Opus Publicum: Anastaplo

by modestinus

George Anastaplo may be the greatest unheralded legal scholar of the last 50 years, and I say this as someone who has been unable to fully acclimate to Anastaplo’s moralistic vision of not just the United States, but Western Civilization as a whole. Most 1Ls know a hint of the man’s character throughIn re Anastaplo, 366 U.S. 82 (1961), the Supreme Court case which uphold the Illinois State Bar’s decision to deny Anastaplo admission on the grounds that he refused to answer whether he was ever a member of the Communist Party. Despite the State Bar’s later reversal of its initial admissions decision, Anastaplo joined and, to the best of my knowledge, his self-representation concerning his bar admission was the only legal practice Anastaplo ever engaged in. He had served in World War II; earned an AB, JD, and — following his case — a PhD from the University of Chicago; and he was not welcome to the legal profession. So, instead, he embarked on a long and storied teaching career which dovetailed into one of the most prolific scholarly outputs imaginable — one which still hasn’t ceased despite Anastaplo having attained to his 87th year. Of course, almost none of his articles — some of which stretch to well over 200 pages — were ever tucked between the covers of “elite” law reviews; they were too off the beaten path for that, and they lacked that “Law & [Blank]” quality which makes even the most banal pieces attractive to law-review editors. Even so, Anastaplo managed to invent his own genre of law review article, the “Exploration,” and many of his best pieces have been edited and worked into one of his many dense, eccentric, but always fascinating books. In recent years, Anastaplo, along with two faithful students, have put together George Anastaplo’s Blog, an astonishing archive of Anastaplo’s writings, speeches, notes, and musings. Also included are several insightful commentaries from friends and critics on Anastaplo’s work and a link to a mammoth Google Docs repository of even more Anastaplo pieces. It’s a life’s work, and I imagine that even a very enterprising student could spend a lifetime trying to distill all of its lessons.

Beyond, but also bound up, with all of this is the fact that Anastaplo was a student of Leo Strauss, albeit an uncharacteristic one. He was older than most of the “Straussians” that came out of the University of Chicago (e.g., Seth Benardete, Allan Bloom, Stanley Rosen, etc.), and he arguably lived and feltmore than they ever did. This comes out in almost all of his articles. Anastaplo was sensitive to the political element of “political philosophy” in a way most of them were not and could not be, and, again, it shows in almost everything Anastaplo writes and says. Even before he was — as one person put it — “excommunicated” from the “Straussian” circle following his criticism of Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, it would have been hard to fit him into any of the various “Straussian” camps. In some ways he leaned toward the conservative-traditionalist wing of “West Coast Straussianism” (as exemplified by Harry Jaffa), but too many of his writings — including his various spars with Jaffa — exhibit deep reservations concerning this form of political conservatism. But at the same time, Anastaplo’s writings reveal too deep and too respectful an engagement with (if not, at points, a full embrace of) what is often called the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to endear him to the other “Straussian” outposts. Not that Anastaplo ever seemed to care. Those who wanted to stick with him did, and those who didn’t, well, didn’t. Perhaps it’s Anastaplo’s independent spirit which, sadly enough, puts him out of alignment with so many “Straussians” and their epigones.

I first came to Anastaplo via Jaffa, and it was to Anastaplo’s two articles-turned-books on the U.S. Constitution and its amendments that I turned when I wanted to learn something about that text which wasn’t filtered through the ideology of my Con Law professor and our casebook author. Signs of Anastaplo’s influence — and, really, the influence of Strauss and some of his students — can be seen in the first law review article I ever published — a very juvenile piece in retrospect, but one which I had a lot of fun writing. Not long after it came out, I lost my “constitutional faith,” I suppose. I let my horizons be darkened by realism, and so I never had much time for what Anastaplo was trying to preach. Sure, I kept up on some of his articles and I even purchased a couple of his books, but I had become disenchanted for reasons I won’t dig too deeply into right now. What I will say is that by becoming “Catholic again,” I started to realize what I had failed to appreciate in Anastaplo for several years.

But I only consider myself an admirer of Anastaplo, not a “student.” I am interested where some of his writings will lead me, but I’m not always confident the journey will take me somewhere worth going. I suspect a number of potential readers feel the same way; Anastaplo’s writings require a serious investment, and sometimes the payoff comes only in the form of new questions (which, really, are very old forgotten questions) — a troubling prospect for young men searching for answers. Yet it’s an indispensable step in the process of education, just one we’re not used to taking in the era of the standardized test.

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One Response to Opus Publicum: Anastaplo

  1. pam werrbach proietti says:

    A very thoughtful description of a great scholar and teacher–by himself! I enjoyed reading it and I found it to be harmonious with my own experiences of Professor Anastaplo–in both my reading of his thoughtful scholarship and my studies of legal and philosophical subjects with his guidance.

    I do have one comment: can any one of us, whomever he may be, and whatever his contributions to our nation and our culture, have control of what the authors of his obituaries will say about him?

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