Since the news of Neil MacCormick’s cancer entered the public domain, I wondered when the sorry finality would filter through that the great man had finally given up the ghost, and left us. I see today that Professor MacCormick died on Sunday, at his Edinburgh home.
Several blogs have carried the unfortunate news, adding tributes which ring profoundly true of the man. Richard Thomson expresses many of my own thoughts keenly well, and I don't propose further to elaborate on them here.
Alas, Professor MacCormick was away from Edinburgh Law School during my early jurisprudential classes, so I did not benefit from sustained direct contact with him. I was interested to read the views of another soul in a similar position to me. Mr Eugenides, commenting on Richard Thompson's reflections, said that he:
"knew" him in his capacity as a jurisprudential writer rather than, primarily, as a politician. I admired him greatly."Splendidly correct, Mr Eugenides. While the idea of abstracted study of legal formulations and concepts strikes the mind of many as dry - from my own reading I always found Neil's reflections to be full of the stuff of life, disclosing, teacherly in the best of possible senses, intelligent but comprehensible - humane but sharp.
It is difficult to pin down the exact quality which makes prose likeable. Michel de Montaigne surely remains the master of the sort of fleshy, human writing that lets one almost envision the hand and finger that wrote it - and crucially, grow strongly to like and know the author by his works. Reading MacCormick's jurisprudence always left me with precisely this sort of feeling. Of having made a human connection.
Moreover, I appreciated his enthusiasm for the rather neglected characters of the Scottish Enlightenment, his sympathies lying with Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Ferguson and so on - rather than the much overrated Jammy Bentham so admired by his teacher, H.L.A. Hart. One can see in his writing, I think, an echo of these men and teachers.
Our consolation, then, is that his warmth and candour - his character stitched through the fibre of his writings - persists, even if he does not. Few people can know that once they are gone, an authentic crumb of themselves remains, for posterity to thumb over and for generations to converse with, if they so choose. Professor MacCormick is such a man.