Tribute from BRICUP to Professor Richard Seaford

delivered by Tom Hickey on behalf of BRICUP on 15th November 2023 at the University of Exeter in the presence of Richard, family members, colleagues and students

Some days ago, in a webinar on the Gaza events, Gabor Maté told a story that had been bequeathed to him by his grandfather. Maté, an Hungarian-Canadian physician, author and addiction therapist, was a committed Zionist until the age of 23 in 1967.

Maté’s recent webinar was about trauma. He spoke about the trauma being endured and seeded in the population of Gaza under Israeli bombardment, the trauma being inflicted on the Palestinian population of the West Bank by the fear of settler violence and the destructive and murderous incursions of the Israeli army, the trauma caused to Palestinians by their dehumanisation both in Israel and in the refugee camps, and the trauma of the memory of the 1948 Naqba. He also spoke about Jewish trauma – the trauma inflicted by the events of the 7th of October this year, and the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

What I want to recount to you, however, is the story that Maté was told by his grandfather who was himself a doctor, a writer and a Zionist in Budapest. His grandfather had been the cantor in the Great Synagogue of Budapest. This is the story that Gabor was told. It is a story that has many versions, and many vocabularies. As such, it is probably apocryphal.

In the late 19th century, just after Theodore Hertzl had published in Vienna the founding document of political Zionism, The Jewish State (1896), the rabbinate of Vienna decided to send two of their number to investigate this ‘promised land’. The two rabbinical investigators eventually returned, and their report , however stamped with the gendered language of the day, was pithy and prescient, and intensely politically charged. It was summarised in their pointed remark about the land of Palestine: “The bride is beautiful but she is already taken.”

This incisive observation, on an appreciation of which depends both the capacity to understand the conflict of the last century in the region and to perceive the requirements of justice, and which is a condition for a defensible ethical stance, echoes down the decades. In less poetic terms, the facts can be stated baldly – the establishment of an Israeli state in Palestine required the dispossession of the large majority of the indigenous population, and their expulsion from their land. Equally embedded as an entailment in such a settler-colonial project was its ineluctable consequences: expansion of such a state into further territory by military conquest, and systematic discrimination, legal and social and economic and educational, against those Palestinian Arabs (Moslem and Christian) who managed to avoid being forcibly evicted. Thus unfolded the terrorised expulsion of c.800,000 people in 1948, the foundation of an ethnocratic state, the series of future military conquests, and the creation of Jewish settlements on further occupied Palestinian land, settlements that are illegal in international law.

Why do I start with this story emanating from another scholar in a tribute to Richard Seaford? I do so because it is precisely the incisiveness of these two rabbinical investigators from Budapest 127 years ago, whether they were real or imagined, that has characterised Richard’s engagement with this conflict, with its history and politics, and with its attendant moral obligations. This is an engagement that has been built on a commitment to justice, and thus in opposition to the apartheid nature of the social, political and legal structure of the society that currently exists between the Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river. Yet it is also this lucidity and perspicuity in his political commitment to Palestine that provides the profound relationship between that commitment and Richard’s work as a Classics scholar. He has brought the same rigorous analysis, forensic focus, interpretative flair, and sensitive historical contextualisation to the issue of Palestinian human rights as he has devoted to the study the works of Homer, of Anaxemander, of Parmenides, of Aristotle and of Demosthenes, in their ancient Greek worlds, and to his investigation of the Rigveda and the Upanishads from ancient India.

The intellectual similarities between early Greek and early Indian thought were analysed in Richard’s The Origins of Philosophy, in which social and political and economic contextualisation were shown to be central to an understanding of the consequences for the ideas of mind and self, of Gods and matter, and for the practice of rituals and the notion of tragedy, that flowed from the emergence of fiduciary and token money. So too with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here is a conflict that, as with any political process or event, cannot be understood outside of history, or without a sensitivity to the ways in which narratives and world views (or ‘chronotopes’ in a different register) become embedded not simply through language and inter-generational conceptual bequest but through discourses and ritual practices that constitute the dialogical features of human existence. Thus in his work do we have the figure of Michail Bakhtin hovering over the investigation of ancient Athens and the modern Middle East.

In the politics of the Middle East, of course, that context is not simply the centuries of European antisemitism, whose nadir was the Holocaust, and the contrasting history of religious coexistence in Islamic societies, but also the global politics of c.20th imperialism: the Balfour Declaration; the ‘Arab Revolt’; Israel as a Western watchdog state, dependent on its Western backers, and in a state of permanent war, and periodic hostilities, with its neighbours; and Cold War tensions, Pan-Arabism, and popular revolutions deflected by military coups d’état into state-dominated modernisation programmes. This was the backdrop against which incompatible narratives became embedded and thus naturalised for different communities and peoples.

Working with Richard for over a decade in BRICUP, I and other colleagues have learned how to preserve, and the necessity of preserving, the simultaneous presence in thought and action of both a resolute commitment to justice, and the broadest possible scopic regime and historical ambit in our analysis of events.

Richard has contributed to many BRICUP projects over these years, not the least of which are his contribution to the fight against the adoption of the IHRA’s redefinition of antisemitism and thus its weaponization by Zionist apologists for Israel, and his central role in defence of Middle East text-book impartiality. The latter concerned BRICUP’s successful campaign to prevent the attempt by UK Zionist organisations to interfere with and to distort the content of school text books on the Israel-Palestine conflict and on the Middle East. It was in large part Richard’s persistence, attention to detail, unswerving defence of authors’ rights and independence, and insistence on publishers’ responsibility to defend their authors’ integrity, that drove this campaign forward to ultimate success.

It has been a privilege to work with Richard Seaford, and a privilege to know him. He has been a comrade to all in BRICUP and in the Palestine solidarity movement generally; he has been an indefatigable friend of Palestine and defender of Palestinian rights; and he has been a scholar and teacher for whom no Chinese Wall has been allowed to divide his professional work from his political engagement.

Tom Hickey                                                                                                                            for the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine


Richard Seaford is an Emeritus Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. He has been a member of BRICUP for almost two decades during which time he has successfully defeated Israel’s defenders in debates, actively engaged in successful BRICUP campaigns against the adoption of the IHRA re-definition of antisemitism, and played a central role in the BRICUP campaign against the attempt by pro-Israel groups to interfere with the content of UK school textbooks on the Middle East and on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A supporter of the PACBI call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, his stand gained notoriety in 2006 following his decision to decline an invitation to write for an Israeli scholarly journal.

Widely published as a scholar on the development of Greek literature, mythology, ritual and religion, Richard is best known in his field for the development of a materialist analysis of Classical society and thought. Investigating in particular the monetisation of early Greek culture and its causal role in the emergence of Greek philosophy, he argued that the gradual evolution of an object of universal equivalence, culminating first in forms of fiduciary and then entirely token money, altered every aspect of society. In a close reading of the works of Homer he traced patterns of reciprocity in the polis to be found in the literature, and in the works of Heraclitus and Parmenides the gradual rise of individualism and monism.1

In his later major works, Richard first traced the social construction of concepts of space, time and cosmology using the writings of Homer, Aeschylus, Herakleitos and Pythagoras.2 He then sought an explanation of the separate and independent but contemporaneous emergence of philosophy in ancient Greek city states and in ancient India through a close reading and social contextualisation of the Rigveda and the Upanishads.3 The common social condition for the rise of the distinctive metaphysics of these cultures was discovered in the pervasive monetisation of both, in which the impersonal substance produced its introjection as a unified sense of self, and its projection onto a unified cosmos.

Richard has two forthcoming monographs. One, from CUP, discusses the comparable innovations in Mesopotamian and Greek visual art.4 The other, which is jointly authored, will provide a systematic comparison between the simultaneous but independent development of Greek and Judaic metaphysics.

In 2022, Richard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which is now, in late 2023, entering its terminal stages.


  1. Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, CUP 2004
  2. Cosmology and the Polis: the Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus, CUP 2012
  3. The Origins of Philosophy in Ancient Greece and Ancient India: a Historical Comparison, CUP 2020
  4. CUP, forthcoming