[Editor’s note: Finnis was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King Charles III in January.]
As I studied for my Jurisprudence class in the last year of Law School, back home in Argentina, a friend put in my hands a thick, orange book titled Natural Law and Natural Rights. Even though I did not understand much of what I read, I was fascinated by the circumstance that the author, John Finnis, was a Catholic who wrote high-level scholarship in English—an unusual, forceful combination, then, and now. I decided that I would try to find the author of the orange book and that I would study under him—easier said than done, especially in those pre-email days.
My hero, I found out, was in Oxford: the Arcadia of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. I applied for graduate studies there, but my application was unsuccessful. I was devastated. Professor Finnis, with whom I was now in touch by letter, said I might want to try again the following year. In order to improve my future chances, I decided to spend some time working with Finnis, writing a fresh essay for Oxford under his supervision, with a view to a new application. He agreed, but asked me: “Why don’t you come to Notre Dame? I will be there, not in Oxford, next semester.”
Believe it or not, this was the first time I heard the name “Notre Dame,” to describe an American university, pronounced in that peculiar way of pronouncing “Notre Dame” in English. I knew nothing whatsoever of the school that I came to love so dearly—but I ended up there, for one Fall Semester in 1997, as an indirect effect of a failure in my application to Oxford.
After a couple of days on campus, Professor Finnis took me out for lunch to the old Oak Room Cafeteria. He asked me what my first impressions of South Bend were. I mentioned that I liked the sunny weather. It was late August. He smiled mysteriously … That smile came to mind later, when I learnt about the lake effect, the Perma-cloud, and the never-ending snow.
That period in Professor Finnis’s life was shortly after he had come to occupy the Biolchini Family Chair at the Notre Dame Law School. When I first visited, he was finishing his fifth book, Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory, to be published in 1998 by Oxford University Press. I was so excited with that project that I managed to persuade one of his colleagues (Finnis’s friend, Professor Gerry Bradley), to start a reading group with interested faculty members. We met once a week with the author of the manuscript and discussed with him each of the future book’s chapters. For me, as a young guest, it was a great privilege.
I came again to Notre Dame eight years later, in Spring 2005. Sadly, Finnis was not on campus during my short visit. By then, I had finished my graduate studies—there was a second application to Oxford and, surely thanks to Notre Dame, this time it was successful. Several of my old friends were still at the Law School. I also met new people, such as Professor Rick Garnett [editor’s note: Professor Garnett is a Faculty Advisor for the Rover], who would become crucial in my future connections with the school. I told them of my interest in doing some kind of visiting-teaching at Notre Dame one day.
In 2010 I taught a short course on “Comparative Constitutional Law” at Valparaiso University Law School. (This school later disappeared but I promise that wasn’t my fault.) My friend Zak Calo taught at Valpo, and one day we drove together from Valparaiso to South Bend. We met for coffee at the brand new Eck Commons with Rick Garnett, who was then a mutual acquaintance. I reiterated to him my interest in teaching a short course at his school and told him in more detail my story with Notre Dame. Finnis was in Oxford when I visited that time, but I informed him by email of my visit. Shortly after, he wrote a letter to the relevant associate dean, recommending me for “Comparative Constitutional Law” as a Visiting Professor.
I first taught a short course at the Law School in 2012. It was, as a friend then told me, an instance of delayed gratification and, although I accepted the offer immediately, the path forward was also not easy. Because the courses I was more prepared for (“Comparative Constitutional Law” and “Law and Morality in Contemporary Jurisprudence”) were taken that year, I was asked if I could do, just this one time… “Law and Investment in the Americas”! Such was the extent of my desire to reconnect with Notre Dame that I immediately prepared a course on a topic about which, until then, I was rather ignorant.
The course must have gone reasonably well, as I was invited in subsequent years. I always timed my visits from Argentina so as to overlap on campus with Professor Finnis. Each time I came, it was a delight to spend more time with him, as in South Bend.
In 2020, Professor Finnis retired and is now Biolchini Family Emeritus Professor of Law. He has since come to Notre Dame only once, for a short visit, so if I get invited again to teach one of my short courses he shall not be around the way he formerly was. Still, the University of Our Lady remains for me a powerful reason to return whenever I get a chance. In one way or another, Finnis, his friends, and his natural law teachings are somehow alive in this blessed place.
Santiago Legarre has been a Visiting Professor at Notre Dame Law School since 2012, and a longtime friend of the Irish Rover.
Photo Credit: Notre Dame Law School