George Anastaplo

It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations, [than those offered by Archimedes]. Some ascribe this to his natural genius, while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlaboured results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe that you yourself would have discovered it, by so smooth and so rapid a path [does Archimedes] lead you to the conclusion required.

                                        ─ Plutarch, Life of Marcellus


            I have been reminded most emphatically that I am now in my 55th year as a member of the Staff of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, proudly wearing the title all these years of “Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago.” A couple of months ago I was officially reminded that I am now in my 30th year as a member of the Faculty of the Loyola School of Law. All this may be related to the celebration of my work planned for the Midwest Political Science Association Convention, here in Chicago next April (following up it seems, the celebration of my work, and of my 65th Birthday, at the American Political Science Association Convention, in San Francisco, back in 1990).

All this celebrating can have an ominous side to it. The tempting of fate may even seem to be critical here. But we must venture on, hoping for the best—or hoping, at least, to avoid the worst.


            My Basic Program experience (which began in early 1957) has contributed to my academic development. Thus, it no doubt contributed to the shaping of my University of Chicago doctoral dissertation, completed in 1964, and even more to the book that followed  (in 1971) with its massive footnoting.

My experience in the Basic Program probably made me seem plausible as someone with whom the President of Rosary College could fill a sudden vacancy in her Political Science Department. It also probably made me seem plausible as someone who could serve, six times each semester over two years, as a commuting visiting professor in the Politics Department at the University of Dallas. The contacts developed in the Basic Program contributed as well to my professorship in Loyola’s School of Law.


            Of course, at the heart of the Basic Program experience has been the challenge of reading again and again the best of the intellectual heritage of the West. These are texts that one should be challenged by every time one returns to them.

It “helps,” perhaps, that I have become known as a Staff member available to confront texts that others may not want to deal with at the moment. This may be evident in my current engagement with Isaac Newton’s Principia. I have even been venturing these days to ask University of Chicago physicists I know just how they understand that the Moon can have the effect it is said to have on our tides. This is not a question that has been welcomed.


            These physicists have been my longtime benefactors, tolerating me as they have for decades as a regular observer of their weekly Physics Colloquium.

It seems fitting and proper to recognize by name on this occasion those benefactors of mine somehow related to my five and half decades with the Basic Program.

There are Laurence Berns, my College schoolmate, who urged my appointment on Jack Penland, then the Director of the Program. Maurice F. X. Donohue, Dean of the University’s adult education enterprise, was willing to take a chance on someone who had served, as he had, as an officer in the Air Corps during the Second World War. To these should be added the name of Sister Candida Lund, President of Rosary College.

There is Leo Paul de Alvarez who, as Chairman of the Politics Department of the University of Dallas, put me in fruitful contact with enterprising students. One was John A. Murley, who, as Chairman thereafter of the Political Science Department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, could invite me to give a year-long series of talks which could be published as a book-length commentary on the Constitution of 1787. Thereafter he compiled a massive bibliography which includes what has been for me a quite useful guide to my own work. Another enterprising student in Dallas was Larry Arnhart who, when he became thereafter a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, helped me develop an irregular seminar in political philosophy on that campus which proved most productive.

There is William T. Braithwaite, a lawyer-student in the Basic Program, who went on to join the Loyola law faculty. While there he somehow managed to get me invited to join him on that faculty (before he escaped to St. John’s College in Annapolis).

There is Cynthia Rutz who, as Chair of the Basic Program, promoted the notion of an annual Anastaplo Lecture. Following upon that exercise of collegial generosity was the Internet wordpress website developed by Joel Rich for the posting of various of my things.  A longtime student in the Basic Program, John Metz, has generously carried on with the maintenance of that website, which has had (I am told) some fifteen thousand “hits” during the last two years.

And then, of course, this recollection of Basic Program-connected benefactors should not close without acknowledging all that I have gotten (including a patient forbearance) from my fellow staff members for decades. We have just heard, in Keith Cleveland’s remarks, how generous my colleagues can be in assessing my career. Also to be acknowledged, but not on this occasion, are the dozen most influential teachers I have had since grade school in Southern Illinois.


            All, or almost all, I have said thus far is more or less “personal,” something that can be reinforced by what my wife has had to put up with as I have pursued the somewhat unconventional academic course that I have had.

Even so, the “personal” or accidental can open the way to more enduring matters. I have been wondering, for example, whether something more might be said about the “55” that is made so much of by the generous organizers of this event—something more, that is, than the fact that 55 minutes were all I was permitted to teach in the College of this University, ever so many years ago, before Someone in the Administration discovered what was happening and intervened to make my first class in the College (which was on the Declaration of Independence) my last.

I must even acclaim our organizers as inspired—for I have found that 55 is identified as the tenth in the sequence of Fibonacci Numbers, named after an enterprising Italian mathematician of the Thirteenth Century, Leonardo of Pisa. (Fibonacci is a short form of Filius Bonnaci, meaning son of Bonacci). These numbers, which I had not previously been consciously aware of as a series, have been identified as “the sequence of numbers, each of which, after the second, is the sum of the two previous numbers.” The series begins like this:     0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55.

It turns out that this has been for centuries a quite illuminating discovery. For example, the development of leaves in plants often proceed at a rate that can be identified by using these numbers. A distinguished University of Chicago scientist, when I asked him last week about this sequence, exulted that it was simply beautiful:  he very much enjoyed being reminded of it. And a young physics student, upon being asked, could speak of the sequence with enthusiasm. Another scientist has informed me that the Fibonacci numbers were exploited, not necessarily competently, in a recent novel, The DaVinci Code.


            It can be startling to discover, still another time, how much one does not know—how much one is simply not even aware of─things that others know well and make good use of. I can be reminded of how much most people, including all too many judges and lawyers and even law professors, simply do not know about the Constitution of the United States. I can also be reminded of all this when I sense how much I myself do not recognize in the best music.

Indeed, much of what goes on when we delve into the very best books, even for the first time, can be thought of as a kind of recollection. Even so, one can sense that one will pass through life unaware of much that is worth knowing. Perhaps there is some “compensation” here if one at least recognizes that there is indeed this limitation for most (if not for all) of us.


            Thus, our 55 has proved instructive, opening up (at least for me) a “world” I had not even been aware of. What if one goes back (before “our” 55) to the preceding number in the Fibonacci sequence:   34?    One can be “personal” here by adding it to the year of one’s birth, resulting thereby in a highlighting of 1959. And that, it chances to turn out, was the year in which I came closest to securing that career at the Bar which would have deprived me of all that the Basic Program and related adventures have meant to me.

And, while we are in a speculative mode, what about the next number in the Fibonacci sequence, 89? Should this be read as suggesting—if the most personal reading by me is again indulged in—that there may be (now that I have just turned 86) only three more years (if that!) during which I may become somewhat aware of what more I do not know? However  all this may be, I do anticipate that, for years to come, some of you will recall that you first heard of the Fibonacci numbers on this occasion, even if you cannot recall who it was who invoked this sequence and why he did so.

Perhaps you will also recall that the remarks made by him on that occasion were mercifully short, confirming thereby the observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson (in his “Prudence” essay), “In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed.”


These remarks were made during the celebration on November 13, 2011 at the Chicago Cultural Center of George Anastaplo’s fifty-five years with the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. That celebration followed upon the delivery of the Annual George Anastaplo Works of the Mind Lecture (given on that occasion by Leo Paul S. de Alvarez, of the University of Dallas, who spoke on Plutarch’s Lives and the fate of republics).

See, on the career of George Anastaplo, various postings on http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com, especially his talks, “If You’re as Good as You Look. Why Aren’t You a University of Chicago Professor?” and “First Annual Excellence in Teaching Award:  George Anastaplo.” Also posted there are the George Anastaplo entry in the Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law, the comments about George Anastaplo by Larry Arnhart in his “Darwinian Conservatism” blog, the Bibliography of George Anastaplo, and the remarks made by Keith Cleveland, on behalf of the Basic Program Staff, at the Fifty-five Years Celebration.

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