Curator’s Note, December 11, 2014

The following post by Andrew Majeske has been added to this site because it was referred to in these previous posts:

Literature, Law and the Idea of Justice: The Case of Professors Amartya Sen & George Anastaplo


“We must not be afraid to be free”: Justice Hugo Black and George Anastaplo–Majeske pre-Publication


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Literature, Law and the Idea of Justice: The Case of Professors Amartya Sen & George Anastaplo–Majeske pre-Publication

Andrew Majeske

The Graces, seeking a shrine that would never perish, found it in the soul of Aristophanes.


It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high; whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself for what it is.

–Leo Strauss

The ultimate political goal…urgently calls for coherent reflection. The goal of the general is victory, whereas the goal of the statesman is the common good. What victory means is not essentially controversial, but the meaning of the common good is essentially controversial. The ambiguity of the political goal is due to its comprehensive character. Thus the temptation arises to deny, or to evade, the comprehensive character of politics and to treat politics as one compartment among many. But this temptation must be resisted if it is necessary to face our situation as human beings, i.e., the whole situation.

–Leo Strauss


Precisely a year ago, the two featured speakers at the 3rd Biennial John Jay College of Criminal Justice Literature and Law Conference, which I organized in New York City, each gave an address relating to the theme of the “Idea of Justice.” Their addresses were respectively entitled “Law and Ideas of Justice” (Professor Amartya Sen’s), and “Justice and Community, Ancient and Modern” (Professor George Anastaplo’s). Today, I consider areas of agreement and disagreement between these two scholars concerning their approaches to justice, focusing primarily upon their conference addresses, but also more generally. Professor Anastaplo’s address is currently available online at his internet blog (the information for which is listed as item number “1” on my handout). And recorded versions of both his and Professor Sen’s addresses can be viewed in their entirety at John Jay College’s ITunes U internet site. Both of their addresses will be published in a forthcoming symposium volume arising out of that conference. The present talk constitutes the beginning stages of a critical introduction to that symposium volume.

Initially, I should point out that both Professor Anastaplo and Professor Sen would agree that a crisis regarding justice exists in the contemporary world. Each of these scholars has been endeavoring in their work to address this crisis, in one way or another. For Professor Sen, the crisis is global in scope, and its solution also needs to be global; the solution proposed by Professor Sen will require that the prevailing way of dealing with the idea of justice, the one deriving from the contractarian tradition spanning from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls, be abandoned. This tradition is to be replaced by a more realistic approach to justice, one that switches focus from the contractarian’s central concern with institutions, to a focus upon people and the lives they actually lead. This switch leaves behind what Professor Sen views as the impossible challenge of achieving unanimous agreement on an ideal definition of justice, and moves to an idea of justice that concentrates instead upon achieving broad consensus about what Professor Sen characterizes as manifest injustices.

For Professor Anastaplo, the crisis of justice is in the West, it is a consequence of the break from the Western classical tradition of political philosophy and the way it treated justice, a break for which Nicolo Machiavelli can be considered initially responsible. The crisis is reflected in, among other things, the rise in importance, beginning especially in the Early Modern period, of notions like “conscience,” “individual” and “privacy.” The solution for Professor Anastaplo is local—if one can so describe the West—and involves examining how the crisis evolved, and returning to its beginnings. There we need to notice what was left behind in Machiavelli’s break with the past, and to retrieve the things he abandoned that continue to be of value, and that are worth restoring.

Let me mention one additional item about which Professors Anastaplo and Sen agree; they agree—implicitly or explicitly—that imaginative literature has a critical role in their writings about justice. Both frequently draw upon works of imaginative literature in this context—their conference addresses certainly do. Professor Sen’s entré to justice in his address is a 4th century Sanskrit play by Shudraka, the title of which translates into English as Little Clay Cart. It is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s more troublesome comedies and romances in that it ends happily for the romantic couple and the political order, but things appear headed in a tragic direction for most of the play. For Professor Sen’s purposes, the play is particularly noteworthy because of its culminating rejection of what Professor Sen calls “tit-for-tat” justice, of the rendering of punishment strictly fit for the crime, in favor of an almost incomprehensible mercy. In this in particular it resembles Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the Duke’s perplexing use of pardons. The protagonist and eventual ruler in Little Clay Cart forgoes strict, conventional justice, in favor of freeing the would-be murderer, who clearly deserves death in the context of the play. Professor Sen emphasizes the protagonist’s characterization of this mercy as “killing with benefaction” (2). One wonders whether the protagonist’s actions here are as calculating as, for instance, Petruchio’s in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where he plots to “kill [his] wife with kindness” (4.1.189). Be this as it may, Professor Sen notices that the stated objective of the ruler is “to make the world go well—with prosperity, happiness and security for all” (2). Professor Sen aligns this comment with what he describes as “an old distinction [about justice] from the Sanscrit literature on ethics and jurisprudence” (The Idea of Justice, 20). This distinction relates to the terms niti and nyaya, both of which mean justice, but in very different senses. The justice exhibited by the ruler at the end of Little Clay Cart—one that is concerned with “making the world go well”—is consistent with nyaya, which Professor Sen defines as “a comprehensive concept of realized justice,” and contrasts sharply with niti, which means “organizational propriety and behavioral correctness” (3-4). Niti would have required the execution of the would-be murderer. For Professor Sen, it appears that literature provides vivid illustrations of the points he wants to make about justice. Literature also seems to provide an accessible way to provide an outside perspective that enables one to see beyond the limits of one’s local perspective and circumstances.

If global government, and therefore global justice (or at least reduced injustice) is to be achieved, which is Professor Sen’s overriding objective, then there must be a way to provide a “position independent understanding of the world” (The Idea of Justice, 161). For instance, in order to overcome “long-established tradition[s] of relegating women to a subordinate position,” you would need to draw upon observations and stories from “other societies” where women who have had “more opportunities” have overcome local prejudice and circumstances and shown that they “have the ability to do just as well as men in[,for example,] the pursuit of science, given the necessary opportunities and facilities” (162).

Professor Sen, at the outset of Chapter 7 of The Idea of Justice—from which I have just been quoting—illustrates how stories can help to provide such an outside perspective, by compelling his readers to see things as others might.  He does so by drawing from the exchange, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, between King Lear and Gloucester, following Gloucester’s  blinding. Lear tells Gloucester that

A man may see how this world goes [/] with no eyes. Look with thine ears: See how yond [/] justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in [/] thine ear; change places; and handy-dandy, which [/] is the justice, which is the thief? (4.6.150-153)

This literary illustration is particularly apt because it suggests that one can overcome one’s circumstances to gain a new perspective, it suggests how one might go about doing it, and it suggests that the new perspective can produce profound, even unsettling changes in the person experiencing it.

Professor Anastaplo’s use of literature is more profound than Professor Sen’s in that it is dialectical; he engenders searching conversations with the literature he draws upon. In his John Jay address, Professor Anastaplo created an intricate web of associations and meanings between and among a series of literary pairings. In the first half of his address he opposes Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’ Hippolytus, with, respectively, Shakespeare’s HamletMacbeth, and Othello. He derives from these comparisons some key distinctions between the ancient Greek view of justice and the nature of things, and more recent developments—those occurring in the wake of Machiavelli—developments which have complicated the idea of justice by elevating notions like “conscience,” “individual,” and “privacy” (Address, Sec. 4).

At the center of his address, Professor Anastaplo pauses before transitioning from the literature of tragic drama he focused on in the first half, to some comic drama which he deals with at the outset of the second half, namely Aristophanes Frogs, which he pairs with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. During his central pause, Professor Anastaplo draws a sharp distinction between the ancient Greeks and the modern (and Early Modern) West, as reflected in the careers of Socrates and Thomas More; the point of this comparison is to oppose the profound moderation of Socrates with the more extreme conduct of Thomas More—a conduct seemingly dictated by More’s conscience. The suggestion seems to be that More’s conscience, in some fundamental way, prevents him from achieving the self-knowledge he needs to act responsibly. Towards the end of his address, Professor Anastaplo returns to tragedy, but in a more modern context, a context in which tragedy takes on a radically different quality, and produces different, more disturbing effects. Rather than purging problematic emotions by exposing them unambiguously as vice, and by illustrating how the practitioner of vice faces severe consequences—the classical role of tragedy, one can wonder whether in the modern (and Early Modern) context, tragedy might be seen on occasion  to produce that which it formerly purged. Professor Anastaplo, in the shift evident in the Oedipus-Macbeth coupling, sees an ominous association and perhaps foreshadowing of the career of Martin Heidegger, just as he sees in Friedrich Nietzsche a similar association in the Orestes-Hamlet coupling, and in Jean Jacques Rousseau, an association in the Theseus-Othello pairing. Only after this intricate progression, in essence critiquing, through a dialectical examination of literature, the entire Western tradition of political philosophy, does Professor Anastaplo arrive at the immediate point of his talk, at least as it relates to his position about justice in comparison to Professor Sen’s. Professor Anastaplo raises the question of whether  Professor Sen’s move from considering justice in local terms to considering it in global terms is as necessary or beneficial as Professor Sen makes it out to be, when considered in light of the Western classical tradition of justice, as gleaned from literature.

I should mention that Professor Anastaplo follows in the line of those who see in great literature a close relationship between the communities and societies which produce the poets who crafted the literature, and the justice and other political and moral concerns of those communities and societies. A comedian like Aristophanes can be seen in this light as being “concerned with making [people] of the cities good and noble” by “concealing vice, [that is], by depriving vice of its attraction” (Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, 5-6). Aristophanes could perhaps even see it as his duty to take the great personal risk of telling the Athenians directly what justice for them should be, albeit “by treating the just comically” (Id.) Tragedy can be seen as having a parallel civic concern, that of exposing vice for what it is, in an effort to promote justice and the common good of the community or society. In this section I have attempted to show that both Professors Anastaplo and Sen see literature as important or even critical to what they are trying to accomplish regarding justice, but that their reliance upon or use of literature differs in kind and degree.


            Now that we have reached the midpoint of this talk, after having pointed out two things about which Professor Sen and Anastaplo can be seen to agree, that is, that justice is in crisis, and in their use of literature, it is necessary to step back and place the work of each in a broader perspective, to clarify what each of these scholars is trying to accomplish in their respective attempts to establish or reestablish a sensible idea of and/or approach to justice for the contemporary world. That is, we must begin to notice at what level Professors Sen and Anastaplo profoundly disagree.

Let me start with Professor Anastaplo. In order to succinctly describe what I view to be his “project” relating to justice, let me first draw your attention to the quotation at item # “2” on your handout.

We cannot reasonably expect that a fresh understanding of classical political philosophy will supply us with recipes for today’s use. For the relative success of modern political philosophy has brought into being a kind of society wholly unknown to the classics, a kind of society to which the classical principles as stated and elaborated by the classics are not immediately applicable. Only we living today can possibly find a solution to the problems of today. But an adequate understanding of the principles as elaborated by the classics may be the indispensable starting point for an adequate analysis, to be achieved by us, of present-day society in its peculiar character, and for the wise application, to be achieved by us, of these principles to our task. (Leo Strauss, The City and Man, 11)

This quotation, by one of Professor Anastaplo’s teachers, Leo Strauss, in my view establishes the proper context for approaching what Professor Anastaplo is trying to accomplish with respect to the crisis of justice in the Western Tradition. Professor Anastaplo’s life’s work, in my estimation, at least as it relates to justice, involves translating “the classical principles as stated and elaborated by the classics” to the issues of the day faced by Western societies. These societies, in their current form, are the direct products of the modern Western tradition of political philosophy, and are also the inheritors of the relatively recently discredited classical political philosophy that constitutes perhaps the keystone of the foundation of the Western tradition. That is, Professor Anastaplo is modeling how the classical principles not only continue to be relevant, but also how they are indispensable if we are to find “solution[s] to the problems of today.” It is not immediately clear whether Professor Anastaplo’s efforts apply outside societies in the Western tradition. In fact, the bulk of Professor Anastaplo’s work involves his native society, the one whose principles are so eloquently expressed in the keystone of its foundation, the Declaration of Independence.

In contrast with Professor Anastaplo, who recognizes justice more as a local concern, Professor Sen addresses the crisis by advocating for a kind of universal justice, ultimately administered by democratic world government. Professor Sen proposes that the move towards world government is necessary to secure the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the world community against what he describes as “manifest injustices.” Professor Sen’s project for addressing the crisis involves a fundamental switch in emphasis from “what is just, or justice,” a question which for Professor Sen tends to be rooted in idealism, and upon which broad agreement is consequently unlikely, to “what is manifestly unjust,” a question for which he suggests broad general agreement can be achieved. Professor Sen thinks such consensus is possible because the question of “what is manifestly unjust” is more practical in that it deals with real world concerns and focusses on the way people actually live their lives. Professor Sen does premise the achievement of such a consensus upon the people who decide having the benefit of education and having relatively free access to information through a free press. He further assumes that eventually there will develop a tradition of informed and civil discussion of the public issues among the gradually more and more educated general populace; pursuant to this discussion the manifest injustices will be identified and actions to remedy them determined and executed. The provocative list of manifest injustices Professor Sen proposes as a starting point (see item # “3” on your handout) include 1) oppression (slavery, the subjugation of women), 2) systematic medical neglect, 3) lack of universal health coverage, 4) torture, and 5) tolerance of chronic hunger. Until world government is achieved, and the requisites to hold these civil and informed public debates everywhere are established and become widely accepted, Professor Sen proposes that the more developed nations owe a general duty to the less developed nations to assist in remedying at least this initial list of manifest injustices.


Finally, in the closing section of my paper, I will concentrate on what I see to be another area of disagreement between Professors Sen and Anastaplo. This disagreement concerns Nicolo Machiavelli. Professor Sen, while he does not expressly acknowledge it, and might not even recognize the fact, closely imitates the profound move made by Machiavelli in Chapter 15 of the Prince (the key passage for which is item # “4” on your handout). Professor Anastaplo, in contrast, is profoundly troubled, if not so much by Machiavelli’s thought, then by the way Machiavelli chose to express it, and the pernicious impact some of it has had, which is nowhere more evident than in the depreciation of the classical thought that occurs as a result of comments like those that Machiavelli made in Chapter 15 of the Prince.

Professor Sen delineates the “contractarian” tradition against which he is reacting as commencing with Thomas Hobbes (5-6, The Idea of Justice), and further developed by Locke, Rousseau and Kant, in particular. Professor Sen assigns a label to this tradition; he characterizes the contractarian theories developed by these thinkers as constituting “transcendental institutionalism.” Professor Sen asserts that transcendental institutionalism is the foundation “on which today’s mainstream political philosophy largely draws in its exploration of the theory of justice” (Id. 7-8).

The key difficulty with the contractarian tradition, according to Professor Sen, is that theories of justice developed in this tradition “focused on transcendental identification of ideal institutions,” and “required the presumed compliance by all” with what is determined to be “ideal behavior” (Id. 6-7). That is, transcendental institutionalism is concerned with identifying perfect justice, or what amounts to the same thing among its adherents, perfectly just institutions (Id. 6). Professor Sen explains that because there are a “plurality of reasons for” and several “competing principles of justice,” about which reasonable people can differ, “there may not indeed exist any identifiable perfectly just social arrangement on which impartial agreement would emerge” (Id. 11). (see item # “5” on the handout for Professor Sen’s paradigmatic example of “Three Children and a Flute”, by which he illustrates this problem).

Transcendental institutionalism ultimately falls short, according to Professor Sen, not only in that it is too idealistic, or even “utopian”—in the old-fashioned sense of that term— but also in that it fails to compare “feasible societies,” and does not consider “the actual behavior of people,” and “the kinds of lives people actually lead” (Id. 7, 10). In his emphasis on actual people and their behaviors, and what is feasible, Professor Sen, like Machiavelli, desires to prioritize “the effectual truth of things” over “the imagination thereof.”  It has been suggested that Machiavelli turned away from the classics, from “the imagination of things,” because he “tended to believe that a considerable increase in man’s inhumanity was the unintended but not surprising consequence of man’s aiming too high. Let us lower our goals,” Machiavelli might say, “so that we shall not be forced to commit any bestialities which are not evidently required for the preservation of society and of freedom” (Leo Srauss, What is Political Philosophy, 44) In a similar vein, Professor Sen foresees the indefinite continuance of manifest injustices that will be suffered by a large portion of the world populace if the pursuit of justice continues to be guided by the contractarian tradition characterized as it is by transcendental institutionalism.

Professor Anastaplo’s stance on Machiavelli is more simple and straightforward, at least for purposes of developing the contrast with Professor Sen on this occasion. In a sense, Professor Anastaplo’s work relating to justice can be seen as a rearguard action defending against what he would consider to be the corrosive effects of Machiavelli’s teaching, especially as that teaching has challenged the classical understanding of and approach to justice. Professor Anastaplo has endeavored to free “himself from Machiavelli’s influence,” so that he can see Machiavelli from a “pre-modern point of view,” a perspective which presents Machiavelli as “altogether unexpected and surprising”, as someone who is “new and strange” (Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 13).

It has been said of Professor Anastaplo that he strives “to resurrect among us the vital teaching that there are indeed moral and political standards rooted in nature and discernible through reason.” To many, such an effort can seem quixotic in the wake of Machiavelli.  However, the effort is necessary if others are to learn how to remove their blinders as well, and what has been called the “crisis of liberal democracy” is to be addressed.


A talk delivered to the Midwest Political Science Association, April 12, 2013, Palmer House, Chicago.

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Curator’s Note, October 1, 2014

One of the projects that George Anastaplo considered among his most important was a series of conversations that he recorded with Simcha Brudno in 2000, over 50 years after the end of World War II.  Mr. Brudno at that time was a distinguished mathematician at the University of Chicago but he had lived as a young man in Lithuania at the time of the Nazi occupation and enslavement of his country. The conversations were transcribed and published in a series of 13 articles beginning in 2009 (some have been posted at this site). The entire series has now been posted and may be viewed at:

One of those conversations was recently published in:

How Do You Explain Craziness? On the Germans and the Holocaust, pp. 928–980

In that same issue, some of Anastaplo’s colleagues published reflections on his work and legacy. These comments may be viewed by clicking here.

Since July 29, we have posted some additional eulogies from the June 6 Memorial Service. All of the eulogies may be viewed by clicking here.

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Curator’s Note, July 29, 2014

Additional material has been added to the post on this blog of George Anastaplo’s last Works of the Mind lecture: William Shakespeare, Dramatist–Not Statesman, Not Philosopher

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Memorial Service for George Anastaplo, June 6, 2014

Anastaplo MS 1


Anastaplo MS 2


Anastaplo MS 3

Remarks by each speaker may be viewed by clicking here (nb 6/13/14: not all materials are currently posted; others will be posted as they become available).



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George Anastaplo, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis

GA Tombstone


GA Tombstone among tombstones

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William Shakespeare, Dramatist–Not Statesman, Not Philosopher



William Braithwaite, Tutor, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD

My present duty is to speak the lecture written by George Anastaplo. He and I have agreed, in a long conversation yesterday afternoon, that it would not be unfit that I also make, in my own name, a few prefatory remarks, as well as, after his lecture, some comments and observations, on several of the questions his lecture touches upon.

There will be another occasion for me to tell the history of my friendship with George Anastaplo, and of how I came to be here today. It is sufficient for the present that I say he began teaching in the Basic Program in 1959, two years after I was graduated from a Southern Baptist military prep school in Virginia, that I first met him as a student in the Basic Program in September 1971, and that most of the blessings of my life since then are traceable to his influence as a teacher.

When we try to figure out how events come to happen, we sooner or later find ourselves asking about Chance, Intelligence and Providence. Do some things just happen causelessly, like the swerve of Lucretius’ atoms, as he describes in De Rerum Natura? Or is there some First Intelligence at work, as Aristotle concludes in the Metaphysics? And if there is a First Intelligence at work in the ordering of all the operations of the cosmos—in the motions of sun, moon, planets and stars, plants and animals, and in the political motions of cities and human beings, is that Intelligence benevolently disposed toward us in particular, as the Bible proposes?

Of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays, ten deal with some of the great motions in English history. Together these ten plays touch on events occurring during the reigns of the several royal families that ruled England up to the beginning of Shakespeare’s own lifetime; these are the Houses of Plantagenet, Lancaster and York, and the Tudors. King John, the subject of the chronologically first of the history plays, reigned 1199-1216. Henry VIII, the subject of the last, ruled 1509-1547. Shakespeare was born in 1564.

The eight plays dealing with events between 1199 and 1547 fall into two tetralogies. The first group of four deals with the last Plantagenet, Richard II, and the first two Lancasters, Henry IV and his son Henry V. The second group of four includes a trilogy, three plays dealing with the reign of Henry VI; the title character of the fourth and last play in this group is Richard III, whose death at Bosworth Field opens the way to end the contest, called the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York over the right of royal succession.

Mr. Anastaplo asks me to say that this lecture is dedicated to Laurence Nee, my late faculty colleague at the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College, who for three years near the end of his life attended Mr. Anastaplo’s Basic Program Alumni classes. Of Mr. Nee’s participation in those classes, Mr. Anastaplo remarked to me that it “showed how much it helps to have a second Seminar leader, who always comes with questions and observations of his own.” [The text of Mr. Nee’s June 20, 2013 letter to Mr. Anastaplo is an Appendix to these remarks].

The announced title of the lecture was “William Shakespeare and the Idea of the Natural.” The revised title, in the hand-written manuscript that I will read from, is “William Shakespeare, Dramatist—Not Statesman, Not Philosopher.”

[End of Preface]



George Anastaplo


            On Christmas Eve, three weeks ago, our family did what we had done many times before: we listened on WFMT Radio (here in Chicago) to the Christmas Eve concert from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. This 2013 concert was made particularly memorable for me when I learned (from the announcer’s introduction) that this Cambridge Choir had been founded in 1441 by King Henry VI.

I had, in the weeks immediately preceding this broadcast, been very much involved in a University of Chicago adult education seminar discussing William Shakespeare’s History Plays. The Henry VI trilogy (which we had just been reading) includes his accounts of the awful things that the King and even more his nobles did to each other, month after month, year after year.

All this had finally led to the end of the dreadful War of the Roses, with multitudes of nobility and their accomplices having indulged themselves in atrocities that eventually (perhaps even naturally) culminated in their moral depravity to the bloody career of King Richard III.

We can be reminded, by the exquisite music and ancient lineage of the King’s College Choir, of what a celebration of continuity has long meant for the English people and can mean for those elsewhere privileged to share such a heritage for centuries. Beautiful things can be an inheritance which can be cherished across a millennium without an informed awareness of the appalling ugliness that had been part of the lineage of related noteworthy developments. Such ugliness can be somehow suppressed in communal recollections across centuries.

Can such a people, it may even be wondered, truly know itself? It may also be wondered, of course, whether an awareness of the awful things resorted to and somehow endured provides an instructive edge to any effort at collective self-recognition.

It can be instructive, in assessing Shakespeare as a dramatist, to recall the dates of the reign of Queen Elizabeth  (1558–1603). Shakespeare’s own dates, it should be remembered, were 1564–1616, which means that she was on the throne for all but a decade or so at the end of his career.



             Awful things do happen routinely in the Henry VI trilogy, including the atrocities that those with power repeatedly inflict upon those who trust them. These extend, we have noticed, even to what can be done to one’s own relatives and to one’s most intimate associates. (Such barbarities are also routine, of course, in the other History Plays of Shakespeare.)

To what extent are these troubling Henry VI monstrosities somehow prepared for, perversely enough, by the exuberant Henry V celebration, which includes the noble speech by the young Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt? Henry V, it will be remembered, was the father of Henry VI. It is in France that the severely-challenged king can speak of his fellow warriors on that fateful occasion, no matter what their current station in civilian life, as his brothers ever after.

Are there implicit, in Henry V, if not also in earlier plays, anticipations of the rigor to which one’s associates may be subjected in challenging circumstances? The antics of Prince Hal, Falstaff, and others may conceal relationships that can turn disturbingly severe if not even ugly as circumstances change.



             However much faithful servants can be recognized from time to time, underlings do tend to remain permanently subordinated in Shakespeare’s plays. This may be seen, for example, in the Jack Cade populist uprisings in Part Two of Henry VI (to which I will return on this occasion). The grievances of ordinary citizens who had been long exploited by the nobility and the landowners are recalled and bitterly resented. There seems little recognition by Shakespeare of the massive peasants’ revolts which had rocked Germany (with tens of thousands of peasants slaughtered by Martin Luther and others), disturbances to which England had been subjected to a lesser degree.

Shakespeare’s apparent callousness in such matters may be seen as well, of course, in what (for example) he does with the Jews, especially with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. So dominant is that determined libel in the play that it can be easily overlooked how offensive are the disparaging stereotypes with which Portia rejects one foreign suitor after another.



             All this can remind us of the darker side of Shakespeare’s thought, if not also of various other dubious features of Elizabethan society. On the other hand—and in dealing with someone of Shakespeare’s majestic genius, there is usually likely to be something to be said “on the other hand”—there are treasures to be found and cherished. This I was privileged to develop in one of the essays in my 1989 Commentary, The Constitution of 1787 (Johns Hopkins University Press), a discussion I entitled “Anglo-American Constitutionalism.”

That Bicentennial essay includes these observations (at pp. 76–78 [emphasis added]):

We see in the History Plays one great account of English constitutional history, a history during which constitutional government of sorts is taken for granted by the kings, nobles, and commoners portrayed there. These plays draw upon episodes that extend from 1199 to 1533. This span of three and one-third centuries begins with King John (which may have muted references to Magna Carta) and ends with Henry VIII (which concludes with the birth of the great Elizabeth). “When Elizabeth came to the throne,” we are told [by our David Bevington], “England was already in some ways a ‘limited’ monarchy. Parliament, and especially the members of the House of Commons, claimed prerogatives of their own and were steadily gaining in both experience and power. … [Elizabeth] never claimed or exercised the right to establish law; that was Parliament’s prerogative.” … Among the lessons taught by Shakespeare in these and other plays is the importance of the political. When the political life of a country is unhealthy, we are taught, the private as well as the public life of the community can be contaminated.

             Questions have been raised by professional historians about the soundness of Shakespeare’s accounts of English populist movements, including with respect to the Jack Cade uprising glanced at in Part Two of King Henry VI. One curious way of deprecating that uprising was to have Cade present himself with aristocratic pretensions (as a Mortimer). In this and other ways the rebels can be dismissed by having them mimic the nobility they rebel against. (We can even wonder, in passing, whether there are indications in this History play that Jack Cade and the future Richard III had collaborated in bloody deeds in Ireland.)



            Central to my inquiry on this occasion—and it is an inquiry more than it is a thesis—central to my inquiry here is an attempt to determine how much Shakespeare grasped (and in what ways) that Parliamentary superiority which was being significantly advanced in his day.

After all, three decades after Shakespeare’s death (in 1616), an English king was indicted, tried and executed by an English Parliament (led at that time by Oliver Cromwell). Subsequent developments have seen Parliaments place one restriction after another on English monarchs. How much of all this did not only Shakespeare but even more the wily Elizabeth not anticipate?

Indeed, the developments we have been noticing on this occasion could usefully be depicted as a deeply-rooted (if not even natural) movement from Jack Cade to Oliver Cromwell.



             Shakespeare’s political/constitutional sense, I presume to suggest, was not of the highest order. If it had been, it can be wondered, would he have been the first-rate dramatist that he obviously was?

We can be reminded here of the Socratic insistence that there is a fundamental tension, if not even a deep-seated conflict, between the artist and the philosopher.

Was not Shakespeare able to use, at the highest artistic level (and especially in his tragedies) what he learned in the History Plays (and elsewhere, of course) about human nature, character, divine guidance, ambition and fate?



             The limitations of Shakespeare (as, indeed, of any great artist) as a philosopher can be evident upon the study of his vocabulary (including the uses made, and not made, of terms such as philosophy and nature). See, for example, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens where a quite limited (if not even primitive) understanding of philosophy is on display). My Timon essay may be found, with several other discussions by me of Shakespeare’s work, at this website (



             We have noticed on this occasion the substantial empowerment (over centuries) of the English Parliament. It can be instructive to speculate why Shakespeare was not (or at least did not want to appear) fully aware of this constitutional development.

But then, the English do like to offer arrangements that are not always what they may seem. Thus, the English monarch has available “in principle” an absolute veto of all legislation developed in Parliament. But, of course, it has been centuries since any English monarch has ventured to exercise such a legislative veto.



             A reminder of that routine “indirection” to which the English have recourse is the continued usefulness among them of the House of Lords. Thus, that venerable House can still be counted on to refine significantly legislation over which the House of Commons is understood to have ultimate control.

One happy consequence of the dubious 2003 Allied military intervention in Iraq is that it did oblige the British Government of that day to postpone indefinitely the thorough dismantling of the House of Lords that it had imprudently initiated.

This talk was presented on January 12, 2014 as The Works of the Mind Lecture, The University of Chicago, The Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois.  It was delivered (and thereafter usefully discussed) by William T. Braithwaite (of St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland).



     [Responses by Mr. Braithwaite were not recorded]

There was a degree of political suppression when Shakespeare was writing. His plays may have been censored. He was a deep thinker who put as much into his art as he thought was good for his audience. Do you have any comment?

Was Shakespeare limited more by his audience, or by what censors would pass? Could he have been more political if the audience had been informed enough to understand? How much could he teach?

Has our present-day media dummied things down? Do playwrights, producers, and screen-writers feel that we just won’t get it?

Do you have comments or thoughts on Shaw’s comments about Shakespeare? He was very negative. Some people said it was self-promotion, as in [Shakespeare is] “clowns posing as statesmen.”




June 30, 2013

Dear Professor Anastaplo,

Thank you for the past twenty years—from the conference on evangelization in the new world to Burke and Xenophon—during which you helped me to learn to question. I recall the polemical nature of that conference, my first encounter with you at UD [the University of Dallas], which found Fritz Wilhemsen shouting down the audience at the end. With the possible exception of Professor Schall, only you posed questions or at least the one question that stuck with me: “Would the Indians of the Americas have been better off receiving Homer first, if only as a preparation for the Gospels?”

Years of encountering what Dr. [Leo Paul] de Alvarez has called “the unexpected question” have followed in your books, lectures, and classes. Their effect has not been to point me to a series of answers but, rather, I hope, has been to foster in me the habits of questioning and, hence, moderation.

It has been a joy to learn with and from you. Life is much richer for me because of the ways in which you have showed me how much lies beneath what we erroneously believe we know. Thinking is so much more vital when we set aside those stifling categories that provide easy comforting, apparent answers.

I extend a special thanks for generously allowing me to participate in your classes [in the University of Chicago Basic Program] these past three years. You helped to keep my studies alive, and hence, to keep me human. It was good for me as well to continue speaking with other bright, serious students and to continue to learn from your example.

May you be able to continue your remarkable work for many years to come. Even after you are gone, though, it will continue to benefit others as it has me.

With gratitude and best regards,

Laurence Nee

January 12, 2014

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