John Gardner at Home

Memories from François Tanguay-Renaud

Dearest John,

It has been too long, and Jenny's email from last week reminded me that one should never let those whom one deeply cares about float away for too long. And you are one I deeply care about. From teacher, to supervisor, to mentor, to co-author, to colleague, to life coach, you've almost been in it all for me. Thinking back to our interactions since 2002 (the year I arrived in Oxford), I have stopped counting the number of memorable things you have done for me. Let me take you down memory lane a little.

2002-2003 was my BCL year in Oxford. Foolhardy François had not taken many philosophy classes in his life, and yet, after your initial presentation to our class, François was quickly convinced that he ought to take the plunge and make it the core of his Oxford academic experience, despite the challenge it would no doubt represent. Thus, I enrolled in both Jurisprudence and Philosophical Foundations of the Common Law (PFCL) and, in both classes, got to witness the magic-of-John. And by that I mean the touch of a true philosopher and of a true teacher, who believes that the best way to teach is by example--and what an example!

In Jurisprudence, I got two doses. The first was Law and the State with you and Tony Honoré. After the traditional John-on-Rawls and Tony-on-Hayek, it was up to us to run the show. It was up to us even though one infamous student in our cohort (you will recall!) would seem to have preferred there were no show at all--and you had to outwit him at every corner, and in the process managed to instill in us why you thought Oxford-style philosophy of law was a worthwhile endeavour. We were doing meta-analysis by watching you two go at it, without even realizing it. And then there were the upper year graduate students, whose names I also do not need to rehearse, who were increasingly hostile to the general jurisprudential project and, there again, watching you stand your ground as Professor of Jurisprudence was as pedagogical as it gets. Finally came my turn to present. At the time, I was perhaps a tad more politically radical than I am today. A recovering activist from the Seattle/WTO days and their progeny, I wanted to talk about anarchism. You said "ok", and pointed me to R.P. Wolff and Joseph Raz's rejoinder. Things were never the same again.

The other dose was the John and Nicos Stavropoulos show. That pedagogical configuration was, let's say, interesting ;) I remember clearly Nicos trying to present a piece on interpretivism, and you working on your contribution to Scott Hershovitz's edited collection on Dworkin at the time. A true clash of cultures, to say the least. You wouldn't let Nicos move past premise number one. I remember thinking to myself: here is how arguing (and, on the other side, crashing!) from first principles really goes!

In PFCL, you led all of the contracts, torts, and causation sections that year. Frankly, I had no idea what was going on in that class. That's until I read your piece on justification and permission. And there was the missing piece: I had to work as hard at morality as I was working at law to make sense of your way of thinking (not to get into any intricacies here--I'll let my academic work speak for itself!). In that class, I remember you hand-holding not just us, but your co-instructors Mindy Chen-Wishart, Dori Kimel (for contracts), and in some ways, Tony Honoré (for torts and causation). All in the way of a seamless orchestra conductor who never grand stands (and does not even use a baton!). And everyone played and danced, every one learned, and, when Tony was around, everyone laughed.

I finished that year in your office. I had gotten a 74 in jurisprudence (and told this was as good as I could hope to get at Oxford!), and had been randomly selected (and summoned!) for an interview with you and Grant Lamond to make sure I had not plagiarized (or was it for something else?). That conversation was so uplifting--from the levelling down objection to the role of the state in a theory of law, to the possibility of understanding without interpreting. You asked such incisive and constructive questions that I felt I had learned more from the interview than from writing the essays altogether. In fact, fear quickly turned into deep curiosity and a desire to discuss more, from your first question onward. Indeed, this has always been the John way--make the best of what there is, and build on it. No put down. Just keen encouragement to enjoy the life of the mind, and make progress in it.

And I then knew I wanted to work with you. You accepted right away. I said "emergencies", and you said, "yes, that idea is important across all fields of the law. Let's do it. Here is what you should write in your proposal for this to work smoothly." It was that easy!

I then left Oxford for a year to go clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, and came back for the MPhil in 2004-2005 (after having corresponded with you during my year away about comments I had sent you about a number of new draft articles you had posted online). That year was hard, both personally and intellectually. But many things that were good about it were due to my interactions with you. I discovered rapidly what many of my forebears had told me. It was never clear in how much detail John had read our work (had he? to what extent?). But one thing was sure, the comments were always bang on the dial, incisive, and opening of entirely new vistas. And I always left your University College office with a whole new perspective on my work, if not on the world. Initially, you'd say--go read Nozick, or Frankfurt, or Kenny--and made me write essays. To this day, I start off all my doctoral students in the same way. Quickly, you told me "you have ideas!" How good it felt, especially after I understood how much of a praise this word--"idea"--often involves in philosophy. Sometimes though, after many months of work on a piece, you'd say: "Hmm, not quite sure why you wrote this, but you are all the better for having done it, as it may help you later." What a clever way not to discourage a young and eager student. And indeed, that work always came in handy later--sometimes years later. You knew it all back then.

In the end, you may recall, I was referred in my MPhil year. Stephen Shute and Dori Kimel's main criticism was that I was talking a lot about morality in my thesis "without defining what morality is"! Oh well, you said, let's find a way to make it seems as though you've addressed this criticism, without you really having done it. And you sent me to read some Bernard Williams on the limits of philosophy ;) In the end, that work was really helpful as it turned me more into a moral philosopher than I ever thought I'd become. At that moment, you also shared some of your own experiences with me. How you had also been met with similar adversity early in your early doctoral studies. And you pointed to other illustrious legal philosophers who had gone through Oxford and suffered the same fate at an early stage. It felt good to know that no one was really invincible. You always knew what to say, and when.

Your mentorship quickly expanded beyond the supervision set up. You had written some blog entry on, if I recall correctly, the de Menezes shooting and also on some limits on travels for academics who might hold controversial views post-9/11. I got very agitated by that. Your response... "I'm not very good at fundraising, François, but I still have these few thousand pounds that we could use for a conference on the topic of political violence and justification, to which we could invite 'subversive philosophers' from abroad." And there was the seed of a great conference, which you allowed me to organize with you, and which led me to meet the likes of Tony Coady, David Enoch, Thomas Hill, and so forth. What fabulous exposure!

I got married in December 2005, in New Delhi. And there you were again. Not for me, but you made a point of touching base for some kebabs at Karim's in Old Delhi, with Samir Singh, two nights before. It meant a lot to me.

Later, when my Rhodes Scholarship funding expired, you made sure I was well taken care of with an OxCEPL studentship. You encouraged me to join Maris Köpcke-Tinturé and Paul Yowell as co-organizers of the Jurisprudence Discussion Group. Throughout that time, I also witnessed you get married in Las Vegas, try the London thing (you'd read our papers on the Oxford-London coach prior to supervision, recall!), get separated and handle all the legal process yourself with Margaret's lawyer at the other end... all with grace (at least as it seemed from the outside!). What a solid person, I thought. And then came Jenny. The apple of your eye which started indirectly shining in all our interactions. You were so happy, even when it meant rescuing her belongings during the Osney Island floods. She gave you two step kids that you so wholeheartedly took on as your own (and one of whom you even turned into a philosopher, despite his father's attempts to convince him that the study of economics was the way!), and your incomparable Audra. A new John was born--even better than the larger-than-life persona I had come to love and appreciate. Those were also the years when your first collection of essays on criminal law was published by OUP--I remember the launch which Michelle and I helped put together. I remember many of the touching and superlative comments that were made at the event, including by Nicola Lacey and, if my memory doesn't fail me (it might!), Tony.

I also remember being invited to your place for dinner with Michelle Dempsey. Not only were the food and company lovely (steaks with various Italian touches on the side, as you have always known how to lay them out), but that day, I also discovered a different side of you: John the handy-man. You asked me to give you a hand installing that heavy mirror that must still hang over your master bedroom bed. I remember thinking to myself: Is this supervisor of mine really going to drill and secure this through concrete himself? I really didn't want to be responsible for a nighttime catastrophe where the mirror would abruptly come down on you and Jenny--that thing was heavy! But you did it. Quickly and efficiently. And from that moment I knew: philosophy and proficiency at everyday life were possible. Yet another powerful lesson! ;)

And the DPhil got done (after a number of late night conversations with you from Toronto where I was now a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, putting all the final dots on the i's) and then successfully defended before Timothy Endicott and Antony Duff (wise advice to get those two--as Antony also became a mentor of mine thereafter, and Timothy remains a dear friend and fountain of wisdom). The next day, you made a point to meet me just for the fun of calling me "doctor". I really appreciated it. What I had not realized yet was that your mentorship and generosity had only started to bless my life, and really knew no bounds. Over the years, you wrote countless reference letters for me, including the one that gave me my current job. You made sure I received a HLA Hart Fellowship in Oxford, even prior to obtaining tenure. Most incredibly, you invited me to co-author a piece with you, based on some of my MPhil work, which ended up in Ethics. To this day, I feel utterly unworthy of that honour. But working tireless with you on this paper (how many hours did we spend on Skype!?) and having my name immortalized next to yours--that's something I will always treasure. So dearly. You made me part of your own scholarly journey, and never had to. This is just something you would do. Again, the utter magic of John.

When I finally came back to Oxford to convocate to receive my DPhil some years later, you insisted on joining the dinner with my family, at the Old Parsonage. There, you said, "Enough of you, François, I want to sit with your partner!" Again, that way of making everyone feel at ease and included. That deep sense of care came back to me at a conference I helped organize at McMaster University in the fall of 2017, and for which you were a keynote with your ‘Twilight of Legality’ piece. There, we went for a long walk when I told you about some personal challenges I was facing. Your response: "Oh, François, I am so sorry." I responded in a knee-jerk fashion "Life...". You retorted without a hint of hesitation: "I am afraid it is. But it will all be fine. Just give it time. And remember, without life there is no law ;)" A healthy dose of realism, and the right amount of comfort and wit. The John I had always known.

There are so many other moments I could mention here (e.g. agreeing to take on a dear friend as a DPhil student at the drop of a hat when he suddenly found himself in tough spot at another institution, and after merely one phone call! Your stories of John-the-runner-by-the-Isis. Your coming to nap at my place in Toronto before a flight back to London following a graduate conference you had so kindly agreed to headline at Osgoode. Etc. etc.). But I'll stop, perhaps only to have the chance to write again later with happier memories. John, you mean a lot to me. I am, and have always been, so grateful for your presence in my life. Seventeen years it has been so far, and I know I have not said this enough: thank you--thank you for being you.

When I approached Michelle Dempsey with the idea of gathering those leading lights you had either supervised or helped as graduate students for a Liber Amicorum volume celebrating you and your work, as you stepped down from the Chair as Professor of Jurisprudence, I knew what kind of response we would get. I knew, but then I didn't. Every single person we approached jumped with joy at the opportunity, and made a point of telling us how tremendously grateful they were to have been approached. Every single one of them. That taught me that I wasn't the only one to have been touched by the magic-of-John. There was an army of younger yet high-flying scholars, of all genders, and from all over the world, who had also experienced it too, and just wanted to express the same gratitude. I think this should really make you smile! During my time at Oxford, I encountered a lot of people, including you, talking to me about the legacy of Joseph Raz living through his former pupils. That legacy was always presented to me as one of intellectual aggrandizement, but also as one of destabilization and, to some extent, fear. John Gardner's legacy is, equally, one of intellectual aggrandizement. However, it's also one of deep care, support and, yes, love. And that, John, for me, is the mark of true greatness. The mark of an intellectual giant who has also achieved all round excellence at life. In fact, you have always insisted to me that philosophy has its limits--it cannot answer all problems of life in its finer granularity. Somehow, though, over the years, you also found a way to teach me, your student, and so many others around you, how to tackle these finer existential problems. Just by living. And being the best human you could be. Thank you, John.

With very fond and warm regards,