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Hillsdale College phi­losophy pro­fessors and stu­dents attended a lecture on Aquinas at St. Mary’s College. | Wiki­media Commons

After piling into a white van with nine other pro­fessors and stu­dents, Pro­fessor of History Matthew Gaetano turned around and said, “I have a chauffeur’s license. Let that sink in.”

It was Thursday after classes, and seven stu­dents, Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Lee Cole, Pro­fessor of English Dwight Lindley, and Gaetano were embarking on a four-hour pil­grimage to St. Mary’s College at the Uni­versity of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana for a one-hour lecture on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Pro­fessor David O’Connor delivered the lecture “Love More Than You Know: The Tao of Thomas Aquinas” about learning from Aquinas to love God more than can be com­pre­hended, and to see Aquinas’ the­ology as a spir­itual exercise rather than just doc­trine.

The annual McMahon Aquinas Lecture is orga­nized by Michael Waddell, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of phi­losophy at St. Mary’s who advised Cole’s dis­ser­tation at Vil­lanova Uni­versity. Cole has attended these lec­tures — bringing stu­dents with him — since the aca­demic year of 2011 – 2012.

“There’s a sense in which this par­ticular event in a very spe­cific way brings together these gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents of Aquinas,” Cole said. “I’d been intro­duced to the thought of Aquinas from Dr. Waddell, in my life that’s the person to whom I owe a debt of respon­si­bility. I con­tinue to com­mu­nicate these fruits to my stu­dents — there’s a fit­tingness in that sense. They’re being intro­duced to Aquinas through me, indi­rectly through him, I like to think of Aquinas as a teacher with many many stu­dents, we are ben­e­fiting cen­turies and cen­turies later from his ped­agogy and insights.”  

Waddell and Cole’s aca­demic exchange has sur­vived nine years, from Vil­lanova to Notre Dame to now. When Waddell moved from Vil­lanova to St. Mary’s before Cole fin­ished his dis­ser­tation, the two worked to find Cole a fel­lowship so he could move his family to South Bend and con­tinue studying under Waddell.

“I think that friendship is a very important part of the intel­lectual life, and one of the most important forms of friendship is between teacher and stu­dents,” Waddell said. “One of the things I appre­ciated about Lee was that he had this tremendous capacity to develop friend­ships with people. It led to our ability to develop a friendship. That has only con­tinued to grow even after he ceased being my student.”

Waddell has enjoyed getting to know the Hillsdale stu­dents who have attended his lecture series over the years.

“Getting to know those stu­dents, it became easy to see why Lee had a high esti­mation of Hillsdale,” he said. “Each student you met was brighter than the last, it was an extra­or­dinary thing, you could see how they sup­ported each other through their friendship.”

While Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture’s Fall Con­ference, another popular annual philo­sophical tra­dition, attracts dozens of stu­dents for a full weekend of lec­tures, the Aquinas chair lecture series, pro­vides Cole with a chance to support his director, expose stu­dents to formal lec­tures from prominent scholars, and get off-campus and spend time with stu­dents.

“I hon­estly enjoy the car ride out there, having an excuse to talk with a group of stu­dents,” Cole said. “We can’t go any­where — We’re stuck in a car for an hour and 45 minutes, and it’s nice to spend time with stu­dents in that way and the lecture often pro­vides a topic of con­ver­sation on the ride back home. If you’re looking at a cost-benefit analysis one could cri­tique the investment of time, but I always find it fun and refreshing.”

Gaetano became acquainted with Waddell while he studied at Penn­syl­vania State Uni­versity.

“In the beginning it was a way of seeing him, seeing old friends, sup­porting that effort,” Gaetano said. “There is a careful choice being made by a major Thomist like Michael Waddell to think about where Thomist phi­losophy is in the present and to ask other philoso­phers in the Thomist tra­dition, some less firmly so, to reflect on the role of Aquinas’ thought in modern philo­sophical dis­course.”

Gaetano said this lecture offers stu­dents more than just the chance to hear ideas from other com­mu­nities shaping the con­ver­sation.

“In some ways, going to this lecture series is not a way of moving beyond Hillsdale com­munity, but going out and bringing some­thing back to Hillsdale that speaks in a very direct way to some of the con­ver­sa­tions already hap­pening at Hillsdale,” Gaetano said. He added that it might be helpful for stu­dents to see Aris­totelian and Thomistic tra­di­tions enter the con­tem­porary philo­sophical dis­cussion in a number of other insti­tu­tional con­texts.

“Notre Dame is the best space for the dis­cussion of the inter­section of faith and reason of Catholic thought and con­ven­tional aca­demic sci­en­tific reflection,” Gaetano said. “That con­ver­sation is hap­pening in a deeper way there. That’s a con­ver­sation I want to be a part of.”

Phi­losophy major junior Gill West said since he was intro­duced to Aquinas and Aris­totle once he arrived on campus, he’s become sym­pa­thetic to the Thomistic tra­dition.

“I find them bril­liant, com­pelling, very dif­ficult to under­stand,” West said of the philoso­phers. “This lecture is nice because you get to go hear from people who have been studying Aquinas their whole lives and see how they take Aquinas’ whole enter­prise, whereas I’ve been studying Aquinas for two years and not even for all of those two years, really two semesters.”

In addition to hearing what people have to say about Aquinas, West said the lecture is a chance to hang out with pro­fessors outside the school atmos­phere.

“I think some­thing that’s really cool about Hillsdale is that because it’s so small, we’re often able to see pro­fessors outside that more formal ‘We’re in school, we’re in office hours,’ it’s great to be able to talk to them and just hang out,” West said.  

For Cole, that kind of friendship allows learning to happen in the most proper way.

“Friendship is the life-blood of learning.”

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Jo Kroeker
Jo Kroeker is a junior from Fresno, California (no, it’s not Cali). She is the Opinions Editor of the Collegian, studies French and journalism, and writes for Hillsdale College’s marketing department. Her trademarks include oversized sweaters, experimental banana bread, and yoga. jkroeker@hillsdale.edu | twitter: @jobethkroeker