Anastaplo, our own Socrates

By Leon M. Despres
Chicago Daily News
, March 6, 1976

HUMAN BEING AND CITIZEN: Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good, by George Anastaplo (Swallow Press, 1975).

Socrates of Athens might have found Chicago inhospitable to his career of walking in a city’s central plaza, cross-questioning citizens and teaching the young. Nevertheless, his direct philosophical descendent, a neo-Socrates named George Anastaplo, my neighbor, lives and flourishes in Chicago on S. Harper Ave., and has spent the last 25 years teaching the young, questioning nearly everyone he talks to and making smug people feel uncomfortable.

Like Socrates, Anastaplo knows and quotes the great poets, expresses himself clearly, uses simple examples to illustrate his points, and constantly asks: “What is virtue? What is justice? What is a wise man?

Chicago sentenced our neo-Socrates to a figurative drinking of the hemlock even before he began his career as philosopher. In 1951 when he expected to become a lawyer, a Chicago committee on “character and fitness” voted him unfit because he would not answer whether he was a member of the Communist Party. The vote closed the bar to him, but launched him as philosopher, writer, speaker and university teacher.

In 1972, political scientist C. Herman Pritchett wrote of him:

“On April 24, 1961, the Supreme Court of the United States by a vote of five to four, affirmed the action of the Illinois Supreme Court which, by a vote of four to three, had upheld the decision of the Committee on Character and Fitness of the Illinois bar which, by a vote of eleven to six, had decided that George Anastaplo was unflt for admission to the Illinois bar.

“This was not Anastaplo’s only such experience with power structures. In 1960 he was expelled from Soviet Russia for protesting harassment of another American, and in 1970 from the Greece of the Colonels. As W. C. Fields might have said, any man who is kicked out of Russia, Greece and the Illinois bar can’t be all bad.”

In “Human Being and Citizen,” a collection of 17 separate polished and lustrous writings (8 talks, 6 articles, and 3 book reviews, covering 1963-1974), we soon learn what there is in George Anastaplo that led him not to answer the committee’s fatal question. He opposes any government’s punishment of beliefs, or threats of punishment, or compulsions to disclose beliefs.

Like Socrates, of whom Xenophon wrote that he would have been acquitted ”if in any moderate degree he would have conciliated the favor of his judges.” Anastaplo rigorously rejected the committee’s question as constitutionally impermissible and refused to relate his favorable personal record.

Anastaplo was no Communist. On the contrary, his writings make clear that he tends toward conservatism on social issues. He supports the free market of capitalism as he supports the free market of ideas; and he upholds all just laws. For Anastaplo’s own engaging evaluation of himself, the reader of the book should turn at once to the chapter titled, “What’s Really Wrong with George Anastaplo?”

Throughout his book, Anastaplo deals with a range of philosophical, political and legal subjects, all with generosity, eloquence and good humor, but not humorously. He is dead serious about his devotion to justice and established just law.

He disapproves Thoreau on civil disobedience, and Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael on black culture. Writing in February, 1974, he disapproved strongly the impeachment of Nixon because he thought (mistakenly, I believe) that the drive for impeachment was based on dislike for Nixon and not on solid evidence of high criminal acts.

To each problem he applies the forms of Socratic inquiry. If he talks of pollution, he says we need “to inquire into the nature of nature.” About the prospects of neurobiology and psychobiology, he says we must deal with the questions: “What is a good man? How does a good man come to be? What kind of man is likely to develop?”

A FOOTNOTE about footnotes. After 221 pages of clear, well-articulated prose, Anastaplo gives us 100 pages of footnotes. Could not the footnote material also have been articulated into the main body of the chapters? Nevertheless, you will enjoy the footnotes if you view them as a free wheeling anthology of comments, reminiscences, quotations and incidents of great illumination and fascination.

For example, you will learn on Page 286 that the student editors of the University of Chicago Law Review were compelled in late 1951 “by their law school dean (who went on to become president of the University of Chicago and thereafter attorney general of the United States) to return to me an article about my exclusion from the bar which they had commissioned me to write and which they had been prepared to publish.”

The book deserves several readings. It will leave many impressions on the reader. Above all, it will leave the abiding impression of the correctness of what a footnote tells us Anastaplo said to the misguided committee on character and fitness, “that the American bar needed me more than I needed the American bar.” We lost a great lawyer, but Chicago gained a great neo-Socrates.

Leon M. Despres is a Chicago attorney and former alderman of the 5th Ward.

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