relationships – he describes sex as an “other-worldly” experience and likens its effects to that of great music, “the deepest we can penetrate into a world other than this world, the world beyond appearances” – but never came close to remarrying. (He has one daughter from his brief marriage, who lives in Sweden and has three children of her own.)

“What I wanted was complete freedom,” he told me. “It’s always been a dominating feeling with me. I wanted to get up in the morning and think, ‘I’ll go to Paris for the weekend.’ You can’t do that if you’re living with someone.”

In February 1974, he was elected Labour MP for Leyton in east London. He wanted and expected to achieve high office but he was distrusted by Harold Wilson and was never promoted. He believes Wilson would not forgive him for a television interview conducted by Magee in which he had exposed the contradictions in the Labour leader’s position on the abolition of grammar schools.

“After the programme he got up and shook hands with the other people in the studio, the floor manager, the cameramen and so on, he shook hands with everybody else, and he glared at me, and he walked out. He was positively anti-me when I was an MP. I’m virtually sure that was the reason.”

Magee left politics “enormously disillusioned” having defected to the SDP; he lost his seat at the 1983 general election. “I had completely adjusted psychologically to losing,” he said. “If I hadn’t lost, I might have stood down anyway.”

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Through all this, Magee kept coming back to philosophy. He presented radio and television series on the subject and wrote books on Karl Popper and later on Schopenhauer. He also published a book of poetry while at Oxford but regrets having done so, and a novel in which he explored his existential terror, Facing Death (1977). Despite all this activity, he was frustrated by his own limitations as he identified them – limitations of intellect and of creative imagination.

“There’s nothing I wanted to do that I haven’t done,” he said. “But I’m frustrated that I wasn’t able to do it better. What’s been wrong with me in life is that I haven’t had that extra ability or belief in myself, I don’t know what it is, that [would have] made me go one step further.”

Later in our conversation, he said: “What disappoints me about my achievement is that I expected, when I was very young and more optimistic about myself and my future, to do better. I expected to write better things than I have, but I’ve done as well as I can. I’m not as able as I would like to be but there it is.”

He has met exceptional individuals. “I got to know Bertrand Russell in the last years of his life. I knew Karl Popper quite well, and they were a whole class above me in intelligence. It wasn’t that I was jealous, it was that I was trying to grapple with these problems with inadequate weaponry.”

Magee believes he lacked originality and, until Ultimate Questions, struggled to make an original contribution to philosophy. “Popper had this originality, Russell had it, and Einstein had it in spades. Einstein created a way of seeing things which transformed the way we see the world and the way we even understand such fundamental things as time and space. And I fundamentally understand that I could never do that, never. I wish I was in that class – not because I want to be a clever chap but because I want to do things that are at a much better level than I’ve done them.”

Not lonely, then, but still restless and unfulfilled.

But what of the original contribution he claims to have made in Ultimate Questions?

“Well, it is to say that we don’t know anything.”

You mean the permanent unknowability of total reality?

“Yes, the unknowability of everything that matters.”

Of which more later.

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Magee follows the news and politics closely and considers the vote for Brexit to have been a “historic mistake”. More than that, it has dislocated him, as it has many others. “What this has made me understand is that I’ve lost my understanding of what’s going on. We must live with the consequences. But we will have serious problems long into the future, and the most serious problem is what you call ‘the elite being out of touch’ and being wrong about one huge thing after another. Society has changed, or is changing in ways we haven’t properly grasped.”

As a young man following the example of his beloved father, Magee was on the Bevanite left, but now calls himself a centrist. “I’m not a conservative and I don’t think I could ever be. But the old categorisations of socialism, or social democracy, and conservative have been left behind by events. The parties themselves are now out of touch with the realities of social change. Both our main parties are fundamentally responses to situations that no longer exist or have become very weak. They are responses to a society that isn’t there.”

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The final paragraph of Ultimate Questions, in which Magee speculates on how he might feel at the point of death, is especially haunting. “I can only hope that,” he writes, “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.”

Magee does not know what he is looking for because what he seeks – answers to the ultimate questions – is unavailable. He does not attempt to find consolation in religion, in abstract systems or in general philosophies that provide explanations for everything, but nor is he an atheist. He’s an agnostic troubled continuously by the unknowability, indeed the incomprehensibility, of total reality; of what lies beyond the world of appearances and can never be breached. “I do genuinely believe the possibility that death might be total extinction, but it’s only a possibility; something else might be the case, and I generally believe that too.”

What for him is “terminally inexplicable” is existence itself. “What I feel about this is a double sense of wonder that the inexplicable is actual,” he writes in Ultimate Questions.

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After I turned the tape recorder off, Magee started to ask me questions – about where I grew up, where I went to school. He said he’d hoped my questions might have led him to some kind of revelation or renewed self-understanding. They had not. So, we talked instead about Harlow new town in Essex, where I was born, its origins and purpose. “This is interesting,” he said. “Now I’m learning something!”

He seemed reluctant for our conversation to end, so I stayed on to have a cup of tea and some lemon drizzle cake brought to us by a male nurse. Eventually I could see that he was tiring and I left him there, alone, holding a metaphorical candle as darkness fell.

Bryan Magee may now live in one room in Oxford and be unable to walk, but this remarkable man’s intellect is unbounded and his mind roams restlessly free. And just as he did as a child in Hoxton all those years ago, he cannot stop grappling with the human predicament. He is pursuing answers to questions he knows can never be answered, and yet will go on pursuing them for as long as he can, until the flickering flame of life is extinguished. 

“Ultimate Questions” is published by Princeton University Press

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire