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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 4
Christmastide 2010

Elizabeth Anscombe --
A Courageous and Holy Woman

by Julianne Wiley

Here’s an odd thing: a British bishop and a professor have reported that, in two different papal audiences with Pope John Paul II, as soon as they happened to mention their connection with Oxford University, Pope John Paul immediately leaned forward with an enthusiastic nod and asked, “Do you know Professor Anscombe?”

Do you know Professor Anscombe? No? Me neither, for far too long. Who is she?

Elizabeth Anscombe’s writings provided the intellectual background for key moral teaching found in documents of the Second Vatican Council like Gaudium et Spes (§27), encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor (§80), and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§2297-98). The American Catholic Philosophers Association awarded her the Aquinas Medal for her enormous contribution to ethical thought.

In the last homily he gave before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented that modern life is ruled by a “dictatorship of relativism” — an idea that echoes the pioneering work of Elizabeth Anscombe. Mary Warnock, a historian and an unbeliever, said in her survey of women philosophers for the past four centuries — that is, the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries — that Elizabeth Anscombe was “the undoubted giant among women philosophers”. Donald Davidson, the influential American philosopher, went even further — in his opinion Elizabeth Anscombe did the most important work on the ethical theory of action and intention, since Aristotle.

Popes. Encyclicals. Aristotle. “Giant among women”. Wow.

So who was this wonder-woman? To some, she was G.E.M. Anscombe, a great analytical philosopher. To her students, she was Miss Anscombe — though she was married to fellow-philosopher Peter Geach. “Miss” Anscombe, the exhilarating teacher. To some, she was Elizabeth, devoted friend. And to some, no doubt, she was “that awful Anscombe woman”, “the Dragon Lady of Oxford”, the oddball Catholic mother of seven. All in all, she was possibly one of the most holy and courageous women you have never met.

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was born in 1919 to loving parents who were well-educated, progressive, and secular. Between the ages of 12 and 15, Elizabeth voraciously read books concerning religious faith. Perhaps her rather non-religious parents consoled themselves that she would decide to be something harmless, maybe a Buddhist? Or maybe a Quaker? She finally announced, at 15, that she wanted to become a Catholic. Now this was really alarming. Catholic was the one thing an intelligent person from a progressive, secular, British family really could not be. Her parents found one last acceptable possibility: perhaps she could join the Church of England?

They sent her to an Anglican clergyman, who tried to convince Elizabeth that in Anglicanism she could have everything that was “good” in Catholicism, without all the “negatives”. For instance, he said, Anglicans believed that in the Eucharist, they received Christ, “in a manner of speaking”, “in the bread”. She listened to him intently, and then asked, “But after the consecration, is it still bread?” He admitted that he thought it was still bread. She replied that the Eucharist was transubstantiated so that we could be tranformed, and that she wanted to be transformed into Christ, not bread.

This clergyman later recommended that Anscombe’s parents let her be baptized a Catholic, since she held Catholic beliefs more firmly than anybody he had ever met in his life. But her parents would not allow it before she turned 18.

Elizabeth was accepted in St. Hugh’s College at Oxford University, and began to take instruction in the Catholic faith from the Dominicans at Blackfriars. And she became embroiled in a most disturbing controversy.

In the fall of 1939, shortly after England declared war on Germany, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was openly promoting a counter-city bombing strategy against Germany. They were preparing to carpet-bomb entire cities. Their first target in each city would be the city water pumping stations — the waterworks — and then they would wipe out not just the military assets, but the entire cities of Dresden, Cologne, Hamburg, together with all their civilian inhabitants. RAF Air Marshal Arthur Harris explicitly declared that area bombing was meant to crush and demoralize the German population as such.

Elizabeth Anscombe recognized that this is not the same as focusing on military targets: this would be terror bombing. She and a fellow student, barely out of their teens, wrote, printed, and started distributing a brief, powerful essay titled “The Justice of the Present War Examined”. Elizabeth was not a pacifist — in fact both her father and her brother were in the British Army. Her brother died during WWII, and she understood and respected the sacrifices of good soldiers in a just war. Yet, not on the basis of pacifism, but by the application of traditional just-war principles, she argued that the British government’s plan to incinerate large numbers of civilians by means of indiscriminate obliteration bombing was not an act of just war, but an act of murder.

But before Anscombe’s essay could be widely disseminated, her own bishop, the Bishop of Birmingham, told her to withdraw it from publication. He said it was not the job of undergraduates to judge their nation’s military policy, and that she had a lot of learning to do before she could make complex judgments. She agreed that she had much learning to do, and she withdrew the pamphlet. But it is her words, rather than those of her bishop, that remain in our memory and were later echoed by the Second Vatican Council.

She was indeed quite busy with school and learning, and she was also busy with something else. In 1938, in her first year at Oxford, she had been baptized in the Catholic Church. After Mass at Blackfriars on the Feast of Corpus Christi, she met a young man who was also a recent convert to Catholicism — Peter Geach.

Like her, Geach was destined to make a name for himself in philosophy, but philosophy isn’t what sparked their romance. Smitten by Miss Anscombe’s lovely face and form and her beautiful voice, Geach immediately inquired of mutual friends whether she was “reliably Catholic”. Upon learning that she was, he pursued her and, swiftly, their hearts were entangled. Since Oxford did not make provision for married student housing for undergraduates, they postponed marriage. And their families disapproved. But in 1941 they tied the knot — and the only ones present at their wedding were the priest and two witnesses.

And there was another man in Elizabeth and Peter’s life, a man who had just come over from Germany to become head of the philosophy department at Cambridge University. This was Ludwig Wittgenstein. He had good reason to get out of Germany, because he was everything Hitler hated. First, he came from an extremely wealthy and highly cultured family. Second, he was a Jew. And third, Wittgenstein was — well, I suppose the most accurate way to put it — Wittgenstein was definitely not heterosexual.

Now, I said he was a Jew; the Nazis would have classified him racially as a Jew, and of course to Nazis it was all about race; but actually, his grandparents on both sides had converted to Christianity, his mother was Catholic, and he was baptized and raised Catholic. But, in a process strangely opposite to that of Elizabeth Anscombe, when he was 12, 13, and 14 years of age, he was losing his Catholic faith. He decided he did not believe any of the things that a Christian was supposed to believe.

He also disliked women. In his opinion women were incapable of logical thought. To some extent he agreed with his teacher, Otto Weininger — who, incidentally, like him, also had Jewish roots and was homosexual — who believed that, while men are basically rational, women operate only at the level of their emotions and their sexual organs. So he especially disliked women philosophers. And he extra-specially disliked Catholic women, whose weak minds were supposedly imprisoned in the iron bands of Catholic dogma.

Wittgenstein was an intensely unhappy man. Everyone in his childhood home had been tortured by extreme sensitivity and emotional suffering. His father was a cold, demanding, and rejecting man who had no affection for his children, and his mother was an emotionally needy wreck who was constantly gushing over them with great waves of sentimentality. Three of his brothers had committed suicide. Wittgenstein hated his life for many lonely years. His one consolation was his ability to write treatises on logic and mathematics.

So as Wittgenstein was getting established as chairman of philosophy at Cambridge, Elizabeth Anscombe and her husband Peter Geach were getting established as a young married couple doing graduate philosophy research at Oxford — and having babies. The Anscombe-Geaches were 30 years younger than Wittgenstein, and one would think they would have nothing in common with him. But one would be wrong. Because both Elizabeth and Peter were deeply respectful of the power of Wittgenstein’s mind; and Elizabeth would travel the 90 miles from Oxford to Cambridge every week to attend his lectures.

Wittgenstein said nobody had ever listened to him as intently as Elizabeth Anscombe listened to him. He was boggled that she could be so Catholic in her beliefs, and so fearlessly logical in her thinking. Plus, she was something of an eccentric, which fascinated him.

Now, there are a lot of stories about Elizabeth Anscombe’s eccentricities. Some of them might be true and some might be mere legends. I’m just going to recount them as I heard them.

One day, Wittgenstein came to visit Anscombe and her family at home, accompanied by Anscombe’s philosopher friend Philippa Foot. At the time, Elizabeth and Peter already had three or four little children, two running around the yard squealing and chasing a dog, and one drooling and squirming in Elizabeth’s arms. Wittgenstein was appalled and asked, “But how do you concentrate on doing philosophy?” Elizabeth smiled and, removing ear-plugs from her ears, said, “Oh, I manage”.

Then she said, “Come in and I’ll clear off a place for you to sit on the sofa”. Surveying this scene of juvenile hilarity, the piles of children’s things scattered hither and thither, and the shrieks from the kids in the background, Wittgenstein dropped his anguished head into his hands, turned to Philippa and said, with furrowed brow, “Isn’t it sa-a-a-d…”

Nevertheless, Wittgenstein admired Anscombe’s strikingly independent and even combative spirit. He took to calling her “Old Man” jokingly, in the style of old-school British professors (“I say, Old Man, do you loathe epistemological phenomenalism as much as I do…”). He liked her commitment to dialogue, and she liked his ability to question himself, even to question his own doubts.

Have you ever seen that button that says “Question authority”? They went further. Their motto might have been, “Question skepticism”.

Anscombe’s international reputation as a debater had early roots. At Oxford in 1948, at age 29, she took on — and trounced — C.S. Lewis in a debate that is still discussed now, more than six decades later. Their debate focused on the third chapter of Lewis’s book Miracles. Everyone present — including Lewis — recognized that the young woman’s critique had completely unraveled his arguments. Yet she didn’t disagree with Lewis’s conclusions; she just thought his arguments were too loose, too easy to pull apart. She wanted a more rigorously tough-minded defense of miracles.

Incidentally, she and Lewis remained on friendly terms, and Lewis rewrote the disputed chapter, taking her criticism into account. Anscombe considered this an act of admirable intellectual honesty.

Anscombe believed in miracles, and believed it was important to teach one’s children about the reality of miracles, just as one taught them the reality of logic and math. When her first daughter, Barbara, was a little girl, Elizabeth told her about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Once when Elizabeth came back to her pew from Communion, little Barbara asked her, “Mummy, is He inside you? Is God inside you now?” Elizabeth whispered, “Yes, He is”, and little 3-year-old Barbara scooted out into the aisle, went face-down flat on the carpet and prostrated herself to her Christ-bearing mother.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, now a graduate fellow at Oxford, became Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most trusted intellectual collaborator, as well as a close personal friend. Throughout their 10 years working together, the two of them intensively developed the art of dialogue, with themselves, their colleagues and their students. They learned to appreciate even the value of honest intellectual error on the way toward the truth.

Anscombe’s friend Philippa Foot remembers an Oxford philosophy seminar in 1947, to which they invited Wittgenstein from Cambridge. One of the graduate students began to take part but, feeling his idea was somehow mistaken, broke off his comments and tried to change the subject. At that moment, Wittgenstein interrupted forcefully and asked him to him to please continue saying what he was going to say, because mistaken thoughts are also important: they might contain some fragment of truth that needs to be carefully recognized and retrieved, and the parts that are erroneous will trigger disputes that would eventually carry them even further toward the truth.

Anscombe’s friendship with Wittgenstein influenced her philosophical style in a decisive way. She said that one shows respect for a sage by accepting his teachings, but one shows respect for a philosopher by arguing with him.

Then regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Wittgenstein had written works totaling almost three million words that had neither been translated from German nor published. Despite their differences, he found Anscombe able to deeply understand others’ points of view whether she agreed with them or not. He chose her to be his main literary executor, translator and interpreter of this vast mountain of unpublished work. All this she did in the midst of her Oxford teaching obligations, her marriage and her growing family.

One of Anscombe’s daughters, Mary Geach, describes her mother as being, in some ways, a more attentive parent than most: she notes that children rarely receive so many and such deeply considered replies to their questions. Both as mother and teacher, Elizabeth Anscombe was good at thinking at the level of the person she was speaking to.

Anscombe was once asked if any of her seven children was her favorite. She said, yes, she always had a favorite child: and that child would be whichever one was, at the moment, six years of age. She delighted in the six-year-old mind, and was deeply and warmly responsive to the six-year-old heart.

It is said that Wittgenstein once witnessed Elizabeth and Peter Geach and their many children at prayer, saying the rosary. He stood at the doorway and watched with a look of longing on his face, unwilling to enter the room, but at the same time, unwilling to leave.

By 1951, Wittgenstein was dying. He asked his friend Anscombe to put him in touch with a “non-philosophical priest”, as he said — which she did, though she never presumed he would formally return to the faith of his childhood. Yet a short time later, calling for Anscombe, he told her, “You know, Old Man — Beth — I have always loved the Truth. I don’t mean I possessed it, or that I understood it, but that I loved it. I do hope my Catholic friends would pray for me”. He also said, surprisingly, in the light of his famously miserable life experience, “I am happy”.

Three more of Wittgenstein’s former students arrived at his bedside — and a Dominican monk, Father Conrad Pepler. They were at first unsure what Wittgenstein would have wanted, but then Anscombe explained that he said he wanted prayer, and since he was a baptized person, he was entitled to the Last Rites of the Church, the only prayers which were really adequate to the moment. So although he was now unconscious, they knelt at his bedside and prayed for him, he was anointed, and he was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

At Anscombe’s urging, he was given a Catholic burial at St. Giles’s Church in Cambridge. Anscombe said she hoped to see him someday in Paradise.

Anscombe’s responsibilities in Oxford in the 1950s did not include teaching ethics, which was covered by her friend Philippa Foot. But at one point Foot took a sabbatical and asked Anscombe to fill in for her. When Anscombe started to organize her thoughts by reading the usual texts of modern moral philosophy, she was flabbergasted.

Despite the differences between them, all the 20th-century authors she encountered shared one thing in common: they had no moral absolutes. None. There were no actions that could be ruled out if you were aiming at a good enough result. Not rape, not torture, not abortion, not murder. They said it could all be justified by circumstances. And this was an absolute break with twenty centuries of Western Civilization with its basis in Judeo-Christian moral teaching, and even a break from the teachings of Aristotle and the greats of pagan Greek and Roman civilization.

Anscombe knew this was wrong. Two years previously, in 1956, Oxford University had decided to grant an honorary degree to Harry Truman, who, as president of the United States, had been responsible for the deliberate massacre of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She contested this honorary degree, but she was told that she was the only one who found it objectionable. She forced a vote but only four faculty members — Philippa Foot, two other women, and herself — were willing to say that a man who authorized the deliberate killing of innocent human beings ought not to be given public honors. Her essay “Mr. Truman’s Degree”, which she printed as a pamphlet and distributed to her fellow faculty members, makes exceedingly interesting reading even today — especially, it seems to me, in the light of much more recent controversies about a much more recent US president, Barack Obama, being awarded an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame.

Anscombe’s reflections on moral absolutes developed into her 1958 paper “On Modern Moral Philosophy”. This is an extraordinary piece of work. Standing practically alone against the entire academic philosophical establishment, she defined, described, and pulled apart “consequentialism”, the view that there are no acts, no matter how evil, that cannot be justified if one is aiming for good consequences.

Think of the most patently wicked act you can imagine. Say, pronouncing and carrying out the death penalty on a person you know to be innocent. If consequentialism were right, then it would be legitimate to argue that executing innocent persons could be not only right, but a duty under certain circumstances. The Scriptures tell us that this is abominable and forbidden by Almighty God; but even without reference to religious law, this is completely outside of the bounds of Natural Law, of common decency, and of human civilization.

Yet so-called ethicists who think there really is no right or wrong still use terms like “moral law” as if one could be obliged to commit sodomy, or torture, or rape, or murder, if there were a good enough reason. It’s as if God Almighty had said, “Thou shalt not commit moral abominations — unless thou art really, really, REALLY tempted”.

If one does not believe in a divine Moral Lawgiver, one should be honest and stop talking about big words, big authority-words like “moral law”. It’s dishonest. Otherwise, you are like a person who uses a big authority-word like “verdict” even though he has abolished judges and juries; or a person who claims to be an expert on ribs and joints, when he denies the existence of bones.

This essay hit academic ethics like a bomb. It basically blew the stuffing out of the makeshift, ethically minimalist house of cards known as modern moral philosophy.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach were still teaching philosophy and still adding to their family. Keep in mind that she was engaging in all this intellectual combat while washing dirty diapers and surrounded by the noisy Anscombe-Geach children. This raised eyebrows at Oxford, too.

Anscombe already had a reputation as an eccentric woman. Now, remember that at this point we’re talking about Oxford University in mid-century, which until maybe the mid-’60s was a very proper and straitlaced place. For instance, Oxford had a dress code that required all women, both faculty and students, to wear dresses or skirts. And women professors were supposed to wear their academic robes in the lecture hall. Anscombe defied these rules.

She once walked into an Oxford lecture hall wearing her academic gown. This was unusual enough for her that she drew stares; and she pulled a can of beans out of her pocket, opened it, and proceeded to eat cold baked beans while proceeding with her lecture. As perhaps a bit of laughter broke out, she just pointed to her academic gown and said, in a portentous voice, “I am a great stickler for convention and propriety”.

But although Oxford could accept a ban-the-bomb, intellectually combative lady professor who never took her husband’s name — she was always “Miss Anscombe”, even to him — something that really and truly disturbed the Oxford community was an outspoken woman who believed in God, believed and lived her Catholic faith, believed and lived chastity, marriage, and a generously proportioned family life.

Another legend: by now it was the 1960s, and Anscombe, pregnant again, this time with number seven, walked into a classroom in which somebody had scrawled on a blackboard an intended insult: ANSCOMBE BREEDS. Did she get angry? No. Did she erase it? Not she. Instead, she added two more words to the intended insult, so that it read: ANSCOMBE BREEDS IMMORTAL BEINGS.

Although Oxford was still, in the 1960s, a place of considerable outward conventionality, it was inwardly shaken by the moral confusion of the Sexual Revolution. Undergraduate women often got pregnant, but never had babies, if you catch my meaning. A male faculty member could seduce a colleague’s wife and nobody was supposed to comment; and if a male professor preferred to take up with a handsome male grad student, well, there always was a lot of that in Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time, a girl who was obviously pregnant or a boy who was outwardly effeminate could be quite brutally shamed and bullied.

Anscombe staunchly defended her friend and mentor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, when he was targeted for being a homosexual. And any person, any person, being unfairly attacked — the pregnant girl, the bullied boy — could always find shelter under the formidable wings of Professor G.E.M. Anscombe. Elizabeth was so hospitable that she left the door of her home permanently unlocked: her home was always open to inquiring students, especially the ethically confused who were looking for a bit of guidance or a safe haven.

Anscombe’s open opposition to sexual exploitation shocked some of her fellow academics. One professor, hostile to Anscombe, remarked to a student, “You’ll want to think twice about accepting an invitation to dinner at the Geach-Anscombe table. You don’t know if you’ll be crammed in there next to some Paki bint (Pakistani Muslim girl) who’s preggers and wants to keep the brat, or some precious nancy-boy whom Anscombe is shepherding into ethics and chastity. Respectable? I think she and her whole entourage are batty”.

Now, when an insulting remark was repeated to her, Anscombe the Dragon Lady of Oxford sometimes turned fierce. But not this time. This time, she merely took a draw on her cigar, blew a smoke ring, and remarked, “Batty? Perhaps I am. Perhaps I am a fool for Christ. I only wish I were more so”.

And she told her children: “Respect God. Respect Life. But don’t respect respectability”.

Elizabeth Anscombe’s concern for the victims of World War II fire-bombings in Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki was entirely consistent with her concern over the killing of unborn children. She said, “Each nation that has ‘liberal’ abortion laws has rapidly become, if it was not already, a nation of murderers”.

Although Anscombe’s stand against the atomic bomb was widely reported at the time, when she decided to personally and nonviolently intervene to stop the dismemberment of living babies, the coverage was practically zero. A newspaper photograph that her family cherishes shows her being hauled away from the abortion clinic doorway by two policemen, but she is not even identified in the caption or in the article. Her name not even mentioned. This, despite the fact that at the time she was arguably the world’s most prominent living philosopher and, beyond that, a frail old woman with a mighty heart, heroically and non-violently risking her own well-being to save others.

You can well imagine that if she were arrested on what is called the “pro–choice” side, it would have hit the 7 o’clock news across the British Isles and beyond.

Perhaps the issue that placed Anscombe furthest from her academic colleagues was her opposition to contraception. People who defend the strategic bombing of civilians or who promote legalized abortion generally do so because they suppose it to be a “necessary evil”. Even the supporters of such evils don’t see it as a positive good. On the other hand, contraception is typically seen as an unalloyed good, something no intelligent person could disagree with, like soap, sliced bread, electricity, or cotton underwear.

At the Theological Congress held in Toronto in 1967, Elizabeth Anscombe had delivered a very closely reasoned critique of contraception — so closely reasoned that two Toronto papers reported that she had defended contraception. When the chairman of the session, Professor Elmer Kremer, protested that they had got it exactly wrong, they refused to print a retraction: she wore pant suits and smoked cigars, they said, and so she must have been in favor of contraception. She definitely was not.

She sometimes remarked that she’d lived long enough to see every promise made by the early contraceptive enthusiasts turn out to be false: the deceptive hope that contraception would reduce unwed childbearing — false; the foolish notion that contraception would eliminate abortion — false; the truly soft-minded supposition that contraception would make marriages more secure, reduce divorce, make husbands and wives more satisfied with their sex lives — all demonstrably false. She was right about that, but few are clear-sighted enough to see the obvious.

Even though none of these promises of utilitarian benefit have been fulfilled after decades of contraception, few are willing even to listen to the argument that there is an inherent moral, ethical problem with contraceptive intercourse, either within or outside of marriage.

In 1970, Elizabeth Anscombe was appointed chairman of philosophy at Cambridge, the same position that her old colleague Wittgenstein used to hold, and which she held until her retirement in 1986. She spent the next 10 years doing more original work in philosophy, writing, speaking, and striving to empower women — particularly young women — with the intellectual strength to resist conformism, to seek and love the truth, and to accept no substitutes.

In the many speeches she made to Catholic audiences about chastity — that is, moral reflection as it relates to sexual goodness — Anscombe was sometimes called upon to talk about marriage and married love. When she did so, she deliberately excluded sentimentality. She believed that the realism of the traditional concept of marriage in the Catholic Church stands between two equally dangerous extremes: that of a grim austerity that distrusts or denigrates feelings and flesh, and that of a shallow sentimentality that demands non-stop passion and fulfillment. This last extreme — you could call it the “bliss mandate” — which can be understood as a reaction to the excesses of past austerity, is probably the most dominant in Christian circles today.

Anscombe always took care, when speaking of marriage, to acknowledge that many couples fall short of a richly satisfying, ideal relationship, and yet have a marriage they can and will live in, in an ordinary and even a holy way, to the end. As Anscombe wisely wrote in her essay “Contraception and Chastity”, “We absolutely cannot issue an instruction that flatters the lucky ones, and does not speak to the unfortunate”.

The couple Anscombe and Geach seems to have practiced the virtues that could be found in an old peasant household, formed in the hard school of life and tapping into the treasures of a realistic faith: better than the illusions of passion, made to last, growing imperceptibly, a chaste love and proud.

After nearly being killed in an automobile accident in 1996, Anscombe spent her last years in the care of her family in Cambridge, enjoying the frequent company of her seven grown children and, at that time, 10 grandchildren, all of them practicing Catholics. In 2001, at age 81, with her family praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary at her bedside, her last intentional act was kissing Peter Geach.


Juli Loesch Wiley, a contributing editor to Voices, is a Catholic writer and longtime pro-life activist. She is the wife of Donald Wiley and the mother of two sons. The Wileys live in Johnson City, Tennessee. This article was published on the web site Spero forum, and appears here (slightly edited) with the author’s permission.


Related Page: "Collegiate Sex Ed" and the Anscombe Society


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