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Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (December 17, 1923 – October 22, 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.
He attended Assumption College and Laval University, graduating from Assumption College in 1946. He had joined the Augustinians of the Assumption in 1944, and following graduation he attended the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum in Rome for his theological education. He received his licentiate in 1950.
Following theological studies and ordination, he went to Paris, where he met Bloom. As he said in the Foley interview:
It was a class on Plato taught by a Dominican very well known in those days named Festugiere. It was a lousy course, quite frankly. Bloom sat next to me on my left and would make little comments to me on the text, comments which I found more interesting than Festugiere's. Those teachers, outstanding as their reputation may have been, were no great shakes.
At first I was a little bit shocked by Bloom's remarks. I had an innate reverence for famous people, and these were extremely well-known scholars, and it offended me to hear these things said about them.
He received his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1955 and his dissertation was published (in 1959) under the title Christianisme et culture philosophique au cinquième siècle: la querelle de l'âme humaine en Occident.
He returned to Assumption College to teach. Between 1959 and 1964, he was also its tennis coach. In 1962, he visited Chicago and worked with Leo Strauss for almost one year. In 1971, he moved to the department at Boston College, where he soon helped to found the Perspectives Program.
In 1997, he suffered a stroke and retired from active teaching.
Fortin's personal library can be found at the Emmanuel d'Alzon Library at Assumption College. In 2006 Assumption College renamed its Foundations program "the Fortin and Gonthier Foundations of Western Civilization Program" in honor of Fr. Fortin and his Assumption colleague, Fr. Denys Gonthier.
Shortly before his death in 2002, he received the festschrift in his honor. On October 22, 2002, he sat up in bed, said "I see something beautiful," and died shortly thereafter.
Fortin's work in the realm of political philosophy takes place in two camps.
In one camp, he examines and wrestles with political philosophy as done within the Christian tradition. Here, he contrasts Christianity with both Judaism and Islam, for whom revelation provided a law that would provide the basis for political life.
If Augustine can be said to have any concerns for politics at all, it is not for its own sake but because of the moral problems that it poses for Christians who, as citizens, are willy-nilly caught up in it. These problems have their common root in the nature of Christianity itself, which is essentially a nonpolitical religion. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the two other great monotheistic religions of the West, it does not call for the formation of a separate community or provide a code of laws by which that community might be governed. It takes it for granted that its followers will continue to live as full-fledged citizens of the political society to which they belong and share its way of life as long as they are not forced to indulge in practices that are directly at odds with their basic beliefs, as were, for example, idolatry and emperor worship.
In the second camp he examines political philosophy in itself. In the foreword that he wrote to the first volume of his collected essays, Fortin wrote:
Political philosophy is that part of the philosophical enterprise in which philosophy comes to its own defense and, instead of taking itself for granted, makes a concerted effort to justify itself before the tribunal of the city. By situating itself within the context of human life as a whole, it discloses the full range of human possibilities and thus reveals human beings to themselves as no other science is capable of doing. In it, philosophy, politics, and theology come together to thresh out all of the fundamental problems of human life.
His work in those camps covers the history of the west, but makes significant contributions in three periods. The first period is the encounter of Christian faith with the philosophical tradition of pagan Greece and Rome. Fortin was an accomplished patristics scholar, who wrote extensively on St. Augustine. The second period is the medieval period. Fortin made particular contributions with his study of Dante. He also held the Straussian position that the doctrine of natural human rights was a distinctively modern idea, and did not have backing in classical or medieval thought. This set him against the camp that taught that the idea of natural human rights had medieval roots, most associated with the Cornell medievalist Brian Tierney and his students. Finally, the third period in which he made significant contribution was his perceptive reading, commentary and more-or-less blunt criticism of the 20th century social teaching of the Catholic Church. Here, particularly with respect to the statements of American Catholic bishops, he questioned the degree to which their statements were in conformity with the classical Christian heritage.
A number of his essays were collected in a three-volume set published by Rowman & Littlefield in 1996.
A complete bibliography is found in Ever Ancient, Ever New, at 329-42. Another bibliography can be found on the relevant pages of Leo Strauss and His Legacy: A Bibliography, edited by John A. Murley.