Antony Flew RIP

Sean Gabb

I came across Antony’s work in the early 1980s, when I first discovered David Hume. I admired Antony without ever supposing I’d meet him. We did eventually meet in June 1992. I was sitting in my office in the Prime Minister’s Palace in Bratislava. The telephone rang. It was one of the guards on the main door. He told me there was a strange old man with him who understood a little German, but no Slovak, and who was unable to make himself understood. I went down, and found it was the great Professor Flew. He’d arrived at the main railway station to give some lectures for the Jan Hus Foundation, but hadn’t been met. So he’d wandered the streets of a Bratislava where almost no one in those days knew any English. Eventually, for some reason I was never able to discover, he’d been pushed towards the Prime Minister’s Palace. I took him off to his hotel and got him booked in. Before we parted, he asked if I’d like to go with him the following morning to the site of Austerlitz (Slavkov) to inspect the battlefield.

Next day, I went off with him as his interpreter, and spend the day translating all the inscriptions there out of Czech and French and Latin. It was a jolly outing.

Back in England, I found myself bumping into him at an increasing number of libertarian and conservative events. Most people, I regret to say, regarded him as something of an old bore. He liked the fact that I always regarded him with awed admiration and enjoyed discussing his favourite subjects – empirical epistemology and so forth.

I remember walking with him to Charing Cross Railway Station in late 1997. He surprised me then by wishing for a Christian revival to counter what he regarded as the much more malign force of Islam. This did sort of prepare me for his later conversion to theism – though I was always surprised at his acceptance of the argument from design in terms that our common Master, David Hume, had already demolished. I was too polite in any of our later conversations to press him on this. Instead, I let him talk and talk about the quite irrelevant facts of DNA and its complexities. And, since I’m a sceptic rather than an atheist, I’ve never tried to argue anyone out of a belief in God that might well be correct, even if I don’t feel terribly drawn to it myself.

During his last few years, his mind began to fail him. I met him once while he was wandering lost in London. He recognised me and was grateful that I was able to get him onto the right railway train back to Reading. But he was increasingly vague about everything except philosophical issues on which he’d spent his entire life working, and that were unlikely to leave him even after he’d most much sense of his own identity.

He lived long. He lived well. If there is a God, I don’t think He’ll hold against him the little matter of sixty years of philosophical atheism. I bid farewell to a friend and a guide:

E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen
qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae,
te sequor o Graiae gentis decus inque tuis nunc
ficta pedum pono pressis vestigia signis….

7 responses to “Antony Flew RIP

  1. John B. Sears

    A good farewell to a fellow traveller, although not personally known you can detect the impact and value of the association.

  2. Very interesting gentleman. Wish I had met him.
    I must confess, what I find so hard to understand is why it is so difficult to make that leap beyond our own assumed certainty.
    Can anyone explain how order can arise spontaneously in randomness? The closest we’ve got is that it happened as a random event after billions to zth of millennia.
    But that would still be random. Does it matter?

    Thanks for this piece on Professor Flew. Wish I could ask him.

  3. I met Anthony at the ISIL conference in Lithuania. I felt that his atheism was due to a false conception of God due to the fact that it was almost exclusively from Western (pro and anti Christian, and therefore also anti-Islamic sources). I gave him a copy of my book Signs in the Heavens. Sometime later he sent me a kind letter in which he stated that he had learned much from my book and soon after I learned of his acceptance of theism. I regret that I never had a subsequent chance to have the kind of face-to-face conversations you had with him,

    As he died believing in God, I have no hesitation of responding to the news of his passing with the traditional Muslim words of comfort: “To Him we belong and to Him we return.”

    I. Dean Ahmad

  4. “To Him we belong and to Him we return.” Well said. Words of the Prophet, I suppose?

  5. Antony Flew was over decades a heroic defender of classical liberalism in his popular as well as his professional writings; indeed, over our lifetimes he has been by far the best known professional philosopher in Britain to champion classical liberalism. In my view his best book on political philosophy was “The Politics of Procrustes”. I recommend it highly.

    I knew him slightly in the 1980s. He was a very generous man, entirely unpretentious, and great fun.

    Thank you, Dr Gabb, for noting his passing.

  6. Anthony Flew seems To have made a niche combining atheism and classical liberalism that provided reassurance to many who thought that only religion could provide a moral basis for their classical liberalism. I was sorry to see that he’d ‘converted’ insofar it made him ‘stand out’ less. And what he had to say mattered.

    I met him several times at the Alternative Bookshop when I was living there. A good-natured intelligent man.


  7. “The Politics of Procrustes” is indeed one of his best; but I would certainly add “Thinking about Social Thinking”. To this day there is no better single volume introduction to the philosophy of the social sciences, at least for any student prepared to engage pro-actively with a rather challenging text.

    For anyone motivated to buy a copy, please make sure to buy the 2nd edition and not the first. Flew had considerably revised and recast the text of the 1st edition as well as adding some new material, and the overall result is a much better read.