ANTHONY KENNY was once a Roman Catholic priest, before being the Master of Balliol College, Oxford. He is a prominent British philosopher with a cool analytic style. So his memoir promises to be illuminating and incisive.
It takes the form of 60 short sketches of well-known people whom he has encountered over the years, and he doesn’t disappoint. Iris Murdoch was “one of the most kind-hearted people I knew”. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe was “brilliant” as a preacher, lecturer, and interlocutor. Margaret Thatcher was “always friendly and charming”, although he suspects that she blocked his knighthood when Oxford failed to award her an honorary degree. He regards it as a sign of the current malaise in British politics that figures such as Yvette Cooper aren’t able to contribute at the highest levels.
Austin Farrer, the Anglican theologian about whose work Kenny wrote a dissertation, has failed to have the influence he deserves, too, because of his stylistic idiosyncrasy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu always “radiates”; and Nelson Mandela is perhaps the closest he has come to meeting a saint.
Kenny has highlighted the errors in the theological arguments of Richard Dawkins on several occasions, although Kenny is a longstanding agnostic. After a public debate between the atheist biologist and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams which Kenny chaired, Kenny remarked that Dawkins’s intellectual progression, from a high point in his book The Extended Phenotype to The God Delusion, “was like moving from the Financial Times to The Sun”. The comment did not go down well.
That said, he reserves some of his most damning comments for Boris Johnson. Kenny saw Johnson last in May 2017. “As he departed, I reflected ruefully on the college’s part in his education.
“We had been privileged to be given the task of bringing up members of the nation’s political elite. But what had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No. What had we taught? Was it only how to make witty and brilliant speeches? I comforted myself with the thought that even Socrates was very doubtful whether virtue could be taught.”
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books, 2016).
Brief Encounters: Notes from a philosopher’s diary
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