Random Reflections on Jacques Maritain

From: croire.lacroix.com

Recently I was startled to realize, it being so uneasy a reminder of my own mortality, that the eminent French philosopher Jacques Maritain has been dead going on half a century. I never met him in person. I was bold enough at the age of sixteen,  when he was well into his seventies, to send him a brief letter with a question. He very kindly replied. We exchanged a total of 34 letters between 1957 and 1962. Many mornings of my adolescence I hovered near the mailbox like an eagle lurking to seize its prey when the postman arrived. I treasure the memory of a great man taking such interest in the philosophical and spiritual nurturing of a young nobody. Maritain was a clever counselor; he had me reading first Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation before he later advised me to read Victorino Osende’s Fruits of Contemplation. Our correspondence ended when his wife Raïssa died and he moved from America back to France. He spent the rest of his life in Toulouse living with the Little Brothers of Jesus and became a Little Brother himself in 1970, three years before his death at the age of 91.

Fifty years after our correspondence ended, I was meditating on what Christian ministry to enter and occupy myself with during the years of retirement. One day, visiting a used-book store, I stumbled upon a book about Maritain. In the “Introduction” the author noted that Maritain’s last literary act was to autograph one of his books for a man who had recently been released from prison. I have been in prison ministry ever since. The philosopher, it seems, continued to counsel me even from his grave.

A First Taste of Maritain

I was introduced to the writings of Maritain at the suggestion of my high school English teacher, John Hadsell, who had earlier challenged me to wrestle with St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God. At first I was rather puzzled. Both Anselm and  Maritain are remembered less for their clarity and eloquence than for their depth. If one is not mature enough to have depth and is unable to muster considerable patience, it’s not easy to get past the first few pages of Maritain’s books. This is not to say that he never wrote memorable and witty prose. Here are several of his more scintillating sentences.

“I do not know if Saul Alinsky knows God. But I assure you that God knows Saul Alinsky.” “Gratitude is the most exquisite form of courtesy.” “Things are opaque to us, and we are opaque to ourselves.” “We don’t love qualities; we love a person; sometimes by reason of their defects as well as their qualities.” Not only does the democratic state of mind stem from the inspiration of the Gospel, but it cannot exist without it.” “Absolute atheism starts in an act of faith in reverse gear and is a full-blown religious commitment. Here we have the first internal inconsistency of contemporary atheism: it proclaims that all religion must necessarily vanish, and it is itself a religious phenomenon.”

In one letter I asked Maritain to comment on the views of the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose controversial book The Phenomenon of Man I had just read. Here are his remarks as best I can translate them. “I think it necessary to read Teilhard de Chardin as a sort of poem presenting to us mysteries in the Platonic manner – neither science nor philosophy, nor theology, but a mythology which puts us obscurely in contact with certain profound aspects of reality.” This was a charitable threading of the philosophical needle, since Maritain was a leading Thomist (follower of Thomas Aquinas) and surely not an advocate of “obscure mythology.” Some years later, in one of his last books, Maritain spent several pages of an Appendix taking Teilhard to task with this final gentle jab: “He was without doubt a man of great imagination.”

Who was Jacques Maritain?

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) authored more than sixty books. Arguably, along with G.K. Chesterton, he was the most profound, prolific, and influential Catholic thinker of the twentieth century. His wide-ranging interests included metaphysics, ethics, logic, aesthetics, politics, history and theology. He was foremost among the leaders of the modern revival of Thomism. In later years he cultivated a deep spirituality and many of his friends were pleased to say of him that he was above all a kind man and a lover of wisdom.

Maritain was born into a well-educated and liberal Protestant family in Paris. After steeping himself in the study of biology, chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne, he was deeply disappointed in the inability of science to answer the most important questions of life. During this period he met a like-minded student, the beautiful young Russian immigrant Raïssa Oumansoff. She too had been taking science courses and looking for answers that science could never give. About this futile search she later said, “We swam aimlessly in the waters of observation and experience like fish in the depths of the sea, without ever seeing the sun whose dim rays filtered down to us.” Deciding that the fruits of their labors were “but death and dust,” they made a pact to commit suicide if they did not find at least some hope for ultimate truth within one year.

Their guardian angels, alarmed and jolted into action, ensured that Jacques and Raïssa suddenly came under the influence of the philosopher/biologist Henri Bergson. A very popular teacher with the rising generation of scholars and artists, Bergson’s writings spurred the young lovers to find hope. Later the controversial Catholic poet and novelist Léon Bloy, by the example of his personal life and by steering Jacques and Raïssa to study the lives of the saints, greatly influenced their decision to enter the Catholic Church in 1906. Two years later they knew they had at last found a more hopeful avenue to truth when a Dominican priest, Humbert Clérissac, handed them a volume of writings by Thomas Aquinas. Raïssa read the book first, and later remarked: “So great a light kept flowing into both my heart and mind that I was carried away as if by a joy of Paradise.” She often discussed some of Aquinas’ views with Jacques, and with such enthusiasm that he commented, “When, several months later, I was to meet the Summa Theologica, I would erect no obstacle to its luminous flood.”

Maritain the Thomist

From then on Maritain called himself a Thomist and would make his personal motto, “Woe to me if I do not Thomastize!” He did not slavishly ape the views of Aquinas, but rather found applications of them to the realities and issues of the modern world. From Aquinas he was able to learn what Christianity had taught us: that love is worth more than intelligence. Yes, intellect is of great importance; we are obliged to search for truth and use it. Yet, he said, “We do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve.”

Maritain acknowledged Aquinas’ view that the knowledge we have of the world is of an objective world, a world that never changes just because we misperceive its objective reality and get lost in our subjectivity. The truths of the intellect are bound to the natural laws of the world in which the intellect resides.  This is just as true of the natural law concerning morality. We cannot make up morality as we go along, trading one moral value for another just because one value is newer or more fashionable than another. Likewise, in the political realm there are corollaries to natural law called natural rights. These rights are embedded in our nature and we know them intuitively. Societies may be talked out of these rights now and then (as when Aristotle wrote to justify slavery) or even bludgeoned out of them (as when the Nazis demanded their enemies submit or die) but the rights nonetheless exist and are collected together in one single utterance: “Love one another.”

Maritain, following Aquinas, viewed all worldly truth as subordinate to sacred truth. The philosopher, strictly speaking, is not supposed to substitute revelation for reason; but he should kneel to revelation as the higher and more mystical source of truths that cannot be attained by the lower and limited power of reason acting alone. This is the fatal flaw of atheism, according to Maritain; that it substitutes an absolute No-god of its own for the absolute God it denies. Consequently, Marxism, rooted in atheism, can never succeed because it befouls itself with a lack of scruples used to achieve its end; indeed, it has repudiated God, not to mention God acting through natural law, the ultimate source of all ‘scruples’.

Views of Art

Maritain generously spent himself exploring difficult questions about art and the role of the artist in society. He criticized the nineteenth century art movement which isolated the artist and made of him a law unto himself. “The motto Art for Art’s Sake simply disregards the world of reality, and the values and rights of human life. Art for Art’s Sake does not mean Art for the work, which is the right formula. It means an absurdity, that is, a supposed necessity for the artist to be only an artist, not a man, and for art to cut itself off from its own supplies, and from all the food, fuel and energy it receives from human life.” Art too is subject to the natural law, Maritain argued, but unscrupulous artists and their handlers are dangerous to society because they lack the moral vision that sees art as an uplifter, rather than a defiler, of the human spirit. Art will be ultimately worthless and obsolete if it serves only a selfish or vulgar purpose as opposed to a naturally human one. Yet Maritain was not strictly puritanical about the nature of art. “God does not ask for ‘religious’ art or ‘Catholic’ art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth.”

History and Maritain

Though Maritain was not a professional historian, his overview of history was impressive. The pendulum of history swings far and wide, Maritain said, noting how modern Christianity has suffered enormous setbacks in the economic, intellectual, and spiritual realms. Neither the founding Fathers of Capitalism nor those of Communism can be confused with the Founding Fathers of Christianity. If nineteenth century Communism was a blow to Christianity when it excluded God from its plan for utopia, nineteenth century Capitalism was a blow to Christianity when it promoted the absolute right of the rich to own all they could own, regardless of how exploited and deprived the lower classes might be. Christianity suffered two blows: the obscenely rich of the Gilded Age did not behave like Christians; and the poor gave up on Christianity when they were told, and believed, the transparent lie that Christianity was in cahoots with the rich. Maritain agreed with the remark by Pope Pius XI: “The great scandal of the nineteenth century is that the Church lost the working class,” who increasingly allied themselves with a radical movement toward unrestricted and irresponsible freedoms.

But Maritain assures us in Reflections on America (1958) that history is ambivalent. “At the very  same time that evil seems to grow triumphant, the ferment of justice and the energies of renewal are more or less secretly making headway and quickening the movement of mankind. At each epoch of history the world was in a hopeless state, and at each epoch of history the world muddled through; at each epoch the world was lost, and at each epoch it was saved.”

The Second Vatican Council was for Maritain a watershed event during which the Church would have an opportunity to set the record straight and spread its Gospel message far and wide with such force as it had not done for centuries. Coming near the end of his life, Maritain had reason to hope … and to fear. His hopes were fulfilled in that the actual record of Vatican II fairly conforms to Maritain’s own view of the renewal that was needed in the Church and that he had promoted in many of his books. But his fears were also fulfilled, in that modernist interpretations and applications of the Council did not conform in some ways either to Maritain’s hopes or to the actual recommendations of the Council. The liberal tendencies among theologians since Vatican II dismayed Maritain. In The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, he stated his hope that the liberal current in the Church on matters of social policy would continue, but he repudiated the vulgarization of Church liturgy and the trend toward loose theology and morality. Interesting to note that during a talk with Thomas Merton, Maritain is reported to have expressed regrets for his earlier opposition to abandoning the Latin Mass.

Maritain’s life was enormously rich both in thought and experience. His influence as a mentor and friend to younger thinkers and artists is legendary. The poet T.S. Eliot once referred to Maritain as “the most conspicuous figure and probably the most powerful force in contemporary philosophy.” When Pope Paul VI heard of his death, he wept. Perhaps the words of his wife Raïssa (herself a philosopher and poet) offer us his best epitaph. “It is very certain that no one could know him without loving him, and it is greatly to be deplored that he is known even less for his life as a saint than he is for his monumental work.” Her words were prophetic, since a movement began in 2011 to beatify not only Jacques, but  Raïssa as well, as the great models of a holy marriage that was aptly celebrated in her memoirs, We Have Been Friends Together.

As to one of Maritain’s “monumental” works, I choose his Moral Philosophy (1960) which tackles the history of ethics from Socrates to Sartre. As usual, Maritain starts from Thomism as the standard by which to rank the worth of any moral philosophy. The fundamental defect of all ethical systems that are not theocentric (and at best Christocentric) is that they are prone to error and relativism. This is especially true from Kant to Sartre, which replaces God with human reason as the alpha and omega of moral considerations. Kant is the first of the great assaulters of medieval theological morality when he substitutes duty for love as the key to all moral choices. Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, Soren Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, John Dewey, and Jean Paul Sartre likewise are dismissed after being subjected to Maritain’s relentlessly logical treatment. Bergson alone Maritain regarded as the single secular thinker in modern times who came closest to affirming a morality founded upon loftier principles than rank materialism could supply.

Maritain and Politics

Another “monumental” book by Maritain is Man and the State (1951). It was certainly fitting that the author of this book should have been instrumental in the United Nations plan to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain opens Man and the State with a discussion of how the States came to be and how power came to be managed by the State. In particular, he focuses on the question of national sovereignty, a term he dislikes very much because it is rooted historically in the idea the kings advanced; namely, that their will was supreme and that they were to be obeyed in all things. Such sovereignty was opposed to democracy, and Machiavelli was the first great corrupter of sovereignty when he argued in The Prince that the monarch’s sovereignty justified every means, including criminal means, to obtain the common good. Machiavellian politics inevitably dooms the practitioners of it, and so monarchy was eventually doomed by the notion of sovereignty.

Then along comes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who proposes that the only feasible political arrangement is that the General Will must be carried out. But who is to carry out the General Will if not one who is strong enough to impose that Will on all? Thus Maritain sees in the romantic Rousseau a prophet of the modern totalitarian States that governed in the first half of the 20th century. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini personified in themselves the General Will, seizing it in the name of the people and maniacally imposing it on the whole body politic with a frenzy of Machiavellian efficiency. But the dictators also were doomed, as the monarchs before them had been doomed. Maritain rightly concludes that only the machinery of democracy can produce a well-run State.

Limits of Democracy

It is true, Maritain admits, that democracy is a messy business, just as Aquinas had said it should be a mixed bag of checks and balances if it is to produce a just society. The danger is in despairing of democracy because you are afraid to get your hands dirty doing the messy tasks required. Such a fear was demonstrated by the famous American cynic of democracy H.L. Mencken when he offered this false analogy: “Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.” The notion that Christianity has not made some men better than they might otherwise be is, to borrow a current catchword, “fake news.” It’s likewise probable that democracy, in spite of failures along the way, has made many people freer and more prosperous and fulfilled than they might otherwise be. If this is doubted, one should live in North America first, then go live in North Korea.

Maritain believed that democracy works only if the smaller units of the State (such as families, churches, and communities) can together effectively organize themselves to make it work. He points to Mahatma Gandhi (two decades later he could have pointed to Martin Luther King Jr.) as an example of an organizer of small groups that led, after heroic endurance and sacrifice, to the independence of India. According to Maritain, dedicated Thomist that he was, political knowledge is rooted in the law of our human nature, which is not scientifically demonstrable but rather known by intuition and common sense. Our political knowledge applied democratically can be frustrated or obstructed, but only by turning away from our natural moral instinct to do good and avoid evil. In the remote past, kings, and in the past century dictators, have been the ones who principally obstructed our knowledge of how societies are best governed. Democracy (our own republican form of it as opposed to pure democracy) is the right system for governing, but the right kind of democracy is often frustrated by the tendency in some people (even people who espouse democracy as a working system) to distort democratic governance for their own selfish purposes. Thus, deprived of the ethical obligations imposed by religion, the individualism that is promoted by the leaders of a democracy can paradoxically undermine democracy and democratic institutions. Hedonistic living on credit, to the tune of a 20 trillion dollar national debt, is the surest way to attack and undermine democracy and all the institutions designed to sustain it.

Maritain knew that the Left (swollen with a chronically boastful sense of destiny) would always identify itself as the Progressive path to social utopia. But with the most precise language possible, in 1965 he formulated the fundamental defect of the Left in exactly the same language it could still be formulated today, fifty years later. “Leftist extremism has been invaded by a fever of demogogic excess and aggressive conformism, which protects themselves against the great amount of illusion and the bit of meanness that gregarian Idealism carries inevitably with it – not to mention the unhealthy feeling that one belongs to the victors and everyone should be made to know it.” If Maritain could observe today the outrages of censorship by angry Leftist thought police on college campuses across the nation, he would see his insight confirmed and more frantically demonstrated with terrible inevitability.


How then does a democracy serve its purpose in the most fruitful way? By developing an ethic of personalism. Personalism is the philosophy of elevating the person to something a good deal more than a mere unit or vote in favor of Progress. It is the love and respect that persons have for each other that alone can be the solid foundation for a successful democratic system. Without personalism it is inevitable that crass, materialistic, and even brutal instruments of the State will be developed to exploit the people. Without personalism the occasional revolt of the masses against the State are virtually inevitable as a way of settling scores. Personalism will therefore contain a Christian perspective of charity toward all including, Maritain insists, everyone’s “right to relief, unemployment insurance, sick benefits, and social security.”

Now a non-religious people, no matter how hard they try, will not be able to develop personalism as a logical foundation for democracy. In atheism there is no inherent imperative to love. This is why slavery was so popular in the ancient world, and also why the pagan Roman Caesars, who had ceased to believe in the mischievous shenanigans of their gods, came to imagine that they were, in their own self indulgent majesty, the only gods left to adore. But it was through gradual centuries of Christian personalism that slavery eventually was abolished, at least in those parts of the world that were dominantly and truly Christian.

Maritain saw in the integrity of the family and the excellence of educational systems the necessary bulwarks against a totalitarian State. Were he living today, he would see, as anyone today can recognize, that these very bulwarks have been badly damaged by laws that encourage the dissolution of the family and the creation of educational systems tightly controlled and subsidized by the State to advance the interests of the incumbent bureaucracy. Politically correct bureaucrats today tend not to be guided by the principles of Christian personalism, but rather by those principles that advance the cause of groupthink and socialism. Maritain asserted with the utmost confidence that it is the people, not the bureaucrats, who can be trusted. It is indeed interesting that Orwell’s 1984 and Maritain’s Man and the State were written within three years of each other. Could they both see the storm clouds gathering once again?

The political skies have darkened because in American democracy today, and throughout Europe, Christian personalism is in jeopardy. Religion is under attack as never before. Since Maritain wrote, abortion laws have been liberalized and same-sex marriage has been made lawful; this was not done by the will of the people as in a plebiscite, certainly not by the will of God, but rather by the will of appointed government jurists. The Churches, which Maritain believed should be leading the resistance to the rise of totalitarian government, are now in full retreat as the godless media and academia, aided by certain corporate powers and corrupt government officials, conspire to mock religion and promote depraved values.

Maritain, a Catholic liberal for democracy, defended all the rights of religion, including the rights of the separate churches to pursue their missions. It is by this freedom that Christian personalism will survive, and if patiently persistent, will prevail in due time. However, as everyone knows, all the churches are divided today, and to the extent they are fragmented, they have diminished influence in the creation of a personalist democracy. Though it might be accomplished only in the distant future, Church unity could usher in a new age of Christ’s promise yet to be fulfilled, to be one with him as he is one with the Father. In the spirit of striving toward such unity, orthodox Catholics and evangelical Christians, despite deep doctrinal differences, sense that the bond between them today is inspired by the Holy Spirit as they acquire a fortress mentality to resist the advance of an increasingly de-personalized and barbaric civilization. Draining the swamp of that civilization has barely begun. Have we started the draining too late?

In a March 2015 article in New Oxford Review, I pointed out that nearly three hundred years ago the physicist Isaac Newton, based on his study of hidden codes in Scripture, predicted the 21st century would experience the Second Coming. Considering Newton’s prediction of the biblical timeline for the return of the Jews to Israel in the middle of the 20th century, which actually happened on May  14, 1948, we should all be doing an eschatological double-take. If we are living in the End Times, thousands of nuclear weapons hurriedly assembled have paved the way and Judgment is not far off. We may be saved or we may perish according to the power we give Satan over us. “The Son of Man came to seek, and to save what was perishing” (Luke 19:10). But as Maritain somberly observed, “Christ does not save us in spite of ourselves. He does not save what was perishing if what was perishing prefers to perish.”


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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essay for students of Catholic apologetics