Editor’s Note: This article was originally delivered as a speech in the spring of 2010 for the 10th anniversary of the Center for Ethics and Culture. It has been republished here with permission.
When I was reflecting on what I wanted to say tonight, and how best to honor David and the Center for Ethics and Culture, I thought about how one of the coolest informal honors that Notre Dame has been bestowing recently is that series that runs during football games, the “What would you fight for?” commercials. Each commercial highlights a person or group of people at the University who are doing something interesting, important, and unique to make the world a better place. At the end, each person declares what he or she fights for, and then claims the mantel of the Fighting Irish. The commercials are very well done, and at least among my crowd of young alumni friends, it became something of a parlor game to debate the merits of each week’s installment and try to choose a favorite. I’m personally partial to the Bengal Bouts commercial, but I recognize that this is something about which reasonable minds can disagree.
Anyway, as far as I know, no one yet has invited the Center for Ethics and Culture to be featured in one of these commercials. Maybe the worry is that “Fighting to make sure people keep reading books by deceased Catholic authors” won’t play so well in the ratings with the college football viewing public. So I have taken the liberty of writing one.
[Insert inspirational background music]
What is virtue? What constitutes a flourishing human life? How should we treat each other, especially the least and most helpless among us? How should we relate to the world around us? What can we learn from it, and how can we make it better? What is beauty? What is grace, and where can we find it? What are the first principles, the non-negotiables in any inquiry? What does our God ask of us, and what tools does He give us to help us make our way?
These are all-important questions—the most important questions, really—and questions for which we naturally seek answers. These are ancient questions, which have been asked for thousands and thousands of years. They are primary questions, and the way we answer them determines so much else about the particulars of our lives.
There is an organization here at Notre Dame that is dedicated entirely to pursuing answers to these questions. It takes as a starting point for its inquiry the answers, or attempted answers, posed by the many people who have grappled with these same questions in the past: saints, philosophers, theologians, poets, and novelists. Clergy and lay people. Figures that loom large in the history of this University. First and foremost, it engages with the answers provided by the Church, working from and within the Catholic scholarly and cultural tradition. It does this because it recognizes that our Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, offers us Truth, and that our ancestors in faith and other kindred spirits have important and enduring insights to offer as well. And this organization wants to invite anyone who is willing to think and reflect along with it, to join in this conversation and this pursuit of truth with people of good will past and present.
This organization is the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. It was founded 10 years ago by David Solomon, a perennially popular philosophy professor who for the past 10 years, through this Center to which he is entirely devoted, has been teaching in a different way as well. Over the past ten years, hundreds—maybe thousands—of students have been touched by the work of the Center in ways large and small, varying from working there (like me), to attending office hours, to simply attending an event here and there. For all of us, David has been the Virgil to our Dante, a cheerful, probing, and generous guide in the pursuit of virtue and truth and a full, flourishing life in God’s service.
So where does the “fight” part come in? All of these commercials are about people or groups who have identified a good, the pursuit of which will make the world a better place. Once they’ve identified this good, they go after it doggedly—literally, like a dog with a bone, never letting go and never taking their eyes from the goal. That tenacity and perseverance, that dedication, in pursuing a good and helping others see or achieve it as well is the “fight” that we celebrate when we talk about how proud we are to be the fighting Irish.
So, what does the Center for Ethics and Culture, under David Solomon’s leadership, fight for?
The Center is fighting for the preservation and promulgation of the intellectual heritage of the Church, for the Catholic philosophical and cultural tradition.
It fights for Pope John Paul II’s vision of a culture of life, to protect the dignity and the lives of the unborn and other vulnerable persons.
It fights for the importance of the family, and of community.
It fights for the prioritization of virtue, and for the best and most enduring kind of friendship, the kind that comes from virtue’s shared pursuit.
It fights for fellowship and good cheer. Fighting to remind us all that novels, films, and poetry have much to teach us about beauty, grace, and truth.
It fights to recognize modernity’s many failings and stand firm against it when necessary, while simultaneously identifying and celebrating what is good and worthy of praise in our crazy modern world.
It fights to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants—we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—and to give a voice to those witnesses: the thinkers, teachers, and people of faith who have preceded us.
It fights to give real substance to the “Catholic” part of Notre Dame’s proud claim to be the world’s greatest Catholic university. And it fights to remind us of something that, once upon a time, all universities proclaimed: that veritas lies, above all, in Cristo.
All of these things are worth celebrating. All are worth toasting tonight. And all are very much worth fighting for. Professor Solomon, you are the Fighting Irish, and here’s to you.
Jennie Lichter graduated from Notre Dame in 2004. She was the undergraduate assistant at the Center for three years and, together with Professor Solomon, she launched the Catholic Literature Lecture Series, as well as a dinner series called Breaking Bread—the predecessor to the Center’s current Bread of Life series.