Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., Professor of the Humanities
I’ve spent my entire career at Notre Dame, teaching in the Program of Liberal Studies, which offers an integrated undergraduate “Great Books” curriculum, and in the English department. My scholarship focuses on the work of John Milton, whose Paradise Lost ranks among the world’s greatest epic poems. I am particularly interested in Milton’s place in intellectual history.
In my book Milton among the Philosophers, I show how his construction of an unusual materialist monism—that is, his insistence that spirit and body are not separate substances—is driven by his unshakable commitment to freedom of the will at a time when mechanist theories were throwing the freedom of the will into doubt.
Milton’s Peculiar Grace examines his frequent and anomalous self-representations. Despite his belief in the universality of sin and the effects of the fall, not to mention a cultural context in which rehearsals of sin and conviction were all but compulsory in autobiography, Milton always wrote of himself as if unfallen. The result, I argue, is a creative tension that animates his poetry.
I am now exploring some striking similarities between Milton and his younger contemporary Isaac Newton, specifically their thinking on the nature of the Son of God and on the intrinsic life of matter.
Notre Dame, a university where the kinds of theological and philosophical questions that underlie these projects are of more than merely antiquarian concern, has been an ideal setting for my teaching and scholarship. My students, both undergraduate and graduate, share my interests and push me to develop my thinking. And inspired by our students’ commitment to social justice and service, my colleague Clark Power and I developed and continue to teach a series of courses on literary and philosophical classics at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend.