The Magazine

Faith and Reason

Father Ernest Fortin, 1923-2002.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By WERNER J. DANNHAUSER
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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
Lexington, 344 pp., $75

Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages
Dante and His Precursors
by Ernest L. Fortin
Lexington, 182 pp., $22.95

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.

THIS BY NO MEANS signifies that Fortin was simply a follower of Strauss. The deepest differences between the two men remain to be pondered and may not be fully explicable, but a surface phenomenon may illuminate them. For some reason Strauss wrote very little about early and medieval Christian thought, while these are at the very center of Fortin's endeavor. Indeed, he has become our indispensable guide to this vast period of Western history. The field is so big, our ignorance so great, the hope of mastery so dim, that one is tempted to avoid it altogether. Along comes Fortin to encourage us--first by suggesting we concentrate on three giants, Augustine, Thomas, and Dante.

Understanding them is difficult, not so much because political theorists are simply ignorant but because we are prisoners of stock responses.

Thus Augustine is taken as an overly intense and tormented soul, the Dostoyevsky of the Middle Ages. Thomas is a portly and jovial priest who never met a synthesis he did not like. Dante is a poet rather than a thinker, the man who in "The Divine Comedy" set Augustine and Thomas to music.

Ernest Fortin mastered the art of the fresh look so many desire and so few accomplish. He demolished the dusts and crusts that obscure our views--partly by hard work, partly by way of a matchless erudition, and partly by a simple knack for careful reading. And he overcame the most persuasive stumbling block to such readings: the historicist prejudice that thought is decisively the product of its time. As a good historian, he knew that thought is indeed influenced by its time, but also that at its best it transcends its time. He learned from the thinkers he studied by daring to entertain the thought that what they say may be true.

Those who harbor a skepticism about these claims can now test them by way of Fortin's superb study of Dante, "Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors," published in 1981 and now beautifully translated by Marc A. Lepain. When one approaches Dante, it helps to realize that he wrote "The Comedy," not the "Divine Comedy" (a title that did not become common until more than two hundred years after Dante's death).

I remember being taught it was a comedy because the Christian worldview is incompatible with tragedy. But Fortin shows that the "The Comedy" is also richly comic: Its author does not always shy away from ridiculing those he portrays, and he is a prankster who horses around even to the extent of inserting his own name into the text in cryptographic fashion.

One does not, to be sure, turn to "The Comedy" for a million laughs. In "Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages," Fortin regards Dante as a philosopher and poet-philosopher, a towering figure concerned with the whole of things, who conceals and reveals his thought in beguiling sonorities. A work of genius is "in the final analysis inexhaustible," but a key to many of its mysteries can be found by concentrating on the political import of Dante's work. Dante is a political philosopher not only because he thinks deeply about problems like the inevitable tensions between spiritual and temporal powers, but because he adopts a politic mode of accommodating his thought to the opinions of his society even while remaining faithful to that thought. He writes "between the lines," esoterically.

THIS MODE OF ACCOMMODATION was perfected in the world of Islam by Al-Farabi and in the Jewish world by Maimonides. Their task can be said to have been to keep philosophy and law out of each other's hair. In the case of Christianity, the task is more complex because one has to mediate primarily between philosophy and faith; Christianity was more inextricably linked to philosophy than the other two revealed religions. Dante thus had his work cut out for him. He succeeded spectacularly, though before veneration of his text replaced critical readings of it, he was often enough suspected to have given his heart to philosophy rather than faith. (The way to voice that suspicion used to be to accuse him of Averroism.)

Dante was no stranger to the day-to-day problems of Italian politics. Indeed, he wrote not only "The Comedy" but "De Monarchia," "a fervent plea for the autonomy of the Roman Emperor in the temporal domain." In a chapter tellingly entitled "The Imperialism of the 'Comedy,'" Fortin conclusively shows, against much current scholarship, that this is also the view of "The Comedy." Dante's substantive political philosophy owes much more to Aristotle than to Christian theology. By tracing the degeneracy of the Italian politics of his time to bad government rather than original sin, Dante brings to mind not the Church fathers but Machiavelli, another son of Florence, who surely knew his Dante.

In the book's most tantalizing chapter, on "Dante and Christianity," Fortin leads one to raise the fascinating question of Dante's faith. Dante's boldness has always been acknowledged, but, as Harvey Mansfield has observed in a different context, "A man who seems bold can be bolder than he seems."

Fortin's speculation is so daring that it includes the far-out "hypothetical case of a pagan who would have thought of writing a Christian epic." He does not say that Dante was that man, and he gives full weight to the argument that "the poet of the beatific vision could be nothing but a Christian." Could it be that just as Dante has reached a peak where the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry ceases to have any relevance, he has also reached a peak where the distinction between faith and reason ceases to apply? I do not know.

One lays down Fortin's fine book on Dante (my paltry attempt at a summary scarcely does justice to its riches and omits, for instance, any mention of the brilliant discussion of Dante's use of allegory), and one is left to wonder not only about Dante's faith but about Fortin's.

Fortin was a Straussian--which means, among other things, that he took "Jerusalem and Athens" as one of the themes of his work, and that no possibility of a synthesis exists. Well, then, which side was he on? Fortin thought of the argument between faith and reason as a standoff, and of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens as being a fruitful source of Western civilization's extraordinary vitality. Affirming the tension, and embodying it, he would seem to be on both sides. Alas, that tempting answer to the question raises further questions. If one internalizes the tension between faith and reason, then what happens to the Christian ideal of peace of soul? I am not sure, but I surmise that on the deepest level, in the last analysis, Ernest Fortin was a practicing and believing Christian, a man of faith. The man of reason doubts what he can and believes what he must. The man of faith believes what he can and doubts what he must. The gap between them is as deep as it is narrow.

In our time, however, when faith is likely to be much less than St. Paul's "substance of things hoped for and the evidence for things not seen," and when reason is likely to be much less than Socrates' quest for wisdom, the genuine man of faith and the genuine man of reason are strong allies. When the barbarians and the philistines are together at the gate, all men of good will can view the life of Father Ernest Fortin among us as a blessing and a cause for celebration.

Werner J. Dannhauser is a visiting professor in political theory at Michigan State University.