Myles Burnyeat obituary

Scholar whose detailed analysis of classical texts sustained his sense of wonder in philosophy

“Man is the measure of all things: of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not,” declared the Greek philosopher Protagoras in the late fifth century BC. What – apart from placing humans rather than the gods at the centre of the cosmos – does this assertion actually mean? Myles Burnyeat, who has died aged 80, showed how the close study of classical texts could be used as a platform for creative philosophical endeavour.

Protagoras’ observation is usually called the Man/Measure (M/M) doctrine, though a better translation would frame it in terms of humankind. Does humanity as a whole decide what is (true), or each individual human? And if the latter, does the individual decide what is absolutely true, or only what is true relatively to her or him?

Sextus Empiricus, from around AD200, interpreted the M/M as a subjectivist doctrine: each person decides what is absolutely the case. Plato, who died in 347BC, treated it as a relativist claim: what I judge to be the case is the case for me. Yet both Plato and Sextus Empiricus argue that the M/M is self-refuting. Are they right?

In a pair of articles in 1976, Burnyeat argued compellingly that on either reading the M/M is indeed self-refuting if tested in debate. If the M/M is interpreted in the subjectivist sense, then it only takes one person to disagree with the M/M for it to be false. The relativist reading is more subtle: does it matter if Protagoras says that the M/M is true only for him, while Socrates claims that the M/M is not true for him? Yes, maintains Burnyeat, it does matter.

It is not simply that such a position would condemn Protagoras to isolation within his own private bubble, a bubble from which he could not converse with others; it is the inescapable fact that the M/M is the one thing Protagoras claims as absolutely true; so, again, it will take only one person to disagree with it for it to be false.

This critique of the M/M was taken up again by Burnyeat in his book-length introduction to MJ Levett’s translation of Plato’s Theaetetus (1990), where he showed how Plato links it to the metaphysical view that the cosmos is in a state of flux – the view of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus.

But, like Protagorean relativism, Heraclitean flux also cannot be adequately articulated and defended: there would be no fixed objects to be named and no fixed words to name them. In his paper Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism? (1980) Burnyeat argued that not only must a philosophical theory be stateable without infringing itself; it must also be liveable, and radical scepticism is not: “The supposed life without belief is not, after all, a possible life for man.”

Burnyeat showed how important these questions of logic and epistemology – how we can say we know things – are for how we live our daily lives: do we live in a shared world which we can at least partially understand and in which we can communicate? From detailed textual analysis he led readers to a vantage point from which sweeping vistas of the philosophical landscape are revealed: epistemological, metaphysical and ethical issues come into sharper focus and their intricate connections are made apparent. In his introduction to the Theaetetus he highlighted Socrates’ claim that “philosophy begins in wonder”, and he never lost that sense of wonder, or the capacity to inspire it in others.

His book reviews – often in the New York Review of Books and covering modern as well as ancient philosophy – were also works of penetrating insight. In Message from Heraclitus, his 1982 assessment of Charles Kahn’s The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, Burnyeat made a powerful case for why Heraclitus had to choose the paradox form to avoid the pragmatic refutation of his view that human knowledge is inevitably perspectival and can never achieve a complete god’s eye view. Sphinx Without a Secret, his spiky 1985 interrogation of Leo Strauss’ Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, set off an angry and prolonged reaction in the conservative academic and political circles in the US in which Strauss was revered.

Burnyeat was an inspiring and dedicated teacher of both undergraduates and graduates. All his graduate students – I was one of them – received postcards from him, usually bearing just a single reference, such as “Republic 577c-e”. Discovering why that particular passage was so relevant to one’s current work contributed to the fun of intellectual discovery.

Born in London to Peter Burnyeat, a shipping merchant, and his wife, Cherry (nee Warburg), Myles attended Bryanston school, Dorset, and spent his national service (1957-59) in the Royal Navy, where he trained as a Russian interpreter, sparking a fascination with Russian and Eastern European culture.

In 1959 he won a scholarship to study classics and philosophy at King’s College, Cambridge, followed by graduate studies at University College London (1963-64), supervised by Bernard Williams. After lecturing at UCL, in 1978 he moved to Cambridge and six years later was appointed Laurence professor of ancient philosophy. In 1996 he became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.

In 1984 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy and in 1987 president of the Mind Association. He was made a CBE in 2007.

In 1972 he married Jane Buckley, a lecturer in education and Jungian psychoanalyst, and they had two children, Abigail and Jake. They divorced in 1982, and two years later he married the poet Ruth Padel; they had a daughter, Gwen. That marriage ended in divorce in 2000, and from 2002 until her death in 2003 he was married to the scholar of ancient philosophy Heda Segvic.

He is survived by his partner, the musicologist Margaret Bent, his three children and three grandchildren.

Myles Fredric Burnyeat, philosopher and classicist, born 1 January 1939; died 20 September 2019


Angie Hobbs

The GuardianTramp

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