George Raymond Geiger: 1903-1998
His Life and Thought

Jack Schwartzman

[Reprinted from Fragments, July-September 1998]

George Geiger, one of the most famous "interpreters" of the philosophy of Henry George, died March 19. 1998, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He was 94 years of age. This is his story.

He was born in New York City on May 8, 1903, the only child of Nina and Oscar Geiger. Oscar, a furrier and onetime ordained rabbi, resigned from his religious post and turned his attention to social problems. He achieved his goal when, in 1932, he founded the Henry George School of Social Science (still in existence today). He became its first director, but died two years later. George Geiger, his son, dedicated his first book to his father, and the second to the memory of his father. However -- as will be discussed later -- there seemed to be a psychological barrier in their relationship.

The famed author, Harry Golden (1902-1981), who briefly wrote for FRAGMENTS, was George Geiger' s lifelong friend. Shortly before Golden's death. I interviewed him at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. (My son, Steve, accompanied me.) Golden recalled various incidents that concerned George Geiger, whom he affectionately called "Gigs." Golden reminisced about the time when Oscar Geiger, George's father, established a boys' Round Table Literary Club (which continued into their adulthood), and both George Geiger and Harry Golden were members of this club. Golden also spoke of George Geiger's first love -- baseball. When George Geiger was a student at Columbia University, he became the team's first baseman -- but was soon replaced by one of the greatest of them all: the immortal Lou Gehrig!

In Golden's autobiography, The Right Time (1971), he declared: "Gigs instead became a philosopher, one of the most profound students of Dewey and pragmatism the academy has ever known. John Dewey wrote the introduction to George Geiger' s published doctorate, The Philosophy ofHenry George.... Baseball's loss was philosophy's gain. I suspect if the single tax [of Henry George] hadn't entered George's life..., he would have become an actor. He was an extraordinarily handsome man and a superb dancer.... George was always the first to congratulate me. He was happy when I married; he sent me a wire when I was paroled, when I published the first edition of the Carolina Israelite, when Only in America came out, and when I told him I was writing this autobiography." (68-69)

Golden's thoughts were always with his friend Gigs. In one ofhis letters to me, Golden wrote: "I am sorry I did not get into the Anniversary Issue. Did you contact George Geiger?" In another letter, Golden requested: "Please send... FRAGMENTS... to Prof George Geiger..., calling attention to Critics of Henry George. Thank you."

George Geiger became a noted professor of philosophy at Antioch College where he remained for fifty years. In its obituary of Geiger, the Yellow Springs News of March 26, 1998, noted: "In 1989 he [George Geiger] was characterized in an Antioch publication as a 'scholar, raconteur, critic, athlete. reader, dapper dresser, writer, actor, editor, leader, bon vivant, journalist, philosopher, Antioch Review co-founder -- but above all -- TEACHER.' "

In a June, 1998, summary of George Geiger' s life (submitted to the American Review of Economics and Sociology), Christopher K. Ryan and Helen B. Ryan wrote: "In the classroom Geiger excelled, as his colleagues and ex-students testified.... He attracted the best students and profoundly affected them.... He taught in a rehearsed, dramatic form. This flair for drama was further expressed in his private life as he was for three decades a stalwart of the local community theater.... He was married to Louise Jarrat who taught Spanish at Antioch. She died in 1982.... Fate would smile on him in a few years as Joan L. King became George's friend and companion for the last ten years ofhis life. He loved classical music and was a skilled pianist." (10)

* * *

Henry George's single tax theory, Harry Golden observed in his autobiography, "ruled not only Oscar Geiger' s working life and his leisure hours but his family relationships." Oscar indoctrinated his son (who was named after Henry George) with Oscar's belief that Henry George was the most important thinker in the world. My late friend, Robert Clancy (a one time director of the Henry George School), wrote (in A Seed Was Sown, 1952): "George Geiger entered Columbia University at an early age and enjoyed a brilliant academic career.... For his doctorate thesis, his father suggested thathe write on Henry George's philosophy. Doubtful, George consulted John Dewey, who had been his philosophy teacher. Dewey said, 'Not only would I urge you to write a book on Henry George, but I myself would write a preface to such a book.' George undertook the task and produced the definitive work, The Philosophy of Henry George, with the dedication,'To my father.' "(17-18)

I often used George Geiger's "definitive work" as an invaluable reference book, and cited it frequently in my various writings. I find the book to be a great source of Georgist information. Since the book was dedicated to Oscar Geiger, Ionce suggested to George Geiger that he write a biography of his father. In reply, I received a curious letter (dated February 23, 1981):

"Thank you for your letter..., and congratulations on your work with FRAGMENTS. ...As to writing some memoirs about my father, you raise some difficult problems. For one thing, I am doing no writing now chiefly because of the tragic condition of my wife. Because of hardening of the arteries of the brain, she has been failing for almost a decade, and for almost two years now has been confined to a nursing home. ...As Harry Golden knows -- but perhaps does not appreciate -- the strain on me has been almost unbearable. What energies I have must be directed to my teaching. So I have in almost every case turned down invitations to talk or to contribute papers...

"Writing about my father presents special problems.... I was away teaching during that period and Bob Clancy would be better informed than I. Harry Golden and Bob both seem to know things about my father that I can neither corroborate nor remember. Many persons here [in Antioch College] and elsewhere have asked me to write my own memoirs (which is a ridiculous suggestion), and others have suggested writing a life of my father. But I need data, and I have none or almost none. I am not a psychiatrist, so I can't estimate our relations to each other. There is nowhere to research anything. beyond what Bob and Harry have attempted, with indifferent success. So, I'11 have to leave it to them to continue with their impressions. Believe me, I am not taking this lightly, but to explain my position fully would require the book I am not going to write."

I discussed this letter with Bob Clancy and Harry Golden, and they were both startled by Geiger's comments.

* * *

In addition to a (possibly) strained personal relationship, Oscar and George also differed in their interpretations of some themes in the philosophy of Henry George. The latter constantly referred to "Natural Law" and "natural rights" as the governing forces of the universe. In his celebrated book, Progress and Poverty (1879), Henry George stated:

"The laws of the universe are harmonious. (329)... If one man can command the land upon which others must labor, he can appropriate the produce of their labor as the price of his permission to labor. The fundamental law of nature, that her enjoyment by man shall be consequent upon his exertion, is thus violated. (341)... We have seen that the waste of human powers and the prodigality of human suffering do not spring from natural laws, but from the ignorance and selfishness of men in refusing to conform to natural laws." (559)

Oscar Geiger was in total agreement with Henry George regarding the terms "Natural Law" and "natural rights." In his pamphlet, Natural Law in the Economic Field (an address delivered in 1927, and reprinted by the Henry George School), Oscar Geiger wrote:

"Not to understand Natural Law... is not to understand Nature, for only through Natural Law can Nature be understood. This is generally recognized in Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, but it is very little, if at all, known in the Social Sciences, and this is rather unfortunate for the Social Sciences, as Natural Law operates equally in this field as it does in all fields of being and living. (4)... Society is an entity, as is evidenced by the fact... that it creates a fund which fully equals all its legitimate requirements. Who but a professor of economics would fail to recognize in this the working of a Natural Law? It is a violation of Natural Law to deprive the individual of his product -- Wealth. It is equally a violation of Natural Law to deprive society of its product -- Rent. The violation of Natural Law does not remain unpunished. (6-7)... Observe the Law -- the Natural Law -- which is the word of God, and let each take his place at the banquet table God has provided for all." (15)

The "dig" about "a professor of economics" would just as easily apply to a professor of philosophy, the title held by the revered John Dewey, as well as by his star pupil -- Oscar's son, George... Both John Dewey and George Geiger repudiated the concepts "Natural Law" and "natural rights."

In his Foreword to George Geiger's The Philosophy of Henry George (1933), Dewey emphatically asserted: "The present writer does not believe in the conceptions of nature and natural rights which at first sight seem to be fundamental in the social philosophy of Henry George. For, as I see the matter, these conceptions are symbols, expressed in the temporary vocabulary of a certain stage of human history of a truth which can be stated in other language without serious injury to the general philosophy implied." (xii)

George Geiger, in his book, wholeheartedly agreed with Dewey. "[Henry George's interpretation of a 'natural right to property,'... was an ethical one. That is to say, while George's approach was undoubtedly phrased in absolutist terms,... the concept of 'natural' was used by him critically; 'natural,' in a word, was that which ought to be law.... Economics may become richer and more vital if it puts aside, at least partially, certain feverish efforts to resemble physics or biology." (510, 514)

* * *

Concerning the ideas of "individualism" and "society," Oscar Geiger attempted to balance the equation. "The welfare of the mass... does become the concern of the individual, and the well-being of the individual must be the business of society." (A Seed Was Sown, 68)

George Geiger sharply distinguished the meanings of "individualism" and "socialism." In his book, The Theory of the Land Question (1936), George Geiger observed: "A... connotation that often surrounds the concept of land value taxation hinges on the philosophical contrast between 'individualism' and 'socialism.'... It may be observed that even Henry George himself never really met some of the problems that arose. For instance, although he and his followers are ordinarily classed as individualistic in their philosophy, the very program of single tax must tremendously strengthen the power of the state by giving it tremendous control of social life in the disposition of the huge revenues from ground rent." (179-80) In their essay, Ryan and Ryan stated: "Geiger... clearly favored the 'socialist' over the 'individualist' interpretation of Henry George's programme.... At some point Geiger is reported to have lost interest in Henry George, and his only comment was 'That's another long story.'... One might speculate that... [the] libertarian/liberal split among followers of Henry George may have contributed to Geiger's 'loss of interest' along with the obvious general lack of interest, not to mention the scarcity of supporters in academia.... However, despite Geiger's virtual silence for decades on Henry George, his was not an apostasy of Georgism but a resignation from its advocacy." (4, 6, 7)

* * *

If George Geiger' s "virtual silence... on Henry George" is supposedly Geiger' s last (negative) "comment" on George. then I shall add a "post-last" (positive) comment. Geiger's book, The Philosophy of Henry George, unlike Geiger's "silence," presents a brilliant exposition of Henry George's thinking. It will live and inspire readers for decades to come. It will cause them to "beat a path" to Henry George's door. May the book live forever!