10 December 2007

Eu Prattein, John Ackrill

I promised some reflections on John Ackrill, and here are some chance, idiosyncratic thoughts.

Nearly everything I've ended up deeply committed to, I disliked upon a first encounter. This was true for me as regards Acrkill's Clarendon Aristotle commentary, on the Categories and De Int. My first study was when teaching it as a grad student in a tutorial at Harvard. I think I positively despised it at first, because it neglected almost entirely ancient and medieval commentaries, and it seemed that to me, as a direct result of this, Ackrill's commentary failed to go as deeply as it should. It seemed to adopt a false posture, as if the topics weren't already carefully and intelligently discussed many times, in a way that we needed to take into account. Too much of the spirit of Bertrand Russell, I thought. Yet gradually I came to acquire a different view -- that Ackrill's commentary, for its elegance and economy, and no lack of perceptiveness, may certainly stand on its own, and that others can take up the task of synthesis if they wish. (Certainly it met his own demand, brilliantly so: "If you are translating Greek into English, you must give something which reads on its own as English.")

Eventually Ackrill came to represent for me another tradition, less ancient but not less weighty-- the great Oxford tradition of Aristotelian scholarship of W.D. Ross and before him Cook Wilson, Bywater, and many others. I actually do not know, even now, whether Ackrill regarded himself as a transmitter of any sort of tradition along those lines. It probably does not matter-- inevitably he would do so, as that was the culture in which he studied and taught.

I therefore expected when I met him that he would be someone with a corresponding appearance -- tweed jacket and pipe, spectacles, a kind of amalgam of images in my mind of Gwil Owen and those scholars I mentioned. (But not Cook Wilson's beard!) In fact, when Lindsay Judson first introduced me to him, in an Oxford pub (which, I cannot now remember), he was wearing white tennis shoes, a pastel-colored sweatshirt, and a baseball cap. Oh, so that's the kind of intellectual he is, I thought, and immediately I re-categorized him, as falling in the class of 'boyish, youthful, and childlike' intellect, which I think proved to be correct.

It's an important point that all of us should appreciate, that many students look for greatness and not merely cleverness in a teacher. I had imagined that Ackrill was great in one way; my re-classifying him was the product of an imagination wishing to find him great in another way. And in my dealings with him he did not disappoint. This showed itself in details, which I could easily document, as I have a dozen audio tapes of his comments on Nic Eth VIII and IX -- he suffered from poor eyesight, from cataracts I think, and would prefer to dictate rather than write. I also have a typewritten letter from the same period, a humorous production, Ackrill's first foray into electronic machines, I gather, which for fun I reproduce below. ("And he's your editor?", a friend remarked in jest when I showed it to him.)

Ackrill once introduced me to a former student, who had risen in the academy to the rank of dean. I asked him what Ackrill was like as a teacher. "He was a tremendous teacher, incredibly alive intellectually and curious -- so you became like that also. You were thinking along with him. John was never really happy, I think, after he was promoted to professor. That wasn't what he liked. It took him away from philosophy as he thought one needed to do it."

I saw Ackrill for the last time in his house in 1997. We were deciding some production details of my own Clarendon Aristotle volume, in the series of which he of course was the General Editor along with Lindsay Judson. Almost his last words to me were, "I am very grateful to have gotten to know . . . " -- I thought he would say "you", but rather he said, speaking slowly, ". . . your mind." And in my (ever active) imagination I thought of the story that Plato used to call Aristotle "Nous", and I was pleased that there might be even the remotest analogy. Who knows if that was a standard Ackrillism; I regarded it as one of the most flattering things ever said to me. We exchanged pleasantries after that and then said goodbye.