Monday, February 1, 2016

Arthur Aston Luce, Berkeley scholar and WWI vet

One of the philosophers who fought in WWI was A. A. Luce (1882-1977). He lived for most of his life in Ireland, where he taught at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). Luce was born and raised in Gloucester, England, and served in the British forces in the War. He made his name in philosophy as a leading scholar of Bishop Berkeley's works. He not only interpreted but, also, endorsed Berkeley's idealism.

Here are some of the other main points of Luce's biography. He was ordained into the Anglican (Church of Ireland) clergy in 1908. In WWI, Luce could have served as a chaplain but elected, instead, to enlist as a soldier in the Royal Irish Rifles (1915-18). In a nine-page biography, Luce's son, J. V. Luce, wrote that his father 'saw nearly three years active service in France, rose to the rank of Captain, and won the MC [Military Cross] for his conduct during the battle of Passchendaele in August 1917'. (J. V. Luce, 'Introduction: A Memoir of A. A. Luce', in Fishing and Thinking, A. A. Luce [Shrewsbury, England: Swan Hill Press, 1990]) Passchendaele (aka the 3rd Battle of Ypres) was among the most wretched engagements in the War. So, it is no surprise that Luce suffered from 'shell-shock' (according to  R. B. McDowell and D. A. Webb in their Trinity College Dublin 1592-1952: An Academic History [Cambridge University Press, 1982], p. 490). It appears that Luce was murdered in 1977. At least, he is said to have died 'a few days after being assaulted ... by a man who had an antipathy towards clergymen'. (Diarmaid Ferriter, 'Luce, Arthur Aston' Dictionary of Irish Biography [Cambridge University Press and Royal Irish Academy, 2016])

In the 1920s, Luce was Samuel Beckett's tutor. At TCD, a tutor's role in relation to an assigned student was advisory and not directed towards teaching. Other professors at TCD had much more influence on Beckett than Luce did (esp. Thomas Rudmose-Brown). Still, Beckett seems to have been an admirer of Berkeley, and when Beckett applied for a teaching post at the University of Cape Town in 1937, he named 'Captain the Reverend Arthur Aston Luce' as one of his three referees. (Letters of Samuel Beckett, v. I: 1929-1940, ed. Fehsenfeld and Overbeck [Cambridge University Press 2009], p. 523, letter dated July 29, 1937) Also, interpreters of Beckett's work have focused on its philosophical relevance, particularly in connection with the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Luce published a book on Bergson in 1922.

A revealing source with respect to Luce's character is the anonymously authored obituary in the Times (of London). ('Obituary: The Rev. A. A. Luce, Churchman and Philosopher' The Times, June 29, 1977, p. 18) According to this obituary, Luce had a 'striking and perplexing personality'. (Ibid.) He was regarded by his peers at TCD as 'independent, sometimes to the point of perversity' and as a holder of 'unusual' opinions. (Ibid.) The obituarist conjectures that 'the strain of these years [1915-18] in the trenches left a deep mark on his opinions and his modes of thought.' (Ibid.) Luce 'was seldom on the side of the majority, and, with a courage that never failed him, fought stoutly for many unpopular and indeed outrageous opinions.' (Ibid.) He became TCD's Vice-Provost in 1949 but was 'forced' to retire from that position in 1952 (due allegedly to his inflexible resistance to change). Finally, the author attributes to Luce a complex personality, in which 'the Puritan, the man of the world, and the sequestered don, the cold disciplinarian and the courtly and thoughtful host, the reactionary authoritarian and the passionate lover of justice -- all these jostled one another in an unpredictable kaleidoscope.' (Ibid.)

I think that the anonymous obituarist might have been R. B. McDowell. McDowell co-authored a history of TCD that contains the following remark, which resembles the just-quoted passage:
Most men contain some qualities which seem inconsistent with each other, but in Luce the opposites were to be seen in conflict almost every day. The courteous host and the frosty disciplinarian; the conscientious and devoted servant of the College and the tenacious fighter for his rights and emoluments; the single-minded seeker after the truth and the master of a repartee based on unfair pseudo-logic; the stern moralist and the very unorthodox churchman; the man of the world and the ill-informed provincial; the stylist in words and the ignoramus in the sphere of fine arts -- what was one to make of such a mixture? (R. B. McDowell and D. A. Webb, Trinity College Dublin 1592-1952: An Academic History [Cambridge University Press, 1982], p. 490-491)
McDowell, a historian, contributed the parts of the book that concerned the humanities.

Luce resembled another British philosopher and WWI vet, Mure, in having a reactionary streak (though Luce wasn't nearly as pure a reactionary as Mure seems to have been). Luce resembled Weldon in being a courageous man who had a volatile, unpredictable character and who seemed to enjoy shocking people with his statements.

Here's a clip in which McDowell and J. V. Luce are interviewed about TCD:

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