Ken turned out to be a natural salon-keeper because his genius was, among other qualities, conversational. He would test seemingly reasonable propositions by pointing out the odious or absurd consequences of applying them in practice. He would do so with fanciful, comic, or homely examples. And he would delight in having his arguments caught, turned around, and sent whirling back by an opponent. Hearing this mix of logic and wit was rather like listening to a Platonic dialogue rewritten by No
ël Coward or Tom Stoppard. Indeed, the nearest thing in art to Ken’s conversation may be Stoppard’s 1972 play about modern philosophy, “Jumpers.” Not incidentally, Ken was a great admirer of Stoppard, to whose trilogy of plays on the Russian intelligentsia, “The Coast of Utopia,” he gave a rave review that included the Minoguian or Stoppardian line:
A nation of clever artists, such as the Italians, should never have fallen for [Mussolini’s] idea that they were all warriors with a mission to restore the greatness of Rome.
For those reasons Ken was a fine teacher, one admired by his students, including those who disagreed with his political views. But we all benefited from Ken’s relaxed but constant interrogation of reality and ideas under the guise of dinner-table conversation. Roger Kimball recalls a lunch early in their friendship when Ken, puzzling over some implications of utilitarianism, asked: “Imagine someone invented a machine that could eliminate thousands of highway fatalities, only it needed to be fed six people at random to work. Most of us would recoil from such a solution, but why?” Roger and he spent a tonic hour over the wine . . . teasing out the answer. We could all, I think, give our own examples of such entertaining education. His students were in good hands, and they knew it.
But Ken knew that being a good teacher meant being a good learner. He was always ready to listen to other views, however out of the way, and to debate them “politely.” On one occasion he accepted an invitation from Arianna Huffington to the Café Royal to meet her guru of the moment. In the formal informal manner of such events, the guests had to introduce themselves. Ken’s opening gambit was, “My name is Ken. I am a teacher. But I am here to learn rather than to teach.” Ken knew that nothing was beyond belief. This omnivorous appetite for sensation stood him in good stead as a writer and lecturer. He wrote about serious things seriously — and about fundamentals in appropriate depth — but he drew on a range of experiences, both down to earth and wildly eccentric, that made his thought deep yet readily accessible to the serious layman.
Here he is reflecting on his experience as a supply teacher in a tough-ish London school in the mid-fifties: “I only once had occasion to call for the cane, which was sent (with the caning record book) straight up from the headmaster’s office. As I raised the cane over the offender’s hand, a chorus came from the class:
‘Mustn’t raise the cane above your shoulder, Sir, LCC [London County Council] regulation.’ These were children, he recollects in tranquility, who had not yet been accorded the absurdity of rights, but they understood very well that they lived under a rule of law.”
In short, Ken was an equal enemy both to the political demagogue and to the academic mystagogue. And his writings will survive as a corrective demystification of the drift of political philosophy in his time.
He died teaching. A student who had heard his fine lecture earlier in the week asked to sit next to him on the plane. Ken, who was apparently very tired at the end of a busy week, readily agreed. He broke off answering questions to ask the air hostess for another cup of coffee. As she was pouring it, he resumed his reply to the student and died in mid-sentence. Was that a good death? I think it was. At the very moment when he passed into the next world, he was doing what he did best and simultaneously committing an act of kindness. Through his work, which will continue to be published and read as long as people appreciate a sophisticated defense of common sense, he will be doing acts of kindness for the rest of us, too. Furthermore, we will enjoy those kindnesses. They will be readable, fresh, arresting.
For Ken deserves the epitaph that his great friend, Colin Welch, devised for that otherwise mythical creature, the perfect columnist: “Always consistent, never predictable.”
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.