Human Nature, the Ever-Curious (and yet Ephemeral) News of the Day and Glimpses of Eternity

 by George Anastaplo 


            Is it not natural, on an occasion such as this, to acknowledge one’s benefactors, beginning, of course, with one’s parents and family?

            Then there have been one’s teachers (too numerous to recall here, but noticed here and there elsewhere), especially those in Carterville, Illinois, those in the Air Corps, and those thereafter during decades at the University of Chicago.  Then there have been those who have been critical in the most sustained academic appointments I have been privileged to enjoy:   Sister Candida Lund, at Rosary College; Jeremiah J. German and Nicholas J. Melas, at the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago; Laurence Berns and Maurice F. X. Donohue, at the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults (again, at the University of Chicago); and William T. Braithwaite and Charles Murdock, at the Loyola School of Law.

            Then there have those who have organized productive honors, such as Cynthia Rutz and the annual Basic Program Works of the Mind Lecture in my name.  This series, inaugurated by John Van Doren, has included Larry Arnhart, Christopher Colmo, Albert Alschuler, and Richard Richards—and most recently, Laurence Berns and Martin E. Marty (with Leo Paul S. de Alvarez likely next November).

            Then, of course, there are the founders of this feast today, Madeleine Rich and Joel Rich.  It is also Joel Rich, of course, who has been largely responsible for establishing, with the aid of John Metz, the website ( on which hundreds of pages of writings by and about me may be found (including an extensive Bibliography).  It is said that there have been, during the past year, more than 4,000 visitors to that website, which is, I suspect, far more than all who have looked at books and articles of mine in print during several years.  It is heartening to see, in the most recent University of Chicago alumni magazine (November-December 2010), a recognition of the massive amount of work that my determined benefactor has done on Marcel Proust.  It is there reported that he “regularly speaks on Proust at the [University’s] First Friday Lectures” and that “he is working on a book exploring Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.”  All of my website material, I am told, is soon to be expanded substantially, anticipated in this respect by the 97.5 linear feet of my materials that the Special Collections department of the University of Chicago Library already has (materials which, if my wife gets her way, will be substantially increased as dozens of boxes of papers are moved out of our house next year.)


            Of course, what we as a community (nurtured by the Basic Program) are interested in are materials far more serious than whatever any of us may produce from time to time.  These are The Books to which we routinely devote ourselves, Books that present instructive challenges each time we return to them.  It is with the aid of these Books that we can begin to understand both the universe within each of us and the universe around all of us.

            There may be something naïve in our hopefulness with respect to these matters.  Such naivete may even be seen, perhaps, in an expectation I had when my first book was published, in 1971:  I recall checking the New York Times the Sunday after publication, to see what notice had been taken of it.  Alas, there was nothing there—or in any issue thereafter, when other books of mine were published (including the republication, in 2005, of an expanded version of the 1971 text).

            The Chicago Sun-Times used to review things of mine, but it stopped doing so, decades ago, when I expressed reservations (in a review commissioned by them) about a book by a local favorite of theirs.  I note, in passing, that those reservations did not keep me from being invited to deliver a public eulogy of this author when he died some years later.

            But whether or not reviewed in the press, I do keep writing—for that is in large part with a view to understanding something, not with a view to being noticed.  Permit me to report, for the sake of those among you interested in learning-by-writing, that the key to productive writing seems to me to be the development of a detailed outline.  Such development can take weeks, but it can be worked on as one does one’s daily chores and even as one talks about other matters.  (Much is to be said here for walks, with a notepad handy.)  Once a detailed outline has been worked out, the writing is easy, almost like breathing.  (Much is to be said for the use here of pen and paper, which means one can work anywhere, anytime—and even in the dark.)

            I must wonder, sometimes, whether one’s writing may be too easy, especially when one has forgotten what one has already worked out in some detail (an experience that I recall having had long before I reached my present age, I hasten to add). 


            Reminders of limitations (both one’s own and those of others) can be salutary, helping one to see what is truly significant.  Critical here can be reminders as well of how much that we are interested in at times may simply not matter—or, at least, may not matter for long.

            Useful for us here, considering the occasion that has brought us together, can be a recollection of what life may have been like among “us” when I was born.  With that in view, I have provided you photocopies of the front pages of the New York Times both of the day I was born (in St. Louis, Missouri, Saturday, November 7, 1925) and of the day after.

            It should be no surprise that I am not mentioned in the pages provided you, nor is my family.  (It is hardly likely that much notice was made of us in the St. Louis papers either that weekend.)  Indeed, hardly anything is said about people like us in the materials provided you—and “people like us” can include people with names suggesting either Mediterranean, or Jewish, or African origins.

            Only a handful of those named in these pages (of November 7 and 8, 1925) are still known to us.  And what is said about those who are known (such as Presidents of the United States) can have reported about them things not of much (if any) consequence for us.  Thus we are told that President Wilson, who was having a postage stamp issued in his name, had considered thirteen a lucky number.

            Particularly revealing, perhaps, is the sense the reader gets of a tamer view of things four score years ago than we are now accustomed to.  Certainly, nothing truly memorable seems to have been recorded that November 1925 weekend, except perhaps what is noticed about possible revolutionary movements in Italy, the significance of which may have become apparent only much later.  The sampling of newspaper items drawn on by me here is one of many samplings that could be quite instructive to draw on.


            We can be cautioned, upon surveying the reports of a November weekend in 1925, that few (if any) of us are destined to be remembered, at least for good things.

            Consider, for example, a report in the New York Times, about a man who was serving what we can now know was the first of three tours of duty as the leader of the Government of the United Kingdom.  A “special cable to the New York Time” (found on page 1 of Section 2 of the November 8, 1925 issue of the paper) opens with this anecdote:

There is a current story about the Prime Minister of Great Britian which has particular point just now.  Stanley Baldwin happened to find himself the other day traveling in a railway carriage with a man who had been senior scholar at Oxford [University] in the days when young Baldwin went up to varsity as a freshman.  Mr. Baldwin remembered his companion and recalled himself to the other man’s recollection by mentioning certain episodes of their college days.

“Oh, yes, of course, now I remember you, Baldwin,” said the former senior scholar.  “Well, well, a good deal of water has flowed under the bridges of the Thames since those days, hasn’t it?  A lot of things have happened since then, eh, Baldwin?  And what have you been doing all this time?”

The London correspondent of the newspaper then adds,

The story does not chronicle the Prime Minister’s reply.  It would have been characteristic of him to have made none.  It would have been equally characteristic of him to have deprecatingly said that he had been marking time.

To what extent can this be said of all of us, that we have been doing little more than “marking time,” however accomplished we may appear to be from time to time?

            Consider, further, the implications here of an item found elsewhere on the New York Times page reporting the limitations of even a Prime Minister’s fame.  It is reported, under the title, “Oscar to Give Up Some Hotel Duties,” that

Oscar, whose name has been synonymous with the Waldorf-Astoria ever since the famous hotel was opened, is at last relinquishing some of his duties.  For some time rumors of Oscar’s retirement have been current, but they were stifled yesterday with the announcement of the appointment of Valentine von der Lin as manager of the restaurant and room services of the Waldorf.

According to the announcement the appointment of Mr. Von der Lin has been made to enable Oscar to meet the constantly increasing demands on his time in connection with the reception and entertainment of distinguished guests.  Matters such as the care of the Prince and Princess Asaka of Japan, who were at the Waldorf-Astoria last week, and the continuous program of notable gatherings which come under Oscar’s immediate charge, have assumed such proportions that in his advancing years, he has found it necessary to request that the routine operation of the Waldorf restaurants he delegated to someone else.  Besides, Oscar is to take up writing. . . . 

Oscar Tschirly, we can learn upon consulting other sources, had been born in Switzerland in 1866 (just a year before Stanley Baldwin was born).  And, it seems, a biography of him was eventually written by Karl Schriftgiesser, which (it is said) is virtually an autobiography of Oscar.  Of course, all of these people (including the Prince and Princess Asaka) have long been forgotten among us.  If Oscar (as he was “universally” known) is sometimes recalled, it is as the creator of Veal Oscar and of the Waldorf Salad as well as being someone involved in the development of the Thousand Island dressing.

            The careers of Stanley Baldwin (who was later very much involved in the abdication of Edward VIII) and of Oscar of the Waldorf Astoria can remind us of severe limitations upon enduring fame, however much passing interest one may personally generate during one’s lifetime.  All this should confirm for us ancient counsel that one should do what is worth doing for its own sake, not with a view to such fleeting rewards as Fame and Fortune.  Particularly troubling here can be the life devoted to more and more novelties and other diversions, suicidal enterprises which we can see all around us.


            A review of our “personal” November 1925 Weekend can reveal to us how relatively little space was devoted then, on the front pages of the New York Times, to world and national affairs.  This is in marked contrast to what can be seen in the Times today.  I have examined a dozen November 2010 issues of the paper, which have some seventy items on their front pages.  (These are the issues of November 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17.)

            Of these items, many more than half are devoted to World Affairs and National Affairs, with another dozen devoted to the Economy.  Only five items, of these seventy, were devoted in our November 2010 issues, to New York City events (in marked contrast to what could be seen in 1925, including such accounts, as in the November 8th issue, about the Broadway robber who, after being surprised holding up a hat shop, convinced detectives that they were in the wrong place).

            There are accounts, on November 7 and 8, 1925, about such events as a plot against Beneto Mussolini in Italy (who is portrayed as an ally of the King) and about taxation programs in France.  But such accounts are no more prominent than that (on November 7, 1925) about a Mrs. Clark in New Jersey who is “Freed In $20,000 Cash Bail,” and who “Goes Home, Sob[bing] Denial of Misconduct with [an] Admirer [who is] Held in [the] Hammer Killing” of Mr. Clark.

            Had there been among Americans, during this decade after the horrendous Great War, a not-unnatural retreat into substantial isolationism and diverting distractions?  By this time, also, it seems that the National Red Scare had subsided somewhat, as testified to by a New York Times editorial of November 8, 1925, “The Soviet Record,” and by a front-page item of November 7, 1925, “Voroshiloff Is New Head of Soviet Armies, Was Peasant-Born and a Foundry Worker.”  (This is balanced, on the page, by a report, “Exodus of City’s Politicians Under Way; Victors and Vanquished [in the November 1925 elections in New York] Start Vacations.”  We can see, in these weekend accounts, that New York politicians had begun to deal with Georgia Democrats with a view to securing for Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York the Democratic nomination for President in 1928.)


            Of course, the Smith Candidacy proved unsuccessful, except to the extent that it may have contributed somehow to the successful run for the Presidency of another New Yorker in 1932.  And with this recollection we can turn to how domestic affairs seem to have been regarded in 1925.

            There is not apparent in our November 1925 accounts any anticipation of the cataclysmic Depression that would devastate the United States (and indeed the World) in a few years.  Instead there are such reports, as on the November 7th front page (adjoining the account of Mrs. Clark’s troubles),

United States Steel common [stocks], representing ownership of the largest industrial enterprise in the world and the stock market’s recognized bellwether, jumped into the lead of a boiling stock market yesterday afternoon and before the gong sounded at 3 o’clock had exceeded all previous high records in its history and sold in tremendous volume at 138 per share . . .

            And, of course, there were not in November 1925 the front-page photographs, in vivid colors, that are routine in the New York Times today.  But, on the other hand, there are colorful accounts of bizarre domestic relations, as may be seen in the November 8, 1925 report out of Vienna (Editorial section, p. 2), “Son of Abdul Hamid [of Turkey?] in a Marriage Swindle; Prince Goes Through Fake Ceremony with ‘Lady Douglas,’ an English Divorcee.”

            There is, in various New York Times stories (whether domestic or from abroad), a charming provincialism.  But there can also be seen in 1925 symptoms of economic privations and of racial tensions that would reach crisis proportions during the half-century thereafter.

            Consider, for example, the page 1 account on November 8, 1925, from Montclair, New Jersey, “Mother Says Miss Burns Won’t Wed Negro; Contractor and His Fiancée Remain Silent”:

The marriage of William E. Jackson, Montclair contractor, and Miss Helen Burns of 16 Walnut Terrace, Bloomfield, will not take place, Mrs. Peter Burns, mother of the bride-to-be announced tonight.  Jackson and Miss Burns were to have been married on Friday morning in the chapel of the Municipal Building in New York. 

In applying for their marriage license on Wednesday, however, Jackson, against the advice of his fiancée, admitted that he had negro blood.  His father, he said, was white, but his mother had negro blood.  He was told that he must describe himself as “colored.”

When Peter Burns, father of the girl, a field agent of the Prudential Life Insurance Company of Newark, learned of Jackson’s parentage, he urged his daughter not to marry.  But she refused to change her mind.

Up to tonight members of the Burns family said that the girl had disappeared, and it was reported she and Jackson had married.  Her parents would not discuss the matter.  But tonight Mrs. Burns asserted positively that there had not been and would be no wedding.  “My daughter,” she said, “is home. She came home yesterday and she will not marry.”

In the vicinity of Jackson’s home at 18 Lexington Avenue [in Montclair, New Jersey] there was considerable unrest tonight [November 7].  Last evening the Ku Klux Klan lit a fiery cross on the front lawn to protest against the wedding.  Negroes in the vicinity expressed fear of further Klan activity thereabouts.

Jackson, who owns the Montclair Construction Company, is a graduate of Columbia University, where he played on the football team.  Previously he attended Lincoln University, a negro institution.  He and Miss Burns, a telephone operator in Orange, met for the first time at a dance.

Jackson was not at home tonight.  His mother, Mrs. Bessie Bacon Jackson, of 48 Maple Avenue, said she had not seen him since Wednesday.

            How different those times were, and not only with respect to race relations, is suggested by a front-page article from Washington, D.C., in the New York Times the day before the marriage story (November 7, 1925), under the heading, “Klan Joins Fight on World Court.”  It is there reported,

Battle lines similar to the struggle over the League of Nations are forming in the Republican Party over the World Court proposal, which by agreement reached at the last session is scheduled to come before the Senate soon after it meets in December.  The outspoken irreconcilables in the League of Nations contest are preparing ammunition to slaughter the World Court by indirection, and behind them are now forming some leading Republican newspapers of the Middle West as well as the Ku Klux Klan.  Very generally, however, the press of the country is in favor of American participation in the World Court.

The opposition of the Ku Klux Klan was revealed today in an article published in one of its organs.  A part of the headlines over the article follows:  “New World Court merely ‘back door’ into League of Nations, where American interests would be outvoted ten to one.  Government’s immigration policy at stake, as Vatican would use World Court as tool for Romanizing America, and force Papist aliens into country.  Clever scheme to embroil nation in Old World ‘troubles.’”

            Thus we can see here not only that the Ku Klux Klan can seem to be regarded by some Republicans as a respectable ally.  It is an ally that not only can attempt to keep the Negro “in his place” (even in a Northern State such as New Jersey) but can warn against “Romanizing America.”  It is such a warning that is said to have been critical to the Presidential campaign of Alfred Smith shortly thereafter (that is, in 1928).

            Much that we see in our November 1925 newspapers can seem, in how everyday prejudices are expressed, somewhat quaint to us eighty-five years later.  And, it can well be wondered, what we ourselves take for granted—and especially what we find of continuous interest—that will seem quaint, and even bizarre, eighty-five years from now.  Our electronic self-enslavement, beginning decades ago perhaps with our determined subjugation to television and seen now in such self-shackling as e-mail-dependence, should intrigue the more thoughtful of our descendants.


            It is natural to make much of the crisis and curiosities of one’s day.  Certainly, we can understand how someone such as Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet can ask, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”  Even so, we can appreciate the warnings, heard among us from time to time, against entertaining ourselves to death.

            That is, should we not be encouraged to examine seriously, even if we cannot reliably grasp much of, that which is likely to be of enduring significance among human beings.  Perhaps we can, if properly instructed, glimpse, even in the ever-changing “news of the day,” that which is somehow eternal.  Reassurances of sorts may be sought (if not even seen) in such observations as these about eternity that I have had occasion to offer (most recently in 2010—The Christian Heritage, page 399, note 600):

We can well wonder what it may be like for any one 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 before birth (“half an enternity,” 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.

            What then, we can wonder, is likely to be enduring in what we chance to encounter from time to time, in the ever-passing parade to which our mass media testify and by which we can be intermittently enthralled?  Relevant here may be observations I made almost four decades ago about modern science (see Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker, p. 252):

What seems to be missing in the current scientific enterprise is a systematic inquiry into its presuppositions and purposes.  That is, the limits of modern science do not seem to be properly recognized.  Bertrand Russell has been quoted as saying, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little:  it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.”  But the significance of this observation is not generally appreciated—as one learns upon trying to persuade competent physicists to join one in presenting a course devoted to a careful reading of Aristotle’s Physics (where, among other things, an extended examination of the meaning of cause can be found).  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” in dividing 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” (an echo perhaps of the ancient Greek reliance on the atom) 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 and to be (if it is) intelligible?

Is it not the intelligible that we, as rational beings, are naturally inclined to seek, whether in the vast reaches of time and space or in the tiniest building blocks of matter—as well as even in the ever-changing news of the day?

            By pursuing these and like questions (about both transitory and enduring matters), and sharing with others what we may somehow learn, we in turn can be the benefactors of those who happen to follow us, perhaps even making thereby our own lives seem more meaningful.

These remarks were made, in Chicago, Illinois, November, 21, 2010, at an Eighty-fifth Birthday Celebration for George Anastaplo organized by Madeleine Rich and Joel Rich.  His date of birth is November 7, 1925.

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