The categories of "American," "Catholic," and "political philosopher" may sometimes overlap certainly they do in the person of Ernest Fortin. Usually, however, those categories do not overlap, and it is to the question of the third category and Ernest Fortin's work that I am to address myself this afternoon. Pursuing such a question as this is certainly appropriate, insofar as Fr. Fortin himself has said that a common feature of his writings is "the prominence (and in some sense the primacy) accorded to political philosophy."1
In order to pursue this question, it is first necessary to be a little more precise about what is meant by the term "political philosophy." I would like to speak this afternoon about three related, but distinguishable, definitions of political philosophy. The first is political philosophy in the grand sense, as the philosophical pursuit of the human things. This inquiry studies the complete panoply of human possibilities, the various ways of living, the sorts of perfections available to man, the fundamental problems faced by humanity. I like to define political philosophy in this grand sense as "architectonic anthropology." Ernest Fortin seems to me to be speaking about this kind of political philosophy when he says, "By situating itself within the context of human life as a whole, [political philosophy] discloses the full range of human possibilities and thus reveals human beings to themselves as no other science is capable of doing."2 This political philosophizing would correspond to the sort of questioning introduced into philosophy by Socrates' turning to the human things, to his calling philosophy down from the heavens and establishing it in cities, even bringing it into homes, and forcing it to ask questions about life and morality and the good and the bad things.3 Such an inquiry does not begin with cosmology or physics and then deduce what can be known about human nature. Its "method" if I may use a word that Fr. Fortin dislikes because it is so unerotic and therefore inappropriate for naming such an erotic quest its "method" is to begin with man as man, with the human as human. That is why I like to think of political philosophy in this sense as a sort of "architectonic anthropology."
And what does Ernest Fortin have to say to those who would pursue this inquiry? Well, as it turns out, a great deal. It is well-known that Fortin learned about this political philosophizing from Leo Strauss and that he practiced it with Strauss's students and especially with his friend Allan Bloom. Those of us who are Fortin's students have heard him discuss that 'full range of human possibilities' especially as they are disclosed in the Great Books and indeed are astonished at what the Great Books of political philosophy with a little mentoring by Fortin disclose to us about ourselves. But this afternoon I would especially like to focus not so much on how Fr. Fortin practices "architectonic anthropology," but more specifically on a certain critique of this kind of political philosophy that Fr. Fortin has recovered through his extensive studies of St. Augustine.
As interpreted by Fortin, Augustine was indeed impressed by political philosophy, which he encountered primarily through the writings of Cicero and other students of Plato. The African did not doubt but that the political philosophers of antiquity had analyzed the fundamental human problems, possibilities, and perfections, and that they had shown to humanity a true portrait of virtue and happiness. The inadequacy of political philosophy in Augustine's view had to do not so much with its goal but with its means. Political philosophy could not effect the goal of its inquiry. It could give human beings wandering in the desert a glimpse of the promised land from afar, but it could never find a trail or bridge that would permit them to cross over. I like the clarity with which Marc Guerra has summarized Fortin's understanding of the matter: "St. Augustine was thus led to conclude that the classical philosophers were to be commended for speaking of happiness in terms of the highest goals to which men can aspire, but were to be faulted for their inability 'to show the way to those goals.'"4
I suppose that the immediate objection to the Augustinian critique of political philosophy is, of course, that Augustine should propose some better means of achieving noble ends or else keep quiet. But Augustine did propose other means that at least he thought were better, namely biblical faith. But biblical faith is not something all that easy for classical political philosophy to warm up to, as Fortin never fails to point out. The accepting "trust me and follow" attitude of the Bible does not sit easily next to the probing "prove it to me" attitude of philosophy. But Fortin also never tires of pointing out that political philosophers, because they are unable to give a complete account of the universe, are likewise unable to establish that faith is false, and so they therefore cannot rule out faith as a competitor with political philosophy in the quest for self-knowledge. Augustine cannot present his solution in terms immediately acceptable to political philosophers, then, but perhaps this is only because the latter are proud and puffed up with human learning.
To political philosophy in this first sense, that of "architectonic anthropology," then, Fortin is a great admirer and practitioner, but he also reminds political philosophy of its possible limitation and thereby warns it against any haughty, imperial ambitions.
A second and probably much more common sense of the term "political philosophy" emphasizes not the noun but the adjective. That is to say, it pursues the study of the polis in the more limited sense of the offices and laws in regimes. It narrows the grand, first sense of the term to something like "the study of government." Of course, Ernest Fortin is never impressed with restricted and limited senses of anything, but Fortin does speak to and with people who think of politics and political philosophy in this more confined way. What does he say to them?
Well, mostly he invites them to think more broadly, more in terms of the first sense of political philosophy, and it seems to me that he does this particularly and most famously in his penetrating discussions of contemporary rights discourse. Fortin finds that such discourse limits the horizon of human possibilities and thus of human self-understanding. Rights language, in his view, originated with early modern political thought. Such thinkers as Machiavelli and especially Hobbes were political philosophers in the full sense of the term, but they did not accept the understanding of human virtue and well-being offered by the ancients, preferring lower, more mundane options for human satisfaction. They themselves admitted they were lowering the goals of political philosophy from the noble and the sublime, but they were doing so in the name of what is more achievable. They preferred to found the modern political world on rights to self-preservation and self-satisfaction rather than on duties to self-knowledge and self-perfection. The result is that, today, conversations about political life often gravitate to the restricted language of rights. Our laws and our government officials are much more precise about defining and protecting our rights than they are in promoting our duties. Most of our citizens wind up with an operational definition of justice as banal as "justice consists in doing whatsoever you will so long as you do not violate the rights of others to do whatsoever they will." This is the democratic notion of justice, and reading book 8 of the Republic explains well enough why Fr. Fortin finds it unworthy of human beings with noble aspirations.
Now, Ernest Fortin never preaches revolution. He is always quick to point out that one is almost always better off living in an imperfect but functioning regime than in the chaotic situation of revolution, and that the prudent political path is almost always to seek to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of the present regime rather than seek a change of regimes. And so Fortin seeks to criticize contemporary political arrangements from within, as a gentle sympathizer. Fortin is, however, particularly adamant that contemporary democratic rights discourse never be read back into the great traditional of political philosophy. Although his writings are never harsh, it is not hard to see that he reserves his most severe criticism for political thinkers who would attribute modern rights theories to pre-modern authors. Perhaps the most famous and erudite authors pursuing such a project have been the Frenchman Maritain, the Englishman Finnis, and the American Brian Tierney, and Fortin has criticized them all for joining what must remain divided. If Aristotle or Cicero or Thomas Aquinas are 're-interpreted' so that they, too, come to be viewed as rights thinkers, then there is no way back to a serious alternative view. The voice of classical philosophy will have been silenced and there will be no vantage point outside of rights theory from whence it might be critiqued. The impoverished political philosophers working within the narrow confines of the horizon provided by contemporary democracy and its constant talk of rights need genuine critics in order to ameliorate the disadvantages of democracy while augmenting its strong points. But running together natural or human rights with pre-modern natural law or natural right effectively precludes consideration of the great classical and medieval traditions of political philosophy.
A third sense of the term political philosophy understands the phrase almost as something of an oxymoron. That is to say, according to this third understanding of political philosophy, one must admit that political life and philosophical life are not easily reducible to a common goal. Citizens and scientists often have conflicting ends, and thus it behooves philosophers to attend to the requisite buffers between the two. Philosophers must understand that their preoccupations may damage political society and that the city may defend itself in ways that damage philosophers. As noted above, political philosophy as "architectonic anthropology" is not a set of dogmas deduced from antecedent investigations into physics or cosmology, but at the same time physicists and cosmologists from time to time raise questions about humanity's position within nature or the cosmos, within the whole, and their teachings on this matter, while perhaps not predominant, are still relevant to the city's understanding of itself. This means that the study of the non-human whole can lead speculative philosophers to undermine the poetry of cities. This happens because the speculative philosophers seem to have a strange penchant for attempting to explain humanity in the same terms as they explain the non-human whole.
Perhaps I can most quickly explain this sense of political philosophy by means of an analogy. A modern astrophysicist peers through a powerful telescope and encounters light that was emitted from distant galaxies millions of years ago. Consequently, the observer's gaze can have no bearing on the distant stars that he views, for the events that the astronomer sees happened millions of years ago. But Heisenberg explains to us that if a physicist attempts to see with a microscope a "particle" of light, a photon, by "sensing" the light with his eye, the very act of absorbing the photon with the eye will change its position. In other words, by the very act of looking the physicist will alter the subject that he seeks to study. Now, according to this third sense of political philosophy, philosophers who study society are like the physicist looking through the microscope rather than the astrophysicist looking through the telescope. In other words, scientists need to be more attentive to the way in which they themselves impact the political life that they seek to understand. Philosophers are not disengaged investigators looking at events that they cannot possibly alter. They aren't looking backward in time like the astrophysicist with the telescope. Rather, they are like the physicist studying the photon their very act of philosophizing has a profound impact on human life. They, as it were, change the subject they study by their very act of studying it.
This third sense of political philosophy is largely lost on philosophers today. It is generally accepted by the children of the Enlightenment that society has nothing to fear from scientists and that scientists should even be honored by society. Indeed, it is orthodox teaching today to insist that science and philosophy are mutually reinforcing, and the form that this reconciliation takes is the idea of technological progress. Yet, based on his reading of such books as Plato's Republic, Rousseau's First Discourse, and Augustine's critique of Orosius's notion of historical progress, Fortin insists that philosophers need to think more carefully about the impact that they have on the object that they study in other words, they need to be reminded about this third sense of political philosophy.
And how does Ernest Fortin attempt to remind philosophers of this? First, particularly in three essays composed relatively late in his career,5 Fortin attempts a radical articulation of the problem of the relationship between philosophy and politics as it applies in the modern context. Fortin's characteristic moderation prevents any suggestion of a wholesale rejection of the contemporary cooperation between the city and the scientists, but his studies enable him to point out the alternatives to the Enlightenment approach to the question about science and society. Once it is made clear that there have been alternatives to the orthodoxy of the present, it is possible to ask questions about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the present arrangement, and, once again, perhaps it is even possible to augment its advantages while ameliorating its disadvantages.
Most of all, though, Fr. Fortin addresses the problem of political philosophy in this third sense by setting before us time and again the example of Dante. Of course, understanding Dante has never been an easy task. It requires a great deal of linguistic and historical training to which few contemporary philosophers are willing to subject themselves. The obstacles are compounded because the standard interpretation of Dante today, particularly in America, is that Dante's work is simply versified Thomism, which is itself simply a reflection of that strange occult entity known as 'the medieval worldview.' In Fortin's interpretation, the standard interpretation is a shallow understanding of Dante's thought that is unable to transcend Dante's exoteric teaching. At Fortin's hands, Dante comes to sight as a political philosopher par excellence in all three of the senses of the term I have mentioned here. Fortin is particularly adroit in showing how Dante understands the third sort of political philosophy. I cannot even begin to explain Fortin's view of Dante's esotericism this afternoon, but I can refer those who are interested to the new translation of Fr. Fortin's book on Dante by Marc LePain.6
In closing, it is important to point out that Ernest Fortin has never been one to say "think this," but rather "think about this." It is not surprising, then, that he does not exactly bequeath to political philosophy a set of doctrines but a set of questions or problems which require investigation, along with a programme for pursuing those investigations through the careful reading of the Great Books in the history of political philosophy. It is not the case that Fortin does not hold doctrines, or that he is unable to make up his mind between the fundamental alternatives offered by the great political philosophers of the past. Rather, it is his conviction that it is more profitable to students to invite them to repeat the investigations of the Great Books themselves than it is simply to skip ahead to the conclusions.
2 Ibid., xiv. href="#footnote2return">(Return)
3 Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.4.10-11: "Socrates autem primus philosophiam devocavit e caelo et in urbibus collocavit et in domus etiam introduxit et coegit de vita et moribus rebusque bonis et malis quaerere." href="#footnote3return">(Return)
4 Marc D. Guerra, "Living the Theologico-Political Problem: On Ernest Fortin's Essays," Political Science Reviewer 28 (1999): 230. Guerra is referring to Fortin's "Augustine and the Hermeneutics of Love," in Collected Essays 1:5. href="#footnote4return">(Return)
5 See "Augustine, the Arts, and Human Progress," "Science as a Political Problem," and "The Bible Made Me Do It: Christianity, Science, and the Environment," in Collected Essays 3: 87-133. href="#footnote5return">(Return)
6 Dissent and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: Dante and His Precursors (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002). href="#footnote6return">(Return)