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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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.