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.”