I have many vivid memories of writing a dissertation under Fred Freddoso’s direction. I remember that I usually had to wait a bit when I got there for a meeting, because he was always on the phone with his wife. I remember that he always had overripe bananas in his office (“They still have a few days left!”), that he smoked like a chimney and always went to noon Mass at the Crypt, where he said the responses very emphatically (“AND ALSO WITH YOU”). I remember that he seemed awfully happy for someone who pretends to be grumpy all the time.
But what I remember most is how much fun it was to write that dissertation. I enjoyed it for a very simple reason: Freddoso let me be myself. He listened to my idea, genially assured me that if I wrote a thesis on such a topic I would never, ever, get a job, and then left me alone. He read what I gave him. When he liked something, he told me. When he didn’t, he stayed silent. Once, a long while after I’d given him a chapter, I went back and told him I didn’t like it any more and was going to scrap it. “Yes,” he said, “I figured you didn’t mean it.”
The John and Jean Osterle Professor of Thomistic Studies obviously knew a lot more about Thomas Aquinas than a 20-something graduate student. Had he interfered more, the end product would have been more scholarly and more polished; it would have been something more worthy of having his signature on the title page. I would have gladly substituted his ideas for mine. But instead he let me do the thing that I most needed to learn to do: figure things out for myself.
And this leads me to the thing that I think is so truly unique about Fred Freddoso, not least because it is so rarely found in a successful academic: Fred Freddoso doesn’t think that anything at all is about Fred Freddoso. He cares about his faith and his family and Notre Dame, in that order, and that’s about it. He devotes an enormous amount of time to undergraduate advising (or did, when I was there) and teaches introductory philosophy, because he understands that these are important things to do. For more than a decade now, he’s been working on the herculean task of translating the entire Summa Theologiae. To my knowledge, no one else has attempted anything like it, certainly no one with his command of Latin. He’s now well into the secunda secundae. Even if he stopped with what he’s already done, he could publish that translation anywhere. Instead, he makes it freely available, as he completes it, on his personal webpage. Because, why not? He does the same with his lecture notes, and is delighted when he hears that academics at other institutions rely on them to teach their own courses.
It can be easy to lose sight of what being a philosopher is really all about: pursuing truth and teaching others to do the same. Here’s to someone who has always understood that. Fred Freddoso, may you have the restful retirement you deserve…but only after you finish translating the Summa!
Angela McKay Knobel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She received her Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame, where Professor Freddoso worked with her as her dissertation advisor.