Allan Coxon

Share this article

ALLAN Coxon managed over his long life to combine success as a scholar, a teacher and on occasion an administrator with a transparently happy family life.

His scholarly career, interrupted only by wartime service in the Scottish Office and Naval Intelligence, was passed entirely in Edinburgh, where he arrived in 1933 after an education in Classics at Derby Grammar School and Oriel College, Oxford. The college had awarded him an honorary scholarship on the results of Honour Moderations, the chance of an entrance scholarship having been denied him by illness. In Edinburgh, promotion to Senior Lecturer in Greek came in 1955. In 1957 he became the one-man Department of Ancient Philosophy in succession to DJ Allan. The appointing committee, of which he was originally a member, after interviewing the short-listed candidates, sent Coxon from the room before deciding to offer him the post.

In 1964 he was promoted Reader. Readerships then as now, though then less rigidly, resulted customarily from copious and distinguished scholarly publications. When promoted, Coxon had published in Ancient Philosophy only one article, and half a dozen brief but excellent entries in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. But one of his referees on that occasion, the late GEL Owen, related afterwards that the letter from the university seeking his views mentioned only "contributions to scholarship" and not specifically "published contributions", and that in view of Allan Coxon’s learned, lively and incisive oral contributions to scholarly discussions he had had no difficulty at all in certifying that his contributions to scholarship were of the first importance.

The entirely appropriate and satisfactory upshot was that Coxon won his Readership in the first instance more by reading and talking than by writing - though he was later to publish two books which had occupied him for many years.

It was the sheer quality of his reading that impressed alike examiners, committees and referees, and made him a highly stimulating colleague. His learning in the Greek texts was not only wide; it was also patient, careful, penetrating. When teaching language and literature in the Greek Department he delved deeply into the Greek poets. The scholarly public saw at the time only a few notes in two papers, one on Aeschylus’s Persae, the other on Sophocles’s Trachiniae. Valuable as these were, they were only the very tip of a formidably impressive iceberg. At the same time he continued to study the ancient philosophical texts.

His main philosophical interests were in Parmenides and Plato. On the former, the revolutionary and influential metaphysician of the early fifth century BCE, Coxon wrote in 1934 an article subjecting the extant remains of his poem to a searching analysis in opposition to the views of FM Cornford, then the latest fashion. A further note on a textual point in Parmenides served to whet scholarly appetites, which he satisfied by the production of what is, and is likely to remain for a long time, the best and best documented text of Parmenides’s extant remains. This, Coxon’s first book at the age of 75, contains also the relevant passages in later authors, and, even more helpfully, numerous parallels from early Greek epic. These enabled him to establish that Parmenides throughout "drew for much of his phraseology and imagery directly on the Iliad and Odyssey," a finding he made good use of in interpreting. His knowledge of Greek poetry thus strengthened his interpretation of a great philosopher.

Along with this edition, Allan Coxon had been maturing for a long time "a sequel", a translation with introduction and commentary of Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. This appeared in 1999 when he was nearly 90. Plato’s desperately difficult work portrays a meeting between the youthful Socrates and the ageing Parmenides. Coxon analysed not only the more readable first part but also - rather unusually - the arid dialectic of the second. He worked out in great detail the hypothesis, associated with the names of two Scottish professors of his youth, Burnet and Taylor, that Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates appears, and in particular the Parmenides, recorded actual historical conversations. This has never been a fashionable hypothesis; but Coxon’s fearlessly independent mind has left behind a view of the whole historical development of Classical Greek metaphysics which in its thoroughgoing internal consistency stands as a challenge to scholarly fashion.

His teaching was challenging too. In preference to the usual introductory survey, he would plunge students into the complexities of early Greek thought and the evidence for it with apparent recklessness. But his own enthusiasm kindled theirs and his marvellous lucidity inspired them. The preparation and constant renewal of his classes both for Classics and for Philosophy students formed a very large part of his life. His devotion to students led him also to spend time as a Director of Studies and as a member of the Scottish Universities entrance board; but his lectures were the thing. It was for them that a couple of days after the birth of his first child, asked what name was to be given, he was heard to reply that he hadn’t thought about it - he had been much too busy thinking about Aristotle.

This anecdote might give the impression of a scholar with little concern for his family. That would be utterly false. There was, for example, no mistaking the atmosphere of deep family affection and respect at his funeral; and there is no doubt that mutual family support helped enormously in the production of his two books. He was fortunate that though marrying relatively late he lived to be so well loved a husband, father, uncle and grandfather. He is survived by his wife, Carolyn, whom he married in 1961, and their two sons and one daughter and two grandchildren.