Murley Review of The American Moralist: On Law, Ethics, and Government

by George Anastaplo

Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 624

 Reviewed by John A. Murley, Rochester Institute of Technology,

Journal of Church and State, vol.35, pp.618-19 (Spring 1993).

            It has been said of George Anastaplo that “he remains the most challenging American essayist.” With the publication of The American Moralist, a collection of forty-nine essays written between 1966 and 1990, that judgment is again confirmed. It has also been said of Anastaplo that he “writes for an audience that believes there are moral and political standards rooted in nature and discernible by reason.” That audience will not be disappointed in The American Moralist. These essays, from “Aristotle on Law and Morality” to “Chicago Politics After Daley,” offer a grand buffet-style exploration of moral and political principles.

            The essays collected in The American Moralist are divided into two major sections. Essays 1-13 examine ancient, modern, and American principles of morality, ethics, and government. Essays 14-49 are devoted to an exploration of those principles as they bear on important public affairs spanning the last quarter-century. Central to Anastaplo’s understanding in these essays is the observation made by Laurence Berns that “Anastaplo recurs to the distinctions between human being and citizen, politician and scholar, thoughtful man and partisan, and nature and circumstance.”

            Readers of this journal will find of particular interest Anastaplo’s ongoing study of Nature and Revelation in these essays: “Maimonides on Revelation and Reason,” “The Occasions of Religious Liberty,” “The Challenge of Creationism,” “In God We Trust?,” “Politics Glory and Religion,” and “The Moral Majority:   The New Abolitionists?” Throughout these essays, Anastaplo offers readers the opportunity to consider how, under the Constitution and the conditions of our day, religion may properly aid in forming the character of a self-governing people.

            Speaking truth to authority is rarely appreciated. For nearly forty years, Anastaplo has challenged, and thus moderated, the authoritative prejudices of both conservatives and liberals regarding the major issues of the day. Readers of The American Moralist will be able to see what Anastaplo thought some years ago about issues now generally considered settled, and thus will be better able to judge what he now thinks regarding the important issues of today. All of the essays demonstrate how a scholar, adhering to moral and political principles, may be of benefit to his fellow citizens navigating through the sound and fury of partisan passion or despair.

            Those familiar with Anastaplo’s previous work will look in vain for his usual extensive and rewarding footnotes. However, previously published essays are recorded in the headnotes that accompany each essay. Interested reasers are thus encouraged to continue their explorations beyond the essays presented here. In addition, a valuable index provides an efficient means to cross-reference topics such as nature, predjudice, justice, religion, and chance.

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