George Anastaplo: The Socrates of Chicago

The Death of Socrates

"I believe that the most serious question for us at this time is whether there are standards and principles which are not merely matters of opinion and to which we can look for guidance. That there are such standards is doubted by all too many intellectuals today. I suggest that there are standards and principles that have an enduring quality about them, standards and principles that reason can search out and establish well enough for us to act upon them." George Anastaplo

It is difficult to think of the work and life of George Anastaplo without thinking of the work and life of Socrates of Athens, so much so that it is fitting to refer to him as the "Socrates of Chicago." Both are practical philosophers, concerned primarily with the flourishing and the moral development of human beings and citizens. And both promote these ideals through the example of their own life and teaching.

In their lives, both faced tribunals of citizens, and both sacrificed their own benefits in defense of principles. The case of Socrates is complicated, but it comes to this. He was accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth. To both charges he pleaded not guilty -- indeed, presenting himself in stark opposition as the city's benefactor; and instead of acquiesing to punishment, actually proposed public maintenance, as befitting a benefactor. This led to the sentence of death by poisoning.

The case of Anastaplo is less complicated but equally paradoxical. After taking his bar examination he was cross-examined by a Committee on Character and Fitness. He was asked if he believed in revolution. He said he did. This apparently startled the examiners who asked for an explanation. In compliance, he proceeded to teach them about the Declaration of Independence, which contains a clause condoning the right of revolutions under particular circumstances. Instead of settling the matter, George's explanation was taken to be too arrogant -- so he was asked point blank the McCarthy question: "Are you or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?" Since the U.S. Constitution grants citizens the right to organize into political parties, George refused to answer on the grounds of irrelevance. The result was that the tribunal, in effect, poisoned George's law career.

Both had two other instances in which they defied unjust authorities and risked their well-being. Socrates relates how he refused to be an accessory to a mass trial of generals after the battle of Arginusae, and how he ignored an order to arrest Leon. Because he believed that the charge was bogus and that Leon would be killed, he simply ignored the command.

Anastaplo too defied unjust authorities. In Greece he criticized the injustice of the reigning junta, and was forthwith expelled from the country. On another occasion in Russia, again for his speaking out against injustice, he was summarily kicked out of Russia.

Not only are Socrates and Anastaplo similar in their public deportment with unjust authorities, they are also similar in their striving to promote the public good. Whether as gadflies, sting rays, or midwives, both insist that life requires a perpetual critical examination of principles, and that the unexamined life is not worth living.

As Socrates often examined Greek myths and legends for life's lessons, so Anastaplo examines the classics of Western and Eastern cultures for their lessons about the cosmos and the vicissitudes of human nature. Both could agree that unexamined traditions are fit only for cave dwellers