The Christian Socrates

"The Christian Socrates," review of Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors, by Ernest L. Fortin, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2003.


The late Ernest L. Fortin was a priest in the Assumptionist order who taught for many years at Assumption College and Boston College. This book is a translation of the original edition, published in French in 1981. It is the work of a man not solely a medieval specialist but very learned in the history of Christian (and other) theology and in the history of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger. Yet of all the things he knew—for Ernest Fortin did not specialize by closing his mind to distractions—it was Dante whom he chose for his first love among thinkers. Fortin’s book is not a textual study and instead rather takes for granted an acquaintance with the Divine Comedy and the Monarchy as if his primary audience were our contemporary Dante scholars. Those scholars are instructed by him in an elementary point of which they know nothing and yet need to know before anything else. The rest of us, with less at stake in the way of published opinions, read with growing fascination as a master leads us to the riddles of Dante (and through some of them). All of Dante’s riddles, we are promised, have an answer.

The elementary point is the “political mode” in which Dante wrote. The mode is political not in content so much as in manner, the politic manner of one who, while not adopting the opinions his fellow citizens live by, does not confront or challenge those opinions and thus induce those citizens to defend them by attacking him. The influence of Leo Strauss is easy to recognize in this point, and Fortin was indeed an unabashed Straussian. But he introduces the political mode with more intellectual history than Strauss was wont to provide in his published works.

Three chapters at the beginning of the book set forth, first, a survey of the political mode among ancients, medievals, and moderns; second, a discussion of its use by Al-Farabi and Maimonides; and third, a description of the “crisis of the 13th century” in the Christian world. In the latter chapter, Fortin contrasts the Condemnation of Philosophy (1277) by Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris (recommended for inspection by Fortin), and the over-enthusiastic Aristotelianism of Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia; and takes a glance at St. Thomas Aquinas (not much interested in the politics of his time), before finally reaching Dante. All this is intellectual history of the right kind because it recognizes the permanent problem of speaking truth to power and does not assume (as does the historicism of our day) that opinions contrary to those in power at any historical period are not capable of being thought or held merely because they are not stated blatantly or shouted from rooftops.

Fortin takes a dim view of the boast he quotes from the 19th-century historian Ernest Renan: “I am the first to recognize that we have nothing or almost nothing to learn either from Averroes or the Arabs or the Middle Ages.” (He means he was the first competent person to hold that view.) But the political mode Fortin presents offers a distinctively medieval view of the permanent question as to what is politics. Today we might look to Carl Schmitt, who on the model of Hobbes (he believed) defines politics as the conflict between friends and enemies: politics is division. This opinion is also expressed by Polemarchus in Plato’s Republic, where it is received by Socrates at first with skepticism and later with agreement in some part. Machiavelli, at the beginning of his Discourses on Livy, applies the politics of division to parties within the city and concludes, contrary to Plato, that internal party divisions can within limits be tolerable and even healthy.