Obituary: Professor Henry Blumenthal
Friday 01 May 1998
Of these three, only Blumenthal remained to fly the flag of Neoplatonism in England, Rist moving to Toronto and O'Brien to Paris. Taken on in Liverpool in 1965 by the father of Neoplatonic studies in Britain, Hilary Armstrong, Blumenthal went on to succeed him, and to become himself the senior figure in the field.
Henry Blumenthal was born in 1936, and attended Mill Hill School in London before going on, after National Service in the RAF, to Trinity College, Cambridge, whence he graduated in the Classical Tripos in 1960, with Philosophy and Linguistics as his special topics. After a year in Paris, he returned to Cambridge to do a PhD, which he gained in 1964. The topic, a study of Plotinus' psychology, was published in due course as Plotinus' Psychology: his doctrines of the embodied soul (1971), and was immediately hailed as the authoritative work on the subject in England.
Plotinus' doctrine in this area is in fact peculiarly subtle and complex, and its ramifications continued to exercise Blumenthal throughout his career. Indeed, he left behind him an almost complete commentary on Plotinus' major essay "Problems of the Soul" (Enneads IV 3-5), which we must hope will see the light of day.
He expanded from this to a comprehensive knowledge of every aspect of Neoplatonic psychology, based as it is on valiant attempts to reconcile Aristotelian doctrine, as expressed in the De Anima, with that of Plato, with which it might seem to be in flat contradiction. In a long series of articles, over a quarter of a century (many of which were gathered together in his 1993 collection Soul and Intellect), Blumenthal continued to explore various aspects of this, and of the Neoplatonic reception of Aristotle in general - a remarkable phenomenon, with many consequences for medieval and later philosophy. This resulted ultimately in a comprehensive study published in 1996, Aristotle and Neoplatonism in Late Antiquity.
Following a brief stint at Mount Allison University in Canada (where he met his wife Anna), Blumenthal secured an appointment as Lecturer in Greek at Liverpool, and remained there for the rest of his working life, rising from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Reader, and then, from 1983, Head of Department. In 1997, to the pleasure of his many friends and admirers, he was honoured with a personal chair.
Though troubled periodically by illness, he was a great source of fun and inspiration to a host of colleagues around the world. I recall in particular a mad and illegal assault on Mount Etna in September 1994. The peak of Etna was off limits, since it had swallowed up a group of German tourists a few months before, but Blumenthal was not to be put off, and talked Andrew Smith and myself into joining him. We slipped away from our guided tour, and got away with it, but we might well not have - especially as Blumenthal contrived to slip at one point in our descent and somersaulted past me out of the mist.
It may seem strange that a man who personally was not persuaded of the immortality of the soul, or indeed of the existence of a transcendent deity, should have devoted his career so successfully to the study of Neoplatonism, but he did. Perhaps the presence of Aristotle, with whose views he would have been more in sympathy, made things more congenial.
Henry Jacob Blumenthal, classical scholar: born Leipzig, Germany 30 March 1936; Lecturer in Greek, Liverpool University 1965-74, Senior Lecturer 1974-78, Reader 1978-97, Head of Department of Greek (later Classics and Archaeology) 1983-90, Professor 1997-98; married 1966 Anna Rosner (one son, one daughter, one foster daughter); died Catania, Sicily 23 April 1998.
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