This is a slightly expanded version of the Telegraph obituary of Myles Fredric Burnyeat
by Paul Levy
Myles Burnyeat, who has died aged 80, was voted by his peers in a 2016 poll to be the greatest post-War scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy in the English-speaking world. Schooled in the traditions of analytic philosophy, Burnyeat applied rigour, wit, imagination and learning to the texts of the ancients, while treating the questions they raised as contemporary philosophical problems. Honours and distinctions were heaped upon him, and he ended his career as Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.
Myles Fredric Burnyeat was born on New Year’s day 1939. His father, Peter James Anthony Burnyeat, ran a ship provisioning business, and a market garden that sent its produce to Covent Garden. His mother, Cynthia Cherry, a gifted painter and potter, was one of the five alphabetically named children of Fredric Warburg, tennis-playing scion of the Jewish Warburg merchant banking dynasty, and Emmeline Ward who competed at Wimbledon. When Myles was born the family were living in North Kensington; Peter was soon to join up, and had a good war, ending as a Temporary Captain with an MBE. Their son, and his younger sister Jane, were taken by their mother, Cherry, to the Hertfordshire village of Much Hadham, where her oldest sister, Audrey Agnes Warburg, was married to Robert Jessel, a descendant of another eminent Jewish family. The Jessel’s son, Jeremy (who became a well-known artist), was some months younger than Myles, and the two were brought up almost as brothers, until the age of five, when the Burnyeats moved to nearby Hatfield Broadoak. The boys were together for the school holidays, later touring Europe together on motor scooters. His uncle Bob Jessel had a classics background, and he and Myles often discussed philosophy.
Myles’s childhood was more challenging than idyllic – his mother was ill, and he saw more of his younger sister, Jane, than he did of his later siblings, Frances (Fanny) and John – while his father was more interested in boats (Myles was a first-class sailor) than in books. He preferred visiting “Granny North”, his father’s mother who lived in Cumbria, to “Granny South”, who lived in Frinton-on-Sea and didn’t care much for children. Myles had a glorious career at his school, Bryanston, where he was head boy, and tremendously proud of captaining Bryanston’s undefeated First XV. He was a fine tennis player, in his family’s tradition; and he bonded with his mother by learning to pot, and to bake Cherry’s famously dense wholemeal bread. He and Jeremy were sent to dancing classes, where Myles became an extraordinarily graceful ballroom dancer.
Because of his own interests, Peter urged his son to seek a naval career, and was pleased when Myles, who had got a Minor Scholarship in Classics at King’s College Cambridge in 1955, opted instead to do his National Service (1957-59) in the Royal Navy. Peter was not so happy when he learned that Myles was qualifying as a Russian interpreter (at the Joint Services School for Linguists at Crail, whose other alumni included Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter and Peter Hall). In 1958 Myles went on the very first CND Aldermaston march (and several succeeding ones), a fact that was noted by the security services, though it did not seem to pose any problems.
Aged 20, Myles went up to King’s, where he got double first in classics and philosophy, and was elected to the celebrated Apostles secret discussion society (a few years before the time when the Cambridge spy Apostles were being unmasked). From 1963-64 Burnyeat was a graduate student in philosophy at University College London, supervised by Bernard Williams; and he joined the staff of UCL until 1978, when he became Lecturer in Classics at Cambridge, and then Fellow and Lecturer in Philosophy at the new Robinson College; and 1984, Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy there. In 1996, and for the next ten years, Burnyeat was Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at All Souls. During these years he was a visiting academic at Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, Cornell, the University of Chicago, Leningrad, the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, Eötvös, Budapest and Berlin, among others. In 1984 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy, in 1987 was President of the Mind Association, from 1988 Member of Institut International de Philosophie, from 1992 Foreign Hon. Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and 2005-6 President of the Aristotelian Society.
From 1964-65 Burnyeat acted as Secretary to the Labour Party Commission of Enquiry into Advertising under Lord Reith; he was a member of the editorial boards of a clutch of academic journals; and from 1998-2004, Academic Secretary of All Souls. He authored 65 learned papers in several languages, including Russian, wrote, edited or collaborated on 14 books and translated six from French, Ancient Greek, Latin and Russian. His 60 or so reviews and journalism were of especial interest, as he took on Leo Strauss, the guru of the Neo-Cons; and he made frequent radio and TV appearances to discuss philosophy. He was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of St. Andrews in 2012, and made CBE in 2007, the year of publication of a Festschrift, Maieusis: Essays in Ancient Philosophy in Honour of Myles Burnyeat.
In the late 60s Burnyeat lived in a splendid Regents Park mansion flat, with Nancy Gayer, an American educationist, and her three teen-aged sons, whom he mentored and encouraged. Burnyeat’s first marriage was in 1971 to Jane Buckley, with whom he had a daughter, Abigail, and son, William James (Jake), who are thus Warburg descendants. The marriage was dissolved in 1982; and in 1984, he married the poet and writer, Ruth Padel, with whom he had a daughter, Gwen, who is thus a direct descendant of Charles Darwin. When this marriage ended in 2000, he married Heda Segvic in 2002; and after her death in 2003, he prepared for publication her essays on ancient philosophy. Burnyeat then became the partner of the celebrated All Souls musicologist, Margaret Bent.
While he was in the Royal Navy one of his tasks was to rewrite “the buggery laws”; and he also was instructed to act as translator between a Russian fishing boat and a Scottish cat food factory, to enable the factory to buy the off-cuts of the fish. Burnyeat was passionate about Russia and Russian literature, visited many times before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, and was active in groups protecting the rights of academics in Russian universities. There is a funny but pointed account by him of a trip in which his wallet was stolen on the Trans-Siberian railway, by a woman who negotiated keeping the cash in exchange for his passport and credit cards; the piece ends, citing many of the ancients, in an ironic wealth of philosophical reflections on crime and punishment.
About ten years ago, his partner Meg Bent detected some early cognitive difficulties; her scrupulous care and attention allowed them to have several good years together before the inevitable dementia undid this great intellect. Though in the last year or two, says Gwen Burnyeat, he had lost almost all language, he continued to be fascinated by words on a page or a wall, little meaning though they had for him. Consequently he set off the fire alarm in the splendid facility of Vale House in Oxford a few times, until they altered the instruction to “Myles, Do Not Press Here”.
Myles Fredric Burnyeat, born January 1 1939, died September 20 2019.