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Frederick Charles Copleston

Professor Emeritus of the History of Philosophy, University of London
1907 to 1994

Frederick (Freddie) Charles Copleston was born on 10 April 1907 near Taunton Somerset England. He was raised an Anglican and educated at Marlborough College from 1920 to 1925. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he converted to Catholicism and his father subsequently almost disowned him. After the initial shock, however, his father saw fit to help Copleston through his education and he attended St. John’s in Oxford in 1925 only managing a disappointing third in classical moderations. He redeemed himself somewhat with a good second at Greats in 1929.

In 1930 Copleston became a Jesuit and after two years at the Jesuit novitiate in Roehampton he moved to Heythrop. He was ordained a Jesuit priest at Heythrop College in 1937 and soon after went to Germany (1938) to complete his training. Fortunately he made it back to Britain before the outbreak of war in 1939. The war made it impossible for him to study for his doctorate as once intended at the Gregorian University in Rome and instead Copleston was invited to return to Heythrop to teach the history of philosophy to the few remaining Jesuits there.

While in Heythrop Copleston had time and interest to begin the work he is most famous for his A History of Philosophy a textbook that originally set out to deliver a clear account of ancient medieval and modern philosophy in three volumes which was instead completed in nine volumes (1975). To this day Copleston’s history remains a monumental achievement and stays true to the authors it discusses being very much a work in exposition.

Copleston adopted a number of honorary roles throughout the remainder of his career. He was appointed Visiting Professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, spending half of each year lecturing there from 1952 to 1968. He was made Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 1970 given a personal professorship from his own university (Heythrop now re-established in the University of London) in 1972 and made an Honorary Fellow of St. John’s College Oxford in 1975. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Santa Clara between 1974 and 1982 and he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen between 1979 and 1981. His lectures were published under the title Religion and the One and were largely a metaphysical tract attempting to express themes perennial in his thinking and more personal than in his history. Gerard J. Hughes notes Copleston as remarking ‘large doses of metaphysics like that certainly don’t boost one’s sales’. He received honorary doctorates from a number of institutions notably Santa Clara University California University of Uppsala and the University of St. Andrews (D.Litt) in later years. He was selected for membership in the Royal Institute of Philosophy and in the Aristotelian Society and in 1993 he was made CBE.

Copleston’s personality saw him engage in the many responsibilities bestowed upon him with generous commitment and good humour. He died in St. Thomas’s Hospital London 3 February 1994 almost two months before his eighty-seventh birthday.

Some of his works include: A History of Philosophy (1946–1975); Nietzsche (1942); Schopenhauer (1946); Aquinas (1955); Contemporary Philosophy: Studies of Logical Positivism and Existentialism (1956); A History of Medieval Philosophy (1972); Religion and Philosophy (1974); Philosophers and Philosophies (1976); On the History of Philosophy (1979); Philosophers and Culture (1980); Religion and the One (1982); and Philosophy in Russia (1986).

  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen