Obituary: Professor Trevor Saunders

Peter Jones
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:39

TREVOR SAUNDERS was a leading authority on ancient Greek philosophy and a superb teacher. He was known inside and outside Newcastle University for his personal integrity, scrupulous fairness, and strong sense of where a scholar's interests lay, spiced with occasional bouts of dark foreboding about What The Administration Was Planning Next, which never failed to give pleasure.

He faced the destructive absurdities foisted upon universities in recent years not with blind resistance or hopeless resignation, but with a determination to preserve what every serious researcher in the humanities needs and the authorities nowadays bend over backwards to deny - the time to read, think and write. His own work on Plato showed what could be done by a scholar who harvested his research time carefully, but without compromising his commitment to students and colleagues or his sense of duty, however weary at times, to the administration.

His qualities were always in demand, locally and nationally, and brought him the chairmanship of the Council of University Classics Departments, membership of the government research assessment panel for Classics, and a seat on the Council of Durham University. To his secure, clear-eyed judgement the Newcastle Classics Department and Arts Faculty turned, with gratitude and relief, time and again.

Saunders was raised on a farm in Wiltshire, went to Chippenham Grammar School, in 1953 took up a scholarship at University College London (graduating with a First in Classics) and ended his formal education at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he completed a doctorate on Plato's Laws. Greek social, political and legal thought was to become the focus of his scholarly life, but early on he found he had a talent for translating, and produced a series of first-rate Penguin Classics. These included Plato's Laws (1970), a complete revision of Aristotle's Politics (1981, originally by T.A. Sinclair - this paved the way for his text and translation of the first two books of The Politics in the Clarendon Aristotle series, 1993) and Plato's Ion in Early Socratic Dialogues (1987), a collection he edited and introduced.

His enviable gift for making complicated philosophy in an ancient language and distant culture comprehensible to a lay readership was never more clearly exhibited than in his teaching, to whose clarity, cogency, vigour and wit generations of students can testify. His scholarly work showed precisely the same qualities - he had no time for the trendy obfuscations of the contemporary literary scene - and commanded a similar respect among his peers, as two recent international conferences on Plato's Laws demonstrated.

His Plato's Penal Code (1991), a fat book without an ounce of fat on it, was the culmination of a lifetime's intense reflection on Plato, a major contribution to our understanding of ancient Greek legal theory and practice, and a fitting monument to the man and his scholarship: beautifully written, wide-ranging (he surveys the field from Homer onwards) and sharply focused, rigorously and courteously argued, and exactingly annotated.

Due to retire in September, he had been planning for some time the first modern investigation of ancient Greek theories of equity when cancer of the pancreas was diagnosed, leaving him a few weeks to live. This he bore with a proper philosophical equanimity, buoyed by his and his beloved family's longstanding Catholic faith.

A demon croquet player (given the chance), Trevor Saunders found his relaxation in films and railways. It seemed that there was virtually no film he had not seen or would not go to see (for a long time he possessed no television, despising its small screen) and there was certainly nothing about the most obscure branch-line on which he would not discourse, if prompted. Films about railways were his idea of heaven. He was on the footplate of the last train to travel the Wansbeck line, and tape-recorded the sound for posterity. His cremation ended, as his family fittingly insisted, with the sound of that train chugging out of Woodburn station, bearing him on its way.

Trevor John Saunders, classical scholar: born Corsham, Wiltshire 12 July 1934; Assistant Lecturer in Latin, Bedford College, London University 1959-61; Assistant Lecturer in Classics, Hull University 1961-63, Lecturer 1963-65; Lecturer in Classics, Newcastle University, 1965-72, Senior Lecturer 1972-78, Reader in Greek Philosophy 1978, Professor of Greek 1978-99, Head of Classics 1972-82, 1987-92, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1982-85; Chairman, Council of University Classics Departments 1981-84; married 1959 Teresa Schmitz (two daughters); died Newcastle upon Tyne 24 January 1999.

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