Gregory Vlastos

Gregory Vlastos (1907-1992) was a member of the Department of Philosophy at Princeton 1955-1976.

When he graduated from Constantinople’s Robert College in 1925, Vlastos's family, hearing of their son’s proposal to continue his studies in America, warned that if he went, he would lose his soul. By his own telling, he ignored that advice and enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary, from which he obtained the Bachelor in Divinity in 1929. Although he was then ordained a minister in the Congregationalist Church, somewhere philosophy took its hold and the young minister proceeded to Harvard for a PhD in Philosophy, which he obtained in 1931, with a dissertation entitled "God as a Metaphysical Concept" prepared under the direction of Alfred North Whitehead.

Vlastos taught at Queen’s University in Ontario from 1931 to 1948, seventeen years during which he published five articles on the pre-Socratics, three on Plato, one each on Whitehead and on the religious foundations of democracy, and three books—"The Religious Way," "Towards the Christian Revolution" (edited with R.B.Y. Scott), and "Christian Faith and Democracy." Although most of the topics that would occupy him during his rich and varied scholarly career are represented in this early corpus, these first three books contain most of Vlastos’s social and religious thought. They advocated a radical Christian social order in which love and social and economic equality replace the values of the capitalist society that he saw as having brought the Great Depression and its concomitant human suffering. Although he held these views to the end, he soon came to consider them more a part of his private than of his professional life; he never revisited these topics and, indeed, never again included them in his curriculm vitae. But equality, justice, and love would remain prominent and recurrent themes throughout his work, whether on Greek philosophy or other areas for example, in two of his most influential later pieces “Justice and Equality” (1962) and “The Individual as Object of Love in Plato” (1969).

In 1948 Vlastos left Queen’s to become the Sage Professor of Philosophy at Cornell, where he stayed until coming to Princeton as Stuart Professor in 1955, a post he occupied until his retirement in 1976. Although brief, the Cornell years marked a critical stage in his intellectual development, for Cornell was then the locus of very rigorous philosophical activity. With Max Black and Norman Malcolm, it was the principal American outpost of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Black and Malcolm introduced Vlastos to a mode of philosophy that, although he never made it completely his own, nonetheless profoundly influenced his sense of which problems were important and, even more significantly, of the clarity and rigor with which they should be discussed.

The result was nothing less than a revolution in the way Greek philosophy was studied in the English-speaking world. Vlastos’s 1954 article, “The Third Man Argument in the Parmenides” (and, almost simultaneously, Gwilym Owen’s “The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s Later Dialogues”) effected a rapprochement between the history of ancient Greek philosophical thought and philosophy as it was practiced in England and America that continues to the present day. Based on the assumption that the interests and techniques of twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophers were sufficiently similar to those of Plato and Aristotle to enable a kind of dialogue to emerge, this new approach established the study of Greek philosophy as an integral part of the philosophical curriculum. Combined with rigorous training in the classical languages and cultures, the study of Greek Philosophy was transformed and attracted nothing short of a whole new breed of practitioners.

At about the time of the “Third Man,” Vlastos published a long introduction to a translation of Plato’s "Protagoras"—his first published attempt to grapple with the thought of Socrates, who remained throughout his life his one true intellectual hero. In the introduction to the "Protagoras" Vlastos presented an interpretation of the Socratic method that was at once widely accessible, intellectually rigorous, and philosophically attractive. It was an austere interpretation. In form, it relied on modern logical notions; in content, it presented Socrates as a purely critical thinker, practicing a method suited to the refutation of any inconsistent view, but incapable of reaching positive ethical conclusions of its own. This interpretation was widely influential and became almost canonical until 1983, when, in another essay, “The Socratic Elenchus,” Vlastos reversed his earlier view and articulated a radically new image of Socrates.

Vlastos spent the last ten years of his life refining his new image and coming to terms with Socrates as he had now come to understand him. His efforts culminated in the publication just before his death of his last book, "Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher." In contrast to the old, purely critical thinker, this new Socrates was a man of deep positive convictions, armed with a method for demonstrating them conclusively. The book was, naturally, profoundly controversial, but it surpasses everything written on Socrates during the twentieth century and can be compared only to the two great nineteenth-century works of George Grote and Eduard Zeller.

Vlastos reoriented the study of Greek philosophy not only through his published work but also through the force, the vision, and the energy with which he taught his favorite subject. He was, in addition, responsible for three “institutional” developments. First, the creation in the early 1960’s of Princeton’s Program in Classical Philosophy, which has been producing a steady stream of young leaders in the field ever since, has served as the model for similar programs at other universities. Second, a six-week long seminar in ancient philosophy, conceived and organized by Vlastos and held in the summer of 1970 at Colorado College: this was a landmark event, which brought together a dozen of the best known scholars and teachers of Classics and Philosophy in Britain and America with a large group of younger scholars in the field. David Furley, who was part of the “senior” group, described it as “a time of great intellectual excitement; the seminar generated a number of published papers; more importantly, it created a community devoted to a common enterprise, charged with an energy that one may say has lasted to the present day.” Finally, there are the astounding seven NEH summer seminars in Greek philosophy that Vlastos taught, most of them in the last decade of his life: through them eighty or so of the next generation of teachers of ancient philosophy came to know him personally and learn directly from him.

Generations of undergraduate and graduate students and colleagues throughout the profession were the beneficiaries of his patient but demanding instruction. He was unfailingly courteous and encouraging, critical where criticism was needed, but always communicating that student and teacher were embarked on a joint enterprise, for whose success or failure both were equally responsible, and from which the teacher profited no less than the student.

Vlastos had a profound impact on Princeton in two ways that went beyond his teaching and his devotion to Greek philosophy. Combining taste and judgment with deft and aggressive advocacy in Nassau Hall, he was a major—perhaps the principal—architect of the steady emergence of its Philosophy Department to a position of international prominence. More broadly, through a number of terms on the “Committee of Three”—the University Committee with oversight on appointments and tenure decisions—he used his taste and judgment to encourage excellence in teaching and scholarship across the institution. He gave forceful expression to the principles that guided his approach to higher education in his well known Baccalaureate Address to the Class of 1975, “What is Required of Us?”

Vlastos was the recipient of the highest honors his peers could bestow, which included two Guggenheim Fellowships and the MacArthur Foundation’s Prize Fellowship in 1990. But those who knew him well also knew that he had a striking idiosyncrasy that baffled many of his colleagues and friends: he could not and would not hear any public praise of himself or his accomplishments; one of the few exceptions to which he willingly submitted (others were sprung on him, to his visible distress) was Princeton’s Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities, which, as one of its first recipients, he helped to inaugurate, and several honorary degrees, including the Doctorate of Humane Letters, honoris causa, that Princeton conferred upon him in 1981.