Bryan Magee taught philosophy at Oxford, had been a Member of British Parliament, and worked as a successful music and theater critic. An author and professional radio and TV broadcaster, he hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and was well known not just in England but in other parts of the world, too. By his own admission, his life was great.
One slight problem, however: “In the middle of it all I was overwhelmed, almost literally so, by a sense of mortality. The realization hit me like a demolition crane that I was inevitably going to die. . . . Death, my death, the literal destruction of me, was totally inevitable, and had been from the very instant of my conception. Nothing that I could ever do, now or at any other time, could make any difference to that, nor could it ever have done so at any moment of my life.”
After confronting the reality of death, Magee struggled with what the prospect of death did to his life, namely, denude it of purpose. “In the eye of eternity a human life span is barely a flicker. Death will be upon us before we know where we are; and once we are dead it will be forever. What can anything I do mean or matter to me when I have gone down into complete nothingness for the rest of eternity? What can it matter to anyone else, either, when they too are eternally nothing? If the void is the permanent destination of all of us, all value and all significance are merely pretended for the purpose of carrying on our little human game, like children dressing up.”
Magee wrote eloquently about his struggle with meaninglessness, the realization that no matter what he did or all the success he had, whether he wrote great books or became foreign secretary, whether he married or not, or whether he failed at everything he did, “none of it would make the slightest difference to me or to anyone else when all of us were nothing, as everyone was going to be, including everyone not yet born; that it could therefore make no difference when I died, and would have made no difference if I had never been born; that I was in any event going to be for all eternity what I would have been if I had never been born; that there was no meaning in any of it, no point in any of it; and that in the end everything was nothing.”
Bryan Magee’s statements are taken from Confessions of a Philosopher, his intellectual autobiography. After expressing his fears about death, Magee sought for answers, looking into music, art, philosophy, etc. Nothing in the Confessions, however, indicated he ever found them through those pursuits. On the contrary, toward the end of the book he wrote that after all these years of seeking, “I am as baffled now by the larger metaphysical questions of my existence as I was when I was a child—indeed more so, because my understanding of the depths and difficulties of the questions themselves is now so much greater.”
What? Having seen The Merry Wives of Windsor 10 times, or having listened to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde 50 times, or having furiously studied Plato’s Meno, Magee was still going to die?
Surprise of surprises.
Magee expressed what I’ve been harping on for decades now: unless you can answer the problem of death, you have no answer to the problem of life. Death ruins everything. It voids all that comes before it. It’s not the great equalizer; it’s the great neutralizer, the great destroyer even. Just ask Bryan Magee. Or Paul, who wrote that if Christ had not risen, our faith “is vain” (1 Cor. 15:17, KJV), and ultimately our lives are as well.
Fortunately, Christ rose from the grave, beat death, and through God’s grace offers us all the same opportunity.
Otherwise, what? Well, without this hope, we have no hope at all. Of course, I’m paid to say that. Bryan Magee, on the other hand, wasn’t.
Yet he did anyway.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. He also appears on the HopeTV program Cliff! This article was publishd January 20, 2011.