by George Anastaplo
Yielding to the music, you sang the Yiddish song,
Nervous palms upturned, your face the Jewish mask
Of wry resignation. “All life long
Potatoes will I get, no matter what I ask.”
I watched you stand and sway.
The old tune mocked a sigh.
You shrugged and turned away.
Your laugh dismissed reply.
I did not know you then, or that your headstrong will
Refused the mediocrity and formlessness of things.
Stories must have points, and friends among you still
Assume a grander size, be scholars, heroes, kings.
What you create, you believe,
Pygmalion without prayer.
We almost are what you conceive
As long as you are there.
But you are gone. Your shield of half-meant talk,
With your father’s suitcase, by now has crossed the sea.
Each living room seems empty into which I walk,
Yet an echo of your voice is left behind with me.
— Sara Prince Anastaplo,
“Allan Bloom at 26”
This is my first address on the University of Chicago campus since the Yom Kippur-day death, a few months ago, of our former colleague in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Allan Bloom. I take this opportunity, therefore, to acknowledge our many debts to him by dedicating this lecture on modern science to his memory.
There is a perverse propriety to such a dedication, considering the subject of the last conversation that Allan Bloom and I had, which was some four years before his death. He had beckoned me into our neighborhood barber shop when he saw me walking by. He wanted to know what books I was carrying. (There was always something of the curious cat about him.) The books happened to be about modern science. He observed, not without a little melancholy, that he had long ago given up hope of ever understanding such things.
It is obvious in Allan Bloom’s best-known book, The Closing of the American Mind, that he does not pretend to know much about modern science. Even so, he tended to dismiss university science departments as enclaves of self-importance. One reviewer of the Closing book, who is herself a learned classicist, protests that it “neglects to its detriment . . . the reverence-producing splendor of modern science and mathematics.”
I recently had occasion to share recollections about Allan Bloom with our common barber. He was, I was told, always very friendly and easy to deal with as a customer. This did not change after he became a celebrity. I learned that he usually came in for his haircut with someone, often a student, and that they would talk non-stop about “big things,” using “big words.”
The barber and he routinely compared notes about their respective illnesses. One common bond, it seems, was some of the medication they had to take. Also, they both had high cholesterol readings — but, the barber added, that did not seem to bother Allan Bloom. Nor did he bother to curtail his legendary chain-smoking: two cigarettes would be consumed during a haircut.
Allan Bloom’s lifelong charms are recalled when one comes upon such reminiscences as these, especially in circumstances where a polemical stance was not called for, but rather the easy grace of the great-souled man. His contributions to liberal education remain significant, not least of which is the considerable influence he had upon the Basic Program, initially as an instructor while he was a graduate student and subsequently as a teacher of several graduate students who in turn became Basic Program instructors.
It remains to be seen how much our reservations about modern life and modern education require, for their full realization, a reliable grasp of what modern science is and does. Do we not have to have a sound awareness of what physicists and other scientists do and the questions that they need to consider along with the rest of us? It is only prudent, in any event, to recognize the extent to which modern science does draw upon, testify to, and perpetuate the great philosophic tradition of the West. Perhaps there are for most of us no better foundations for our efforts to understand these matters than the reliable translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile that Allan Bloom has so generously bequeathed us.
These remarks preceded a lecture by George Anastaplo, “Some Implications of Modern Physics and Astronomy,” April 18, 1993. That lecture was in the Works of the Mind Lecture Series, The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago. George Anastaplo is Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago, Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Rosary College. His most recent book is the American Moralist: On Law, Ethics, and Government (Ohio University Press, 1992).
Sara Prince Anastaplo’s poem, “Allan Bloom at 26,” which was written in the late 1950s and which serves as the epigraph for these remarks, is taken from Law and Philosophy: The Practice of Theory (John A. Murley, Robert L. Stone, and William T. Braithwaite, eds.; Ohio University Press, 1992), volume II, page 1034.
See, on the observations made in the third paragraph of these remarks, Essays on The Closing of the American Mind (Robert L. Stone, ed.; Chicago Review Press, 1989), page 270, page 247, note 2, and page 280, note 25.