James Adam was born on 7 April 1860 in the small parish of Keithhall, near Aberdeen, Scotland, the second child of James and Barbara (Anderson) Adam. His father died in 1866, leaving his mother to run the family’s countryside shop while raising six children. She sent Adam to the local parish school, and then to the Old Aberdeen grammar school, where he won a bursary to enter the University of Aberdeen in 1876. He graduated with first class honours in 1880 and was granted a place as a classical scholar at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where in 1884 he won the first chancellor’s medal.
That same year Adam was elected a junior fellow at Emmanuel College and soon progressed to the status of Classical Lecturer. He taught for the rest of his life. At Girton College, where he lectured on topics such as Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius and the Greek lyrical poets, he met Adela Marion, one of his pupils. They married in 1890. In 1900 he succeeded William Napier Shaw as senior tutor of his college. Four years later Adam delivered his Gifford Lectures on ‘The Religious Teachers of Greece’ at the University of Aberdeen.
Adam is chiefly remembered for his translations of Platonic dialogues. He published his first—the Apology—in 1887. He went on to produce editions of the Crito, Protagoras, Euthyphro and the Republic. His editions of the Republic and Protagoras were republished as late as 1962 and 1971 respectively. Adam’s considerable classical scholarship, particularly in ancient philosophy and Greek, allowed him to produce what remain among the most concise yet extensively illuminating accompanying notes to these texts available.
As can be seen in his posthumously published collection of essays and lectures, The Vitality of Platonism, and Other Essays (1911), Adam’s philosophical views were firmly in line with Plato’s. He frequently lectured to his students on philosophical and textual matters in Plato. He was also a firm believer in the value of the classics and fought to ensure that every student had an educational grounding in Greek thought.
Adam died on 30 August 1907 in Aberdeen after a brief illness. His wife went on to edit and publish his remaining unpublished material, including his Gifford Lectures.
Bibliography: Translation of Plato’s Apology (1887); Crito and Euthyphro (1888); Protagoras (1893); Republic: (a) Text (1897), (b) Text and Commentary (1902); The Nuptial Number of Plato (1891); ‘On the Divine Origin of the Soul’, in Cambridge Praelections (1906); The Religious Teachers of Greece (1908); The Vitality of Platonism and Other Essays (1911). A short memoir written by Adam’s widow can be found in The Religious Teachers of Greece.