Jacques Maritain Center : The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain / by Ralph McInerny


Meeting at Meudon

Aperi, Domine, os meum

Four Germans who were in Paris for a meeting devoted to phenomenology visited the Maritain home in Meudon on September 14, 1932. Jacques Maritain had opened the conference and, at the age of fifty, was already enjoying a global reputation as a Christian philosopher and Thomist. Here is how Maritain recorded the visit in his journal. "Wednesday 24. Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Visit of Edith Stein, Dom Feuling, Rosenmoeller and Soehngen." It was more than gallantry that led him to mention the woman before the men. Edith Stein, Jewish like Raïssa Maritain, had become a Catholic and would soon enter the Carmelite Order and eventually be put to death at Auschwitz. It was their shared sense of the nature of Christian philosophy and a love of Thomas Aquinas that created immediately a special relation between the Maritains and Edith Stein.

The meeting to which Edith Stein had been invited was the first sponsored by the French Thomist Society. The second had as its theme the notion of Christian philosophy. A reading of the papers presented and the lively discussion of them that followed makes it clear that a common faith did not produce anything like unanimity on the question of the relation of faith to philosophy. Significantly, it was two laymen, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, whose views were subjected to prolonged and severe criticism as well as defense and celebration by clerical philosophers and theologians.

In his Gifford Lectures, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Gilson had made the historical point that any number of philosophical concepts had first come to the fore while Christian thinkers were engaged in theology, that is, in sophisticated reflection on truths revealed by God. Gilson was understood by his critics to have a feeble sense of the distinction between theology and philosophy because he insisted that philosophy too was carried on by Christian thinkers in the light of their faith. Maritain's conception of "moral philosophy adequately considered" also was attacked as involving a fundamental confusion of philosophy and faith.

Quite apart from the niceties of the dispute, it serves to call attention to a central fact about Jacques Maritain. He and his wife had been rescued from an intellectual and spiritual wasteland by their conversion. Listening to lectures at the Sorbonne, they had seen no point in devoting the few decades of their lives to such academic activity if it were to be followed only by annihilation. The absurdity of such a view of life all but overwhelmed them. Charles Péguy urged them to attend the lectures of Henri Bergson, and, like so many of their generation, they got from the lectures an intimation of something more, of the metaphysical. But it was the white-maned, fiery eyed, unclubbable Léon Bloy who first made Catholicism a living reality for them and was the occasion for the conversion of both Jacques and Raïssa. Bloy was their godfather, and they retained a loyal affection for him throughout their lives, making him known to a wider audience.

All that had happened many years before the time that Edith Stein visited the Maritains in their house at Meudon. One is tempted to work a variation on Newman's motto and suggest that, on such occasions with such people, spiritus ad spiritum loquitur. The young German philosopher, whose academic career had been thwarted by her gender and even more by the Nazi racial laws, had converted to Catholicism more recently than the Maritains. Having lost her Jewish faith while at the university, she later was impressed by the way her Christian friends accepted the death of a loved one because of their faith that souls survive and their hope in the resurrection, But it was reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila that prompted the simple and decisive judgment. "This is the truth."

Unlike Jacques Maritain at the time of his conversion, when Eith Stein came into the Church she was already an established philosopher, trained in a single mode of philosophy, the phenomenology of her mentor Edmund Husserl. After she received her doctorate, she was employed by Husserl as his assistant and aided him in the preparation of several of his publications, put order into his notes, and generally became his good right hand. She was a confirmed phenomenologist but resisted Husserl's drift toward idealism. Once she had become a Catholic, she felt a duty to begin a serious study of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Her remarkable comparison of Husserl and Thomas appeared in the phenomenological Jahrbuch. Then she undertook a tremendous task, the translation of Thomas's Disputed Question on Truth, a collection of some twenty-nine disputed questions, which takes its title from the initial one. Perhaps nothing brings one into closer contact with a thinker than translating him into one's mother tongue. It was Thomas who enabled her to see the connection between her two major interests, philosophy and the spiritual life. "It became clear to me, in reading Saint Thomas," she wrote in 1928, "that it was possible to place knowledge at the service of God and it was then and only then that I could resolve to take up again my studies in a serious manner." No wonder she was attracted to the work of Jacques Maritain. She would already have been aware of his little book on Christian philosophy. After her visit to Meudon, the Maritains sent her their joint work, De la vie d'oraison, called Prayer and Intelligence in the English translation.

Edith Stein is a canonized saint of the Church. Jacques Maritain and his wife spent their lives in the pursuit of sanctity. In the eyes of many, they achieved it. Jacques's influence on hundreds of souls is recorded in a veritable mountain of letters. He was instrumental in the conversion of many, and he and Raïssa were godparents to dozens. Maritain was a philosopher who metamorphosed into a theologian in his last years. He filled a shelf with books that have formed the minds of many and provoked both allegiance and attack. He was a quintessential intellectual. But he was more.

The premise of this little book is that we can find in the person of Jacques Maritain a model of the intellectual life as lived by a Christian believer. Of course, there can be no question of talking of his life apart from his life's work. It is rather a matter of emphasis. If I can succeed in showing how Jacques Maritain has functioned, for friend and foe alike, as the model and ideal of the Catholic philosopher, this little book, however flawed, will have achieved its end.

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