James Shiel 1921-2010
Dr. James Shiel, who died in July, came to Sussex in 1963 as a Lecturer in the History of Classical and Medieval Thought in the School of European Studies. Subsequently Reader in the History of Hellenic Thought, he stayed at Sussex until his retirement in 1980. His appointment by Martin Wight, founding Dean of EURO, reflected Wight’s wide-angled interdisciplinary vision of Europe and the long evolution of European culture.
Before Sussex, James had made his mark as a Lecturer in Classics at University College Dublin where he had taught since 1954. For a time he had been a member of a religious order and had studied classics and ancient philosophy at the University of London. He then undertook an Oxford D.Phil. thesis on Boethius’ Commentaries on Aristotle, which had played a significant role in making Greek thought and Aristotelian logic available to the churchmen of the Latin middle ages. The religious and classical strands of his background remained closely entwined. He would always claim that the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and the Oxford Classical Dictionary were his two favourite reference-books and the links between the development of Christianity and classical philosophy were at the heart of his professional life. A painstaking and meticulous scholar, he translated a collection of sermons by St Ambrose of Milan (1963) and published a wide –ranging study of Greek Thought and the Rise of Christianity in 1968. He was also fascinated by calligraphy, particularly in classical manuscripts, and published in Scriptorium, the international review of manuscript studies. His early work on Boethius and Aristotle eventually led to his 1998 revision of the standard scholarly edition of Latin versions of Aristotle’s Prior Analytics.
James’s erudition and his relish for good writing, extending across the centuries from Plato to Padraig Colum, were not always immediately apparent to his students. Shy and diffident in manner, a cautious perfectionist with an appearance of nervous fragility and a certain vagueness and waywardness in practical matters, he had little appetite or talent for bold declamation or for administrative tasks. He was at his best in unpressured informal discussion when his sharp mind, his wisdom, his rich learning and his impish sense of humour came to the fore.
He could often be found in a quiet corner of the library after his retirement, a scholar and a seeker after truth to the end. A visiting professorship at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus engaged him in philosophical discussions with a group of professional people which led to a little book of meditations, Letters to Cyprus (2nd ed. 2008). The attitude of mind that he attributed to his fellow-Irishman the Oxford classicist E.R. Dodds, whom he greatly admired, also described his own questing outlook, ‘something strangely cognate with religious insight ... some Socratic reticence facing the questions that baffle our limited apparatus of awareness.’ Modest and unassuming, he would be surprised to hear how much those who knew him learnt from him.