G.E.M. AnscombeREV. GEORGE W. RUTLER
A bishop and a professor told me that in separate audiences, the first thing John Paul II said when they mentioned Oxford was: "Do you know Professor Anscombe?"
She lived 81 years, reciting the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary as she died surrounded by her husband, the philosopher Peter Geach, and four of her seven children. From 1970 until her retirement in 1986 she held the chair at Cambridge University first held by Wittgenstein. When she confounded C. S. Lewis in a response at the Oxford Socratic Society on February 2, 1948, he never attempted theology again, except to alter the third chapter of his Miracles. She was surprised and edified that he was so abashed, and their bond was unbroken.
A. J. Ayer once told her: "If you didn't talk so slowly, people wouldn't think you were so profound." Elizabeth talked slowly in part because she was constantly drawing on cigars, blowing smoke rings like the caterpillar in Wonderland before making a pronouncement. Entering a Cambridge common room, she was bemused to hear some earnest women arguing that nothing in the Bible prevented the ordination of women. She calmly leaned her rather comfortable flesh against the mantelpiece, recited the names of the Twelve Apostles, and blew a smoke ring at them. I have that story from my own tutor who later, of a different mind, went on to become archbishop of Canterbury. k
She was too Catholic to be patient with third-rate feminism, outward appearance notwithstanding. Elizabeth always wore trousers. Entering the apostolic palace to see the pope, she approached the gate in trousers and pulled a string, lowering her skirt like a parachute. Her last conscious act on her deathbed was to kiss her husband, but she abjured her married name. Telephoning her in Cambridge from Oxford, which is possibly the world's longest long-distance call, I asked to speak with Mrs. Geach. "There is no such person," said the voice before hanging up. A second call to Professor Anscombe initiated a friendly conversation with no allusion to the faux-pas. She had been diligent in securing an academic posting for me in Oxford, but she could also be absent-minded. Her young children wandered along the canal with signs pinned to them: "Do not feed me, I am a Geach." She was, nevertheless, an utterly devoted mother.
As a maelstrom of dissent groaned at the publication of Humanae Vitae, she and her husband toasted it with champagne. I rather thought her brilliant essays on abortion were academic exercises until she was dragged into court for demonstrating outside an abortion mill. A picture of her standing before the judge, with Professor John Finnis as her barrister, should be painted as an icon for the coming generation. While she was not a Wittgensteinian, she vigorously lived out truth as an action. St. Dionysius thought of history as philosophy teaching by example. Elizabeth Anscombe is now an ageless historical figure, and I think she sensed that possibility as a delightful curiosity, the way she came to reconsider St. Anselm as the sort of fellow whose greatness makes him a constant companion.
Rev. George W. Rutler. "G.E.M. Anscombe." excerpt from Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (New York: Scepter Publishers Inc., 2010): 26-28.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Scepter Publishers Inc.
This article appeared first as one of the "Cloud of Witnesses" columns Father Rutler wrote for Crisis. It is included in his book, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.
Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.
Copyright © 2010 Father George William Rutler
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