A.C. Grayling on Christopher Hitchens

Editor’s Note: Philosopher, author, and BNR columnist  A.C. Grayling sent us these thoughts today on the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death at 62.  

Even those who were on the opposite side of any argument from Christopher Hitchens were compelled to admire the sharpness, control, and extraordinary richness of his mind. We sometimes use the word “brilliant” to describe clever people, but rarely does the term apply with such exactness as it does to Hitch’s intellectual quality, and also to his writing. I class him among the first rank of essayists in the English language, and am certain that he will be permanently anthologized alongside the likes of Addison, Hazlitt and Gore Vidal. Equally, though, he will be remembered for the causes he espoused — or perhaps it is better to say: the cause. His cause was liberty: liberty of thought, liberty from the forms of oppression that preachers, demagogues, and tyrants try to exercise over human lives; liberty too from falsehood and ignorance and from all kinds of self-serving failures of integrity and intellectual honesty.

On this last point Hitch’s critics tried to make mileage by turning it against him: he was accused of abandoning his left-leaning attitudes when he supported the Iraq War. What this in fact showed was how much his accusers misunderstood him. Until the end of his life Hitch regarded himself as a man of the left, though like at least some of us in the same camp he had long given up thinking that erstwhile commitments of that position, especially in economics, were viable. The anger he felt over 9/11 required of him an unequivocal resistance to terrorism and religion-inspired atrocity, which is why he took the stance he did; his motive was emphatically good, whatever one thinks of the means he supported. But the key point is that Hitch was consistent in his principles, and the stance he took after 9/11 displays that consistency. He was against oppression, whether it was the oppression of Mother Theresa’s denial of contraception to women in poverty-stricken, over-populated Calcutta, or the oppression attempted by Al-Qaeda, or the oppression of religion more generally.  

Truly independent minds are rare. Hitch had the outstanding talent to live by his writing and his opinions, and was able always to think for himself and to challenge others to think too; he was independent, and sought to encourage, cajole, and argue others into independence of mind likewise.

Just before he was diagnosed with the cancer that has taken him from us, Hitch and I were both at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales. I was asked to do a short piece for television on the chained-book library at Hereford Cathedral nearby, and as I came out of the library after the filming and walked into the main body of the cathedral, who should I see but Hitch walking briskly in. We both said the same thing at the same time: “What are YOU doing here?” Hitch said that he had come to hear the cathedral’s admired choir perform Evensong. The next day when we were having a drink together he said, “I enjoy the music, but it becomes harder and harder to stomach everything that goes along with it.” If you look up what Hazlitt said about Edmund Burke, whose politics he loathed but whose writing he admired, you will see there the kind of intellectual sensibility that Hitch also had: which is why he is so often likened to Voltaire, Orwell, and Hazlitt himself. This is high praise I give him, but not one jot misplaced. For that kind of mind is the best kind, and it was Hitch’s kind; and it is one that will be sorely missed because, more than ever now, it is so needed in this muddled world of ours.

For more on Christopher Hitchens’ life and work, including links to noteworthy rememberances and collections of his own work, click here.

A. C. Grayling writes The Thinking Read for the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, and Ideas that Matter