The Carvings in the Tower (6)

David John Furley was one of the young men who, in May 1940, had climbed up into the Tower of the High School and carved their names and their message on a stone window sill:

And here’s the Tower, pictured on a rather dark day between the two world wars:

David Furley had entered the High School on September 18th 1930 and he left on the last day of the Summer Term, July 30th 1940. The son of a hosiery manufacturer, Athelstan Willis Furley, he lived at 18 Markham Crescent, 50 yards from where Richard  Milnes lived in Langar Close, in that triangle of streets where Valley Road meets the Mansfield Road. Here’s his house today. You can just see a window behind the foliage:

David was an extremely clever young man. He received various School scholarships, a minimum of a dozen prizes or other awards and became the Captain of the School. In the OTC he was Company Sergeant Major and in cricket, he was a regular player for the First XI, winning his colours during the 1940 season. He left to read Classics at Jesus College, Cambridge with a £100 Open Scholarship and an £80 City of Nottingham Scholarship. Nearly all of his Classics Masters were Cambridge men, Mr Beeby (Jesus College), Mr Duddell (Gonville & Caius College) and Mr Gregg (St Catharine’s College). Only Mr Roche had gone elsewhere (London University).

Here is  the list of all his prizes, scholarships and awards, as they appeared in the School List:

During the war, David became a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery Company, serving in Bombay in India and then in Burma. Here they are, in their ceremonial uniforms:

He then returned to Cambridge University to complete his degree, and became an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College.

In 1947, he began lecturing at University College, London, soon becoming “one of the 20th century’s outstanding scholars of Greco-Roman philosophy” and soon afterwards a professor at Princeton University in the United States. In collaboration with Cooper, Frede, Nehamas, Penner and Vlastos, he helped build Princeton’s reputation as a world-leading centre for the study of ancient philosophy. This is Princeton:

His books on philosophy were widely known for their brilliance and their brevity. Most famous were “Two studies in the Greek Atomists”, “Self-movers”, (15 pages), “The rainfall example in Physics II.8”, (6 pages), “Lucretius and the Stoics” (20 pages) and “Galen: On Respiration and the Arteries”. He planned to write his final book, “The Greek Cosmologists”, in two volumes, but after Volume I appeared in 1987, Volume II unfortunately never came to fruition. His best articles and essays were all published together, however, in “Cosmic Problems”. For many years, David was:

“widely regarded within the ancient philosophy community as one of the subject’s most brilliant practitioners”.

Virtually everything he produced is a gem, and many have become classics. There are many who have argued that he was the cleverest pupil the High School has ever produced.

David Sedley wrote an obituary for David Furley, which lists the books he wrote and their length. On one occasion, apparently, he launched his newest book at a conference, and began by handing out copies to everyone. The book was fewer than 20 pages, but, because of David’s well-known intellect, nobody laughed when they first saw how short it was. They read it, and acknowledged that what he had written was a work of genius:

“The most recurrent motif of his work was the systematic contrast between two radically opposed philosophical and scientific worldviews, atomism and Aristotelianism, his analyses typically shedding equal light on both traditions. The leading exhibit is undoubtedly his brilliant 1967 book “Two Studies in the Greek Atomists.” ….A model of lucid and judicious scholarship, this monograph did much, perhaps more than any other single book, to bring Epicureanism into the philosophical mainstream.”

“Furley’s work proved seminal in his genius for writing a short but incisive article which provoked an entire micro-industry of debate. His classic “Self-movers”, a mere 15 pages in the original 1978 publication, became the focus of a subsequent conference at Pittsburgh, which in turn led to a multi-authored volume.

“Another such case is “The rainfall example in Physics II.8” (1986), which argued with amazing concision – it weighed in at just six printed pages – that, contrary to the current orthodoxy, Aristotle in fact believed that rainfall is purposive, and not merely the mechanical outcome of meteorological processes.”

A third case is “Lucretius and the Stoics” (1966). Lucretius was one of Furley’s heroes. The article, running to an impressive 20 pages, presented a major challenge to the orthodoxy that Lucretius’s polemics are typically directed against Stoic rivals. Resistance to this article’s findings has been widespread in Lucretian circles, but it still has its defenders, and the debate remains evenly balanced.”

Here’s Lucretius in an 18th century drawing:

And here’s Furley at varying ages:


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I just wish that I understood anything of what Professor Furley had written. I even thought that “Lucretius and the Stoics” was a 1950s Rock and Roll group.



Filed under cricket, History, military, The High School, Writing

14 responses to “The Carvings in the Tower (6)

  1. This makes it all the more poignant that so many of his contemporaries didn’t make it through the war

    • Exactly, Derrick. One of the biggest impacts of war, which is completely immeasurable, is the idea of what is never achieved because the man who could have done it was killed in the conflict.
      “What would Sergeant X have invented if he’d gone back to the research team at university?”
      “Would that fatal road accident have taken place if Lieutenant Z had been driving the coach and not his inexperienced colleague?”

  2. GP

    Quite the list of accomplishments. Thankfully the war didn’t take him.

  3. I must admit when I got to the last paragraph and read your note, I thought thank goodness it’s not just me! He certainly was remarkable in his achievements, and to be able to be classed as one of the subjects top practitioners is an amazing achievement.

    • No, it’s not just you! I have quite a long list of subjects where I am a bemused bystander. They include philosophy, physics, quantum anything, the reasons why Einstein was right in relativity, playing chess and codes such as Enigma.
      I console myself with the story that Einstein said E = mc², where E is the energy in an atomic explosion, m is the mass of the thing exploding but what is c² ? Well, Einstein just wanted a very big number so he thought “Mmmm, the speed of light. 186,000. That’ll do”. And he put it in, totally at random. Incidentally, if my calulator works OK, it is 34,596,000,000. That’s a big number!

  4. Lucky for everyone that he survived the war years.

  5. Jan

    I am working my way through David Furley’s “Two studies in the Greek Atomists”. It reminds me of some General Studies periods that CJAC “chaired” (for want of a better description ) which I found much more intellectually stimulating than learning to regurgitate the received wisdom on imagery in Macbeth.

    • Yes, Mr Curtis was an extremely intelligent man, although I didn’t realise that he enjoyed Philosophy. Before he retired in 2012, the Reverend Krzeminski, the Head of RS, was teaching Philosophy as a full time A-Level subject. The people who did it found it extremely stimulating and really enjoyed it.

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