A Statement on George Anastaplo

Keith Cleveland

As the existence of the annual Anastaplo Lecture indicates, George Anastaplo is the most significant member of the Basic Program staff, a position he has held for nearly all the years I have been a staff member, and I suspect for all fifty-four years of his participation in the Basic Program.  Recognition of this fact by the naming of the November Works of the Mind lecture is only ten years old, but the recognition takes account of more than five decades of leadership and contribution to the work of the Basic Program that far outruns that of any other staff member or administrator.

The fact is evident, but I have been reflecting on the reasons for the fact and puzzling about how to present some of them.  I offer the following suggestions.

George Anastaplo is a prodigious worker, turning out a constant stream of letters, lectures, talks, briefings, notes, essays, studies, explorations, accounts, reports, books, and so on.  The diverse forms are themselves informative.  These works engage with every kind of subject—law, philosophy, especially political philosophy, history, literature, the arts, religion, diverse cultures ancient and modern, education, the sciences, mathematics—contributing to each, analyzing and commenting on them, fitting them into a growing coherent structure which strives to organize and interpret, it would appear, all of intellectual culture.  This is the sort of lifelong project we associate with the great philosophical polymaths of the past.  To name but a few, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Leibniz, come readily to mind.  This aspect of George Anastaplo’s activity would be enough to mark his significance to us, his students and colleagues, and to the Basic Program.

George Anastaplo is a great practitioner of the long tradition of close and thoughtful reading associated with the University of Chicago.  The discovery of overlooked meanings in familiar texts is characteristic of his work, often providing deep insights into the mind and intentions of the author, and revealing thought-provoking aspects of the issues being examined.

George Anastaplo asks excellent questions.  Questioning is the basis of his extensive scholarship and the source of the many insights he has provided us on a wide range of subjects.  He questions like a lawyer—directly, simply, incisively, and in ways that reveal facets of the matter under study and of the minds at work on it.  His practice of questioning derives in part from the patterns and sequences of questions employed by Socrates.  Owing to this source his work is far broader than lawyerly questioning, and commonly has a different end—the truth about things rather than simply the useful truth about a set of facts and the application of law to those facts.  Even so the discipline of the law is evident in his work, as is the philosophical passion of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  As most, if not all, of us can testify, he practices with tactical genius the skills of an experienced cross-examiner, making of it a powerful teaching tool in the manner of Socrates.

George Anastaplo carries forward the work of the great men with whom he has studied, notably Leo Strauss, David Grene, Yves Simon, Richard McKeon, Malcolm Sharp, Harry Kalven, and William Crosskey, applying their insights and methods to new problems, and drawing from their genius.  Doing so serves not only to illustrate their continuing vitality, but to remind us of their work, to keep it before us as a continuing resource to consult for our use.  Of course, the Basic Program strives to do just the same thing.  It does it far better with the assistance of great students of the classics, such as those just mentioned, references to whom dot George’s work or lie just below the surface of his writing in recognizable allusions to their thought and accomplishments.

George Anastaplo is a great story teller, very much in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.  I don’t believe I’ve known anyone better at this than he is.  We have all benefitted from this disposition during his lectures, discussions, and conversations.  It is often entertaining, and always instructive, commonly serving to illustrate points in simple and unexpected ways.  The stories arise from his life and experiences, from the works he has studied, from the teachers he has had.  I mention in passing that a good lawyer is a good storyteller.

Among the virtues, George is a particularly good exemplar of the combination of courage and temperance.  How often have we been guided by his civil insistence on superior principles of thought and action in our studies, in our lives, in our practices?  His sturdy resistance to the thoughtless follies of individuals, organizations, and governments continues to be a salutary influence on us daily.  In this he reminds me of the Socratic effort to work through education and persuasion, not through force, to achieve ends.  And it involves the willingness to sacrifice ends to preserve principles, as George Anastaplo’s instructive relationship to the law has shown.

I have been privileged to know George Anastaplo for forty-three years through the Basic Program, as colleague, teacher, and mentor.  During that time he has stood among us as first among equals, the mainstay of the Program, and a bulwark against the Program’s inevitable troubles and challenges.  I have scarcely begun to describe his accomplishments and contributions in my remarks, but brevity, even at the cost of generality, serves us well today.  Perhaps what I have said will call up further thoughts, and concrete examples in your minds.  A living recognition of George Anastaplo’s contributions, accomplishments, and significance to us is the best acknowledgement of all that he has achieved.

Thank you.

Keith S. Cleveland

B.A., University of Chicago, 1964
M.A., University of Chicago, 1965
J.D., University of Chicago, 1979

Lecturer in the Liberal Arts
The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults
Graham School
The University of Chicago


This statement was presented on the occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of “The Anastaplo Lecture,” November 13, 2011.  The occasion was celebrated with a lecture delivered by Leo Paul S. de Alvarez , Professor, Politics Department, the University of Dallas, titled “Plutarch’s Lives:  On the Decline, Fall, and Attempted Restoration of Republics.”

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