What do Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Boris Johnson, and Bill Clinton have in common?

Something a bit different for my latest blog post. SPCK have published two of my books (Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and The Compassion Quest). Recently they sent through an advanced copy of one of their new books for me to review. So, here goes…

What do Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Richard Dawkins, Boris Johnson, and Bill Clinton have in common? Each have appeared on numerous occasions in the diaries of Sir Anthony Kenny. The philosopher’s soon-to-be-published volume Brief Encounters: Notes from a Philosopher’s Diary gives us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these and 55 other leading figures who have shaped our culture, faith, and politics over the past half a century.

Sir Anthony was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the 1950s, but left the orders after his curacy and is by now, as he reminds us on numerous occasions in the book, an agnostic, but one who clearly still has a great deal of time, and indeed respect, for people of faith. After leaving the Catholic Church, he achieved prominence as an Oxford University philosopher and a prolific author. Through his various roles at the University and beyond (not least as Master at Balliol College and as the Chair of the British Library), he has met, wined, and dined many prominent individuals who have contributed to our political, spiritual, and cultural heritage. Luckily for us, he kept a diary and in this volume he uses his diary to muse over each character, giving us some wonderful insights into their lives and to the impact they had on him personally and on the world at large. Each chapter is tantalisingly divided into sets of threes – three Cardinals, three Anglicans, three businessmen, three prime ministers, three novelists, and so on.

In the introduction to the book, we immediately get a taste of the feast we are to be served as Sir Anthony describes how he narrowly avoided having both Tony Blair and Jacob Rees-Mogg as students, how he was almost killed by Virginia Bottomley in the British Library, and how he attended a party in the 80s where a certain Robert Mugabe, softy spoken and seemingly shy, tried to persuade him to invest in the new Zimbabwe. As we move on to the main body of the book, we discover very quickly that Sir Anthony can weave some wonderful stories – some tales are surprising, some fascinating, and some laugh-out-loud entertaining (including some rather risqué stories that I wouldn’t risk repeating on this blog!). His lively reflections are full of acerbic wit and humour. It sometimes feels like we’re sitting down with a kindly old uncle who is recounting anecdotes from his past, but with these tales there is little need for matchsticks to keep our eyes open.

This is certainly not, however, a mindless book of anecdotes. Woven into the vignettes are considerations of faith, philosophy, politics, literature, science, and history. There are sections when we are gifted with brief snippets of this world-renowned philosopher’s intellectual pondering – he considers the difference between ethics and morals, the importance of virtue, the just war theory, the relationship between philosophy and science, and so on. There are also chapters with some compelling thoughts on the attempts for peace and reconciliation in both Northern Ireland and South Africa in the 1980s, while the chapter on dissidents behind the Iron Curtain includes the exhilarating tale of when he and his wife were detained in Prague for teaching philosophy to a group of students and then dumped in West Germany by the Czech equivalent to the Stasi with the official charge against them being “hooliganism”.

Perhaps the most timely reflection in the book, though, is on Boris Johnson. The section includes Sir Anthony’s pre-referendum letter to Johnson which insists that Brexit “would be a disaster not only for us but for other European nations”. As for Boris Johnson himself, who was one of his students at Balliol, Sir Anthony describes how the politician was hissed and booed by undergraduates while visiting the college last year. He then concludes his thoughts on the former foreign secretary with the following biting reflection:

“[Oxford University has] 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”

This is an enthralling and charming book, which still manages to help us explore, contemplate, and consider, even if only very briefly, some deep political and philosophical issues. For those of us interested in matters of faith, questions of spirituality, religion, and ethics are always bubbling under the surface of these insightful vignettes. All in all, Sir Anthony’s book kept me entranced, entertained, and educated, and I will never again look at these public figures in the same way!