Frederick Copleston

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Frederick Copleston
Frederick Copleston 1987.jpg
Frederick Copleston, 1987
Frederick Charles Copleston

(1907-04-10)10 April 1907
Taunton, England
Died3 February 1994(1994-02-03) (aged 86)
London, England
Alma materSt. John's College, Oxford Heythrop College, University of London
OccupationHistorian, author, philosopher, priest, apologist

Frederick Charles Copleston CBE SJ (10 April 1907 – 3 February 1994) was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and historian of philosophy, best known for his influential multi-volume A History of Philosophy (1946–74).

Copleston achieved a degree of popularity in the media for debating the existence of God with Bertrand Russell in a celebrated 1948 BBC broadcast; the following year he debated logical positivism and the meaningfulness of religious language with his friend the analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer.


Frederick Charles Copleston was born 10 April 1907 near Taunton, Somerset, England. He was raised in the Anglican faith—his uncle, Reginald Stephen Copleston, was an Anglican bishop of Calcutta; another uncle, Ernest Copleston, was the Bishop of Colombo. Copleston was educated at Marlborough College from 1920 to 1925.[1] At the age of eighteen, he converted to the Roman Catholic faith, which caused great stress in his family.[1] Despite his initial objections, his father helped him complete his education at St John's College, Oxford, where he studied from 1925 to 1929. He graduated from Oxford University in 1929 having managed a third in classical moderations and a good second at Greats.[1]

In 1930, Copleston became a Jesuit.[1] After studying at the Jesuit novitiate in Roehampton for two years, he resettled at Heythrop, where in 1937 he was ordained a Jesuit priest at Heythrop College.[1] In 1938 he travelled to Germany to complete his training, returning to Britain just before the outbreak of war in 1939.[1] Copleston originally intended to study for his doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome, but the war now made that impossible. Instead, he accepted an offer to return to Heythrop College to teach the history of philosophy to the few remaining Jesuits there.[1]

While teaching at Heythrop College, Copleston began writing his influential multi-volume A History of Philosophy (1946–74), a textbook that presents clear accounts of ancient, medieval, and modern philosophy.[2] Still highly respected, Copleston's history has been described as "a monumental achievement" that "stays true to the authors it discusses, being very much a work in exposition".[1]

Copleston achieved a degree of popularity in the media for debating the existence of God with Bertrand Russell in a celebrated 1948 BBC broadcast;[3] the following year he debated logical positivism and the meaningfulness of religious language with his friend the analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer.[4]

Throughout the rest of his academic career, Copleston accepted a number of honorary roles, including Visiting Professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he spent six months each year lecturing from 1952 to 1968.[1] In 1970, he was made Fellow of the British Academy (FBA), and in 1972 he was given a personal professorship from Heythrop College, since re-established by the University of London. In 1975, he was made an Honorary Fellow of St. John's College, Oxford.[1]

After officially retiring in 1974, he continued to lecture. From 1974 to 1982, Copleston was Visiting Professor at the University of Santa Clara, and from 1979 to 1981, he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, which were published as Religion and the One. These lectures were attempted to "express themes perennial in his thinking and more personal than in his history".[1] Toward the end of his life, Copleston received honorary doctorates from several institutions, including Santa Clara University, California, Uppsala University, and the University of St Andrews.[1]

Copleston was offered memberships in the Royal Institute of Philosophy and in the Aristotelian Society.[5] In 1993 he was made CBE.[6] Copleston died on 3 February 1994 at St Thomas' Hospital in London, at the age of 86.[1]


In addition to his influential multi-volume History of Philosophy (1946–74), one of Copleston's most significant contributions to modern philosophy was his work on the theories of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He attempted to clarify Aquinas's Five Ways (in the Summa Theologica) by making a distinction between in fieri causes and in esse causes. By doing so, Copleston makes clear that Aquinas wanted to put forth the concept of an omnipresent God rather than a being that could have disappeared after setting the chain of cause and effect into motion.[7][8]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • A History of Philosophy (1946–1974)
  • Nietzsche (1942)
  • Schopenhauer (1946)
  • Aquinas (1955)
  • Contemporary Philosophy: Studies of Logical Positivism and Existentialism (1956)
  • A History of Medieval Philosophy (1972)
  • Religion and Philosophy (1974)
  • Philosophers and Philosophies (1976)
  • On the History of Philosophy (1979)
  • Philosophers and Culture (1980)
  • Religion and the One (1982)
  • Philosophy in Russia (1986)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cameron, Jon. "Frederick Charles Copleston". Gifford Lectures. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  2. ^ The original edition and Double Day edition were published in 9 volumes, whereas the Continuum edition was published in 11 volumes.
  3. ^ "A Debate on the Existence of God". YouTube. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  4. ^ Beeson, Trevor (2006). Priests and Prelates: The Daily Telegraph Clerical Obituaries. A&C Black. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-82648-100-9. Retrieved 30 March 2016.
  5. ^ "Frederick Charles Copleston". Gifford Lectures. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  6. ^ "Obituary: The Rev Professor Frederick Copleston SJ". The Independent. London. 5 February 1994. Retrieved 24 November 2010.
  7. ^ Hensel, Howard M. (2013). The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Legitimate Use of Military Force. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 9781409499510.
  8. ^ "The Cosmological Argument for The Existence of God" (PDF). Abingdon. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 29 October 2015.

External links[edit]