Obituary: The Rev Professor Frederick Copleston SJ

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The Independent Online
Frederick Charles Copleston, priest, theologian: born 10 April 1907; joined Society of Jesus 1930; ordained 1937; Professor of History of Philosophy, Heythrop College, Oxford 1939-70; Principal, Heythrop College, London University 1970-74 (Emeritus), Professor of History of Philosophy and Dean, Faculty of Theology 1972-74; FBA 1970; Visiting Professor, University of Santa Clara 1974-75, 1977-82; Visiting Professor, University of Hawaii 1976; Gifford Lecturer, Aberdeen University 1979-80; CBE 1993; died London 3 February 1994.

FREDERICK COPLESTON's life is largely the record of his publications and of the many academic honours which his prolific publications deserved and received as a result. His nine-volume History of Philosophy (1946-75), together with his single-volume writings on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, his Darcy lectures, Philosophies and Cultures (1980), and his Gifford Lectures, Religion and the One (1982), are an impressive, still much-used and highly regarded account of the history of philosophy and philosophers from the Pre-Socratics to the present day. The esteem in which the learned world held Copleston was marked by his election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1970, by his being made an Honorary Fellow of St John's College, Oxford (his old Alma Mater), in 1975, by a much-prized Honorary D Litt from St Andrews University and finally in 1993 by his appointment as CBE.

It might appear from all this - and also from the fact that he was the first Principal of Heythrop College, London University, from 1970 to 1974 - that Fr Copleston was a very public man. This was in fact the reverse of the truth. Though by no means shy, he was a very private person: a privacy which was not entirely masked by his unfailing courtesy, even in very trying circumstances, especially towards the end of his life.

He did not give himself away at all easily, and this was as true of his intellectual as of his religious attitudes. For example, his mammoth History is marked at all times, except perhaps in Volume One, by an enviable objectivity, and by his willingness to be fair and to let the facts speak for themselves. In this respect it is instructive to compare his History with the one-volume work of Bertrand Russell on the same theme. Copleston keeps his cards very close to his chest, with the result that it is exceedingly difficult to discover where his own judgements lay. If he ever expressed a personal preference for one philosopher over any other it was for the German Idealists of the beginning of the last century, above all Hegel. This self-imposed reticence made for great clarity and objectivity in his treatment of philosophers as diverse as Plotinus and Hume; but it was never altogether clear whether the reserve resulted from the desire not to let history become the victim of ideology, or because he had no point of view from which he wrote.

Copleston came of ancient Devon stock, of an Anglican family which could boast among his forebears the Provost of Oriel College at the time when Newman became a Fellow, and who later became Bishop of Llandaff and Dean of St Paul's. He numbered two Anglican bishops among his uncles, so it must have come as something of a surprise, if not a shock, to his family to find that while still a boy at Marlborough he had become a Catholic. From Marlborough he went to St John's College, Oxford, and not long after leaving Oxford he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1930, aged 23. Ordained seven years later, he began what was to be his life's work as Professor of the History of Philosophy in 1939.

At that time Heythrop was located in north Oxfordshire and the situation gave him plenty of time to avert what he once described as boredom by embarking on the series of volumes referred to above. On the migration of Heythrop to London in 1970 he became the first principal of the new venture, for the first four years of its life. His intellectual distinction, however, could not conceal from him or from others his distaste for the grind of administration and he must have been grateful when his period came to an end. The ensuing 20 years were spent partly in England partly in the US giving lectures and writing.

Freddie Copleston's academic reserve was matched by his religious modesty. His last years, after he had ceased to be Principal of Heythrop College, were divided largely between Campion Hall, Oxford, which he made his home in 1976, and Farm Street, in London, where he lived from 1985 till his death. These years were marked by the same courtesy as always but also by a deep and very unobtrusive piety. Never demonstrative, he still impressed those he lived with by regularity and devotion. He always rose early, said Mass at 6.30am and then enjoyed a brief (and silent) breakfast. His day was then his own, punctuated by meals and his own reading and devotion.

As to his own views in religious matters, these doubtless existed, but they were extremely difficult to extract. You knew that to any apparent statement of opinion there was always an 'on the other hand' in the offing. This reticence, so valuable in religious communities, freed him from the need to take sides on hotly disputed issues.

To those who had the privilege, like myself, of living with him in different phases of his life, he will be remembered less for his achievements, remarkable though they were, than for his unfailing courtesy, his modesty, his industry and his consideration for others. He will be missed by them for his deep gravelly voice and for those flashes of irony delivered in so neutral a way as to pass the undiscerning by.

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