Joseph Cropsey, expert on political philosophy and esteemed teacher, 1919-2012

Update: A memorial service will be held for Prof. Joseph Copsey beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Joseph Cropsey, a UChicago professor who was one of the nation’s leading figures in the study of political philosophy, died July 1 in Rockville, Md. He was 92.

Cropsey, a distinguished service professor emeritus in Political Science, was a beloved teacher at UChicago and wrote a series of important books in which he examined political science from ancient through modern times. He is particularly remembered for his work on Socrates, Plato and Adam Smith, and for his collaboration with famed UChicago political scientist Leo Strauss.

Mary Nichols, PhD’75, likened the “profound effect” of Cropsey’s instruction on students to the Greek figure Meno falling under the wizardry of Socrates. “We entered a world of immense beauty and awe, where questions touching the essence of human life—of knowledge and virtue, of individual excellence and common good, or philosophy and politics—were directly before us,” said Nichols of Cropsey, who chaired her dissertation committee.

“We were filled with a desire to engage in a lifelong task of exploring possible answers, their implications and ramifications, even if we could never come to any final resolution,” added Nichols, now a professor of political science at Baylor University.

Cropsey was born in New York and received a BA in 1939 from Columbia University. A first lieutenant in the Army during World War II, he served in anti-aircraft artillery units in Hawaii, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and as a staff officer in France. He returned to Columbia after the war to complete a PhD in economics in 1952, writing his dissertation on the 18th-century British economist Adam Smith.

It was in New York that he met Strauss, who joined UChicago’s political science department in 1949 and was one of the leading figures in the study of the history of political philosophy. A friend introduced them while Strauss was at the New School for Social Research. 

“My contact with Strauss was what directed me toward the literature of political philosophy. I used to go to his courses down at the New School for a couple of years, and it just won me over,” Cropsey said in an interview with the UChicago publication Dialogo in 2007.

Cropsey taught at the City College of New York and the New School before joining the UChicago faculty in 1958. He came to Chicago as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in 1957 to work with Strauss and joined the faculty the following year. 

Strauss encouraged Cropsey to examine texts deeply. “When Strauss was at the head of his class, sitting up there, he would at a certain point say, ‘What does this mean?’ When I have to deal with a text of Plato, I have constantly to be asking myself, ‘What does that truly mean?’ Until one comes to grips with the question, one has not done one’s duty to the object or to oneself,” he told Dialogo.

Working with Strauss, he co-edited and contributed to the History of Political Philosophy, first published in 1962 and reissued in 1972 and 1987. He was also the author or editor of a number of important books: Polity and Economy: An Interpretation of the Principles of Adam Smith (1957); Ancients and Moderns; Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss (1964); Hobbes’s A Dialogue Between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England (1971); Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics (1977); and Plato’s World: A Man’s Place in the Cosmos (1995).

He was particularly proud to see his final book, On Humanity’s Intensive Introspection, published before his death.

Cropsey’s writing illuminated the limits and potential resources of modern liberalism, and in his later years, came to focus on the problem of Socrates and the implications of his philosophic sobriety for understanding humanity’s place in the whole.

He retired in 1990, but continued to teach until 2004.

Cropsey had an enormous influence on the profession of political science, both in the United States and abroad, serving as a committee member for 134 PhD dissertations — of which he chaired 76. The Department of Political Science awards the Joseph Cropsey Prize for Master’s Thesis in Classical and Political Philosophy annually in his honor.

Cropsey was also a beloved teacher of thousands of undergraduates, and in 1970 he received the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Cropsey said upon receiving the Quantrell Award that he enjoyed teaching Plato and Aristotle to a generation of students focused on finding relevancy in their classes. “Students are quick to realize that things that happened 2,000 years ago can have as much relevancy to their lives as something that happened yesterday,” he said. 

Christopher Colmo, PhD’79, chair of Political Science at Dominican University, said, “What inspired me most about Joseph Cropsey as a teacher was his practice of taking a fresh look at the problem, of asking again, really asking, the questions of which one had already disposed. That, in my eyes, is something to aspire to.”

Cropsey is survived by daughter Rachel Simons, son Seth Cropsey, and two grandsons and a granddaughter. He was preceded in death in 2006 by his wife Lilian.