Ernest Fortin was born in 1923 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In an early recollection of his youth (written in 1969), Fortin balances Woonsocket’s tough reputation with an appreciation of what he learned from seeing the Industrial Revolution face to face. Fortin attended Assumption Preparatory School and then Assumption College in nearby Worcester, Massachusetts. Assumption gave pride of place to Thomistic philosophy, and it encouraged “a certain cosmopolitanism” through training its students in French and German.
Fortin was initially drawn toward the then-current scholastic controversies among Catholic followers of Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and Charles De Koninck. He went to the Université Laval in Québec City, where he studied with De Koninck, who pioneered a direct approach to reading the texts of Thomas Aquinas.
Fortin was impressed with the Augustinians of the Assumption (or Assumptionists), and he joined their order in 1944. After graduating from Assumption College in 1946, he was sent to Rome to pursue a licentiate in sacred theology. He was ordained in 1949 and received his theology licentiate in 1950.
It was during Fortin’s assignment to Paris in 1950 (to study French literature) that his intellectual activity began to turn toward the themes that would mark his thought. Even during Fortin’s undergraduate days, he had been dissatisfied with the tendency of neo-scholastic philosophers to treat contemporary philosophy only critically, without attempting to understand them it on their its own terms. In Paris he began to bridge the chasm between the “two worlds” of scholastic philosophy and contemporary thinking. His path took him first toward the historical study of early Christianity, due to his attraction to the historical method of Henri-Irénée Marrou, whose histories of Christianity and late antiquity offered Fortin a way to think about the relationship of Christianity and modernity.
While Fortin worked on his study of fifth-century Christian accounts of the human soul (graduating from the Sorbonne in 1955), he he became friendly with the young Allan Bloom. Both attended lectures on Plato given by a well-known Dominican scholar. Bloom, Fortin would later recall, would pass notes to him on Plato during lectures which were much more interesting than the lecture. Through Bloom Fortin discovered the writings of Leo Strauss, and learned “the difference between the classical heritage and the Christian, and the difference between the ‘Great Tradition’ (classical and Christian combined) and modern thought.” After Fortin’s return to Assumption College in 1955, he taught French before becoming chairman of the theology and philosophy departments. During his sabbatical in 1962, Fortin went to Chicago and studied directly with Strauss, whom he had earlier met on a visit of Strauss’s to Paris.
On his return from Chicago, Fortin began a wide range of academic and intellectual studies. In 1968, he cofounded the Ecumenical Institute of Religious Studies at Assumption College. In 1971, he joined the faculty of Boston College, and shortly thereafter helped to begin the Perspectives program, offering freshmen an integrated approach to philosophy and theology. He taught at Boston College until suffering a stroke in 1997, and he died on October 22, 2002.
Father Fortin left a legacy of scholarship in theology and political philosophy among students at both Assumption College and Boston College. Within the larger community of political philosophy, he is remembered for his expertise in studying the tension between philosophers and theologians and the demands of ancient and modern politics. The admiration in which he was held by his students is reflected in the four-volume collection his students made of his essays, as well as a festschrift published in his honor in 2002. The Foundations of Western Civilization Program at Assumption College has borne the name of Father Fortin (as well as his colleague Father Gonthier) since 2006.