MONRO, David Hector. MA (New Zealand). FAHA. Emeritus Professor, Monash University (Philosophy). 1964. Panel C.
(Deceased), 2001-05-13
Philosophy and Religious Studies

Hector Monro, who has died aged 90, was the Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Monash University and among the first group of professors to be appointed. He not only had the responsibility of establishing the Department of Philosophy at Monash but also joined colleagues in charting the course for the new and rapidly developing university.

Hector Monro was born in Whangarei, near Auckland, New Zealand. He gave an engaging account of his early years in Fortunate Catastrophes: An Anecdotal Autobiography, published when he was 80 and distributed among his friends. He was the youngest of six children, one of whom died young. His mother was a devout Presbyterian and his father, who did not attend church, was a committed socialist. Hector Monro attended Auckland Grammar, leaving at 16 to find work. He first tried working for a law firm, then for The New Zealand Herald newspaper, later taking up school teaching. During this time Hector Monro enrolled as a parttime student at Auckland University College, where he completed a BA in 1930, majoring in English, and an MA in philosophy in 1933. Thereafter he found full-time employment, initially teaching English and later working in the public library.

On the outbreak of World War II, Hector Monro refused to serve in the armed services in New Zealand on the grounds of conscience. He appeared before a magistrate who ordered his detention. It is typical of Hector Monro’s cool, considerate and reasoned manner that when asked the stock question, ‘Mr Monro, what would you do if a Japanese soldier tried to rape your wife?’. He replied, ‘I would do the same as I would if a New Zealand soldier tried to rape my wife, I would try to stop him.’

Hector Monro served three-and- a-half tedious and unproductive years in detention about which he later wrote with detachment and humor. After the war, Hector Monro was appointed to an academic post in the University of Otago, first as a librarian and later as a philosophy lecturer. In 1954, he was invited to a senior lectureship in philosophy at the University of Sydney and in 1961 to the Foundation Chair of Philosophy at Monash University.

Hector Monro was a major scholar in moral philosophy and ethics both in Australia and internationally. He was the author of four books, the editor of another and of numerous papers in philosophical journals. His Argument of Laughter appeared in 1951, Godwin’s Moral Philosophy in 1953, Empiricism and Ethics in 1967, Ambivalence of Bernard Mandeville in 1975, Ethics and the Environment in 1980 and his edited work A Guide to British Moralists in 1972. He also served for some years as editor of the Australian Journal of Philosophy.

Hector Monro quickly established himself as a leading guardian of academic value at Monash. He was determined that this new university, established with great speed in 1960-61, should achieve the highest scholarly standard. He was a supporter of the study of foreign languages and of classical studies, which were both to some extent under siege in the culture of the time. He also supported the creation of a separate Department of Linguistics. Perhaps less expected was his participation in discussions about the formation of the Monash Religious Centre. A sceptic in religious matter, he was anxious that the centre should not be limited to Christian denominations but should have space for other religions and provide scope for the expression of agnostic and atheistic views. It has not worked out quite as he had hoped, but his interest led the Professorial Board to appoint him as its representative on the committee of the Centre.

In line with his concern for the free play of scholarly discussion went his opposition to censorship. When State Government moved to ban Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, he became chairman of the informal Freedom to Read Committee. Hector Monro’s uncompromising defence of academic values went along with lightness of touch and a sometimes mocking sense of humor. He was a master of light verse and amused his colleagues by presenting his views in that form. He was proud of having been the only person to have had a poem published in the scholarly philosophical journal, Analysis. (On that occasion he used a verse form to give meaning to what had been described in an earlier article as nonsensical statements.) His Sonneteer’s History of Philosophy, provided a witty poetic survey of a number of philosophers and their views.

Ross Day and John Legge

(This obituary first appeared in The Age 10 June 2001)