In Appreciation: Edward Goerner (1929-2012)

Author: Students of Professor Goerner

Edward Goerner ’52 taught political theory at Notre Dame for more than 50 years, beginning in 1960. He died Oct. 2 in South Bend at the age of 82, and he will be remembered by his students as a gentleman, an accomplished scholar, a profoundly learned and caring man, and a passionate and charismatic teacher.

Goerner wrote Peter and Caesar, several books on comparative European constitutions and numerous journal articles, some of which he published with his graduate students. His provocative analyses of the relationship of natural law and natural right and of the constellation of difficult issues that arise in considering the proper relationship of church and state are a permanent stimulus to serious thought on these issues.

Goerner did all of that, but he also knew how to do without it. He never became the high-powered scholar he could easily have become if he had shut his door or cared less. Instead, he sprinkled his genius among his students, nudging them to insights of their own. Throughout the course of his career at Notre Dame, Professor Goerner became especially known for his demanding and rewarding graduate seminars and his Introduction to Political Theory course for undergraduates.

Goerner often conducted graduate seminars as well as less formal social events at his house, where students benefited from both his knowledge of political theory and mastery of culinary arts. In his rigorous seminars on Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics and Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, graduate students prepared and discussed short papers on the texts each week. The earnest nature of their shared enterprise to understand the text was underscored by his decision to call them solely by last name and by the elaborate commentaries he sent to students via email, which sometimes rivaled the papers themselves in length and development.

Even after his formal retirement from Notre Dame, Goerner continued to teach and advise graduate students. He helped them revise seminar papers for publication and diligently read dissertations and theses, offering thoughtful suggestions for improving them.

Goerner’s undergraduate political theory course made him something of a legend on campus. It is perhaps impossible to know when he established the contours of his remarkable class, but it soon became finely tuned. Students read Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Plato’s Republic in that order. On Fridays, teaching assistants would lead students in conversations about case studies that Goerner had devised and refined over the years. These required students and teaching assistants alike to apply what they had learned.

Goerner’s introductory course may have been conducted for undergraduates, but graduate students were perhaps even more its beneficiaries. Comprehensive examinations seemed somehow possible after listening to Goerner dissect three of the greatest texts in the history of political thought. As he awoke in undergraduates the excitement of political theory, he allowed graduate students to glimpse what it meant to master a text — to understand the author’s goals, the era in which it had been written, and to shed accumulated interpretations to confront the text and its philosophical import directly.

If serving as a teaching assistant for Goerner’s introductory class was integral to the preparations and training of so many political theory graduate students, it was also so much more. Mostly, it was an opportunity to see a master at his craft. In appearance and demeanor, Goerner was always orderly, gracious and eloquent with more than a hint of the aristocrat. He dressed impeccably in tweed suits, usually with an ascot. His voice retained the Brooklyn accent of his youth. His manner was all Notre Dame but also part Oxford. Those who judged from his appearance that he was aloof were sorely mistaken. He laughed easily and robustly, had a streak of rascality in him andwas open to any idea from any quarter that merited consideration.

Goerner was particularly fond of the story he told that one year he noticed a Christmas tree standing adjacent to a student art/sculpture exhibition in O’Shaughnessy Hall. After the faculty Christmas party, he quietly added a carefully lettered card next to the tree that made it seem to be part of the exhibit. He was extremely proud that the new addition to the art exhibit remained undisturbed by custodians for the duration of the exhibit, ending up as a mass of bare branches surrounded by a pile of dry needles, and perfectly fitting the title he had written for it months before on the card: The Ghost of Christmas Past.

A storyteller with a keen sense of history, a vast knowledge of comparative systems and cultures, and a deep, resonant voice, Goerner developed lectures that tugged at the minds and souls of his students. In them, historical detail danced in service of theoretical insight, fact informed value, theater conspired with philosophy. He embodied the intellectual and ethical virtues that he taught, a Christian who lived a life in service of others.

Goerner’s most theatrical moment came each semester on the last day of his undergraduate political theory class. After meticulously explaining the final sections of Plato’s Republic, Goerner would abruptly shut his book, quickly gather his papers and end with a final observation. “When even good laws exhaust themselves, good men must be found to rescue the republic. May you live in such a way that you will never have need to call upon God’s mercy.” With an expression of profound earnestness and even a hint of anger, he would then storm out of the lecture auditorium, leaving students — some vexed, others assured, all enraptured — to contemplate the final message of his class.

David Barrett ’73, ’90Ph.D. Villanova University
Geoff Bowden ’03Ph.D. Malone College
Jodi Bruhn ’05Ph.D., Indian and Northern Affairs (Canada)
Paul Brink ’05Ph.D., Gordon College
Susan Burgess ’90Ph.D., Ohio University
Jarrett Carty ’06Ph.D, Concordia University
Kevin Cherry ‘08Ph.D, University of Richmond
Jeffrey Church ’08Ph.D, University of Houston
Kevin Deegan-Krause ’00Ph.D., Wayne State University
David Dixon ’97Ph.D., Saint Joseph’s College
Brendan Dunn ’08Ph.D., lawyer for the United States
Alan Gibson’93Ph.D, California State University, Chico
David Koyzis ’87Ph.D., Redeemer University College
John von Heyking ’99Ph.D., University of Lethbridge
Brad Lewis ’97Ph.D., Catholic University
Patrick McKinlay ’94Ph.D., Morningside College
Gary Lee Malecha ’87Ph.D., University of Portland
Peter Meilaender ’99Ph.D., Houghton College
Ines C Molinaro ’89Ph.D., St. Clare’s College, Oxford
Nancy Powers ’93Ph.D., Kenyon College
Daniel Reagan ’89Ph.D., Ball State University
Thomas Smith ’93Ph.D., Villanova University
Sarah Spengeman, Ph.D. candidate, Cuesta College
Christopher Wolfe ’71 (’78Ph.D. Boston College) Thomas International Center