In Memory of Basil Mitchell

 

Basil was the antithesis of a modern celebrity. He was all substance and no spin. That was the reason for his success and for our sorrow at his passing. He was a man of many achievements, and some great ones. The academic world will remember him for having re-established religion as a serious philosophical subject in Oxford, and in particular for having brought into existence the Final Honour School of Philosophy and Theology. It was a difficult task, because many Oxford philosophers were not only unbelievers, but contemptuous of theology as metaphysical and therefore meaningless. But Basil beavered away through various committees, and in due course came to the crucial hurdle at the meeting of the Subfaculty of Philosophy. Basil was a talented actor who could sense his audience, and address it in the way appropriate to the occasion. And also he was a consummate politician. His formula for success was ``Always use the weakest argument that will win the day''. So he began, in a gentle, soft voice, discussing possible difficulties in examining the new School. He went on, and finally came to an end. There was silence. Everyone was asleep. The proposal was carried, nem. con.

Basil's public labours succeeded, because all those who had to do with him held him in high regard for his integrity and sensitivity, which he showed in the face-to-face encounters, that constituted the most important part of his service to others. He did not just talk: he listened. He entered into the mind of the person he was talking to, and not just telling him what he himself thought, but beginning from where his listener actually was, and he would embark with him on a journey of exploration, leading to clarification of the question and resolution of the problem. At the end of the discussion the listener did not know what Basil had originally thought, but did now know what they together thought: a real problem for a real person had been properly thrashed out.

 After he became Nolloth Profesor, Basil had a large number of graduates, and used to run a seminar for their benefit. He would coax out of a questioner, who had made an incoherent and ill-informed intervention, a well-articulated problem, which he would then discuss and make into a useful contribution to the general debate. Everyone was enlightened, and the questioner, instead of feeling snubbed, was shown a way of organizing his thoughts better, and was given the sense that he really had something worthwhile to say. Basil is remembered with affection and gratitude by many of his graduate pupils, often from overseas, who under his supervision were able to do original work and make a significant contribution to the intelligent understanding of religion in the intellectual climate of today.

 

Basil's willingness to undertake tedious but necessary chores led him to be elected by Keble as their Proctor in 1956, and made him eminently papabile for the headship of an Oxford College---or, indeed, of another institution that once approached him. He and Margy made a marvellous combination. She for a long time had been not only feeding undergraduates from Keble, and then graduates, and sometimes their wives, but making them feel at home at their house in Wootton. Together they exemplified and furthered the ideal of an academic society that was not only an intellectual institution but a family as well. Nevertheless, I was glad that Basil was not sucked into an administrative post. Although it would have been a well-deserved honour, and he would have discharged its duties well, it would have taken him away from the thing which he did best, and which only he could do---thinking creatively about how to articulate our intimations of divinity in a way intelligible to the modern age.

Basil was a Christian. He worshipped God in spirit and in truth. The great business of his life was to fathom that truth, and communicate it to others. We mourn his passing, but give thanks that we were privileged to have among us and to know and love one who was a chosen vessel of God's grace and a light of the world in our generation.