Faith and Reason
Father Ernest Fortin, 1923-2002.
Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach
Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages
THE EXTRAORDINARY SCHOLAR, political philosopher, and theologian Father Ernest Fortin passed away on Tuesday, October 22, at age seventy-eight, surrounded by Carmelite sisters praying the rosary on his behalf. With his eyes closed, he whispered, "I see something beautiful." They were his last words. An hour later, he was gone.
The weekend before, he was well enough to be presented with a copy of "Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach: Essays on Religion and Political Philosophy in Honor of Ernest L. Fortin, A.A.," edited by Michael P. Foley and Douglas Kries. A Festschrift, a celebratory collection of essays by a scholar's friend and students, usually consists of writings of varying merit and interest, of perfunctory pieces by heavy hitters and intense outbursts by ambitious youths.
Fortunately, "Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach" escapes the pitfalls of the genre. Its essays are of high quality, with not a dud among them. Above all, the book serves genuinely to honor Ernest Fortin, one of the greatest theologians of our time, by illuminating his work. In 1997 a stroke curtailed Fortin's productivity, but not before a huge collection of his writings was completed. That collection triggered a surge of recognition for Fortin's towering achievement, a movement now reaching new heights by way of this Festschrift and the newly published "Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors," a translation of Fortin's major study of Dante in French.
Ernest Fortin was a Catholic priest and a professor born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, educated in Massachusetts, Rome, Paris, and Chicago. He taught, first at Assumption College, then, since 1971, as a professor of theology and political theory at Boston College. Michael P. Foley, one of the editors of "Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach," provides an illuminating look at Fortin with an interview he conducted in 1999. The interview is especially delightful because, goaded by Foley's loving questions, Fortin divested himself of choice examples of his puckish wit (the targets of which can be friends as well as foes). Irrepressibly playful, Fortin in his writings teases priests, mocks bishops, skewers popes, and at times manifests a bit of insolence toward God Himself. His lightheartedness was all the more amazing when one considers his authorship of such weighty articles as "Augustine and the Problem of Christian Rhetoric" and "Clement of Alexandria and the Esoteric Tradition."
In speaking to Foley, Fortin paid generous tribute to two men who influenced him greatly. At the Sorbonne, he met a fellow student and fellow American, Allan Bloom, "the guy who made things come to life for me." (Back in the 1960s, Bloom told me about Fortin, describing him as a "man to whom you can talk about everything" and introducing us, so that I was blessed with Ernest Fortin's friendship for almost forty years.) In the course of their friendship, Bloom, in his typical fashion, asked, "Ernest, how come you know so little about politics?" The question hit home and spurred Fortin on to become a deep student of politics and political philosophy. Perhaps the greatest good Bloom conferred was to tell Fortin about Leo Strauss and then introduce the men to each other. Strauss later called Fortin "the most educated priest he had ever met." Fortin, in turn, studied at Chicago and became a self-described Straussian.
A Straussian theologian may seem a contradiction, but the example of Ernest Fortin demands that one deal with the phenomenon rather than dismiss it. Fortin identified four themes that form the "warp and woof" of his own work. They are (1) the "Jerusalem and Athens" tension between revealed religion and philosophy; (2) the centrality of political philosophy to philosophy and ultimately to human life; (3) the practice of "esoteric writing" or noble lies among philosophers; and (4) the distinction between ancient and modern philosophy, the latter being inaugurated by Machiavelli. These four themes are, and not by chance, also the main themes of the work of Leo Strauss.