More than other scholars oriented by the thought of Leo Strauss, Ernest Fortin sought to explore theological topics with insights borrowed from political philosophy, and to examine the practice of political philosophy by Christians. He frequently criticized the tendency of modern Catholic thinkers of every variety (Thomist and non-Thomist) to omit consideration of the lessons of political philosophy. In particular, Fortin pioneered a modern revival of interest in how the Church Fathers used rhetorical techniques in the service of transmitting the Christian teaching, while retaining an awareness of the tension between that teaching and the then-pagan world. Fortin also nurtured a lifelong scholarly interest in the thought of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. His many interventions in modern scholarly and religious debates frequently highlighted the forgotten political dimension of patristic and scholastic thought. Perhaps most controversially, Fortin advanced a provocative and unusual interpretation of Dante’s Divina Commedia.
Christianity and Esotericism
The beginning of Fortin’s intellectual career coincided with a dramatic rebirth in patristics, the study of the Church Fathers. After an early education in the 1940s steeped in Thomism and its intramural controversies, Fortin turned to the Church Fathers under the influence of the French historian Henri-Irénée Marrou, who wrote pioneering studies of on education in antiquity and on St. Augustine’s place at the border of the antique and Christian worlds. It was during the course of his studies with Marrou that Fortin encountered Allan Bloom and, through him, Leo Strauss.
Strauss’s interest in the rhetoric used by philosophers to communicate among themselves and to educate their readers immediately struck a chord with Fortin. The Church Fathers themselves observed the so-called disciplina arcani or discipline of the secret, according to which Christians hid from open view those aspects of Christian mystery most difficult to understand, such as the consumption of the body and blood of Christ. Matthew 7:6 formed the scriptural basis for this practice: “Give not that which is holy to dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest perhaps they trample them under their feet, and turning upon you, they tear you.”
In several of his earliest works, Fortin drew attention to the discussions of exoteric teaching by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–215). Clement had mentioned the existence of an oral Christian teaching transmitted separately from written texts, but also intimated that the content of this oral teaching could be deciphered from exoterically written texts such as his own. Fortin argued that the Church Fathers frequently had pedagogical goals in their writings, leading them to use careful writing techniques.
Christianity, Apolitical and Political
In an interview given in the late 1990s, Father Fortin reflected on the unique relationship between Christianity and politics. “It occurred to me,” he said, “that the one thing Christianity had which the other great religions of the West do not is an understanding of politics. This is despite the fact that Christianity is the world’s only apolitical religion. Maybe, in fact, it is precisely because Christianity is apolitical that it has such a profound understanding of politics” (Gladly to Learn and Glady to Teach, p. 300).
Fortin’s essays on the political thought of Augustine and Aquinas have become his most well-known writings due to their inclusion in the second and third editions of History of Political Philosophy, edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (1972, 1987). In addition to other important contributions on Augustine’s theology, Fortin emphasized Augustine’s presentation of the distinctive character of Christianity’s relationship to politics. Notwithstanding the patristic practice of the disciplina arcani, the Church proposed specific doctrines to Christian believers and linked salvation to profession of those beliefs (e.g., God’s unity and his really becoming man).
Fortin drew particular attention to Augustine’s account of the changed condition of human virtue in light of original sin. Augustine highlighted the difficulty of practicing moral virtue and thus the unlikelihood that a political regime could reliably educate to virtue. While Augustine defends Christians against the charge that they are responsible for Rome’s decline, he also disparages Rome by showing that Christian virtue has replaced pagan virtue once and for all. Fortin highlights Augustine’s attempt to explain that Christians remain patriotic even while identifying their homeland with the heavenly city, which sojourns for a time on earth. In this way, Christianity remains “transpolitical” while counseling men to remain loyal to their earthly home.
Thomas Aquinas too, Fortin argued, retained a “transpolitical” element in his presentation of the Christian stance toward politics, even though he drew on many features of Aristotelian philosophy. In Aquinas’s presentations of the character of political life, his doctrine of the natural law allowed ordinary citizens to participate in a universal community, as well. In the context of the modern Thomistic revival which that sometimes obscured differences between Aquinas and Aristotle, Fortin sought to give due regard to Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle while also drawing out importance important differences—such as Aquinas’s different classifications of virtue, the Christian understanding of conscience, and Aquinas’s lesser interest in political regimes.
During Fortin’s visit to the University of Chicago in 1962, Leo Strauss pointed out to him the potential significance of Dante’s portrayal of the first-century Roman poet Statius as a crypto-Christian. Strauss’s interest in the practice of philosophical exotericism—philosophers’ use of literary devices to conceal their thoughts and to force their readers to think things through themselves—inspired Fortin to examine Dante more closely than he had done previously.
The charges of philosophical Averroism—that is, views connected to Aristotle and Averroes that are thought to conflict with Christian doctrine—often leveled at Dante conflict with his subsequent status as a premier poetic exponent of the Christian tradition. Fortin took as his entry point Dante’s curious descriptions of Statius’s prodigality and his hidden Christianity. If Statius concealed his adherence to Christianity due to fear of persecution, and if Statius exhibited the flaw of prodigality in giving away too many things in his speech, then what (Fortin asked) might one conclude about Dante? In Dante’s world of thirteenth- century Florence, dominated by Christian belief rather than by pagan understanding, an author who sought to avoid punishment by the authorities might learn from Statius’s lesson, and avoid prodigality of speech.
This suspicion led Fortin to undertake a close study of Dante, first published in French (1981) and then in English as Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages (2002). Fortin explored Dante’s interest in the use of allegory, and then presented an account of the Comedy as a philosophical allegory. In spite of the apparent differences between the Comedy and Dante’s Monarchy, Fortin argued that the Comedy (and particularly the Purgatorio) nevertheless sowed doubts about ecclesiastical power that were compatible with the more full-throated imperialism of the Monarchy. While Fortin’s interpretation of Dante has remained controversial, it is unique in combining a close, literary reading of the Comedy with attention to the political situation of philosophical speculation under Christianity.
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Contemporary Questions in Religion and Politics
The transpolitical element Fortin identified in Christianity led him to criticize attempts by both the modern Left and Right to co-opt Thomistic philosophy for their own political ends. “Conservative” Thomistic politics aligned itself with the defense of the ancien régime, and “liberal” Thomism aligned itself with the direction of history and, accordingly, with more avant-garde concepts of modern philosophy. Fortin’s acute criticisms of left-wing political Christianity were duepointed to its dependence on modern political philosophy—a fact of which he wished to make it more critically self-aware.
Much of Fortin’s most interesting work lies in his frequent dialogue with other scholars on modern political as well as religious questions. Fortin’s attention to the differences between among classical, Christian, and modern political philosophy led him to frown at the modern political tendency to reduce political arguments to competing claims about rights. Fortin especially wished to maintain the distinctiveness of the classical, Christian, and modern approaches. Accordingly, he devoted considerable scholarly effort to arguing against historical interpretations that sought to find the origins of modern politics and discourse about rights in medieval Christian thought, thus improperly simplifying the tension between Christianity and modern politics.
Fortin frequently addressed the difficulties faced by the modern academy in attempting to use the structure of the medieval university for new ends—or even, in the case of the modern “multiversity,” for no discernible end at all. In exploring classical and medieval texts for assistance in modern education, Fortin highlighted the long-term character of education as well as the medieval university’s insistence on both theology and philosophy as parts of their its curriculum. Philosophy does not mature except with ageover time. Its long gestation requires earnest attention to the interested young, even those who do not eventually become philosophers. Fortin considered the calm, steadiness and far-sightedness of classical education to be under increasing pressure, and in need of protection, in our performance-based world.
Father Fortin’s many contributions to ecclesiastical debates are of no mere parochial interest. He sought to examine major theological discussions and reframe them in light of the lessons he learned in his study of political philosophy. In discussing the modern ecumenical movement’s efforts to bring about a union of separated churches, for example, Fortin advised careful attention to the attachment of the faithful to their creeds, and to the situation of religion in the modern world. The ecumenists’ attempts to reconcile religions should not, he suggested, be pursued without exercising a new form of rhetorical reserve that would be sensitive to the opinions of the faithful.
Father Fortin’s ecclesiastical interventions frequently took the form of reproving both right and left for their political distortions of Christianity. With modern theologians, Fortin agreed that the task of theology is not simply to preserve a past formulation but to repeat the theological experience that would enable the theologians of old to say something new today. But by the same token, he had little interest in the easy way of being new—simply following contemporary currents. Doing so would not be continuing the task of theology, but abandoning theology for the perceived tendencies of modern history.
Ernest Fortin set for himself a difficult and unique task among modern Catholic theologians. Trained in scholastic and patristic theology prior to his encounter with political philosophy, he brought back to the field of theology an acute interest in discerning the theological implications of the major change from classical and Christian politics to modern politics. Ignorance of this shift limited the accuracy as well as the insight of contemporary theology. Fortin’s contributions to the study of Christian political philosophy offer important gains in understanding the use of classical rhetorical techniques among the Church Fathers and Dante, and the shift away from the classical philosophy found in Augustine and Aquinas to modern conceptions. Not content to leave confine his insights in to commentaries on the Christian philosophers, Fortin regularly explained the significance of political philosophy in fields ranging from natural rights to pedagogy, and from ecclesiology to moral theology. For those who take seriously the place of religion in Western intellectual life, as well as its precarious situation in modern democracy, Father Fortin’s works offer both scholarship to be preserved and insights whose source we would do well to regain.
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