Deck was an odd
figure in many ways. He was from
talked with a “nasal whine” supposedly characteristic of that area,
and looked exactly like the picture of Schopenhauer on the front of
paperback. At least most of the year, for he had his head shaved each
spring time in lieu of haircuts during the year.
He dressed “the
same way we all did in grad school, because we were poor then,” his
colleagues would sneer: brown wing tips, green work pants, plaid shirt
with two pockets, one for matches, the other for Pall Malls, which he
chain-smoked during lectures, reaching mechanically for each pocket
with separate hands [those were the days!]. A true campus eccentric.
with his lectures on “the more real life of the mind” were often
stunned to discover he was, in private life, a fervent,
"unreconstructed" Catholic of the Vatican I sort, with no less than
nine children! How he supported them I can’t imagine, but as you have
gathered, he spent nothing on food or clothes.
Nor on books,
movies, music, etc. He proudly claimed to be tone deaf, and would
drive guests away by playing his one record, German marching band
music. He read only Hegel and Plotinus, relaxing occasionally with
Trollope. As for films, I once saw him get a rousing cheer when he
showed up, sitting in the front row, at a student film society showing
of Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different,
in his wild hair and the monk’s robe he wore in cold weather.
Despite this, he
perversely insisted on teaching a class on Hegel’s aesthetics! He had
worked on the Canadian Pacific Railroad before getting the job in
Windsor, and between that and
street cars, was something of a train fanatic. If he attended a
conference, he would entertain himself by seeking out the local train
He was beloved by
students, most of them non-[philosophy] majors looking for an easy
lecture course, for his sheer bizarreness, easy grading, and wacky
course material. When the philosophy department needed a “dumbed
down” course for freshman to expand enrollment, he “dreamed” up “Dream
Worlds and Real Worlds”, a year-long denunciation of “the dream world
of food, drink and sex” in comparison with the “more real” or “really
real” world of philosophy (i.e., Plotinus)
In short, he had
created a sort of “absent minded professor who actually is clued in on
what’s real and secretly or not so secretly sneers at the rest of
deluded mortals” persona of classic proportions. There are, I think,
interesting parallels to Prof. Schlepfuss in Mann’s Dr. Faustus.
his career had been blighted by professional rivalry. You must
been, in Deck’s time, a sleepy Catholic college that was now trying to
become a university. [Professor Patrick J. Flood, Deck’s former
professor, no known relation to your editor.—A.F.] had been there in
the ‘forties, Deck got his BA there in the late ‘forties, (he claimed
to have been a draft dodger!), then went to Toronto for his
doctorate. In those days, you could come back to a place like Windsor with your MA, teach and even get tenure while working on your PhD.
Deck managed to make some enemies in
Toronto, where his sense of infallibility met its match in some of the most
self-important academics in the world. (“Toronto, the center of the
universe,” Flood would sneer.) So it took ages for the dissertation
to be finished, and the book was sabotaged by a nasty review by his
former thesis director [J. M. Rist, author of Plotinus, the Road to
Reality, published the same year]!
Deck spent the rest
of his career in Windsor, ignoring the academic world, collecting
disciples among students, while his colleagues dismissed him as having
“given up philosophy for gossip” and “‘that goddam love affair with
Plotinus.” I must say myself, that he seemed to have been more
interested in teaching Deck-ism than philosophy, even Plotinus, and so
in some ways was a bad influence. I myself learned only an attitude
from him, almost nothing factual.
He died in 1979,
within hours of a massive heart attack. He was in his late 50s, and
apart from smoking, was overweight (“Let the body enjoy its
pleasures!”) and disdained exercise. I was traveling at the time, and
so did not find out until much later, though I heard that the funeral
was well attended by former students.
whole department (every one a Thomist of some kind from the
was gradually overrun first by “existentialists” during his time and
then after his death by “informal logic” teachers.
The final irony is
that Deck has proven to be the only real scholar of the bunch! His
article on total dependence was selected by Anthony Kenny for his
seminal anthology on St. Thomas, his dissertation and work on
Plotinus live on thanks to Larson,* and gradually his work is showing
up in bibliographies, such as the Penguin ed. of the Enneads, and the
recent Return to the One: Plotinus’s Guide to God-Realization.**
* Deck's magnum
opus, Nature, Contemplation, and the One (NCO), based on his
doctoral dissertation from 1967, has been republished by Larson with a
brief introduction by his friend and executor, Lawrence Dewan, which
may give you some biographical flavor. Larson’s story is odd.
Anthony Damiano was a self-taught mystical philosopher from
New York City
who relocated upstate (Deck’s native land) where he built up quite a
following. Deriving from Paul Brunton, he became fascinated with
Plotinus and somehow came across Deck's book, which he elevated into a
kind of St. Paul to Plotinus's gospel. This was more respect than the academics gave
it. They (his center, Wisdom's Goldenrod, Mr. Damiano is also now
deceased) have reissued not only NCO but also a wonderful edition of
Mackenna's translation of the Enneads, which footnotes alternate
translations from all the later scholars, including Deck.
Posted June 15, 2006
** After reading the above online, Mr. O'Meara wished to balance
his recollection's tone which, he feared, sounded unduly negative:
context of our discussions, my respect for Deck's intellect and
achievement was clear, but it may not be in the recollections alone.
Deck was a great intellect who never gained the recognition he
deserved, but has triumphed over his rivals posthumously. My
criticisms of his teaching, for example, should be seen in that
context: a frustrated
scholar who, like many academics, found himself unable to give as much
to his teaching as he may have wanted. Thanks to Larson, and your
website, I look forward to Deck's work finally getting the recognition
Posted June 16, 2006
June 16, 2006:
Mr. O'Meara is in error on some
things. John and Margaret had nine children. [Already corrected in
the memoir.--A.F.] Rist was not a director of John's work.
The thesis was originally directed by Anton Pegis, but it was finished
under Fr. Joseph Owens' direction.
John's work was neither ignored nor
looked down upon in academic circles. R. Baine Harris, who for many
years was the man who made the International Neoplatonic Society go,
always said that he thought John's "the best book on Plotinus," and he
worked to get funds to publish some monographs, among which was to be
(as first and foremost) a reissue of the thesis. He just never
succeeded in getting the money for the series. John's debating with A.
H. Armstrong was welcomed in Dionysius (published by the
Dalhousie classics department, where Armstrong worked at the end of
Lawrence Dewan, O.P.
June 16, 2006
responds, June 17, 2006:
Thank you for your
encouraging reply, and for your correction of my faulty memory. While
I may not yet be able to plead age, perhaps I can equally plead my
youth at the time for the inaccuracies!
On the factual
matters you are of course correct. I had no reason to ever be given an
exact count of the
Deck children, and you can see how we students exaggerate!
And I remember now
quite clearly about the thesis committee, even the sequence of
directors. No excuse for this lapse. At the risk of once again
falling into gossip, the stories of his dissertation travails were
always in the context of illustrating the hateful nature of graduate
work at that time. Despite his own scholarly accomplishment, Dr.
Pegis was supposedly of the "old school" and regarded dissertations as
"just more student work," which grated on a scholar like Deck, who
found Fr. Owens more sympatico. Supposedly, Fr. Owens wound up
directing an extremely disproportionate number of them!
About Professor Rist.
The story, which was partly gossip and partly from Deck himself, was
that his dissertation was to be published by Toronto U. Press,
as it was, but only after a delay, and other shenanigans, brought
about by an 'anonymous reader' at the Press. When the book appeared,
it received a negative review in Phoenix, the important Canadian
classics journal, signed by J. M. Rist. Rist, coincidentally,
had his own book on Plotinus, published by Cambridge, coming out that
Deck in turn used a review [in Dialogue?] as a riposte. It always seemed clear that Rist, or someone close to him, was the
"anonymous reader." But nothing ultimately hangs on this academic
infighting from long ago.
this and my other comments relate to the impression that Deck was
disregarded by the academic community. You are of course correct to
cite the opinions of what Fr. O'Brien called "that small, wholly
admirable, international group of authorities in Plotinian research."
But note the words "small" and "authorities in Plotinian research." My
comments were meant to convey the idea that Windsor, for all its
virtues, was no one's idea of a career choice ["Somewhere in Canada!"
sneered a character in one of Joyce Carol Oates's stories about
Windsor of that very time, written when she was herself exiled to
Windsor. Unlike Deck, however, she made it to Princeton.]
I of course profited greatly from access to such teachers as Deck or
Oates, but shouldn't Deck have been in Toronto, as Oates found her way
to Princeton? Of course, who knows what would have occurred, had it
not been for his premature passing.
At the same time,
things in Windsor were changing, and even the other professors who had
almost all been at Toronto with or around the time of Deck, were
moving on the "newer things." Windsor must have been the only place on
earth where men with Licenciates in Mediaeval Studies were teaching
Heidegger and Austin! Some, like Professor Cunningham, gave up
philosophy altogether and moved to Communication Studies.
[Amazon shows he has published a standard work on propaganda.] Others,
like Dr. Pinto, began teaching Quine and Sartre [again, where else but
Windsor?] and eventually, "informal reasoning" which now that
University Professor Johnson has been Department Head rules the roost.
In such an
environment, a Neo-Platonist like Deck was viewed as an anachronism,
or worse. His old teacher Pat Flood [no relation to Anthony ] was
still there, also scorned by the newer students, and had a whole story
about how after the war it was "cheap to hire" analytic philosophers
from the UK and that's how the rot set in.
So I was merely
trying to convey my impression of Deck as a kind of last hold-out of
the good, old school, who has triumphed posthumously, as surely he is
the only philosopher, then or now, from Windsor so widely known and
appreciated. While the rest chased after the "new things," Deck's deep
appreciation of the Greeks made him timeless. Thus, the need for this
website, to carry his ideas forward.
Needless to say your
corrections, of fact and tone, will be implemented. And we [if Anthony
forgives me for saying 'we'] look forward collaborating with you to
bring more of Deck's heritage to the information age!