Illtyd Trethowan

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Illtyd Trethowan (12 May 1907 – 30 October 1993), born as Kenneth Trethowan, was an English priest, philosopher and author. For more than thirty years he was the sub-prior of Downside Abbey in Somerset and was also a visiting professor in theology at Brown University.

Early life[edit]

Born at Salisbury in 1907, Trethowan was the son of William James Trethowan, a solicitor, by his marriage to Emma Louisa Van Kempen.[1]

He was baptised in the Church of England as "William Kenneth" and educated at Felsted School and Brasenose College, Oxford. While at Oxford he contracted poliomyelitis and was left with a withered arm.[1]


In 1929 Trethowan was received into the Roman Catholic Church and took a job as a schoolmaster at the Oratory School, London, later transferring to Ampleforth. He became a novice monk at Downside Abbey in 1932 and the same year was 'clothed' a monk under the name of Dom Illtyd. In 1933, he was ordained a priest and from then on taught philosophy to junior monks in the monastery. From 1936 to 1982, he also taught classics and later English literature at Downside, a boarding school for boys attached to the monastery. He served as sub-prior of Downside Abbey between 1958 and 1991 and, when he retired, was given the honorary title of "Cathedral Prior of Ely".[1] He was also a visiting professor in theology at Brown University.[2]

Trethowan died at Bath, Somerset, on 30 October 1993, having said shortly before that he was happy to die. In an obituary, The Independent said of him

Illtyd Trethowan was a man for whom God was the priority. In 61 years of unswervingly faithful monastic life, he lived what he taught: that it is possible for the human mind to be aware of God. He was... a gentle, learned, and always kind monk.[1]


Trethowan was the author of several religious books and many learned articles, translations and book reviews. He edited Walter Hilton's The Scale of Perfection and, from 1946 to 1952 and again from 1960 to 1964, he edited the Downside Review. A fearless thinker, he argued the centrality of contemplation and also that philosophical certainty about God was possible. He also worked to gain a greater audience for some less well known writers, including Maurice Blondel and Dominique Dubarle.[1] For philosophical inspiration he looked to Augustine.[3] For over twenty years, he was in dialogue with Eric Mascall, with whose work Louis Bouyer draws comparisons, calling Trethowan "a born Augustinian, but of exceptional intellectual acuity".[4]

In Awareness of God, Trethowan writes

The most influential Christian philosophers in this country are Wittgensteinians who reject, for philosophical purposes, any talk about a spiritual principle in man. I am not the only person to disagree with them, but those who share my point of view have not, as yet, written books about it.[2]

In Absolute Value, Trethowan asserts that an awareness of moral obligations is an awareness of God.[5] He later expanded on this:

[I am not] building an argument on the facts of the moral consciousness, but pointing to the presence of God as what we are really apprehending even when we might describe ourselves simply as somehow bound to uphold certain principles.[6]

Published works (selected)[edit]

Major publications[edit]

  • 1948: Certainty, Philosophical and Theological (Dacre Press)
  • 1952: Christ in the Liturgy (Sheed and Ward)
  • 1953: The Meaning of Existence: a metaphysical enquiry (London: Longmans, Green) (with Dom Mark Pontifex)
  • 1954: An Essay in Christian Philosophy (Longmans, Green)
  • 1961: The Basis of Belief: an essay in the philosophy of religion (Burns & Oates)
  • 1970: Absolute Value: a study in Christian theism (Allen & Unwin; Humanities Press)
  • 1971: The Absolute and the Atonement (Allen and Unwin; Humanities Press)
  • 1975: Mysticism and Theology-—an essay in Christian metaphysics (G. Chapman)
  • 1975: Walter Hilton's The Scale of Perfection (ed. Trethowan) (Abbey Press)
  • 1985: Process Theology and Christian Tradition (St Bede's Publications, Studies in Historical Theology series, ISBN 0-932506-44-5)


  • 1940: Étienne Gilson, The philosophy of St Bonaventure, translated by Dom Illtyd Trethowan and F. J. Sheed (London: Sheed and Ward)
  • 1964: Maurice Blondel, The letter on apologetics and History and dogma (edited and translated by Alexander Dru & Illtyd Trethowan, Harvill Press)[7]
  • 1989: Louis Bouyer, The Christian Mystery: from pagan myth to Christian mysticism; translated [from the French Mysterion] by Illtyd Trethowan (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark)

Other works[edit]

  • "Alfred and the Great White Horse of Wiltshire", in Downside Review vol LVII (1939) (also published separately in paperback)
  • "Physics and Metaphysics, comments on Sir Robert Watson-Watt's Electronics and Free-will", in The Hibbert Journal, vols 48–49 (1950), pp. 115–119
  • "Self-Awareness and Natural Morality", in Theology, vol. 69 (1966), pp. 23–25
  • "Augustine the Philosopher" in St Augustine, vol. 11 (1987) pp. 118–127

Private life[edit]

Trethowan was reported to like sunbathing and cats.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Luke Bell, OSB, Obituary: Dom Illtyd Trethowan in The Independent dated 10 November 1993
  2. ^ a b Illtyd Trethowan, Awareness of God, at
  3. ^ Catholic Theology in Britain: the Scene since Vatican II, note 30, at
  4. ^ Louis Bouyer, The invisible Father: approaches to the mystery of the divinity, p. 80 online at
  5. ^ Absolute Value (1970), p. 84
  6. ^ Quoted in Nicholas Everitt, 'Trethowan and 'apprehending morality as apprehending God', in The non-existence of God (2004) p. 142 online
  7. ^ The letter on apologetics and History and dogma online at
  • 'A Bibliography of the Publications of Dom Illtyd Trethowan', in Downside Review 95.320 (1977), pp. 157–163
  • A. Baxter, 'Illtyd Trethowan as Thinker: An Appreciation', in Downside Review 112.387 (1994), pp. 75–87

External links[edit]