George Anastaplo’s Blog: Reflections on Chance in an Ordered World

John Metz

Is it not the intelligible that we, as rational beings, are naturally inclined to seek, whether in the vast reaches of time and space or in the tiniest building blocks of matter—as well as even in the ever-changing news of the day? By pursuing these and like questions (about both transitory and enduring matters), and sharing with others what we may somehow learn, we in turn can be the benefactors of those who happen to follow us, perhaps even making thereby our own lives seem more meaningful.[i]

 

George Anastaplo was an unlikely blogger. I think he was (and remains) the only person ever to have a blog and to openly admit that he doesn’t use email.[ii] He did not own a computer and never used a word processing program[iii] For the whole period of more than 35 years during which I knew him (including more than 40 Basic Program courses), Anastaplo rarely referred to “computers” but he often, disparagingly, referred to “those machines” or “your machines.” In short, most modern technology, including computers, did not appeal to his interest in “enduring matters.”[iv]

I.

Like a number of other people,[v] I had heard of George Anastaplo before I met him. I enrolled in a first-year class in the Basic Program in the fall of 1978 and there he was, accompanied by Plato’s Meno (not the edition that he later translated and edited with Lawrence Berne). Prior to that, I had heard, in a very cursory form, of Anastaplo as the principal in a long-ago (or so it seemed then) court case involving some kind of free speech issue against the U.S. government.[vi]

Anastaplo was always curious—curious in his teaching style and curious in his approach to everything in life. His teaching style included many personal anecdotes and cross references from one text to another in the Program. Each class was sharply focused on the text, which was considered both by itself and with references, as needed, to the times and events when the text was written. Although he clearly knew a great deal about every topic we covered, Anastaplo always gave the impression that he was probing the text with the class, looking for things that had not been seen before. This earned him a reputation as the “master of the unexpected question.”[vii] Anastaplo was also remarkably down to earth (it must be noted that prior to this class my recent educational experiences had been with the graduate-level faculty at The University of Chicago, a group rarely described as down to earth).

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Anastaplo’s classroom teaching style was that, regardless of the type of text, he began by analyzing its “principle of order,” i.e., how the author organized the material or parts of the material.[viii] This analysis often began with counting the number of chapters in a book or the number of lines in a play or poem, with the most important point of the author being in the first, the last, or the middle position. As an example, Anastaplo frequently cited his own finding about the catalogue of ships in Book 2 of Homer’s Iliad. The naval force under the leadership of Odysseus is listed exactly midway between the contingent headed by Agamemnon and that headed by Achilles;[ix] the organizing principle in this case, Anastaplo argued, implicitly characterizes the fundamental relationships among the three characters. According to Anastaplo, although numeric relationships are not the only principle of order (a grocery list, for instance, may be organized by the geographic layout of the store), order does not happen accidentally and there is always a principle of order—no intelligent author can function without one. The principle of order may reveal much about an author’s way of thinking. I can recall only two texts that frustrated Anastaplo in his search for their principle of order: Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and Pascal’s The Provincial Letters. (Was it coincidental, Anastaplo then wondered, that both authors were French?)[x]

II.

Shortly after that first Basic Program course, I learned that Anastaplo and I were physical neighbors, living less than a block apart in Hyde Park. That provided the opportunity for many chance encounters, often at Powell’s Bookstore (used books) where we occasionally met to sort through the weekly discarded volumes. I don’t recall that we ever wanted the same book (we seemed to have nonoverlapping interests in the obscure and unwanted), but he often had comments on the available titles. And he certainly had casual observations about other things going on in the world. Because he didn’t drive at that time, when the venue for Basic Program classes switched from Hyde Park to downtown Chicago, I frequently gave him a ride home after class, and our conversations ranged widely but were rarely more serious than baseball. The only area of open disagreement between us was the merits of the designated hitter (an “abomination”—his word). This was clearly a clash between his classical world view and my more pragmatic one, in which baseball, like everything else, evolves and adapts regardless of consequences to an ideal of how the sport should be. A few years later we reached reconciliation, agreeing that the Cubs would never win a pennant with the popular and powerful Sammy Sosa in the lineup unless the National League changed its rules and allowed him to be a DH.

This status of “neighborliness” characterized our relationship even after I moved out of Hyde Park, and it seemed to describe Anastaplo’s relationship with many of the alumni students. In class he would often invite “expert” contributions from students with special knowledge or interests: as an artist, a doctor, a traveler, a judge, a psychiatrist, a scientist (me).[xi] In later years when Anastaplo was teaching sequences of three quarters on the same topic in the alumni courses,[xii] many of the students were regular attendees from year to year, and in January he would always ask the class for suggestions about what they would like to work on the next year.[xiii] But Anastaplo’s neighborliness extended deeper into Hyde Park and beyond the Basic Program. On one occasion at Powell’s he asked me if I would like to come to an ice-cream reception in his backyard the following week for his friend, Professor Chandrasekhar. I later learned how much Anastaplo respected Professor Chandrasekhar’s work, especially on Isaac Newton.[xiv] He would similarly speak of his discussions with the distinguished and the undistinguished from all walks of life.[xv] On another occasion I was attending a book signing event at another bookstore. The author was former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. I happened to be wearing a jacket that proclaimed “University of Chicago Handball Club.” When I reached Mr. Clark’s table he noticed my jacket and commented, “You’re from the University of Chicago. Do you happen to know George Anastaplo?” When I replied that I did, he said, “Well, tell him that I said hello.” Several years later Anastaplo gave me a book on handball, apparently one of the discards from another used bookstore that he visited. I reciprocated by giving him an article from Handball Magazine on Abraham Lincoln as a handball player.[xvi]

The most interesting of my happenstance encounters with Anastaplo occurred in 1989 when we found out that we were both going to be in Rome in a few weeks. He said I should come to a certain park around noon “if you’re free.” As it happened, I showed up there. He and his wife Sara were having a picnic, and they offered me a sandwich and then suggested we walk a few blocks to the “best ice-cream shop in Rome” (again, his words). I’m sure that any good guidebook would have highlighted the same sites along our walk, but none would have had the eagerness that Anastaplo had in discussing the Villa Borghese, the partial inspiration for Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the place where Edward Gibbon sat and concluded that he should write his history of Rome, and especially the church containing two pictures by Caravaggio. He let me buy the ice cream for both him and Sara.

Anastaplo was the center of what in retrospect I would call his “virtual” neighborhood. Everybody who had been involved in his life, as student, colleague, even adversary,[xvii] was still treated as a neighbor, not necessarily a close friend but respected for particular skills and interests, especially continuing interests in the perspective Anastaplo brought to topics covered in his classes.

III.

Joel Rich was another of my instructors in the Basic Program and another Hyde Park neighbor. He was also a close friend of Anastaplo.[xviii] I understand that they had frequent conversations about serious topics (Anastaplo teasingly once said that Joel knew more about Proust than anybody should), but I got to know Joel by working with him on developing computer spreadsheets for his “fantasy baseball” team. Besides his Basic Program position, Joel taught in other institutions in Chicago and was experimenting with using a website for one of his classes. This was the context in which Anastaplo asked me another of his unexpected questions: would I talk with Joel about a project they were starting on? When I met with Joel he explained that he had convinced Anastaplo that a blog site could be useful to him as a way of maintaining contact with his colleagues and former students. Anastaplo had said that what he really wanted was a place on the Internet to make available electronic versions of his previous writings (which we referred to as the “archives”).[xix] Joel suggested that the two objectives could be combined.

My initial response was skeptical. It didn’t seem to me that we had the programming expertise and funding that would be needed. Besides, even if a blog were a good idea, shouldn’t it have some kind of institutional support (e.g., The University of Chicago in some capacity, Loyola University School of Law)? Most of all I was skeptical because I knew Anastaplo’s expressed attitude about computers.

Joel first countered each of my doubts. He knew everything he needed to know about starting a blog and with my help we could learn what was necessary beyond that. The various administrations that should be interested would be more likely to get involved if the blog already existed. In the meantime, we could use free or low-cost resources like WordPress. Besides, he told me, I misunderstood Anastaplo’s attitude toward computers. Much of his hostility was simply a particular example of his more general critique of contemporary students. Undoubtedly, some of the students in his law school classes rarely looked up from their screens while in his (or anybody’s) classroom. [xx] And, most egregiously, some apparently tried to answer his unexpected questions by “doing a Google” on them. These, however, were not the students who would use the blog.

Joel then pointed out how appropriate a blog would be for Anastaplo. He noted that “Anastaplo has been writing in hypertext long before hypertext existed.” Anyone who has seen any of Anastaplo’s books or attended one of his classes, would recognize the truth of this statement. His essays and classes are full of cross references and allusions, and his handouts of supplemental materials in class were famously burdensome (physically) to his students. Handling all of this electronically made a lot of sense. Echoing Joel’s comment about hypertext, I then conceded that Anastaplo had already established something very similar to “social media” in his virtual neighborhood. We agreed to try it as an exploration (a favorite word of Anastaplo).

And so with a clear expectation of how things would develop, Joel started George Anastaplo’s Blog (http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com) in November 2009. He had actually reserved domain names that were less commercial but decided to get the blog started before transferring to something like “anastaplo.net.” Initially the only contents of the blog were the emails that Joel received from secretaries at Loyola. These were materials that had recently been typed from Anastaplo’s handwritten manuscripts and electronically stored on the law school’s servers. Meanwhile, my only involvement was with the second objective, getting the older, mostly published, articles onto the Internet. Joel and I proceeded slowly but we were learning and receiving positive feedback from Anastaplo.[xxi]

 IV.

 It’s easy to see how chance events figured into the blog, with, for instance, such things as the common thread of baseball bringing together parts of the virtual neighborhood that itself included many chance and neighborly interactions. But the biggest unexpected event was the death of Joel in June 2011. Anastaplo gave me the news of this on a Monday morning before a regular class. A few weeks later he asked if I would continue the blog, and when I agreed to see what I could do, he gave me the password for getting “author access” to the blog (a password that he himself had never used).[xxii]

The blog as it now exists is not like any of us expected it to be, nor is it like it would be if it were to be started today.[xxiii] However, this blog is truly George Anastaplo’s. In spite of his early reservations, Anastaplo’s attitude toward computers clearly evolved, as he came to recognize the usefulness of computers for his purposes. By the end of his life, he regularly printed his copious classroom handouts from Wikipedia and other online sources. He checked this blog every time he had access to a public computer (or a relative’s). He encouraged the publication on the Internet of two of the subjects he held most worthy of wide distribution: the works by and about Leo Strauss[xxiv] and his own conversations with a holocaust survivor.[xxv] He was satisfied, even fascinated, with this exploration.

Anastaplo, however, has left me—as his student rather than his webmaster—with a question to ponder. From the beginning of the blog late in 2009 until his death in February 2013, he personally selected all the material that was posted. He never consulted with me (and I suspect this was true of Joel as well) about what to post on the blog. The result is a very personal presentation of what he considered important as he knew he was approaching the end of his life.[xxvi] The blog primarily recapitulates significant features of his life (family, military service), his legal case, and his community (colleagues, work, Hyde Park). The choice of what to present and when was probably more under his control than in any of his previous publications.

So, what was his principle of order?

 

[i] George Anastaplo’s Blog: Human Nature, the Ever-Curious (and yet Ephemeral) News of the Day and Glimpses of Eternity – 12/22/10

[ii] To have a blog at WordPress one must submit an email address; Joel Rich obtained an address that was never used or released to the public. A similar procedure was used for some sites linked to the blog (youtube, flickr, google drive, etc). Any comments or emails addressed by readers to the blog were printed by Joel or me and physically passed on to Anastaplo at some convenient time, meaning this was not an avenue for rapid communication. Anastaplo would often followup with a phone call if he knew the correspondent or wished to communicate with the correspondent.

[iii] With very few exceptions, neither Joel nor I typed material for the blog. Some posts were typed by secretaries at Loyola School of Law and then emailed, initially to Joel and later to me. We then pasted them to the blog page. Those materials that had been previously published were scanned to create a pdf or jpeg version which was then transferred to the blog. During the period of his court case, Anastaplo had typed all court submissions himself (copies are available in Special Collections, Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago). Most of his later writings were hand-written then typed on a computer by departmental secretaries. These were the computer files later posted as the archives and linked to the blog.

[iv] George Anastaplo’s Blog: On Disturbing Challenges to the Sense of Community in an Electronic Age – 10/8/13; George Anastaplo’s Blog: The Pentagon Papers and the Abolition of Television – 12/17/12.

[v] See David Bevington, June 6, 2014 in George Anastaplo’s Blog/eulogies.

[vi] I subsequently learned this understanding was not exactly accurate. See George Anastaplo’s Blog: WRONG QUESTION – 11/09/11 among other posts.

[vii] The term seems to have originated with Leo Paul de Alvarez, in a talk commemorating Anastaplo’s 55 years teaching in the Basic Program (George Anastaplo’s Blog: GEORGE ANASTAPLO AS A QUESTIONER – 11/28/11). It also has been endorsed by Anastaplo’s colleagues and other students. See Keith Cleveland, June 6, 2014 in George Anastaplo’s Blog/eulogies

[viii] For an example see George Anastaplo’s Blog: The Declaration of Independence and the Principle of Order -12/26/13.

[ix] Apparently this observation by Anastaplo has been made by very few, if any, of the scholars throughout history who have addressed the subject of the Catalogue of Ships.

[x] The failure to find a principle of order frustrated Anastaplo for several weeks in both cases but did not discourage him. It did not cause him to abandon the assumption that there must be a principle of order but rather to look harder for it. On both occasions he reported that outside of class he had called on a number of experts at the University but they also were unable to help (undoubtedly a question they had not been expecting).

[xi] For an example, see George Anastaplo’s Blog: Discussion Leaders, ROMEO AND JULIET, November 18, 2013 – 12/04/13.

[xii] George Anastaplo’s Blog: George Anastaplo’s Alumni Courses for the Basic Program, 2002-2014 – 10/9/13.

[xiii] The final choice was always Anastaplo’s, usually one of the class suggestions that somehow appealed to him, but not necessarily the most popular topic suggested.

[xiv] George Anastaplo’s Blog: S. Chandrasekhar: The Man Behind the Legend – 12/03/12

[xv] George Anastaplo’s Blog: Glimpses of Hugo L. Black, Robert M. Hutchins, Constantine Karamanlis, Leonard W. Levy, Helen Vlachou and others – 6/30/12; George Anastaplo’s Blog: George Anastaplo with a British Magician – 8/9/12; George Anastaplo’s Blog: Magician Jeremy Pitt-Payne Responds – 8/22/12.

[xvi] This may have been the only time when I gave Anastaplo some information that he didn’t already know. He and Sara also attended a small handball tournament at U. of C. that I was participating in one Saturday afternoon in Hyde Park—the only audience members from the general public.

[xvii] George Anastaplo’s Blog: Edward Hirsch Levi (1911-2000) – 9/24/12; George Anastaplo’s Blog: A CONVERSATION WITH HARRY V. JAFFA AT ROSARY COLLEGE – 8/30/11

[xviii] George Anastaplo’s Blog: Joel Allan Rich (1941-2011) – 8/01/11

[xix] One computer skill that I had was the ability to use software for converting computer files from one format to another. Joel knew this because of our baseball collaboration. He also knew that this was a vital skill in meeting Anastaplo’s objective since the archives, and eventually the blog, included files with many different formats.

[xx]George Anastaplo’s Blog: Suggestions for One’s Law School Colleagues in Challenging Times: Let Us Continue to be Educators – 8/20/13. This was not a problem for the Basic Program students who tended to be two generations removed from the generation of law students by the time personal laptop computers became the norm in classrooms.

[xxi] George Anastaplo’s Blog: Human Nature, the Ever-Curious (and yet Ephemeral) News of the Day and Glimpses of Eternity – 12/22/10.

[xxii] Anastaplo himself had noted that none of us is immortal, so he had requested notes from Joel and me that he could pass on to a successor if anything happened to Joel since he wouldn’t know what to do with them. He also agreed that an appropriate academic institution should eventually take over. Ironically, Joel had developed his own blog in a proprietary domain (http://proustian.com) and when he died his supporters had some difficulty maintaining it. The wordpress.com domain is likely to continue for some time without further attention, at the whim of WordPress. Most of the contents of the blog will be copied and preserved by Special Collections, Regenstein Library, The University of Chicago

[xxiii] With the assistance of another Basic Program student, Aaron Helfman, and others, I learned enough of what Joel did to continue what he had started as well as much about how the blog could be made more attractive and easier to use. With Anastaplo’s death, however, we decided to keep the blog online as long as possible but to make only minimal additions or retrospective alterations.

[xxiv] Leo Strauss and His Legacy, A Bibliography (https://leostrausslegacy.wordpress.com/). The Anastaplo section of the original book (edited by John Murley) was posted at George Anastaplo’s Blog: An Autobiographical Bibliography (l947-2003) – 1/01/12. Other portions of the book were posted as a separate page George Anastaplo’s Blog/Preface and Index to LEO STRAUSS AND HIS LEGACY—2/26/12.

[xxv] This site—Simply Unbelievable: Conversations with a Holocaust Survivor (https://anastaplobrudnoconversations.com/)–was constructed by Adam Reinherz, Miriam Redleaf, and John Metz after Anastaplo’s death. Anastaplo had previously posted several of the separate conversations on his blog.

[xxvi] George Anastaplo’s Blog: George Anastaplo’s Potential Obituaries – 8/25/12.

 

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