Inge, William Ralph (1860–1954)

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William Ralph Inge, the English ecclesiastic and religious thinker, was born at Crayke, Yorkshire. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he was fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, from 1889 to 1905, vicar of All Saints Church, Knightsbridge, from 1905 to 1907, and professor at Cambridge from 1907 to 1911, when he was appointed dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. During his long tenure of this high office, he became one of the best-known Englishmen of his generation. He continued his lifelong studies in philosophy and mysticism, and his penetrating comments on the events of his time, especially on the foibles of contemporary civilization, earned him the sobriquet of "the gloomy dean." He retired in 1934 to Brightwell Manor, Berkshire, where he spent twenty years more of thought and activity before his death.

What provoked Inge's criticism of contemporary culture was its preoccupation with material progress; against this, he pleaded for an end to the separation of fact and value. He maintained that Plato taught an abiding truth when he instructed us to seek reality beyond what is present to the senses; and only a culture that is based on the invisible but eternal values of truth, beauty, and goodness is securely founded. These values are in turn grounded in God, the ultimate spiritual reality, so that Inge's plea was for a religious attitude toward life. The model for such an attitude is provided by the mystic, who penetrates the phenomena of the sensible world to the realm of values and whose soul ascends toward union with God. However, this advocacy of mysticism is not to be understood as escapism or as a denial of the reality of the world of the senses. Inge considered himself in some ways more of a realist than an idealist, and he insisted that any adequate philosophy must take account of the findings of the natural sciences. Mysticism, as he understood it, does not imply emotionalism or irrationalism. Mysticism is itself a kind of spiritual philosophy, a quest for knowledge of the real. If today there is a conflict between the rational and the religious approaches to reality, this is because modern rationalism has become too narrow in its understanding of reason. A genuine rationalism takes account of values as well as of facts; this is the kind of rationalism that flourished in the earlier tradition of Western philosophy, and such a broadly based rational philosophy conduces to the same results as the mystical insights of religion. Both lead, Inge claimed, to "perfect knowledge of the Perfect."

Inge steeped himself in the history of mystical and religious thought, but there was one particular school that seemed to him to approach his ideal of combining genuine rationalism with mystical insight and that therefore strongly attracted him: the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Inge spoke of Plotinus in terms of almost exaggerated respect as not merely an intellectual teacher but also a spiritual director, and he studied his philosophy not just as a historical phenomenon but also as the classic statement of the insights that have guided Western cultureand thus as a message for our time. Platonism, Christianity, and Western civilization, Inge believed, are inseparable and interdependent; and a restatement of the philosophy of Plotinus can provide an intellectual basis that, when combined with the spirit of Christianity, can lead to the rejuvenation of the West.

See also Beauty; Mysticism, History of; Neoplatonism; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Plotinus; Rationalism; Truth.


works by inge

Christian Mysticism. London: Methuen, 1899. Given as the Bampton Lectures.

Faith and Its Psychology. London: Duckworth, 1909.

The Philosophy of Plotinus, 2 vols. London: Longman, 1918. Given as the Gifford Lectures.

Outspoken Essays, 2 series. London: Putnam, 19191922.

Lay Thoughts of a Dean. London: Putnam, 1926.

The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought. London: Longman, 1926.

Christian Ethics and Modern Problems. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930.

God and the Astronomers. London: Longman, 1933.

Diary of a Dean. London: Hutchinson, 1934.

Mysticism in Religion. London: Hutchinson, 1947.

works on inge

Crook, Paul. "W. R. Inge and Cultural Crisis, 18991920." Journal of Religious History 16 (1991): 410432.

Fox, Adam. Dean Inge. London; Murray, 1960.

Helm, Robert M. The Gloomy Dean. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1962.

John Macquarrie (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)