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Stu­dents and faculty visited Notre Dame for a phi­losophy retreat this weekend. Wiki­media Commons

Over the din of ener­getic the­o­logical and philo­sophical dis­cus­sions among con­ference attendees clutching cups of coffee, the woman on the loud­speaker announced that it was time for prominent virtue ethicist Alasdair Mac­Intyre to speak.

More than 30 stu­dents, six alumni, and Kathryn Wales, former program coor­di­nator for the Center for Ethics and Culture, attended the Uni­versity of Notre Dame’s 18th Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Con­ference, a three-day event that drew 750 people and more than 100 pre­senting scholars.

As everyone filed in, some Hillsdale rep­re­sen­ta­tives found seats front and center, posi­tioned their coffee and note­books, and pre­pared for MacIntyre’s lecture, “From Grammar to Meta­physics, From Adjec­tives to Evil.” Entitled “Through Every Human Heart,” the con­ference grappled with the perennial problem of good and evil and how it is dis­cussed and depicted in the­ology, phi­losophy, and even pop culture.  

For stu­dents like senior Stacey Egger, who has been attending the con­ference since her sophomore year, the event is an annual high­light.

“A big part of it is going on the trip with Hillsdale stu­dents. It’s become a really cool tra­dition,” she said. “The first time that I went was the first time that I heard of Alasdair Mac­Intyre and then that’s some­thing that becomes a part of the con­ver­sation once you get back to campus.”

Junior Natalie Taylor attended for the first time this year. She said at first it was hard to see how the dis­parate lec­tures con­nected, but she loved being able to see every­thing come together.

“I was trying to think of how I could justify spending time at this con­ference because I have so many other things I should be doing, but even to be able to hear these lec­tures from the mouths of amazing thinkers that we’ve read,” she said. “There are so many levels, you have access to their words and all the things that come along with it.”

Wales’ con­nection to the con­ference dates to 2009, when she coor­di­nated the event — Notre Dame’s largest aca­demic gath­ering — and she knows it inside and out. The con­ference con­nected her to Hillsdale stu­dents for the first time, and she would later give a talk to Hillsdale’s Catholic Society. If it weren’t for that talk, she said her husband, assistant pro­fessor of  the­ology, religion, and phi­losophy Jordan Wales, would not have applied for his job at the college.

“Ever since arriving in 2014, I’ve been telling people about it: It’s amazing, it’s so close, you can’t miss it,” Wales said. “People need to know. There are some important speakers at this thing who won’t be around much longer.”

Where serious aca­demic credit is con­cerned, Wales said this con­ference is a big deal. To get more stu­dents to the con­ference, she even vol­un­teered to drive a shuttle — if she had the right license.

“I think this con­ference should be worth a credit, if the CCAs are worth a credit,” Wales said.

The con­ference fea­tures keynote speakers, a day of paper pre­sen­ta­tions by rising scholars, and col­lo­quiums and panels by scholars and con­se­crated reli­gious from uni­ver­sities across the nation and the world.

Egger said going to the con­ference made her realize that what’s going on at Hillsdale and what’s going on outside is all part of one con­ver­sation.

“There is a sense of freshness to it,” she said. “There is some­thing so amazing about finding people out there who are having similar con­ver­sa­tions, there are a lot of other things they’re talking about that we’re not. Some of my best mem­ories of Hillsdale have been at these con­fer­ences with my friends there.”  

Taylor added that at Hillsdale, there’s a sense that the college is the last insti­tution engaging in these kinds of dis­cus­sions, to the point of seeming like the city on a hill. It seems lonely and hopeless, she said.

“It wasn’t just Hillsdale stu­dents,” Taylor said, noting the stu­dents coming from Notre Dame and Rice uni­ver­sities. “It’s com­forting to know…this dia­logue is hap­pening in all these places that are so dif­ferent from Hillsdale.”  

Some of Egger’s best mem­ories are from going to this con­ference with her friends and engaging in con­ver­sa­tions that they bring back to campus. After her third con­ference, she said she has more ref­erence points and can make con­nec­tions between the talks and her con­ver­sa­tions at Hillsdale.

Egger pointed to one pre­sen­tation as the most shocking and also her favorite.

“The whole time I was thinking, ‘I have to tell Dr. Gaetano about this,’” she said. “It ties into this class I took with him about scholas­ticism and mod­ern­ization — in terms of the sacra­ments — in this crazy new way that was con­nected to this question defining the whole con­ference: Is evil a demonic presence or is it just negation, are these the same thing? For me, not only did it sort of unify the other talks but it also tied into so many other things I’ve been thinking about at Hillsdale.”  

In one panel, a dis­cussion of depic­tions of depravity in art segued into demonology and the modern rejection of the devil that neces­si­tates the rejection of God, which tran­si­tioned into a dis­cussion of natural law and how Pascal can con­tribute to a Thomistic con­ception of natural law.

“I loved that because it really did bring together these things I’ve been studying and that I care about a lot, and to see how it was framed in an aes­thetic con­ference,” Taylor said.

Senior Birch Smith is in charge of phi­losophy tutoring for the hon­orary. He orga­nized the con­ference trip in 2016 and stepped in to help this year. According to Smith, the phi­losophy hon­orary has orga­nized it for the last two years after taking the respon­si­bility from the Sym­posium, which orga­nized it in 2015 but shrunk down and dis­ap­peared with the grad­u­ation of the class of 2016.

He said the fact that the event con­flicted with Phi Mu Alpha’s Battle of the Bands pre­vented eight to 10 other inter­ested people from attending part or all of the con­ference.

The central theme is some­thing that usually interests Hillsdale stu­dents and gives them three days of intensive talks. Smith said every year he’s attended has been really helpful for sorting out what he believes, and for broad­ening and deep­ening his under­standing of big topics.

Smith said he was encouraged to hear that recent alumni in master’s pro­grams are inter­ested in applying to Notre Dame’s graduate program because it reveals the sim­i­lar­ities in focus and interests between Hillsdale and the graduate program.

“I would love to see more people even than we had come this year, con­tinuing to go down to the Fall Con­ference,” he said. “I cer­tainly plan on being there, and I think a lot of the other alumni are as well — it is a miniature home­coming for the Hillsdale human­ities people.”

For junior and first-time attendee Colleen Prince, the con­ference came at the right time.

“It felt like a philo­sophical retreat, where I was able to take a weekend to listen and absorb what I love most,” Prince said. “Even though I love the pressure of school and the aca­demic setting, it is really nice to listen to those people you’ve encoun­tered in class and appre­ciate them and realize that you’ve learned so much in your classes at Hillsdale that you’re able to under­stand these speakers later on in your life. I want to go next year and see the improvement there.”

Enlivened by a day of lec­tures, attendees, pre­senters, and reli­gious braced them­selves against the evening chill as they walked toward the bells tolling for closing mass at the basilica, where the painted stars guided their gaze to the ceiling.