Thoughts at 80

by George Anastaplo


I have been asked to say something on the occasion of my 80th birthday. Perhaps I can  supplement what I said to this seminar twelve months ago upon entering my 80th year. Perhaps, also, these remarks can give you time to develop suggestions for my 2006-2007 Seminar, about which I will be asking you later today. Perhaps, as well, these remarks can even serve our inquiry into the seven centuries of English poems that we are studying this year.

A good place to begin can be the concluding words of my remarks a year ago to this seminar:

We can, through the books we study, be somehow assimilated to things that will survive us all. We sense that these are things that can be repeatedly rediscovered by other reasoning beings elsewhere long after we are gone. In that way, it can be felt, the best part of us is both nourished and perpetuated.

And, I might add, it helps discipline us to recognize our intellectual superiors, the minds responsible for the best books.

I am now, “officially,” an octogenarian. I have always liked that term, not least because it is given special recognition in the Bible and elsewhere for longevity as we know it. The term nonagenarian does not appeal to me as much, partly because it is so much harder to pronounce–and besides, it has somehow a touch of senility associated with it. On the other hand, the term centenarian does have a special attraction, however fragile such people usually appear in their photographs.

But, at least for the moment, we must settle for eighty-ness. Being eighty means, among other things, that one can personally have a sense of sixty to seventy years of world history, something which encourages an extended view of things. But, one should bear in mind, upon reviewing the matters one is apt to talk about as an octogenarian, the caution against “incessant autobiography” voiced by C. S. Lewis in an essay on John Milton’s Paradise Lost


I have had occasion to notice that I do not yet feel my age, which can mean (among other things) that I may not truly know myself. An endorsement of sorts of my sense of myself was provided recently by a man in charge or renewing my University of Chicago library card. Enough of these annual renewals, he indicated, as he validated the card for ten years.

Whatever this may seem to mean, I am treated by strangers I encounter as quite elderly. They can even act surprised to learn that I am still teaching and writing. This is not unreasonable on their part, since the people of my age that I encounter usually do appear to me to be rather old, if not even decrepit. Something decrepit may be seen, of course, in my  inclination, during concerts, faculty meetings or lectures, to doze off for a few seconds (or perhaps minutes)–but that is not new, for it is something that I have been prone to do (not deliberately) for at least a half century. It probably has something to do with my longstanding practice of waking at four or five in the morning to work at my desk.


None of this, I hasten to add, is intended as a denial of my age. However fit I consider myself to be–and however easy it still is to “tool around” on my bicycle–, I recognize that I could collapse at any time, perhaps with little or no warning.

Thus, the intimates of my youth are all gone–not only my parents, of course, but also my brothers (who were younger). Some cousins probably carry on somewhere, but I am not at all in touch with them.

To say that the family intimates of my youth are gone is to recognize that all those relatives (that is, especially my brothers) are gone who really cared enough about my work as a scholar to read it regularly. The relatives I have acquired since then have their own lives to lead. They also have better things to read than anything I can personally provide.

The passage of time may be seen in my standing these days in the Basic Program. When I began teaching in the Program a half century ago almost all of the students were older than I was. Now, almost all of them are younger than I am.

Fortunately, however, the age and hence the caliber of the books we read together remain much the same as they have been for decades.


My “schoolmates,” too, have gone their separate ways. I suppose that many of them from my grade school and high school days are gone. Others–from College, Law School and Graduate School days–have mostly pursued much more conventional careers than I have–and so we do not see much, if anything, of each other. One advantage of an unconventional career, it should be noticed, is that it permits one to discover who one’s true friends are.

Among those with unconventional careers who may find it hard to discover, or even to have, friends are men of extraordinary wealth. Such men can be instructive in still another way:   I have long been interested in their obituaries. This is not in order to become as rich as they are–for that would be an unwelcome burden.

Rather, the obituaries of the wealthy remind us of our mortality, something that the healthy human being is not really aware of most of the time. That is, the death of a rich man dramatizes the recognition that death is truly unavoidable. After all, such a man is likely to have access to everything money can buy:  a healthy climate, proper food, first-rate medical services, expert advice about longevity, and even life-sustaining spiritual guidance.

Thus, we were informed last week (Obituary, New York Times, October 28, 2005, p. C14) that “modern China’s first billionaire” has died, a businessman who “favored tailored suits and Cadillacs” and who lived for a time in “a huge mansion . . . in Shanghai.”  We can even be reminded here of the graveyard scene in which Hamlet reflects on the fate of Alexander’s corpse.


Of course, to have a sense of one’s mortality (or vulnerability) is not the same as “knowing” what it is to be dead. It is that knowledge which Tom Sawyer sought when he arranged to attend his own funeral

A recent odd experience did give me a glimpse of what it might mean to be dead. I received a few weeks ago a package from an academician in Spain which included both a review by him of my On Trial book and an article by another scholar discussing my career. I have the impression that these Spanish texts are more or less favorable to me, and this is reinforced by the published announcement (contained therein) that one of these authors is doing a dissertation on my work.

It is, I say, odd to learn that one’s work is not only being read but is even being written about by people one did not even know existed. (The Spanish articles had been preceded for me by something similar from a prominent scholar in Georgia I had never heard of.)  This, it can seem to me, is what it is like to be dead:  one in death may not know that one is known, or by whom, or where, or for what. One of our early English poems asks where those people are who have lived. Some may live on in the writings they have left behind–but, it is evident, very little of what is left behind by any one of us is likely to be read decades, to say nothing of centuries, from now. But then, how much of oneself still survives even in one’s bodily descendants after four or five generations? Perhaps one-twentieth of a person. 


Such are the glimpses one has now and then of what one can, without recognizing it, mean to others. Then there are the things in oneself that can evoke buried memories, suggesting the influence others continue to exercise without one’s being always aware of it. The classic modern illustration of such an evocation may be with respect to Marcel Proust’s madeleine.

Certainly, one can be reminded, by the stray names one encounters, of pains and problems, as well as of aspirations and accomplishments, that one has somewhat moved beyond. Sometimes, indeed, one is reminded of “reactions” that one should have had and of questions that one should have insisted upon. Sometimes, in turn, one has to be careful in dealing with others, lest one touch unnecessarily their psychic bruises. Be all this as it may, perhaps the ability to be pained reflects a useful sensitivity, the kind of sensitivity that poets draw upon.

Indeed, bruising may be necessary for a healthy toughening. Time is spoken of in one of our early poems as destructive. But is this a sound assessment? After all, time is the sea in which we all swim and from which we draw our sustenance:  it is time which challenges us and permits us to be.

Certainly, time was something that one had to have right if one was to be able to serve as an aerial navigator, as I did in my youth. The correct time is particularly important for celestial navigation, which I rather enjoyed doing, recruiting thereby distant stars to our purposes as an aircrew. Even so, I never carried a time-piece again after I left the Air Corps.


My work as a navigator required working at a desk with pencil, charts, and books. I find, a half century later, still doing much the same. In fact, there has been for me a strange development in recent years:   while my colleagues do more and more with word processors, computers, and other electronic equipment, I find myself doing more and more of my writing by hand. This means, among other things, that I can write anywhere, any time. Perhaps economy is encouraged. Even so, the volume of my writing has steadily grown in recent years. Critical to this development is considerable reliance upon detailed outlines. Of course, it is useful to have available a competent secretarial staff to prepare a typed version of what one has come up with in this fashion.


That such a staff is available may be due, at least in part, to chance. This may be seen as well in the contemporaries who have been most important for me intellectually. That is, these are teachers (including gifted fellow students) I have been personally exposed to as a student. My limitations are suggested by the fact that if I had not known these men personally, I probably would never have been benefitted as much as I was by them.

To emphasize chance as I have may be still another way of recognizing the importance of Time for us as mortals. 


With a sense of mortality there can come, from time to time, not only a series of challenges but also a sense of melancholy. I do find, in recent years, less confidence that I will personally be able to see the long-term outcome of social and other experiments undertaken among us. This is a more personal sense of limitations than that generated by the discoveries of vast ranges of time and space announced by astrophysicists.

Does this sense of limitations incline one to make more of the unchanging, the permanentBand hence of first principles? These are problems that even our physical scientists should become more aware of than they sometimes appear to be. Do they truly know themselves? If not, can they truly know what they study and discover?


All this was dramatized for me a few days ago when I heard a peripatetic student on a cell phone asking someone at the other end of his “line,” “Where are you?” Gone are the days, it seems, when one could count on the positioning of the parties engaged in a telephone conversation. But without a reliable sense of position (and not only as a navigator), one does not know where one truly is or what to expect from whom. Both scientific discoveries and meaningful actions depend on a proper grounding. 


I close these remarks by having recourse to a poetic note, something appropriate to our continuing inquiry into seven centuries  of English poems. It is, I remind you, an inquiry that is accompanied, at each of our sessions, by reminders (in the sonnets of Shakespeare) of the greatest poet in the English-speaking tradition. It is an inquiry that permits us to see what Shakespeare drew upon and, in turn, what his successors (deliberately or otherwise) took from him. Ben Jonson’s high ranking of him, not long after Shakespeare’s death, continues to be persuasive–and may testify, in effect, to Jonson’s own stature as someone who can recognize greatness when he sees it.

Now for my own poetic note of sorts in conclusion, using, as a poet does, particulars to suggest the universal.

When I first came to the University of Chicago as a student in the 1940s one of the venerable men on the campus was the world-renowned economist, Frank H. Knight (who had been born in 1885). I remember seeing him, an old man, casually picking up scraps of paper as he walked around in Hyde Park.


Perhaps someone, in turn, will remember me walking around Hyde Park–but not picking  up scraps of paper, for that would be a lost cause these days, keeping one from getting far on foot. Rather, my quixotic effort is with respect to those who presume to ride their bicycles on sidewalks. I venture to inform them, as they whisk by unwary pedestrians, “Bikes belong on the streets.”  The fact that I do not hear others protesting this atrocity as well, makes me wonder whether this too is a lost cause.

But perhaps all may not be lost in such endeavors–for they at least testify to one’s conviction that one’s efforts can make a difference, a conviction that “resonates” with something youthful in the soul. Another effort may be more practical–and that is my passing on to you my discovery (with the help of a long-gone newspaper columnist), some decades ago, of the fact that a few minutes of vigorous hyperventilation can relieve one of most headaches. Once thus relieved, one can return, with renewed determination, to the reading of truly good (and good-for-you) books. And, I add for good measure, a short afternoon nap is also salutary, permitting one to be as good as one is capable of being both in the nights of one’s days and in the twilight of one’s life.

These, then, are some Thoughts at 80.

 [These remarks were made, November 7, 2005, by George Anastaplo to an alumni seminar in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. George Anastaplo is Lecturer in the Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago and Professor of Law at Loyola University of Chicago.  The materials settled upon for his 2006-2007 seminar were the complete dialogues of Plato. His latest book is On Trial: From Adam & Eve to O.J. Simpson.]

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