John Madison Cooper (1939-2022) was a member of the Philosophy Department at Princeton University from 1981-2016.
John was one of the world’s foremost scholars of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, publishing groundbreaking work on Plato, Aristotle, and the later Hellenistic traditions of philosophy. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939. After a bachelor’s in philosophy at Harvard in 1961, he spent the next two years doing the BPhil in Philosophy at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on a Marshall Scholarship, working under Gilbert Ryle, the leading Oxford philosopher at the time. After Oxford, he returned to Harvard from 1963 to 1966, for his Ph.D., writing a dissertation under G. E. L. Owen, with whom he had also worked at Oxford, and who had moved to Harvard in the meantime.
John held appointments at Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh, where he moved in 1971, serving with distinction as chair of their philosophy department between 1977 and 1981. His first book, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Harvard University Press, 1975), published while he was at Pittsburgh, won the American Philosophical Association’s Matchette Foundation Book Prize in 1977. It is an astonishing work which, like his earlier work on Plato and sense perception, moved beyond the contributions of his famous teacher, Gwilym Owen, and Owen’s equally famous contemporary in the United States, Princeton’s own Gregory Vlastos. The book set a new standard for the discussion of Aristotle’s ethical works, and inaugurated a new way of thinking about Aristotle’s practical philosophy, treating it not as a source of antiquated moralizing but as a fresh and plausible picture of our inner emotional and deliberative life.
John visited Princeton in 1980, took up an appointment in 1981, and became chair of the philosophy department in 1984, a position he held until 1992. For the twenty years after his time as chair of the philosophy department, he had special responsibility for placing our graduate students into teaching positions, a task he was remarkably good at. John also directed our world-renowned program in classical philosophy and was a much loved teacher. All his colleagues, and all his pupils, graduate and undergraduate alike, have stories of his fiery commitment to the truth and to getting things right, a commitment which would sometimes manifest in table-thumping displays of uncompromising criticism or equally uncompromising praise. John didn’t just write about how to live, but lived what he wrote. Not for nothing is John’s most famous contribution to Aristotelian scholarship his 1977 paper rehabilitating Aristotle’s theory of friendship, in which John argued that all three of Aristotle’s types of friendship are recognizable, and recognizably different, forms of friendship.
His many contributions at Princeton were recognized in 2003 when he received the Graduate Mentoring Award from the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and again in 2004 when he was given the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities. His general standing in philosophy at large was recognized in 2000–2001 when he held the post of president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, a distinction not held by any other scholar of ancient philosophy since Gregory Vlastos, himself a former Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton, and by only one ancient philosopher since, our own Alexander Nehamas, John’s colleague for many years in the classical philosophy program. John was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, and to an honorary fellowship of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 2008. He gave the Immanuel Kant Lectures at Stanford in 2003, the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 2011, and the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford in 2012. His book Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus, based on the Locke lectures, shows how he conceived of philosophy as continuous with living. His life as husband, father, and grandfather, as friend and as colleague, was by any measure a life well lived.