Notre Dame has been home to some great teachers over the last half-century but few have been as effective on both the undergraduate and the graduate levels as David Solomon. His remarkable teaching contribution and his broader creative endeavors to foster intellectual life have made him a mainstay of the College of Arts and Letters since his arrival from Texas in 1968.
Two years ago I participated in a conference in honor of David Solomon, which brought together philosophers whose dissertations he had directed. That he has guided over forty doctoral dissertations through to completion is a truly notable accomplishment. Even more impressive was the grateful acknowledgement by his one-time students of David’s personal support and intellectual guidance. They all testified as to how his generous mentorship launched them well to engage the philosophical enterprise.
Some scholars as they move towards the end stages of their careers worry about whether what they have done for decades has mattered or made a difference. But the good women and men gathered at that conference in 2014 are irrefutable evidence of David Solomon’s enduring and substantial contribution to philosophy at Notre Dame. In various institutions across the country these philosophers now do their mentor honor by replicating his efforts to aid students in discerning how to pursue the truth and how to live virtuously.
As an undergraduate teacher at Notre Dame David Solomon aimed to equip his students to confront the range of divisive moral issues that confront them. He aided students to reflect seriously on the very nature and purpose of morality and prepared them to discern well how they should act in light of the profound challenges of our time. A great teacher of undergraduates is normally noted for a signature course, but David had two. He first taught his “Medical Ethics” course in 1977, and perhaps over 3000 students since have benefited from its challenging case-study approach. In the 1990s he developed a course examining the deepest disputes in the history of modern morality, and upwards of 1500 students have joined him subsequently to wrestle with Kant, Mill, and Nietzsche as well as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. His courses exemplify what can and should be done in philosophy in a genuine Catholic university.
David’s success as a teacher on all levels came from his ability to challenge his students while also conveying in an infectious way his own love for his field, whatever the present sad state of Rawlsian-dominated contemporary moral philosophy! David is so widely read, so intellectually curious, so capable of getting to the essence of an argument and clarifying its strengths and weakness that he draws others along. He has been fortunate in his career to have had associations with a range of influential philosophers like Phillipa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, Bernard Williams, Ralph McInerny, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Typical of David, however, these are not associations that he hoards, but rather he shares them so that others can learn more of these great thinkers through him.
Of course, David’s great gift as a teacher is that he is also a witness to what he professes. He doesn’t simply lecture on friendship but he is a friend. He doesn’t ramble on about generosity and hospitality but he is generous and hospitable. He doesn’t just spout off about the benefits of community but rather he builds communities as was so evident during his terrific leadership of the Center for Ethics and Culture. He knows how to bring folks together around matters of importance. His willingness to serve his department and the College of Arts and Letters in various administrative capacities over his career speaks to his concern for the common good. His important role as founding director of the Honors Program deserves special mention.
David Solomon never seems to have been burdened in his teaching vocation with that variation of acedia that can be seen on the faces of certain university folk who have given up caring about much except themselves. He rejected the descent to cynicism and selfishness. He refused to simply acquiesce in the surrender of what is best in philosophy and in Notre Dame. Even when the odds were against him he continued on in his dedicated teaching here on campus and also in his courageous endeavors in the broad academy and in societal debates. He is a virtuous man on a purposeful journey through life and he offers valuable lessons to students in how he lives.
David has loved being a teacher and a philosopher and his labors have allowed him to seek the good and to touch the lives of many students. Of course, as a philosopher he has emphasized the role of the intellect, but this has never been done by him at the expense of the heart. No doubt over time he has come to appreciate ever more deeply and in the manner of St. Thomas that love must have the final word, for only love can truly complete the intellect’s knowledge. He has given of himself for his students, his colleagues, and his friends and Notre Dame is a much better place because of him.
Fr. Bill Miscamble is a Holy Cross priest, professor in the history department and a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover.