North American Scholar

VLASTOS, Gregory

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1907-07-27
  • Born City: Constantinople
  • Born State/Country: Turkey
  • Parents: Kimon & Elizabeth Dewar V.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1991-10-12
  • Death City: Berkeley
  • Death State/Country: CA
  • Married: Vernon Abbott Ladd, 16 Dec. 1932.
  • Education:

    A.B. Robert Coll. (Constantinople), 1925; B.D. Chicago Theol. Sem., 1929; D.D. (hon.), 1941; Ph.D. Harvard, 1931; LL.D. Queen's U. (Kingston, Ont.), 1968; D.Litt. Trinity College, Dublin, 1984; Cambridge, 1986.

  • Professional Experience:

    Lectr. to prof, philos., Queen's U., 1931-48; actng. head dept., 1947-8; prof, philos. Sage Sch. Philos., Cornell, 1948-55; prof, philos. Princeton, 1955-6; Stuart prof, philos., 1956-76; chmn. dept. philos., 1960-4, 1970-5; John Locke lectr. Oxford, 1960; John Danz vis. prof. U. Washington (Seattle), 1972; hon. vis. prof. Gk. Univ. Coll. London, 1975-6; Paul Carus lectr. Am. Philos. Assn., 1976; vis. Mills prof. U. California (Berkeley), 1976-87; Gifford lctr. St. Andrews, 1981; Townsend lctr. Cornell, 1986; Howison lctr. U. California, Berkeley, 1987; mem. IAS, 1954-5; mem. Nat. Book Awards Jury; trustee Nat. Center Humanities; Guggenheim fell., 1950-1; 1958-9; 1959-60; fell. Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Scis., Stanford, 1968; fell. AAAS; mem. APhA (pres. eastern div. 1965); ed. Canadian Affairs, 1943-4; ed. repr. ser. "The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle"; "History of Ideas in Ancient Greece"; ed. bd., Political Theory; cons. ed. Journal History of Ideas; corr. fell. British Academy; fell. APhS.

  • Dissertation:

    "God as a Metaphysical Concept" (Harvard, 1931).

  • Publications:

    The Religious Way (New York, 1934); Towards the Christian Revolution, ed. with R. B. Y. Scott (Chicago & New York, 1936; repr. Kingston, ON, 1989); Christian Faith and Democracy (New York, 1939); Plato. Protagoras (trans.) ed. with intro. (Indianapolis & New York, 1956); Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays (ed.), 2 vols. (Garden City, NY, 1971); The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays (ed.) (Garden City, NY, 1971; repr. 198;0); Platonic Studies (Princeton, 1973; 2d ed., 1981); Plato's Universe (Seattle, WA, & London, 1975); Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, NY, 1991; Cambridge, Eng., 1991).Festschrift: Exegesis and Argument (Assen & New York, 1973).

  • Notes:

    Gregory Vlastos was internationally revered as the world's leading authority on Socrates and Plato. During the 1930s and 1940s, when he lived in Canada, he was active in promoting initiatives for social justice. In his later years too, as an intensely busy professor of philosophy in the United States, he made a mark by his wholehearted commitment to liberal causes and papers he published on democracy and justice. He was extraordinary as a scholar and as a man. As a boy, Vlastos was first taught by his Scots mother at their home in Istanbul. He regarded himself as a late starter in philosophy. When he arrived in North America, he trained to be a minister in the Congregational Church. After studying philosophy at Harvard, he showed his first article on Plato to F. M. Cornford, who was professor of ancient philosophy at Cambridge University and a leading figure in the subject. Cornford, Vlastos told me, totally disagreed with the thesis of the article, but was equally insistent that it should be published. From that time onward (1939) Vlastos wrote prolifically on Greek philosophy, concentrating at first on the pre-Socratics and Plato's metaphysics. In his last months he was working on a sequel to Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. This book, to which he was passionately committed for the last two decades of his life, is more than a scholarly masterpiece. It is a triumph of intellectual and humane insight, written by someone who was, to those who were privileged to know him, a Socrates-like figure. Vlastos combined wit, cheerfulness, and self-deprecation with enormous inner strength. He was, in a very direct way, the father of Greek philosophy in North America. As a professor at Princeton, where he served for most of his career, he trained a high proportion of today's experts. What made his work unusually creative was his ability to read Greek philosophical texts with the eye of an analytically trained philosopher. That is now a common practice, but it was not so when Vlastos began his work. His painstaking efforts to expose the conceptual structure of the Greek material made it possible for philosophers not trained in classics to take the Greeks seriously as quasi-contemporary thinkers rather than seeing them as merely the early history of the subject. Vlastos repeatedly returned to the toughest problems in Platonic exegesis, refining his own position and aiming at an increasingly precise formulation of the doctrines involved. In this way he set a standard of clarity and careful analysis. He also set a standard of elegance and engagement. Style mattered to him, in life as well as in writing and thought. Through his publications, seminars, and personal example he became one of the most influential humanists of the century. It was largely through his efforts that the Princeton Philosophy Department became renowned. He also inspired the foundation of the National Humanities Center. Vlastos' work was an equally great contribution to classical studies. He had a keen sense of history, and this enabled him to bring out the significance of Greek thought within its cultural context. A notable example, to which he repeatedly returned, was the Socratic rejection of the lex talionis—that it is never right to return wrong for wrong. Throughout his seventies, as Mills Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley, he conducted graduate seminars on Plato and Socrates. Indefatigable as he always was, he continued classes during the summer vacation when he gathered young scholars from all over the country under the auspices of the NEH. Shortly after retiring from formal teaching at the age of 80, he became the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Though dogged by ill health, he continued to work and enjoy friends right to the end. He was a very great man, as lovable as he was admirable.

  • Sources:

    DAS 82P:554; WhAm 1978-9:3336.

    Image credit: Princeton University yearbook, 1962.

  • Author: A. A. Long