In Memoriam: Thomas M. Robinson (1936-2023)

May 5, 2023 by Department of Philosophy

The Department of Philosophy mourns the sudden death of our cherished colleague and friend Professor Emeritus Thomas More Robinson, a distinguished expert in ancient Greek philosophy, a dedicated teacher, and, in later years, a widely published and translated playwright. He passed away on April 23, 2023, in Paris, France, following an accident. 

Born in a small mining town in northeastern England in 1936 as the penultimate of 11 siblings, Robinson early on showed interest in a wide-ranging array of topics, tellingly using the family encyclopedia as his window into the world. His varied passions as a young man brought him to the study classics and philosophy at the Universities of Durham and Oxford, as well as to summers spent working as a tour guide throughout Europe.  

In 1964, a year before submitting his doctoral thesis at Oxford, Robinson accepted a position as assistant professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Calgary. Four years later, he would join the University of Toronto, where he spent the rest of his academic career, briefly serving as chair of the Department of Philosophy (1979–1981) and as dean of the School of Graduate Studies (1984–1989). 

Robinson published nine books, the best known of which were perhaps Plato’s Psychology (University of Toronto Press, 1970), Contrasting Arguments: An Edition of the Dissoi Logoi (Arno Press, 1979), and his edition of Heraclitus: Fragments (University of Toronto Press, 1987), printed in the Phoenix Presocratic series he co-founded with David Gallop.  

In much of his scholarship, Robinson’s original thinking proved well “ahead of its time and helped set a new standard,” says Professor Rachel Barney, who first came to know Robinson as an undergraduate student and later valued him as a colleague.  

A number of his works appeared in translation, including in Portuguese, Chinese, and modern Greek — a tribute both to their importance and to Robinson’s own cosmopolitan outlook (he spoke nine languages and travelled extensively). “He was an energetic promoter of the international study of ancient philosophy,” says Barney; “he was one of the early animators of the International Plato Society, and a tireless traveler and participant in conferences in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.” 

Another former student and later colleague, Professor Emeritus Brad Inwood, locates Robinson’s drive to reach a broader, international readership in his deep appreciation of the subject matter: “As a teacher and researcher, Tom — open-minded and intellectually adventurous — was always striving to make the Greek philosophy he loved so much available to a wider audience, whether they read Greek or not.” 

Robinson served as president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities (1988–1990); the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy (1993–1995); and the International Plato Society (1995–1998). He also held honorary doctorates in Humane Letters from the University of Athens and in Sacred Letters from Trinity College, University of Toronto. In 1998, the Greek government bestowed on him the Aristotle Award, an honour reserved for non-Greek nationals in recognition of significant contributions to the understanding of Greek thought and culture. 

Robinson’s eagerness to introduce new readers to the ancient Greeks translated into two further forms of outreach: teaching and writing for the theatre. In his later years, Robinson explored new terrain by publishing a series of 18 plays on philosophy, the arts, and politics in fifth- and fourth-century Greece. 

As a teacher, he proved energetic, meticulous, and caring. Remembers Barney: “He was a mentor of mine as an undergraduate, and I well remember the excitement of taking a 400-level course with him on Plato’s Timaeus, working carefully through the text week after week with the benefit of his enormous expertise, and discovering how seriously he was prepared to take undergraduate research — how great an interest he took in our term paper ideas, and how little in due dates and regulations. In every context, his enthusiasm and essential kindness shone through.”  

Inwood concurs. “I was fortunate to know Tom for more than 40 years; he was always outgoing, joyful, and generous in mind and spirit,” he says. Perhaps best describing the feelings of those who knew Robinson, Inwood adds: “His sudden death diminishes us all.” 

In February last year, Robinson was predeceased by his cherished wife, the award-winning writer and philosophy alumna Erna Paris.  

The Department of Philosophy extends its heartfelt condolences to Robinson’s stepchildren, Michelle and Roland Paris, as well as to the rest of his family and wide circle of friends from around the globe.  

His funeral will be held at the Funeral Centre at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto on Sunday, May 7, 2023, at 10:30 a.m. Donations may be made to Plan International Canada. A live video feed of the memorial ceremony will be available starting at 10:15 Eastern Time on Sunday. 

Read Tom Robinson’s obituary in the Toronto Star.