Professor Denis O’Brien

Professor Denis O’Brien

Trinity College Dublin – Trinity Plato Centre

I spent fifteen happy years in Cambridge, as successively a Scholar of Trinity College and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, followed by fifty even happier years in Paris, first at the Centre Léon Robin, part of the University of Paris IV (Sorbonne), in fact open to a wide range of participants, young and old, interested in la Pensée Antique, later joining an independent research group, specialising in Doctrines de la Fin de l’Antiquité et du Haut Moyen Age, founded by Jean Pépin, who in due course asked me to take over responsibility for running the ‘équipe’.

My stipend in both places was provided by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a far-flung organisation whose members are appointed for life, with no obligation other than to pursue their researches into the subject of their choice, in whatever way, and by whatever means, they think best. When I first heard of its existence, I knew that this, more than anywhere else, could be my lieu naturel. But would they have me? When the second of my two research fellowships at Cambridge had nearly run its course, I applied and was chosen.

My doctoral thesis at Cambridge, supervised by W.K.C. Guthrie, at the time Master of Downing College, was published in the series Cambridge Classical Studies (1969). Entitled Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle, A reconstruction from the fragments and secondary sources, it is the only contribution to the series to have been reissued by the Cambridge University Press, in response to public demand, forty years after its first publication (1969/2009).

My early years in Paris were devoted largely to a text and translation, into French and into English, of the fragments of Parmenides, Empedocles’ predecessor, published by Vrin (1987), in the series Bibliothèque d’Histoire de la Philosophie. Text and translation are followed by a commentary in French, but with a generous (9 pages) summary in English. The volume, I am told, will soon be republished, I hope with a couple of corrections.

My final year in Cambridge was marked by a long article on Plotinus’ theory of evil, first published in the Downside Review (1969), winning me an invitation to a colloquium on Neoplatonism held the same year at Royaumont, a beautiful monastic site not far from Paris, My text was included in the proceedings of the colloquium published two years later by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (1971).

The article was warmly welcomed by Paul Henry, S.J., one of the two editors of the only fully critical edition of the Enneads. It has, I think, been referred to more often than any other article I have ever written, on any subject, before or since. The timely publication (1969) and republication (1971) of Plotinus on evil led to my being welcomed with open arms when I arrived in Paris, where the study of Plotinus and of Neoplatonism is taken seriously.

The items already referred to, with other books and articles on Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Democritus, as well as on Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Athanasius and the pseudo-Denys, may be found my page.

The items are, I am afraid, listed higgledy-piggledy, but the patient reader will be rewarded by finding that most entries give access to an electronically readable version of the text referred to. The items recorded on the site, so I am told, have been referred to well over eight hundred times, a respectable total, even if it includes, as I suspect it may do, some publications by one or other of my two homonyms.

Anyone wanting to know more of the circumstances of my move from England to France may care to read a piece entitled Apologia pro vita mea, the opening pages of a collection of essays edited by John Dillon and Monique Dixsaut (1995). My greatest honour since retirement is having been named by John Dillon as Honorary President, in succession to Pierre Hadot (ob. 2010), of the Trinity Plato Centre, at Trinity College Dublin, an affiliation that I have adopted for most of my publications of the last ten years.

A large quantity of unpublished material I still hope to bring to the light of day, si Dieu me prête vie and if the aftermath of a devastating attack by the Covid-19 virus, in March of 2020, relaxes its stranglehold sufficiently for me to be able to take up academic work again.