A Report on Collective Explorations during the 2009-2010 Academic Year

by George Anastaplo

(July 4, 2010)

Suggestions about the questions and problems we have considered in Loyola University law school seminars and in University of Chicago adult education seminars during the 2009-2010 Academic Year (which is my own 85th year) are provided in the Appendix to this Report.  Collected there are the titles of some of the  prepared remarks and talks that drew on the year’s constitutional law and jurisprudence seminars in the Loyola School of Law and the year’s Great Books discussions in the adult education program of the University of Chicago.  These remarks and talks should be available on the website (www.anastaplo.wordpress.com) created and maintained by Joel Rich (who may be, at this time, the most determined student in the Chicago area of the literary career of Marcel Proust).

Considerable effort is devoted, in the seminars relied on, to clarifying enduring questions and persistent problems, indicating which are to be taken seriously and why.  A determined flexibility is needed if whatever turns up is to be usefully pursued.  But an informed discipline is also needed lest the perpetually serious and the truly challenging be sacrificed to the fashionably engaging and the merely provocative.

Much is to be said for using a copy of any serious text discussed that has no markings on it from previous inquiries.  Otherwise, one may be tempted to shape the discussion of a text along lines it took on other occasions.  Of course, if one does develop a “fresh” approach, one sometimes discovers things that one learns (upon consulting notes developed theretofore) that one had discovered before and forgotten.

Much can be said, therefore, for “nailing down” from time to time what has been perceived “this time around.”  This can be done in talks and prepared remarks that draw on seminar discussions.  It is critical here that the leader of discussions should himself be eager to learn, or to re-learn.  This can include corrections of what had been “learned” before.

A massive challenge to all this may seem to be posed by the intellectual career of Thomas Aquinas.  His considerable accomplishments include remarkable commentaries on the work of Aristotle.  They include as well powerful contributions to what is known as natural law.  But it is reported that he himself said, after a mystical experience while saying Mass a few months before he died, “Everything that I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have [now] seen and what has been revealed to me.”  This kind of radical critique (if not even repudiation) of the life of the mind (as we usually understand it) is a challenge to be taken seriously if our intellectual pursuits are to be reliable.  The sobering revelation attributed to Thomas seems to have been anticipated by Augustine who could speak (in The City of God, X, 11, 18) of the superiority over the worldly philosopher, with respect to the most important things, of the illiterate peasant woman who simply rested her faith on Jesus Christ.  It remains a critical question, of course, how choices are to be made (and not only by the illiterate) among the many faiths that have contended for allegiances in many times and places.

Routine (far less serious) challenges to the life of the mind are posed also by the student assessments of their teachers to which we have become accustomed, systematized revelations which are of limited value, whether they praise or blame.  They are apt to suggest the merits, or lack thereof, of the students themselves rather than those of their teachers.  Such assessments may be of use to the conscientious teacher, but only if not taken too seriously.  Much the same can be said of public opinion polls that attempt to assess how the political leaders of the day are doing.

It can be somewhat a matter of chance what not only students but even respectable scholars notice—and, still more important, what is noticed, investigated and developed even during the more serious discussions.  Chance itself is in need of study and understanding.  Our reflections here bear upon the reliability of what is believed to have been learned among us from time to time.

Thus, the vital activity for us, as participants in meaningful seminars, may be the identification of the critical questions suggested by the materials studied.  Such questions need to be clarified if a reliable sense is to be developed about what questions should be taken seriously.  The principal alternative approach is one which places an emphasis (even among quite intelligent people) either on everyday utility or on time-consuming diversions.

Critical to the meaningful activities of human beings is an awareness of what may be truly one’s own (a matter investigated in remarks prepared for our last seminar of the past Academic Year, the final item in the appendix that follows this essay).  Perhaps only that is reliably one’s own which one knows well enough to recognize that it is in need of further investigation.  That is, the inquirer truly aware both of what he does know and of how he has come to know it senses as well the limitations of much that he has come to believe.


These remarks and talks drew on George Anastaplo’s seminars during the 2009-2010 Academic Year.  They should all be available at www.anastaplo.wordpress.com.

  1. “The Second Amendment—Then and Now, Here and There.”  These remarks were prepared for a constitutional law seminar at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, November 2, 2009.
  2. “On Reading the Bible Again.”  This talk was given in the University of Chicago Works of the Mind Lecture Series, January 24, 2010.
  3. “On the Epistle of Jude and the Jewishness of Christianity.”  This talk was given in the University of Chicago First Friday Lecture Series, April 2, 2010.
  4. “What Should We Be Afraid of?”  These remarks were prepared for a constitutional law seminar at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, April 26, 2010.
  5. “The Inevitable Mysteries of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.” These remarks were prepared for a jurisprudence seminar at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, April 27, 2010.
  6. “Machiavelli on the Use and Abuse of ‘Property’.” This talk was given at a Basic Program Weekend of the University of Chicago, May 1, 2010.
  7. “Golgotha on the Potomac; On the Seeming End of the Career of Abraham Lincoln.”  This talk was given at an Author Event of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, Chicago, Illinois, May 13, 2010.
  8. “To Become of Not to Become:  On Spiritual and Political Evolution.”  This talk was given at a Lenoir-Rhyne University Humanities Forum, Little Switzerland, North Carolina, May 20, 2010.
  9. “What, Indeed, Is One’s Own?  On Seeming and Being.”  These remarks were prepared for an adult education seminar at the University of Chicago, June 21, 2010.
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