Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Ernest L. Fortin: Collected Essays
edited by J. Brian Benestad.
Three volumes. 
Rowman; Littlefield.
Vol. I, 349 pages, Vol. II 399 pages, Vol. III 332 pages, $75 per volume cloth (set $175).
$24.95 per volume paper
(set $59.50).

While it isn’t customary for a reviewer to begin by quoting someone else on the work under review, Father James Schall has described the achievement of his fellow political philosopher Ernest Fortin so succinctly yet comprehensively that the reader shouldn’t be deprived of his words at the outset: “In his analysis of rights, Catholic social thought, the state, and general questions of justice, Ernest Fortin has penetrated to the core of the misplaced ideologies and enthusiasms that have appeared in religious circles. In addition, Fortin’s essays are a direct challenge to, and redirection of, the major trends in political philosophy in the modern era.”

A big part of Father Fortin’s achievement has been to track down the dubious philosophical lineage of modern political notions, often unmasking them as the inspiration of various Catholic enthusiasms that have arisen since the Second Vatican Council. He has been especially effective in unearthing the ideologies of draft documents put before the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. But not even papal documents escape his critique. In painstaking analyses of encyclicals from Rerum Novarum on, Fortin singles out departures from classic teaching, most notably Leo XIII’s treatment of property as a right—itself a modern notion in Fortin’s account—rather than merely the most practical and orderly way to share the earth and its fruits, which is the classic, Thomistic rationale for ownership. As a lifetime student of St. Augustine (he is an Augustinian of the Assumption), Fortin knows very well that if speech is to persuade or even not to harm, it must be tailored to the hearer. For that reason among others he does not fault the approach of John Paul II, who until his most recent writings employed a “personalist” approach to nature.

On the disputed question of subjective rights, Fortin has routinely granted in lectures that the classical notion of duty toward others implies their right to its fulfilment. But classical political philosophers passed subjective rights by and dealt in duties, which they linked to the virtues, especially justice. (Recent history demonstrates that it is easier to invent new rights than new duties. Of our new duties, the chief appears to be the obligation to make way for the newfound rights of others, however repugnant or unjust.)

The distinction between rights and duties raises questions far beyond the scope of this review, but it also gives us an occasion to glance at one of the guiding lights of Fortin’s thought, Leo Strauss. Strauss was the pioneer proponent in this country of the claim that modern political thought is a radical departure from classical political thought, and that what so deeply divides the two is the modern emphasis on subjective rights and the modern rejection of Strauss’s beloved Natural Right, the intrinsically just.

Does this make Strauss a champion of Natural Law? Although he has done much to renew respect for that theory, the brief answer has to be no. To Cicero’s treatment of Natural Law Strauss gives shrift so short as to be misleading if not defective. More important, Natural Law in the elaboration of Aquinas, which Strauss considered classic, derives from the Eternal Law in the mind of God, whereas Strauss cast serious doubt on the ability of the human mind to reach the mind of God without the help of Revelation. This is the nub of Strauss’ celebrated Athens-Jerusalem dilemma, which he appears to consider irresolvable. It is typical of Strauss’ not-infrequent ambivalence that scholars are still debating his views on the matter.

Here Fortin would surely run into trouble were he a mere epigone of Strauss. But to judge by the writings of both men, Fortin is the more thoroughly trained philosopher, and has a firm grip on the philosophical instruments neglected by Strauss in his presentation of Natural Law, such as analogical knowledge and the universal.

Nonetheless, Fortin is often called a Straussian, and at least two conspicuous features of his work justify the description. One is his emphasis on so-called esoteric writing, the prudent concealment of meaning, which as a student of Catholic writers from the Fathers to Newman he knows has an illustrious pedigree. Another is his exploitation of the moral and political consequences of differences between classical and modern thought. Any philosopher worth his salt is aware of such differences in theories of existence and theories of knowledge, but Fortin has the advantage of recognizing a modern political notion even when it masquerades as classical.

Fortin’s conviction that a chasm separates classical and modern political philosophy also enables him to restore politics to its elevated place as the most noble of the practical sciences. No one could call it such in, for instance, the radically pessimistic world of Thomas Hobbes, where political society is an artifact erected by men against the depradations of their fellows. Nor could one associate nobility with the name of Machiavelli, whose rationalized thuggery holds a more honored place in modern political theory than most political theorists would like to grant.

On the other hand, Fortin is no partisan of the purism that he finds in policy statements drafted by the bureaucrats and consultants of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He cites Cardinal Lustiger to support the impression that the statement of the American bishops on the nuclear threat was written by men who didn’t feel threatened. He contrasts the legalism and technical detail of that document with St. Thomas’ analysis of morality in warfare, which treats military prudence as a part of political prudence, always understanding that prudence of all kinds is the virtuous application of principles to particulars.

A reviewer can aspire to convey the flavor of Fortin’s thought but hardly the astonishing variety of topics that he tackles, from Patristics to environmentalism, or with what mastery. Nor, except in the reading of it, can the precision and elegance of his prose be savored. Only in dealing with his fellow theologians does his customary restraint break down and scorn break through, as when, granting Peter Hebblethwaite’s claim that few theologians want to constitute a magisterium of their own, he counters: “But if, by going over the heads of bishops and taking their case to the general public through press conferences, TV appearances, interviews, widely circulated petitions, and full-page ads in our national dailies, they regularly succeed in undermining the hierarchy’s doctrinal authority, the effect is much the same.”

What is to be faulted in Fortin? I for one would have appreciated a fuller look at Strauss, who has plenty of critics but few with Fortin’s mastery of the necessary philosophical and historical means. Some readers may also be taken aback by Fortin’s scholarly minimalism, as when he treats the “Render to Caesar” principle as little more than a clever riposte keeping Jesus one step ahead of his enemies (for the moment). And I still think he does insufficient justice to the apologetical approach taken by Chateaubriand, now in eclipse but in his day, when France was struggling to recover from the political, religious, and intellectual ravages of the French Revolution, perhaps the foremost figure in French letters. By recounting the benefits that Christian belief had bestowed on the world not only in rebuilding civilization but refashioning the materials of its construction, Chateaubriand tried to demonstrate its genius. How much this had to do with the truth of Christian dogma was not clear, as Fortin points out. Chauteaubriand may have read too much into the civil achievements of Christian teaching, but Fortin perhaps gives him less than his due by comparing him unfavorably with the more philosophical and mystical Pascal.

Yet there is a significant parallel between Chateaubriand and Fortin. In Fortin’s scholarly caution and adamantine Catholicity we can see the Chateaubriand who declared on receiving the last Sacraments: “No man is more skeptical than I. No Christian is more believing.”

Patrick G. D. Riley holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the Angelicum in Rome. He teaches classical civilization at Concordia University of Wisconsin.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift