If you’re as good as you look, why aren’t you a University of Chicago Professor?

by George Anastaplo

(a talk given at the Hyde Park Historical Society, Chicago, Illinois, November 16, 2003.)

Well I know when you leave this lodging of the dead that you and your ship will put ashore again at the island of Aeaea- -then and there, my lord, remember me. I beg you! Don’t sail off and desert me, left behind unwept, unburied . . . No, burn me in full armor, all my harness, heap my mound by the churning gray surf–a man whose luck ran out–so even men to come will learn my story.

Elpenor to Odysseus (in Hades)


An answer to the question I am addressing for a presumably friendly Hyde Park Historical Society audience should properly begin with a candid assessment of how good I really am–or, at least, how good I “look.” The particularly relevant goodness here is with respect to my teaching and to my scholarship, matters which I cannot usefully discuss on this occasion if I allow myself to be crippled by false modesty.

I am encouraged not to be unduly modest by what has been said by a sober observer about my career at the bar as well as in the world at large. This observer, a Past President of the American Political Science Association, said about me in the 1970s:

On 24 April 1961 the Supreme Court of the United States, by a vote of five to four, affirmed the action of the Illinois Supreme Court which, by a vote of four to three, had upheld the decision of the Committee on Character and Fitness of the Illinois bar which, by a vote of eleven to six, had decided that George Anastaplo was unfit for admission to the Illinois bar. This was not Anastaplo’s only such experience with power structures. In 1960 he was banned from Soviet Russia for protesting harassment of another American, and in 1970 from the Greece of the Colonels. As W. C. Fields might have said, any one who is kicked out of Russia, Greece, and the Illinois bar can’t be all bad.

This, then, is what can be said about my rather fortuitous adventures in Illinois and Washington, D.C., in Russia, and in Greece. We can turn now to my teaching and my scholarship. My teaching, whatever its intrinsic worth, has been well received in the various places that it has been attempted. Such teaching has included pre-collegiate students, college undergraduates, graduate students, law students, and adult education students. My most extended teaching has been devoted to the leading of adult education seminars at the University of Chicago, something which I have been doing regularly (down to this day) since 1956. My half century with the Basic Program of Liberal Education for adults has been commemorated by the establishment of the George Anastaplo Works of the Mind Lecture to be delivered “in perpetuity” every November. This year’s lecture is next Sunday, with Albert Alschuler, of the University of Chicago Law School, speaking on the skepticism of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

I (like the Sophists of antiquity) have always been available, as a member of the Basic Program Staff, to teach whatever needed to be taught and to talk about whatever needed to be talked about. Thus, I have, in this community, talked in recent weeks about Charles Darwin and about Jonathan Edwards; and I am scheduled, in the months immediately ahead, to talk about Homer, about Plato’s Meno, about John Locke, and about Herman Melville.

As for my scholarship: one handy way of summing it up is to suggest that there is probably no one currently on the faculty of the University of Chicago who has published (with established publishers or in respectable journals) on a more diverse set of subjects than I have. That diversity is reflected in the fact that books of mine may be found (the last time I looked) in at least six different places in the Seminary Coop Bookstore, probably the leading academic bookstore in this country. That diversity is further suggested by the titles of my four most recent books: (1) The Thinker as Artist: From Homer to Plato & Aristotle; (2) Abraham Lincoln: A Constitutional Biography; (3) But Not Philosophy: Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought; and (4) Plato’s Meno (a translation and commentary for this dialogue that I have donewith an old friend). In addition, I believe it safe to say that my work on the Constitution itself and on Law & Literature (or Jurisprudence) is as good as what is otherwise available in this country today.

This scholarly career has been recognized in a two-volume Festschrift issued in my name by the Ohio University Press in 1992, in a half-dozen articles appraising my work in the Political Science Reviewer, and in other separate articles about my work.


All this–my teaching record and a publishing record which includes a dozen books and about three hundred articles–suggests how good I can be said to “look.” Of course, such “looks” cannot automatically qualify one for the University of Chicago faculty, even if one is a longtime Hyde Park resident with three degrees from the University of Chicago. (I notice in passing that a dozen or so degrees from the University of Chicago, in addition to those awarded by the Laboratory Grade and High Schools, have been earned by various members of our family.)

But there is no need for me to assess further than I already have my qualifications, when I was in my prime, for the University of Chicago faculty. (I speak now as one who is in his seventy-ninth year). Sufficient relevant assessments have been made from time to time by the University of Chicago itself. One such assessment led to my being recruited to teach a course in the College of the University of Chicago several decades ago. In fact, I actually taught in that course–but only for one day (the opening session was on the Declaration of Independence). That evening, the embarrassed course chairman called to tell me that he had to renege on our deal, indicating (as I recall) that when it had been learned (in the Administration) that I had beensigned on, he had been told that that simply could not be. One relic of that near-miss was thePeople Shall Judge set of books (the text for the course) that he insisted I should keep, and which I still have.

A decade or so later, negotiations developed with a view to getting me as a regular fulltime teacher in the College of the University. This appointment seemed to be virtually certain– and then, inexplicably, it was blocked. On that occasion, as on the earlier, there was no explanation about what had happened–but, obviously, some kind of veto had been exercised by someone with both the will and the power to do so. No one wanted to talk about all this–but it was clear enough what had happened, even though no particular persons were singled out as specially interested in my career at the University of Chicago, a career which (it had long been obvious) should be kept on the fringes of the University. Even so, this is an institution in which I continue to be very comfortable, not least because of its exceptional library resources.


Why “on the fringes”? It is not usually hard to figure out what happens in such situations and why. It all goes back, for me, to my Illinois bar admission case, which began in November 1950. (It was exactly fifty years later, on November 10, 2000, that the annual “Anastaplo Works of the Mind Lecture” was announced at the University of Chicago.) It was in November 1950 that I found myself refusing to go along with the loyalty-oath-type demands which chanced to be made by the Committee on Character and Fitness of the Illinois bar. That refusal cost me my career at the bar, evidently making me the only person ever denied admission to the Illinois bar on this ground.

I can say more about all this in our discussion period, if more should be wanted. It suffices for our immediate purpose for me to report that my rejection by the CharacterCommittee, beginning in 1950–a rejection upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1961–, led to my alienation from all but a few of my law school teachers. It evidently did not matter much to them that I had done quite well in law school after several years of service in this country and aboard as a flying officer during and immediately after the Second World War.

Nor did it seem to matter to them that the Character Committee never claimed to have any evidence, or even any allegations, to justify the demands which were accidentally insisted upon in my matter. It was for them also irrelevant that I believed that it was not good for this country that citizens be harassed because of their opinions.

The tone of the dominant law school faculty response was set, quite early, by its thennewly- appointed Dean, who later became the Provost and then the President of the University of Chicago before going to Washington to serve as the Attorney General of the United States. Of course it can be somewhat flattering to have so distinguished a personage take an interest in one’s career. That interest took the form in 1950 of his insistence, both to me and then to my wife (while she was holding a restless baby in her arms), that I should abandon the simply indefensible position I was taking before the Character Committee. (My wife observed at the time that the Dean had been woefully misguided to try to intimidate a Texas wildcatter’s daughter with the prospect of being broke.) This enterprising Dean’s interest in my career included the successful effort (a few years later) that he and a colleague made to get the editors of the University of Chicago Law Review to reject the article about my case that those editors had commissioned me to write for them.

It was apparent thereafter that there would be considerable distance between the Law School and me. The Law School Dean never explained himself publicly, as far as I know, but one can guess what his motives, and those of most of his colleagues, were. They probably included concerns about the reputation and hence the future of the School, if not also concerns about the career and welfare of a misguided student.

It should be added at once that there has been no petty vindictiveness exhibited toward me on the Campus over the years: I was allowed to work, first, at the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago, and thereafter, in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, a program that the Dean, while Provost and President, very much appreciated. Perhaps it was believed that the risk of my misleading adult students was quite small. But it was made clear to me, on more than one occasion, that there would never be anything for me with the University of Chicago Law School. Indeed, it is something of a fluke that I am teaching in any law school at all.

It is only fair to notice as well that (so far as I know) no one in the University ever placed obstacles in the way of my getting a Ph.D. degree, something which I was allowed to do pretty much on my own terms, encouraged as I was by scholarship and other financial support. (In fact, the final version of my doctored dissertation was even accepted without being reviewed by the faculty of the Committee on Social Thought.) And later, when I served for two years as the Research Director of the Governor’s Privacy Commission, I was able to recruit the then-Provost of the University (the Law School Dean I have referred to) to help us with the development of a proper student-privacy policy with respect to institutions of higher learning in this State.

In short, it is neither fair nor useful to see, in such a continuing controversy as I have been involved in, only villains on one side and only heroes (or at least innocent victims) on the other side. Such a juxtaposition may sometimes be useful for partisan political purposes, but it can get in the way of genuine understanding.

I notice in passing that my own principal partisan “political” campaign these days is to get people to stop riding bicycles on sidewalks wherever pedestrians are present. And this I insist upon even though I do a good deal of bicycling myself. I recommend, as part of a public instruction program, that those dangerous trespassers should routinely have shouted after them by pedestrians the reminder, “BIKES BELONG IN THE STREET,” One can, according to one’s temperament and circumstances, add to this timely reminder an appropriate expression of endearment, ranging from “my dear” to “you idiot.”


The genuine understanding that one aspires to depends, in part, upon a capacity to think seriously about what one believes oneself to know even as one remains open to new things. Indeed, it is one of the features of my own career that hardly a year passes but that I happen upon something unexpected which helps to illuminate what has happened. My most recent discovery came upon reading the reminiscences of a local emeritus law professor who recalled earlier this year an incident in connection with the appointment in 1950 of the University of Chicago Law School Dean to whom I have referred:

An aspect of his appointment is worth mentioning as a mark of our national progress. When President [Robert] Hutchins proposed [his] appointment, some members of the Board of Trustees demurred to appointing a Jew as Dean of the Law School. Hutchins, a vigorous opponent of bigotry of any kind, threatened to resign if that view prevailed.

The Dean’s experience, in encountering (shortly before my “troubles” began) the resistance he evidently did to his appointment, could have had one of two (among other) effects: it could have made him determined to stand up for others who were being unfairly discriminated against; or it could have made him particularly apprehensive that he not be considered unorthodox, so much so that he might even become determined to prove himself “reliable.”

Certainly, the Dean did not seem to recognize that to have one of his best students treated cavalierly by the bar-admission authorities was really an insult to the School. Both his ambition and his insecurity–both of which he did have in good measure–inhibited him from being as bold here as I believe he could have been. Had the Law School intervened, if only behind the scenes, the bar authorities would likely have backed down. The faculty’s intervention could have depicted me, not without some justice, as a foolish young man who was really all right. Be that as it may, the Dean and the colleagues for whom he acted were never big enough (in the decades that followed) to admit publicly their mistake, whatever they may have said in private from time to time.

Perhaps the most critical comment upon these self-proclaimed legal realists is to say that they simply miscalculated as to what would happen to me if I was left on the self-destructive course to which I seemed to be committed. The extent of their miscalculation is suggested by the odd fact that it became the duty of my wife, as the then-President of the University of Chicago Service League, to write the “official” letter of condolence to the widow of “my” Dean when he died three years ago. The remarks I myself made, on the occasion of his death, are included in a handout that has been made available on this occasion. [See Appendix D of this Collection.] These remarks recognize a gifted and conscientious man, very much dedicated to the University of Chicago, a man who did seem to conduct himself better in the exercise ofpower the higher up he rose in the ranks of his fellow citizens.


In the final analysis, however, it is not what others do and don’t do that may really matter–for such responses can be hard either to influence or even to be certain about. What does matter most is what one does oneself and how one understands what one does. It is this that one may have some control over and hence “responsibility” for. An understanding of what one does in situations such as that which I have touched upon today includes the expectation that one is likely to find oneself virtually alone. The kind of situation in which I happened to find myself would be far less likely to develop today–and if it did, one’s law school classmates would probably protest vigorously (and effectively) against it, especially if one’s attackers were believed to be “right-wingers.”

The only one of my Law School classmates (who were themselves at quite vulnerable stages in their own careers)–the only one who said anything publicly a half-century ago, which I now recall, was Abner Mikva, who joined with Leon Despres, Alexander Polikoff, and Bernard Weisberg on an Illinois Supreme Court amicus brief on my behalf in 1954. Ab Mikva’s longstanding generosity toward me is reflected in the article published by him in the Hyde Park Herald this past week. Three members of my Law School faculty spoke up for me, early on. A generation later, Barbara Flynn Currie, whose husband had by then joined the University of Chicago Law School faculty, got a resolution on my behalf adopted by the House of Representatives of the Illinois General Assembly. That was in 1979. The spirit of those troubled times is reflected in the fact that I became virtually a “non-person” for the people living in the Southern Illinois town in which I grew up (except of course, for the members of my family who had stayed on there).

Where one is likely to be left to one’s own devices today, however, is in situations involving what is known as Political Correctness, which can evoke among “liberals” what has been called “a left-wing McCarthyism.” On the other hand, one can arouse the resentment (among some “conservatives” on the University of Chicago faculty and elsewhere), as I am afraid I have done, by criticizing publicly the Closing of the American Mind best-seller by a former Basic Program colleague of mine.

However all this may be, there is no stock response to these matters by the challenged individual. Circumstances can be critical in determining what one should say or do, a fact which should remind us of the limits placed upon us by an awareness of our mortality. Even so, there are people who can be quite successful in forging ahead with their careers, no matter what they happen to be confronted by, people whom one would not really want to be like.

The limits of public opinion in these matters is suggested by the curious experience I have had, over the years, of discovering how many people have “always” admired what I had done in my dealings with the Illinois bar. This can be said to be testified to by the remarkable turnout on this occasion. Not only was I ignorant of any widespread support at the time, but so were the bar authorities, for if those men (they were all men in those days)–if those men (as well as the Law School faculty) had known how much support I “really” had they would have “caved in.” They, at least, were not so foolish as to sacrifice their interests for any supposed principle.


One healthy consequence of the professional difficulties I have had is that I have been liberated to work, on my own, on a number of things. Certainly, I would never have been able to study what I have if I had been a successful lawyer. Perhaps a conventional academic career would have been limiting as well. The decades I have had in the Basic Program, reading and rereading very good books, have been invaluable for my continuing education.

I remain (as I have said) comfortable in the University of Chicago community. Thus, I routinely find myself the only one attending departmental lectures at which no one else outside of the particular discipline is likely to be present. This means, for example, that there are rarely any humanists at natural science lectures and rarely any natural scientists at humanities lectures. A distinguished physicist was surprised to learn from me, at the Physics Colloquium tea this week, that Isaac Newton had devoted many years, at the end of his life, to the study of Biblical revelation and ancient chronology. (He had only heard that Newton had become, as he put it, “Nuts.”) However misguided Newton may have been in these attempts, he was correct in sensing that unless one has an informed awareness of the whole of things, one’s own specialized knowledge, no matter how sophisticated it may happen to be, is ultimately futile (or is, at least, severely limited).

This observation is related to one I had occasion to make to another distinguished physicist a couple of weeks ago, upon hearing him talk about the three, or perhaps six, fundamental particles that are now said by physicists to be the irreducible building blocks of the universe. I wondered how they could know that these are truly fundamental, invoking as I did a suggestion I had made, in 1974 (in a University of Chicago alumni magazine article), about something that I named an ultron. I had said on that occasion, in the course of comments on Enrico Fermi three decades ago,

Is there any reason to doubt that physicists will, if they continue as they have in the Twentieth Century, achieve, again and again, “decisive breakthroughs” individing subatomic “particles”? But what future, or genuine understanding, is there in that? I believe it would be fruitful for physicists–that is, for a few of the more imaginative among them–to consider seriously the nature of what we can call the “ultron.” What must this ultimate particle be like (if, indeed, it is a particle and not an idea or a principle)? For is not an “ultron” implied by the endeavors of our physicists, by their recourse to more and more ingenious (and expensive) equipment and experiments? Or are we to assume an infinite regress (sometimes called progress) and no standing place or starting point? Or, to put this question still another way, what is it that permits the universe to be (if it is) intelligible?

I continue to wonder, partly because of my training sixty years ago in aerial navigation, how so-called fundamental particles can be truly identified as such if we do not (perhaps cannot?) have an ultron by which to take our bearings. Still another distinguished physicist I knew used to dismiss (rather cheerfully) as “theology” the more or less philosophical questions that I (in my obvious ignorance) would put to him. It is said that one might in one’s dedication to specialization, fail to see the woods for the trees. I would supplement this observation by suggesting that all too often one cannot see the trees for the trees: that is, one cannot truly see the trees themselves unless one has a reliable  grasp of what the woods are like of which the trees that one is concentrating upon are a part.


It might properly be wondered, of course, whether I can reliably see even myself. For example, what effect did the position I took with the Illinois bar authorities really have? No doubt, it affected significantly the professional career I have had. But did it do any good politically or socially? It should be recognized that it probably had little or no effect immediately, whatever effect it may have “in the long run” (which can be hard either to predict or to control). I have been intrigued to see how much the arguments for our “September 11″ responses, and particularly for our current Iraqi intervention, resemble the arguments made for our ill-fated Vietnam intervention four decades ago, however different the two situations may really be.

To speak of enduring effects is to speak of chance developments, which are indeed hard to predict, just as my bar admission challenge was very much a chance event. One should be willing in these matters to settle for a justified satisfaction with what one has done–or, really, with what one is. Both anger and self-pity should be avoided, including that kind of self-pity which takes the form either of megalomania or of paranoia, if one is to be able to see things as they truly are. Particularly difficult here is the effort to recognize the good that one’s adversaries in a civilized community are almost certainly aiming at as well, however disgraceful their conduct may sometimes be.

What, then can one properly desire for “the long run?” It would be a just state of affairs to have a proper recollection of what one has done–and to this I have contributed by providing accounts of what seems to have happened to me from time to time. Perhaps even more important, it would be salutary to leave behind a reliable record of one’s intellectual work. Thus, I have always been concerned that things be published as I have written them. (Thus, also, I have withdrawn articles from several of the best law reviews in this country when editors have insisted upon doing things “their way.”)

If what I have had to say has merit, it should be evident to competent people over time, provided that they do have reliable access to what I have intended to say. It now appears that I will be leaving in print the equivalent of about forty volumes. It has been important, if not essential, to my career that I have lived pretty much in Hyde Park since coming here to school in 1947.

Of course, one is left with regrets. There are bound to be things that one has done which one should not have been done, just as there are also bound to be things that one has not done which one should have done. My wife, of almost sixty years, can provide illustrations of both kinds of shortcomings. Justified regrets, as distinguished from mere sentimentality, depend upon both a willingness and an ability to explain oneself. One can learn much about oneself, and perhaps even about the very nature of things, as one attempts to do so.

How, then, does it all look now? By and large, my life has been a good one, assuming there are not implicit in it catastrophic disasters for us in my closing years for which I am responsible. But I should immediately add, this positive assessment by me may not be reliable,  nsofar as I do chance to have the kind of temperament (grounded, up to now, in very good health) which inclines one to make the best (if only in thought) of whatever destiny one happens to be dealt.

I should also add that there can be, in any event, something reassuring, for all of us who truly care about the University of Chicago–it can be quite reassuring if someone with the academic qualifications I appear to have had should indeed never have been really good enough to join the regular faculty of that remarkable “world-class” institution which (for more than a century now) has done so much for, and has meant so much to, the Hyde Park community.

[The 52 notes for this talk are to be supplied later.]

This entry was posted in About Anastaplo, Basic Program, Lectures, Remembrance and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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