Saul Smilansky is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel. He is the author of Free Will and Illusion (Oxford University Press, 2000), 10 Moral Paradoxes (Blackwell 2007), and numerous philosophical articles. Below Saul discusses C.P. Snow's Variety of Men.
Saul Smilansky on Variety of Men by C.P. Snow
Could a classic work, in this time and age, remain unrecognized and unread? I believe that C.P. Snow's Variety of Men is such a modern classic. Indeed, I think it can make a strong claim to being one of the greatest collections of biographical essays ever written. Hence, in choosing this volume to write about, I am not merely taking up one of my favourite books but also seeking to rescue what I think is a true masterpiece from near oblivion. I have never met anyone who has read it, so I hope you will excuse my missionary zeal. If my assessment is correct, this neglect is outrageous. In part, it probably follows from the rapid decline in Snow's literary stock: a well-known author in the 1960s and 1970s, whose long series of novels Strangers and Brothers even became a TV series, he has largely been forgotten. Some of Snow's prose is definitely worth reading. The Masters, for example, is a tale of college intrigue and a splendid read. He was, however, much more than a novelist. A science don at Cambridge, Snow was then made responsible, in what must have been an inspired move, for hiring scientists during World War II, and became involved in highly interesting developments such as radar and the beginning of nuclear weapons. After the war, he headed the British Civil Service, was knighted in 1957 and granted a life peerage in 1964. This rare combination of an active writer who is also a practising scientist and knowledgeable about the Corridors of Power (the name of one of his novels and a term he apparently coined) is what makes Variety of Men such a wonderful book.
It is about nine people: scientists Rutherford and Einstein, mathematician G.H. Hardy, writer H.G. Wells and poet Robert Frost, statesmen Lloyd George, Churchill and Dag Hammarskjöld, and Stalin. Snow knew all but the last one personally, some of them quite well. Thus, he can report first-hand what Lloyd George really thought about his friend and ally Churchill, or tell us about a conversation on suicide he had with H.G. Wells late one night over whisky. Snow's writing is interesting and dynamic, yet leisurely and measured. He brings to the essays a lifetime of experience and reading, without being ponderous. He manages to be opinionated and judgemental (a must in this genre), while remaining broad-minded and fair. Although he is sensible and judicious, mischief is always around the corner. A crusty realist with few illusions about human beings or society, Snow unequivocally bestows praise and admiration whenever merited. Psychologically acute, perceptive and insightful, he is unbeatable as a judge of character. Relishing the peculiarities of personality and circumstance, he nevertheless seeks the broader insight. Variety of Men is a master class in biography, covering a most diverse and enigmatic group of men. Only someone like Snow could carry it through with such authority.
I have lost track of the number of times I have read the book over the years. Unconsciously it was likely an inspiration for my own collection of philosophical essays 10 Moral Paradoxes. Variety of Men showed me that one could conceivably say a lot about many diverse topics in a small space, capturing the complexity, subtlety and oddity of life.
My favourite essay is the one on the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy. Snow takes us along to their cricket matches, and explains that he owes this friendship to Hardy's hunger for company knowledgeable about the game. You soon feel that you know this fascinating person, after having had Hardy's unusual personality compared to Einstein's, learned his life story and been told of his discovery of the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan (a very moving tale). In the process, you learn about English public school education, Cambridge between the wars, and the difficulties of growing old for creative people of a certain temperament. Here is Snow on the celebrated undergraduate Mathematical Tripos degree. After explaining its emphasis on technical mastery over creativity, he writes:
Colleges had celebrations when one of their number became Senior Wrangler: the first two or three Wranglers were immediately elected Fellows. It was all very English. It had only one disadvantage, as Hardy pointed out with his polemic clarity, as soon as he became an eminent mathematician and was engaged, together with his tough ally Littlewood, in getting the system abolished: it had effectively ruined serious mathematics in England for a hundred years.
After reading this essay, I rushed to order Hardy's book A Mathematician's Apology, only to be disappointed. Hardy is an elegant writer, but Snow gives us a far better sense of Hardy in his essay than Hardy managed to do in a whole book. Something similar can be said of many of the essays. I have read many attempts to understand Einstein's personality. Snow does not find him easy to fathom and struggles to the end of the essay to unearth the right verb to describe him. (I won't give the game away.) But after reading Snow, I felt I could indeed understand Einstein far better than ever before.
In Variety of Men we learn not only about the nine people that Snow devotes chapters to but, to some extent, about a tenth one as well - Snow himself. He is always present, with a keen, at once ironic and sympathetic, interest in his subjects, in their uniqueness, and in figuring out what they are really like and how they became what they became. With rewards so substantial, an occasional conceit can be readily excused. Snow offers the inimitable wealth and variety of his experience, a natural tough-mindedness strengthened by the need to raise himself up from modest beginnings, a sharp and broad intellect, and the insights of a careful lifetime reader, all united by the fruits of an integrated sensibility. Even when he is telling an anecdote or giving a personal impression, we feel he is a thoughtful and learned man seeking a more general lesson about life or society. And all of it with a light touch. Reading the essays, the reader should enjoy him or herself while gaining in wisdom. It is typical of Snow to ask which one of the nine men was the best company (he ranks Hardy first, Frost second, Lloyd George third). It is a privilege to share his. Incidentally, I am not aware of any good biography of Snow. Variety of Men seems to be out of print. Try to find a copy.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]