how he got away with it

In a lovely remembrance of Kołakowski, Roger Scruton muses on the question of how the Polish thinker “got away with” his incessant assaults on the sacred cows of modern academic thought. His critiques were persistent and incisive, and yet he made very few, if any, enemies. Scruton concludes,

Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understanding to the arguments of others.

And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he “got away with it” — that he never entered the foreground of others’ judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life’s project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.

To be the “sceptical friend” of those with whom one argues — that’s not a bad ambition.