Pondering the true: A remembrance of Professor Crosson

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Author: Walter Nicgorski

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Frederick Crosson, Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities Emeritus in Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies, died on December 9th at the age of 83. Nearly two years earlier he had suffered a brain-damaging fall that left him confined and weakened in ways that painfully removed him from normal communication with family and friends. In full health, he had not only been a remarkably warm and gregarious person marked by a probing and ranging intellect and a rich spirituality, but also one who especially delighted in the significant exchanges and the specific public trust of academic life.

Deeply respected and loved by the students who came his way, he was among a handful of the intellectual and moral leaders on the faculty of Notre Dame in the second half of the 20th century.

Fred was hired and developed as a teacher and scholar in Notre Dame’s Great Books program from 1953 until 1976. He then held the O’Hara Chair in Philosophy before returning to the Program of Liberal Studies as the first Cavanaugh Professor in the Humanities in 1984. He published more than 45 scholarly articles, edited five books and reviewed countless books, the latter especially in his capacity over many years as philosophy and religion reporter for national Phi Beta Kappa’s The Key Reporter. He was elevated in time to the presidency of the Phi Beta Kappa (1997-2000), the first Catholic to hold that office.

His scholarly interests and publications covered a spectrum that included cybernetics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, political philosophy and philosophy of religion, at the center of which was his focused and devoted interest in St. Augustine. He has clearly made a singular contribution to the interpretation of Augustine’s writings.

During his tenure on the faculty Fred served as dean of the College of Arts and Letters, the first layman to do so in the University’s history. He also served as chair of the Program of Liberal Studies, editor of The Review of Politics and founding director of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. Outside the University, he served terms as president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and of the Yves R. Simon Institute. He worked tirelessly over many years for the ideals of liberal education on Phi Beta Kappa’s Committee on Qualifications and with the North Central Association in the accrediting process.

After his initial studies in philosophy through a master’s degree at the Catholic University of America, Fred went to the University of Paris to study the phenomenological and existential strains in continental philosophy, a journey that he completed in the Ph.D. under A. Robert Caponigri at Notre Dame. In France, Fred became especially interested in the then-recent and continuing Catholic renaissance in French intellectual life. Through that interest he became linked in another way to Notre Dame, where Yves Simon’s presence and Jacques Maritain’s active influence were in place at mid-century.

Catholics and politics

Fred revealed himself, as a teacher of political philosophy, in what he once said about Simon. He wrote of Simon’s “genius at bringing into view the critical theoretical questions which lay behind the controversies of our public life.” He noted that Simon showed Catholics “that liberal democracy and its emphasis on freedom was in no way opposed to the Catholic tradition,” and he showed liberals “not only that that tradition could provide a foundation for democracy” but that it also “provided a sounder foundation than did the possessive individualism of some of the classical theories of liberal democracy.”

Writing on another occasion as editor of The Review of Politics, Fred affirmed the journal’s tradition of looking at political problems “under historical, philosophical and theological perspectives.” He added that “those perspectives require the objectivity of scholarship, but we have never understood objectivity to entail indifference or scholarship to demand neutrality. We continue to work in the traditions of political democracy and of Catholic Christianity.”

I knew of Fred through his teaching before I met him at Notre Dame in the 1960s. Graduate student associates at the University of Chicago who had done their undergraduate work at Notre Dame spoke of the great impact of his teaching, especially his guided explorations of Aristotle’s Politics. In the same 1960s and before I joined the Program of Liberal Studies and came to know him as a colleague, I saw firsthand his analytical power and skill at directing a seminar in a faculty seminar (Collegiate Seminar faculty of the time) on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty; he drew remarkable perceptions of that text out of all of us, and I know that in his customary fashion he kept thinking about the argument of that text over the years. More than 20 years later, he published an important article on Mill’s On Liberty.

His much remembered teaching of Aristotle took place in what has been most often known as the “Politics” tutorial of the Program of Liberal Studies; that course was a quite constant part of Fred’s teaching station in his first 15 years on the faculty.

Later when he returned to the Program in the 1980s, he frequently took up this station again, and I had precious and regular opportunities to discuss with him illuminating and vexing aspects of the Politics. Fred was, in all his reading and notably with respect to this text, a most perceptive and probing reader from whom one always learned much. I came some time ago to believe that this text, along with his decidedly Christian sense of the common good and personal humility, accounted for his style of citizenship and leadership which I had seen over many years informing his life.

Fred always had a sense that one had to work hard and tirelessly for the “possible” improvement in a given context and that what one sought had to be critically derived from an understanding of what was truly good. He also took seriously Aristotle’s teaching that a good person would know how to rule and be ruled in turn. He was an exemplary citizen in his various communities from department, University, to the wider republic: he assumed responsibilities at the asking, prepared well for meetings, and contributed in a civil way that elevated discourse and understanding of the common good.

One of the great themes of Fred’s inquiry and thought was the relationship between faith and reason. This was, of course, bound up with his study of Augustine but seemed to take on new life for him with the appearance in the late 1990s of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, which Fred studied carefully (he had made his own index of it) and about which he lectured. He had formulations, no doubt Augustine-inspired, of faith’s assistance to reason that I found notably striking and helpful. While emphasizing that faith seeks understanding, in fact suggesting that faith seeks and understanding finds, that faith is thinking while assenting, he drew attention to how faith extends the horizon for reason and can lead us to look at evidence in a different way.

The love of Christ

The depth of Fred’s Christianity and its sacramental nature came out in a conversation that has ever remained with me. Over coffee after attending a lecture together, a lecture that had somehow raised for consideration whether all human relationships were some form, however attenuated, of a contractual utilitarian calculus, we came to ask about the unrequited love manifest in Christ. Was such love simply and entirely beyond the reach of humanity? Where might it be found? Where is it at least approximated?

After some groping about and a realization that the problem we had come on could clearly put not only politics but also all human relationships deeply at odds with Christianity, Fred drew attention to marital love and the having and nurturing of children as where such love might and sometimes did exist. Here a relationship could be a good in itself. Here too, Fred lived as he thought. Fred was married to Dr. Patricia Crosson and had five children.

In the five to six years before his death, Fred was especially interested in clarifying Leo Strauss’s teaching on esoteric writing and asking whether and how the esoteric dimension appeared in Christian classical writers like Augustine and Aquinas. This inquiry brought him to distinguish a Christian notion of “latent” meaning over against the esoteric that he saw Strauss opening in our understanding of the great tradition of political philosophy. Such work of Fred’s last stage of life as well as a number of his prize essays over the years, including one previously unpublished, are found in a collection of his essays which he began to prepare for publication in the months before his fall.

Professor Michael Crowe and Father Nicholas Ayo have edited the collection following Fred’s leads, and Professor Katherine Tillman has provided a significant interpretive introduction to the collection. The book is titled Ten Philosophical Essays in the Christian Tradition, and readers interested in purchasing the book are asked to get on a list for further notification by dropping a line to the office of the Program of Liberal Studies at 215 O’Shaughnessy Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556 .

Fred’s specific love, as a teacher, or better, as a facilitator of liberal education, was for the role of being leading questioner in a Great Books seminar. For him the key to deft guidance of discussion was greater and greater understanding of the text while maintaining a sense for what were real questions on the ordinary horizon of the human being and citizen. He emphasized the simple human good and happiness that came from greater understanding of who we are and where we are in time and in the universe.

I found especially meaningful an observation in his address upon winning the annual Sheedy Teaching Award in the College; the address was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and published on its editorial pages as well as in campus publications. Fred said, “To be better informed, but also to reflect on and to understand that information, is to expand not only our memory banks, but the scope, the articulation, of the everyday world we live in, to enrich the meaningfulness of our daily experience. Learning can help us to see more, to see otherwise, to discern what we never noticed. The more you know the more you can actually see and hear and feel.”

Good citizenship

At another time Fred spoke of wanting his students to attain “the skills of discerning and relating, of finding the order and meaning in nature and in culture. To begin to do that, to begin to be able to make for ourselves informed judgments about life and about works of literature, about politics and sociological theories, about what is worth reading and loving and doing, is to begin to free ourselves from being the prisoners of the mass media and the conventional wisdom of our time.” The good of the education Fred encouraged was personal, yet in speaking on behalf of liberal education in various national and campus contexts, he was ever attentive to the bearing on good citizenship in all our communities of such expanded and truly understanding minds. He welcomed and nourished the outstanding student, but Fred never understood his teaching vocation to be centered on further propagating the professorial ranks or professional philosophy.

In another notable reflection on education, Fred expressed his debt to his students and spoke of his role in a vertical, continuing community. He observed, “I learn along with the students. Sometimes I learn from things that a student remarks on, that I had never thought about before; sometimes the discussion presses me to articulate an issue in a way I had never thought about before. And so in a way, I am the carrier of insights from generation to generation of students, the carrier of gifts, so to speak, to the students who come after this generation.”

For years now, his students of earlier years have especially looked forward to his appearance as seminar leader on a reunion weekend or in a summer “Return to the Classics” program. One of his students from his early years of teaching has specifically remarked on his reaching out to struggling students and being at that time nearly alone among the faculty who socialized with students. Other undergraduate students who became successful professors in political theory and philosophy noted that Fred taught one “how to teach political philosophy” and that “his combination of personal integrity, intellectual depth and spiritual acuteness was unique,” inspiring me “to become a teacher and to require consistent excellence from myself as well as my students.”

A gift of learning

Katherine Kersten, among the very first women to take a Notre Dame bachelor’s degree, herself a mother of four, business woman, lawyer, educator and noted Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist, showed in her comments upon Fred’s death that his students could perceive the full significance of the gift of this man. She observed that “there are few minds like his in the university world today — few with such a broad grasp of the Western tradition and the best that has been thought and said. There are certainly few who can lead students with such love and skill to ponder the good, the true and the beautiful.”

Susan O’Shaughnessy, one of the nine graduate students whom he supervised through the doctorate, noted that “Fred led with kindness and intellectual appeal. He believed that every human being loved to learn. He believed that academic work was necessarily collaborative.” Such testimony to his work makes it unsurprising that Father Hesburgh, Fred’s “special president” from his first years through his deanship and much of his time active at Notre Dame, speaks of him as “a dream of what one looks for in a Notre Dame faculty member, wise as befits a philosopher and a great teacher, one of the very best.”

Students and colleagues will especially remember Professor Crosson’s pensive manner, pacing around the room, eyes closing as he was thinking at times to himself and at times aloud as a true philosopher should. He laughed often, not the laughter rupturing an Aristotelian gravitas, but a laughter of joy in the shared understanding he had with many and in his participation in the work of the education. Fulton Sheen perhaps had a grasp of this when he is reputed to have observed that “one weeps most profoundly for others, and one laughs most salvifically to express thanks.”

During the last two years as we were losing him, Fred did not upon visits feel confident to say much, but his warm smile and handshake upon arriving and departing and occasionally even his words of thanks were a reminder of how generously and lovingly he yet stood among us. It is our turn for a simple thanks to God and his family for sharing him and through him his learning, wisdom and example with so many students and colleagues in the Notre Dame community.


Walter Nicgorski is a professor in Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies. A classically trained political theorist, he has a special interest in the political thought of Cicero, the American founding, and the practice of moral and liberal education.


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