Obituary: Professor Herbert Hart
Wednesday 23 December 1992
HERBERT HART had an exceptionally sharp as well as powerful mind which he applied with equal success to classical scholarship, to the theory and practice of law, and to philosophy.
The width of his knowledge in all these spheres and in English literature never ceased to impress his friends and colleagues; and with all these gifts he included in his working life a long spell at the Bar, the wartime Civil Service, and teaching at Oxford which embraced a professorship and headship of Brasenose College. In his political philosophy he remained, in the broadest sense, a consistent social democrat throughout his life. As a friend he was loyal, straightforward, and consistently modest, though he had much to be immodest about.
Coming from Bradford Grammar School to New College, Oxford, in 1926, Hart took the classical Greats of those days easily in his stride, largely concealing at first his outstandingly ordered mind behind an apparent chaotic roomful of books, journals, learned German tomes and illegible manuscripts. He was lavish in his help to his colleagues, several of whom achieved higher classes than they would otherwise have done without him. But his own First was the best in an exceptionally good year.
After 10 years at the Chancery Bar (where he was never fully happy in giving tax advice to those who could afford it) the wartime government very wisely recruited him into the intelligence services. Standards were high in those days; and not merely did no whisper of wartime secrets escape him in six years, but his closest friends had no idea what he was doing. Only 30 years later did they learn that he made a major contribution to the 'false' D-Day plan which successfully deceived the Nazi Command in 1994.
With the end of the war New College persuaded him to return to his real love, philosophy, as a fellow and tutor there, and in particular a leading authority on Jeremy Bentham whom he much admired. In 1961 the Oxford University Press published his major work The Concept of Law, which became an intellectual classic, and 30 years later had sold 100,000 copies world-wide. Other works included Law Liberty and Morality (1963) and essays on Bentham and legal issues. Hart was successively Professor of Jurisprudence and, from 1973 to 1978, Principal of Brasenose. He had also in the 1960s helped to reform Oxford University's constitution with an attempt at undergraduate representation in the machine. Outside Oxford he gave some years of valuable service on the Monopolies Commission.
Hart will be remembered by close friends and colleagues as one who was always several steps ahead in his knowledge and even more steps ahead in the argument. Those who knew him best had the feeling that, if he disagreed with one, then one must be wrong. He was as quick, but also as good-humoured, in pouncing on the slightest misquotation from Gibbon or Shakespeare as on a legal error. He was universally respected, and his death will be profoundly regretted both within Oxford University and outside.
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