For almost 40 years, Robert P. George has been encouraging students to pursue the life of the mind as a member of the faculty of Princeton University. Armed with a Ph.D. in legal philosophy from the University of Oxford, he stands among the conservative movement’s most eminent public intellectuals, famed both for his dignified manner and deep erudition. But when he enrolled at Swarthmore College in 1973 and first became exposed to the nuances of philosophy, George never imagined that he would ascend to such enviable heights.
“When I arrived at Swarthmore as a first semester freshman, I very quickly came to realize how poorly prepared I had been by my high school education,” George told me in a Zoom interview. “The prudent gambler would have bet that I’d be gone, if not by the end of the semester, then by the end of the year. I had done well in high school, I had gotten good grades, but I did not receive a good education either religiously or in terms of secular subjects. From my very first week of [college], I could see that the other students knew a lot of things I didn’t know. They had certain skills that I had not been taught. They were prepared to do things that I had not been prepared to do. I found myself utterly unprepared for the intellectual work expected of a first-year student.”
It was George’s humble background that made Swarthmore so overwhelming. Growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, he enjoyed a boyhood seemingly plucked from the pages of Huckleberry Finn. The eldest of five brothers, he spent his childhood days hunting, fishing, and bonding with members of his local community. “We knew people who made moonshine and who knew the best recipes for preparing raccoon and possum,” he told me. “It was the real thing!” He was also a gifted banjo player with a fondness for folk and bluegrass music. “I became a bluegrass musician when I was 12 or 13 years old, and that meant I could earn $20 on a Saturday night or a Friday night playing at a square dance, or at a fire hall, or a rod and gun club. And I would play in bands with really good musicians in them, mountain-style musicians whose day jobs were in the mines.”
George was the grandson of immigrant coal miners. “In our town, there were two major things,” he recalled. “One was the state university, West Virginia University. The other was the coal mines, and all the businesses that thrived when the coal mines were working and didn’t thrive when the coal mines weren’t working. Although my father was not a coal miner, he undoubtedly would have been but for World War II. He turned 18 in 1944 and was drafted right out of high school.” During the conflict, George’s father fought in the Normandy campaign and survived the sinking of the SS Léopoldville. He returned to a changed world where opportunities for young men extended beyond working in the mines, and he became a liquor broker. Though neither of George’s parents attended college, they instilled in their children an appreciation for the value of education and a profound religiosity that shaped his early perception of ethics.
“My own family was a little unusual,” George said, “because we were what was called ‘ethnic.’ Most of the people with whom I grew up were the descendants of the Scotch-Irish settlers in central Appalachia. Their families had been there for many generations. They were Protestants, what we would today call Evangelicals. And my people were from Syria on my father’s side and from Italy on my mother’s side. We were Antiochian Orthodox on one side and Catholic on the other.” Thankfully, George’s family experienced discrimination only on rare occasions and regarded ethnic prejudice within the community as aberrational.
“My dad’s family had an incident where the local Ku Klux Klan, the sort of Marx Brothers version in their white robes and hoods, came and burned a cross in front of their house,” George continued. “But these were a few idiots who didn’t understand the Christian and American ideal of equality, and my grandparents didn’t ascribe group responsibility to the country or their neighbors. They held the people who actually came and burned the cross responsible for their actions.”
George maintains a firm respect for the residents of Morgantown and the values they championed. “I never looked down on people who would now, I suppose, be known as ‘the deplorables,’” he told me. “Because they were my people. I understand and appreciate them. They’re not perfect, but they have a lot of virtues. And a lot of the prejudices that elites have against them are just prejudices. They don’t know them and they don’t understand them. They’re not racist, they’re not bigots, they’re not ignoramuses. They were fair, decent, honest, hardworking people. They loved their families, their communities. Their patriotism was genuine and unaffected. And they pitched in to help people who were in need.”
Piousness was the norm within the community. The majority attended church, and most of those who did not expressed a strong faith in God. “The majority were the Jacksonians whose families had been there for many, many generations,” he recalled. “And they were Protestants. We had Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists.” George himself was raised Catholic, but was taught by his father to respect broader Christian belief. A series of numinous experiences in his boyhood kept him from being enticed by atheism, one of which he now remembers as uniquely affecting.
“One of the most memorable religious events of my boyhood was attending the funeral of one of my great aunts on my father’s side, who had the good fortune to die at Easter time,” he said. “The funeral liturgy included Easter singing in the Syrian Orthodox tradition. And it was so hauntingly beautiful that to this day, I doubt that anyone who actually attended such a thing—witnessed it, experienced it—could be or remain an atheist. It was such an overpoweringly deep spiritual experience.”
His spiritual confidence has compelled him to explore religions beyond Catholicism; Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam among them. Politically, however, he was a staunch Democrat as a young man, and began to embrace conservative politicians only after years of personal deliberation.
In Morgantown, a particular kind of politics was fundamental to community life. “It was the politics of the Democratic Party, the United Mine Workers of America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” George told me. “These were our institutions and our people and our heroes; in a certain sense our saints. They were for the worker, or at least that’s how they presented themselves. Not only did we not like Republicans, we didn’t know any. There just weren’t any around. They were the people who lived out of state and were rich and owned the mines.”
The mining companies were certainly more concerned with profit than the welfare of the workers in many cases. But in the late 1960s, corruption within the union revealed that it, too, was designed principally to serve the interests of its bosses. “There was a terrible moment when the union president, Tony Boyle, was challenged by a reform element that ran a slate of candidates against him, including a man named Jack Jablonski,” George said. “In the course of the campaign, Jablonski was assassinated. And before long, they were able to trace the hit to Tony Boyle and the union leadership. Suddenly, people began to see that this was not some saintly organization; this was a corrupt bunch of thugs. It was quite a shock for us.”
Nonetheless, the values espoused by Democratic politicians continued to resonate with George and his family. “We thought of ourselves as liberals, but liberal in those days didn’t mean pro-abortion or any of this cultural left stuff that later came to be identified with the Democratic Party,” he observed. “That all began to happen in 1972.” George’s liberalism was rooted in support for civil rights and government programs designed to elevate the poor. In high school, he was twice elected governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference. At Swarthmore, he remained active in party politics, and ran to be a delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention, where he intended to vote for Jimmy Carter. Though he was not elected, he performed well across the state.
He might never have pursued his political ambitions had he indulged his temptation to abandon Swarthmore because he felt unprepared. When he arrived at Swarthmore, George had never written an essay, and his analytical abilities were unrefined. The intervention of two professors who recognized and nurtured his talents prevented him returning home to attend West Virginia University with his old friends.
“The experience that saved me was when I handed in my first paper in the introductory political science course I was taking,” George said of his adjustment to college. “My professor, James Kurth, was very exciting and charismatic. He gave us our first written assignment, and then a week or so later, at the end of class, he handed back the papers. He called out people’s names—Aberdeen, Biggs, Jones, Smith—but he skipped mine, and everybody else got their paper. And then he simply said, ‘Mr. George, I’d like you to come and see me in my office hours.’”
Fearing that he had either accidentally committed plagiarism or written something disastrous, George approached the meeting with trepidation. Kurth told him that the essay was poor, but was more puzzled than concerned given George’s diligence with assigned readings and incisive contributions to class discussions. George explained his situation, and Kurth permitted another attempt at the paper, this time after offering advice on its style and structure. “I went off and wrote another paper and handed it back to him,” George said. “And if I recall correctly, he gave me a B+. So that was very encouraging; it showed me that I could do it. That got me going, and from there it was straight up.”
George maintained high grades consistently, but at this point, he was entirely ignorant of philosophy, and his intellectual interests were limited to 20th century American history and politics. An introductory course in political theory taught by Kenneth Sharpe, in which he was assigned Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, would alter the course of his life.
Reading Gorgias compelled George to reconsider his basic desire to become educated. “Like lots of children or grandchildren of immigrants, I thought, ‘Well, by getting a prestigious degree, I’ll be able to do better than my parents did,’” George told me. “What Plato taught me is that much more important than the instrumental value of education is its intrinsic value. And that’s what Gorgias puts on the table. Why do we debate? Why do we engage in discussion? Why do we seek the truth? Well, knowledge and understanding can have many instrumental benefits, but those are secondary to the intrinsic value of knowledge, its inherent enrichments of the human spirit. We should want knowledge more fundamentally for its own sake than for any instrumental purpose.”
That realization would lead George to dedicate his professional life to the pursuit of truth. The dialogue granted him an appetite for philosophy, which he began to explore thoroughly under the tutelage of professor Linwood Urban. Through studying thinkers such as Bentham and Aquinas in Urban’s classes, George became fascinated by ethics and jurisprudence. He was particularly intrigued both by the relationship between law and morality and the question of whether moral values can be considered universal by any objective standard.
As a Catholic, George had been raised with a clear understanding of ethical absolutes. But despite gravitating instinctively toward Aquinas’ position, he found the arguments for ethical subjectivism advanced by Hume and Hobbes to be equally coherent. Searching for a conclusive argument on either side, he discovered the work of John Finnis, whose interpretation of Aristotle convinced him to embrace natural law theory.
“I realized, ‘This is it,’” George recalled, “Here’s a positive account of the objectivity of practical reason and morality that does not fall to the Humean critique. And that’s what I believe. Our knowledge of [objective values and human goods] is achieved through non-inferential acts of understanding, in which we grasp the point of some activity—friendship, knowledge, appreciation of beauty—not as a mere means to another end, but as an end in itself, something worth having for its own sake.”
“The human good is what it is because human nature is as it is,” he continued. “But I don’t believe that we first understand human nature and then decide as a matter of practical reason to do what conforms to our nature. We grasp what’s worth doing by understanding it as fulfilling for us. My grandmother, who had less than a fifth grade education, understood perfectly well that friendship was good not merely for instrumental purposes, but was intrinsically valuable. She valued friendship for the sake of friendship, not because it got you invited to the best parties. She knew that friendship was something worth pursuing not because she’d done an anthropological study of human nature, but because she grasped the value of it in her own experience of friendship, presumably from when she first entered into friendships as a little girl. That’s how it works.”
George graduated from Swarthmore at the top of his class in 1977, and he proceeded to enroll at Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School. Although he did not yet aspire to become a professor, he had become intoxicated by philosophy, and knew that he wished to continue expanding his knowledge of law and ethics. The breadth of Harvard’s course offerings enabled him to tailor his degree to emphasize legal theory rather than contracts and secure transaction costs, and he seized every wider opportunity to study legal philosophy that presented itself.
“I came up with a way to study even more of it by getting permission to take courses for law school credit outside the law school in the faculty of arts and sciences,” George said. “So I took a course by Ronald Dworkin, who was then a visiting professor in the philosophy department. I talked the law school into allowing me to do a couple of directed readings in philosophy of law and count them as courses toward my law school requirement. I probably studied less black letter law and more philosophy of law than anybody in the history of Harvard Law School.”
George’s fervor for study had grown so intense that he could not resist pursuing an academic career despite the challenging state of the job market. Seeking to learn from the most esteemed instructors in his field, he applied for a Ph.D. at Oxford. At that time, H.L.A. Hart, the 20th century’s most consequential legal philosopher, was a member of its faculty. His similarly influential students, including Dworkin, Finnis, and Joseph Raz, were also present. George was admitted, and he swiftly began working on his doctoral dissertation under Raz and Finnis’ supervision. “At that point,” he recalled, “I was on my way.”
George’s thesis, titled Law, Liberty, and Morality in Some Recent Natural Law Theories, examined whether law should be informed by morality and designed to enforce moral obligations. Writing it proved an equally gratifying and demanding undertaking. “You don’t get any bad arguments past [Finnis and Raz],” George said. “All my papers would come back covered with red ink. They’re so meticulous, so analytically tight, and put such a premium on logical rigor and analytical precision. British professors tend to be understated when it comes to praise and encouragement. So you might hand in what an American professor would call a brilliant paper, and the response from the British professor—although neither Raz nor Finnis is actually British, but they’ve both been thoroughly anglicized—is, ‘Well, that’s okay.’”
Though praise was unusual, George regarded both tutors with awe and remains grateful for their instruction. “They’re dedicated truth seekers, just exemplary role models. And while they have some things in common, they also have a lot of differences in terms of their substantive philosophies. It was good to have both perspectives.” While at Oxford, he also became a lecturer, and began teaching classes within the law faculty. Initially so overcome by nervousness that he carefully scripted his lectures in advance, his confidence grew with practice, and he steadily moved toward working without any prepared notes.
“When I started, one thing that struck me was that I wasn’t very much older than my students,” George said. “And I kept wondering if I really had anything to teach them. My idea of a professor was James Kurth, or Linwood Urban, or Joseph Raz. They were wise, they’d read everything, they were experienced. And I was just a kid. And I know these are just kids sitting in this seminar room or in this classroom, but what do I have to teach them? So I felt to some extent like I was bluffing. But as you get older, and the distance in age between you and your students increases, that goes away.”
After graduating from Oxford, George joined Princeton as an instructor in 1985, where he soon rose to become a tenured professor. By this time, he considered himself a conservative and had abandoned the Democratic Party, but still could not bring himself to join the GOP. Regardless, he recalls being the “only out of the closet conservative professor. There were a couple of Republicans, but they would go out of their way to tell you, ‘I’m not really a conservative Republican.’ ‘I’m a Vermont Republican,’ my late colleague Robert Gilpin used to say.”
George did not conceal his views while applying for the position, and Princeton was happy to support his work. Indeed, the university has since showered him with awards and recognitions, and has even allowed him to build the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions on campus despite his subsequent embrace of Republican politicians. “I’ve not suffered any prejudice from the administration or from my colleagues,” George said. “Never have I been told what I can and can’t say. I can only say thank you to Princeton University for the honorable and generous treatment I’ve been given. I’ve been really blessed.”
But for academics at other institutions who hold beliefs that dissent from prevailing orthodoxy, expressing such opinions can result in cancellation. Recently, Professor Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, was invited to deliver MIT’s prestigious Carlson Lecture on climate and the potential for life on other planets. He had previously written an op-ed in Newsweek arguing that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on university campuses undermine free expression and fundamental standards of equal treatment. In response, opponents of Abbot’s views mounted a Twitter campaign to prevent him from delivering the speech. Although the lecture was both honorific and entirely unrelated to the article, MIT yielded to their demands.
Abbot’s cancelation is the latest example of a disturbing trend in American universities. When I raised the subject with George, he observed that, curiously, students on campus have abandoned moral relativism and an excessive concern for toleration of diverse viewpoints with a fundamentalist desire to silence those who oppose certain absolutes. “The problem is not that they think there is no moral truth,” he told me, “it’s that they think the moral truth is obvious, they know it, they don’t have to defend it, and anyone who disagrees with them is a fool or a bigot. If you don’t agree, it’s your job to fall in line with our groupthink. It’s a militant fundamentalist kind of pseudo-religion; an unwillingness to consider the possibility that you might be wrong in your moral beliefs.”
A pertinent question, then, is how those concerned with our trend toward censorious fundamentalism can reverse it. George believes the answer is simple. “What did your dad tell you to do if you’re confronted by a bully in the schoolyard? Stand up to him. Don’t yield. Wokeism works by intimidation; it’s the one and only method it’s got for whipping people into line. There’s no shortcut here, there’s no formula: You have to stand up. It’s going to take people setting an example of courageous defiance; standing up for their rights and the rights of everyone to think for themselves, to challenge these sacred dogmas, to refuse to get in line with the groupthink.”
George believes that, although many will be initially reluctant to resist the mob for fear of jeopardizing their livelihoods, courage is contagious in the face of oppressive ideology. “There are going to have to be some people, probably a relatively small number to begin with, who take the risks of standing up to the mob. How do I put courage in you? By exemplifying it myself. Then maybe you might be the next person to exemplify that courage, and then in turn, your example might inspire someone else who was cowering in the corner a moment ago to step forward and speak.”
In recent months, George has attempted to promote this attitude throughout academia. His mission is to uphold intellectual freedom against aggressive mobs while holding to account institutions that buckle under their campaigns. Achieving such a goal may seem daunting to some, but with all that George has achieved in the past, how difficult can it be?
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Professor Dorian Abbot’s name as “Abbott.”