Today is the Birthday of one the most outstanding philosophers of the last century, Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001); Fellow of Somerville and pupil and friend of Wittgenstein. She was a strongly conviction convert to the Catholic Faith and a doughty warrior for truth and logical precision. Cuius animae propitietur Deus.
I have been reminded of an episode in her life by some recent talk about War Criminals. Prosecuting people for War Crimes seems to me a very good idea, except for the fact that what it really ... in the real world ... ends up meaning is "Victors' Justice". We half-educated peasants might simply cry "String the bastards up", but our pompous middle class intelligentsia craves fancy terminology.
Some of the issues involved in discussion about War Crimes came up in Oxford during the weeks before President Harry Truman was due to receive the honorary Degree of DCL at the Encaenia on June 20 1956 (rather endearingly, Mr Public Orator referred to him as 'Harricus'.)
Anscombe decided to oppose this honour in Convocation. "I determined to oppose the proposal to give Mr Truman an honorary degree here in Oxford. ... I informed the Senior Proctor of my intention to oppose Mr Truman's degree. He consulted the Registrar to get me informed on procedure. The Vice-Chancellor was informed; I was cautiously asked if I had got up a party. I had not; but a fine House [of Convocation] was whipped up to vote for the honour. The dons at St John's were simply told "The women are up to something in Convocation; we have to go and vote them down". In Worcester, in All Souls, in New College, however, consciences were greatly exercised, as I have heard. A reason was found to satisfy them: It would be wrong to try to PUNISH Mr Truman! I must say I rather like St John's."
The opposing speech, favouring the granting of the honour, was made by Alan Bullock, later Lord Bullock, one of our British Great and Good (a generally mucky lot). He was author of a still-famous book on Hitler, based largely on the Nuremberg Trials. He
" had an odious task. He must make a speech which should pretend to show that a couple of massacres to a man's credit are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour. He had, however, one great advantage: he did not have to persuade his audience, who were already perfectly convinced of that proposition. But at any rate he had to make show.
"The defence, I think, would not have been well received at Nuremberg. ..."
Yes; Anscombe was, like many very clever and very principled people, not a little waspish. "a quite mediocre person can do spectacularly wicked things without thereby becoming impressive ...". And here is a nice little praeteritio; "I will not suggest, as some would like to do, that there was an exultant itch to use the new [nuclear] weapons ... We can now reformulate the principle of doing evil that good may come: every fool can be as much of a knave as suits him. I recommend this history to undergraduates reading Greats as throwing a glaring light on Aristotle's thesis that you cannot be or do any good where you are stupid."
BTW: since this is a Catholic blog, I shall not enable comments arguing that a good end can justify an intrinsically evil means. Anscombe upholds "the idea that ... actions, such as murder, may be absolutely excluded." When the Great Catholic Restoration happens, S John Paul's robust and cogent Encyclical Veritatis Splendor should inevitably hold centre stage. And Elizabeth Anscombe will make a fine supporting figure to its paragraph 80.
I resume my quotation of her pamphlet about what happened in Oxford:
"I vehemently object to our action in offering Mr Truman honours, because one can share in the guilt of a bad action by praise and flattery, as also by defending it. When I puzzle myself over the attitude of the Vice-Chancellor and the Hebdomadal Council, I look around to see if any explanation is available why so many Oxford people should be willing to flatter such a man."
She concluded her pamphlet:
"It is possible still to withdraw from this shameful business in some slight degree: it is possible not to go to Encaenia; if it were embarrassing, to someone who would normally go, to plead other business, he could take to his bed.
"I, indeed should fear to go, in case God's patience suddenly ends."
Wow! What a woman!