Biography of W. R. Inge
W. R. Inge - Anglican Platonist author and professor of divinity at Cambridge
William Ralph Inge was known to the public as ‘The Gloomy Dean’ for the sharp cultural criticism of his columns in the Evening Standard. He was a passionate Christian Platonist known in the academy for his work on mysticism, Plotinus and a synthesis of Christianity and Platonism.
William Ralph Inge was born 6 June 1860 in Crayke, Yorkshire, England, into a family of clerics. His father was an Anglican curate and provost of Worcester College, Oxford, while his mother’s father was the Archdeacon of Cleveland. After education at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, Inge returned to his alma mater as Assistant Master at Eton in 1884. The year 1888 marked the beginning of Inge’s twin paths of scholar and churchman as he was elected Fellow and Tutor at Hertford College, Oxford, and ordained Deacon in the Church of England. His early work at Oxford centered on Christian mysticism, and his Bampton Lectures on the same theme were published in 1899.
Inge remained at Oxford until 1905, when he became vicar of All Saints’ Church, Knightsbridge. In 1907 Inge was installed as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Fellow of Jesus College at Cambridge, where he taught until becoming Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1911. Inge delivered his two sets of Gifford Lectures on ‘The Philosophy of Plotinus’ in 1917–1918 while at St Paul’s. He retired in 1934 to a life of writing and study. Inge married Mary Catharine Spooner in 1904, and they had three children. He delivered a number of lectureships in the United Kingdom and the United States and received honorary degrees from the universities of Aberdeen, Durham, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Oxford and St. Andrews. He died 26 February 1954.
Inge wrote over thirty-five books in the areas of mysticism, Christianity, Platonism, ethics and contemporary issues. A number of his books were collections of his essays, including two series of Outspoken Essays, a title that betrays much about its author. For Inge was a controversialist, even a contrarian. In theology he was a liberal, in politics something of a reactionary. A supporter of animal rights and the arts (serving as trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1926 to 1951), he was a constant critic of the state of modern civilization, particularly in its democratic form. It was this criticism in the form of regular columns in the Evening Standard (1921–1946) that earned him his reputation as ‘The Gloomy Dean’.
Yet Inge’s reputation as public gadfly is tempered by the depth of feeling in his writing on the mysticism of Christian Platonism. His integration of and apology for Christian Platonism took the form of an impassioned commendation of humanity’s ascent to God. His at-times overappreciative analysis of Plotinus is understandable in light of his express desire to offer Plotinus as not only ancient philosopher but also contemporary teacher. Inge undoubtedly accommodated the Christian and Platonic mindset to one another, but not uncritically. As a Christian, he spoke of the transcendentals of Truth, Goodness and Beauty as attributes of a personal God rather than abstract Forms. Whether and how far Christianity and Platonism are compatible is a still-searing question. But one must admire the embodiment of an attempt to articulate a universal cosmic movement from and to God that is to be found in W. R. Inge.