On the human soul and eternity

Excerpts from The Christian Heritage

Pages 339–40, Appendix H, addendum



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. It suffices for our immediate purpose for me to report that my rejection by the Character Committee, beginning in 1950—a rejection upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court [by a five-to-four vote] in 1961 [366 U.S. 82]—led to my alienation from almost all of my University of Chicago Law School teachers. It evidently did not matter much to them that I had done quite well in their law school after several years of service in this country and abroad 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 case. It was for them also irrelevant that I believed that it was not good for this country (especially during the Cold War) that citizens be harassed because of their political opinions.

The tone of the dominant law school faculty response to my bar admission troubles was set, quite early, by its then newly 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. It was soon apparent, from 1950 on, that there would be considerable distance between the law school and me. The law school dean never explained himself publicly, so far as I know, but one can guess what his motives, and 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.

The genuine understanding that one should aspire to depends, in part, upon the capacity to think seriously about what one believes oneself to know even as one remains open to new things, including challenges. The dean’s own experience, in himself encountering (shortly before my own “troubles” began with the bar) the serious resistance (we have since learned) he evidently experienced from the some on the University Board of Trustees to his appointment as dean because he happened to be Jewish, could have had one of two (among other) effects on him: it could have made him determined to stand up for others who happened to be unfairly discriminated against, or it could have made him particularly apprehensive that he not be considered politically unorthodox, so much so that he might even have become determined to prove himself obviously “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 should 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. Still, when “my” dean died three years ago, I could recognize him publicly as a gifted and conscientious man, very much devoted to the University of Chicago, a man who did seem to conduct himself better in the exercise of power the higher up he rose in the ranks of his fellow citizens. [See 46 South Dakota Law Review 102, 304–7 (2001).]

In the final analysis, it is not what others do or don’t do that may really matter—for such responses can be hard 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, thereby avoiding conduct that can be simply fearful or otherwise contemptible.


George Anastaplo

600. On the other hand, it is said that children today “witness” so many killings on television that they can become quite casual (or is it benumbed?) about the deaths they encounter and even occasionally cause. Central to one’s inquiry into the intentions and meaning of a serious author should be an awareness of that author’s circumstances and primary intended audience. See note 578, above. Most readers, however, should be cautioned against trying to make too much of this sort of thing. We can well wonder what it may be like for any one of us “personally” once dead. It can be argued that each of us has already had as much of the “experience” of “eternity” that any human being may ever have. That is, it is believed, if the material universe is forever, however varied its forms (just as, say, numerical relations are forever), that there has been as much of eternity “before” any one of us as there will be “after” any one of us. This can be understood to “mean” (in a manner of speaking) that each of us has already “experienced” for a very long time (“half an eternity,” again in a manner of speaking) what it is like (what it “means”) to be dead. Thus, death can again be likened (as at the end of Plato’s Apology) to a dreamless sleep, but a sleep from which one does not wake. See notes 635 and 656, below. See also note 601, below.

601. Montaigne, The Essays, 89. Nature does “tell” us that we will die. But what does it tell us about what happens to the human soul after death? See note 600, above. Jonathan Edwards, in his notable 1741 sermon (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), insists upon the need for even the typical Christian to be “born again.” Only the Christian revelation provides reliable guidance to eternal salvation (or, even more compelling, reliable guidance away from perpetual condemnation). Nature as a guide is repeatedly condemned by Edwards, even though it should have been obvious to him that that is all that may be sensible that much of the human race have ever had to rely on. Does an emphasis upon this kind of eternal salvation (Machiavelli asked) tend to leave decent people poorly equipped to deal, especially politically, with everyday problems requiring foresight, toughness, and so on? It may even be wondered whether all this is a poor (even fundamentally unfair) way for things to have been arranged. Still, it can be argued that one consequence, or effect, of the grim Edwards argument is that it may make it easier for most people to regard human life as intrinsically meaningful. (I hope to include, in another volume some day touching on these matters, writings which include both my play The Last Christian [on Judas Iscariot] and my talk “God in the Hands of an Angry Preacher” [on the Jonathan Edwards sermon].) See note 768, below. See also note 635, below.

To be included in George Anastaplo, THE CHRISTIAN HERITAGE:

PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS (Lexington Books, 2010), pages 399-400,

notes 600, 601.

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