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




1919 July. Maritain signs Massis's manifesto "Pour un parti de l'intelligence."
1920 January 9. Jacques and Charles Maurras. contribute fifty-thousand francs apiece of the Villard inheritance to the founding of La Revue Universelle. January 26. Lecture at Louvain. "Some conditions of the Thomistic Revival." Publishes Art and Scholasticism and volume 1 of his Elements of Philosophy, the Introduction to Philosophy. Beginning of what would become the Thomistic Study Circles. Publishes Theonas, the first title in a projected French Library of Philosophy under Maritain's direction.
1921 Raïssa ill; convalescence in Switzerland. Consults Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., about the study circles.
1922 March-April. Drawing up of the statutes of the Thomistic Circles. Garrigou-Lagrange becomes advisor of the circles. Prayer and Intelligence (De la vie d'oraison) by Jacques and Raïssa. July 1 -- September 20. Stay in Switzerland, where Jacques meets Charles Journet, lifelong friend and future cardinal. September 30 -- October 4. First retreat of the Thomistic Circles preached by Garrigou-Lagrange at Versailles. Antimoderne published.



Of the two things Maritain said the Villard bequest would enable him to do -- continue his philosophical work and conduct a center of spirituality -- the second was begun at Meudon in a house the Maritains were able to buy with their new and unexpected fortune. But both objectives were pursued at the same address. It was at Meudon that Maritain began the Thomistic Study Circles.

        An indication of the importance Maritain attached to the study circles and retreats that were held at his house in Meudon is the fact that he devotes nearly one quarter of his Carnet de notes to the subject. This project,which would continue until the beginning of World War II, when Jacques and his wife left France for the United States, and which represents one of the most sustained efforts on Maritain's part to influence the culture of his native land as a convert to Catholicism, must be understood in all its successes and failures.

        The meetings at the Maritains' seem to have begun without any thought of regular recurrence. Jacques tells us that he found in a notebook this entry: "First reunion of Thomistic studies at the house, with Picher, Vaton, Barbot, Dadtarac, Massis." The date of the entry was Sunday, February 8, 1914. There was no immediate sequel to that meeting, not surprisingly: World War I broke out in 1914. It was five years later, in the fall of 1919, that regular meetings devoted to Thomistic studies began at the Maritain home in Versailles. Jacques had been on leave of absence from the Institut Catholique during the year 1917-1918 (the last year of the war), engaged in writing two introductory books in philosophy.{1} The names of those attending the first meeting were hardly household words, and Maritain describes the participants of the second meeting, which would indeed begin a series, as personal friends and students of his from the Institut Catholique. It was still an informal gathering, and it stayed that way until 1921 when the decision was made to formalize the meetings and to stabilize their point. The participants were those "form the spiritual life and the pursuit of wisdom (philosophical and theological) had major importance...."{2}

        From the time of their conversion, the Maritain household had been on a schedule that took its rationale from a dual purpose -- the pursuit of study and the pursuit of sanctity. In Germany, there had been only an accidental connection between the two, with prayer merely surrounding studies more or less unrelated to the goal of the spiritual life. The discovery of Saint Thomas had opened up the possibility of a more integral connection between the life of the mind and the life of the spirit. This was a discovery that Edith Stein too would make.{3} When the Maritains became oblates of Saint Benedict under the motto Ora et Labora: Work and Pray, their regimen of prayer and study had taken on a particular stamp, but the Thomistic Study Circles acquired their own character. There was the continuation of the conviction that laymen too were called to sanctity, but the spirit of Versailles was more Dominican than Benedictine, a movement prefigured in a way to Thomas Aquinas's move from the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino to the Order of Preachers.{4} Most of the participants were lay people -- old and young, male and female, students and professors -- but there were priests and religious as well. The lay people represented a wide range of vocations, not just professional philosophers, but doctors, poets, musicians, businessmen, scientists. Catholics were in the majority, but there were also unbelievers, Jews, Orthodox, and some Protestants. Some were already experts in Thomistic thought, others mere beginners. It was interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, albeit in different degrees, that brought them together.

        What was the atmosphere? It wasn't a class or a seminar -- the participants did not come as students in that sense; nor was it a soirée with drinks and cigarettes. Rather, people came to a home as guests. Jacques goes on about the need for feminine influence for the success of such a venture and characterizes the participants as guests of Raïssa. There were three women hostesses: Raïssa, her mother, and her sister Vera. The samovar was readied, and later there would be dinner. Writing as a lonely widower, Jacques insists that Raïssa was the "ardent flame" of the reunions, taking an active if discreet part in the discussions. And she prayed constantly for the success of the reunions. "It is clear that without her -- or without her sister -- there would have been no Thomistic Circles, anymore than there would have been a Meudon (or that matter a Jacques Maritain)."{4}

        The discussion would go on throughout the afternoon, through tea and on into dinner, though not all stayed for that. At midnight, they bade goodbye to the last guest and collapsed with fatigue.


It is significant that Jacques insists on the role of Raïssa in the reunions. Her motive was certainly and chiefly the dissemination of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, but of course there was also a wife promoting her husband's career and influence. As time went on, the reunions became the occasion for many conversions to Catholicism; and the relevance of Thomism for all aspects of culture gave the reunions the air of a salon that sought to exert influence in the artistic and literary life of Paris. The very public contretemps with Jean Cocteau and the effort to rival the literary influence of André Gide are facets of that, as we shall see. But these were far in the future when the effort began.

        For the first ten or twelve years, the topics were the great problems of philosophy and theology, treated technically. Texts of Thomas would be read, the great commentators consulted -- special mention is made of John of St. Thomas -- and an effort made to "disengage from the intramural disputes of Second Scholasticism the truths whose appeal transcended the prison-like setting of the texts." What were the themes? Faith and reason, philosophy and theology, metaphysics, poetry, politics -- all the issues raised by the culture around them.

        Jacques was the leader, as we learn when he tells us that he prepared his expositions of the texts the night before or Sunday morning, "hastily, but carefully." Among his papers, he found notes for the meetings, and we are not surprised to hear that these took the form of synoptic tables and great schemata on large sheets that could be affixed to the wall. The subjects he treated, by way of analysis of texts, included the following: angelic knowledge; how angels know future contingents; singulars and secrets of the heart; intellectual knowledge; the agent intellect; knowledge of the singular; the vision of God and the light of glory; the desire for that vision; theoretical and practical knowledge; is sociology a science? in what sense? medicine; politics; justice and friendship; the Trinity; subsistence, person,the divine persons; Original Sin; the incarnation; the human nature of Christ; free will....


Maritain recalled these topics from the first decade of the reunions, which should mean through 1929. As the chronology at the beginning of the section indicates, these were tumultuous years -- the public flap with Cocteau; the attempt to dissuade Gide from publishing Corydon; the establishment of Roseau d'Or, the Golden Rose, a series of books meant to rival Gide's influence on French culture. And it was during this decade that Action Française, with which Jacques was associated, was condemned by Rome.

        Before looking at the contretemps with Cocteau and with André Gide over what might be called Jacques Maritain's apostolate to the homosexuals, which had very mixed results, let us examine the little book Jacques and Raïssa wrote to express the vision of the intellectual life that lay behind the circles. But first we must consider the constitution that governed its meetings.


        The statutes governing the Thomistic Study Circles can be found in an appendix of Maritain's Carnet de notes published many years afterward, in 1964. Section 1, which states the general principles of the circles, is of more interest than the section devoted to organization.

        "In making Saint Thomas Aquinas the Common Doctor of the Church, God has given him to us as our leader and guide in the knowledge of the truth." Maritain's mind had been formed by the philosophy of the day -- negatively, for the most part, but more positively in the case of Bergson. After his conversion, he did not immediately see the significance of Thomas Aquinas in the intellectual life of the Catholic. It was nearly four years after his conversion that he began to read the Summa theologiae. Doubtless motivated by docility at first, he soon became personally convinced of the wisdom of the Church's designation of Thomas as chief guide in philosophy and theology. Thomas has pride of place among the Doctors of the Church, and professors should present his thought to their students. The characterization of Thomas's doctrine in the statutes stresses its formality. "It addresses the mind as a chain of certitudes demonstratively linked and is more perfectly in accord with the faith than any other." It carries with it the pledge of a sanctity inseparable from the teaching mission of the Angelic Doctor all but effaced his human personality in the divine light. However attractive the person of Thomas is and however much a model of the Christian life, Maritain quoted with enthusiasm the statement of Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris: Majus aliquid in sancto Thoma quam sanctus Thomas suscipitur et defenditur: there is in Thomas something greater than Thomas that we receive and defend. It is because of his sanctity as well as his intelligence that Thomas can be a vehicle of the truth and a model for the pursuit of it.

        After providing a succinct indication of Leo XIII's reasons for designating Thomas Aquinas as guide in philosophy and theology, the statutes go on to observe that the human mind is so feeble by nature and weakened by the heritage of Original Sin that it needs supernatural help to grasp a doctrine so metaphysically and theologically exalted as that of Thomas. The saint is seen as a special assistant of the Holy Spirit in dispensing the graces necessary to achieve the aim of study. "Especially in the present time so replete with error and above all lacking the discipline and graces proper to the religious life, we believe it to be impossible for Thomism to be maintained in its integrity and purity without the special help of a life of prayer."

        The spiritual life and the life of study are found to be united not only in Thomas but also in his major commentators; for example, in Bañez, who was the spiritual director of Teresa of Avila, and in Gonet, who dedicated his Clypeus thomisticae theologiae to her, and in the theologians of Salamanca (Salmaniticenses), faithful Thomists who found in his theology the foundations of the spiritual teaching of both Teresa and Saint John of the Cross.

        In modern times it is necessary for lay people as well as religious to pursue this union of study and prayer. How else can the modern mind be won over to the truth? It is also necessary to become knowledgeable in all that has been taught since Thomas, according to the circles' statutes: to accept what is true and reject what is false and, by combining old and new, to make progress toward an intellectual renaissance in all areas of culture, not only in theology and philosophy, but in art and letters as well. The statutes envisage writers and painters and poets moving off from a Thomist base to creative work in their various fields.

        But this cannot be regarded simply as the acquisition of knowledge. Indeed, knowledge is dangerous if one does not have the appropriate motive and spiritual preparation for it. "Experience shows that the danger of the 'materialization' of Thomism is not imaginary." It is to forestall that and to promote the opposite, the unity of study and prayer, that the study circles have been formed. The spiritual and supernatural is the most important aspect of this effort. As to what form this should take, members are left to follow their own best lights.

        The circles were not a third order -- would the Maritains have chosen the Benedictines rather than the Dominicans if that had been their intention? -- but they were certainly modeled on such affiliates of religious orders. Those took the aims of the statutes seriously would not only live lives different from those of other intellectuals, artists, and writers; they would be leading lives of reparation for the follies committed in the name of their art or science. While this will seem an unusual way to view one's intellectual or artistic life, Maritain would doubtless reply that what was at issue was simply taking one's Christian belief seriously. Prayer and study, living a life sustained by grace, are not mere options for the believer. What the circles did was to articulate what the demands of the faith are in the various activities that make up a society's culture. That the demands were racheted up a notch or two is undeniable; that a demanding pattern was proposed is equally undeniable. Lay people were advised to spend at least one hour each day in prayer, and this was to animate everything else done during the day.

        The circles were put under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary and were open to those living in the world "wished to work for the spread of Thomism or to be inspired by it, resting faithful to the thought and teaching of St. Thomas which lives in his great disciples, such as Cajetan, John of St. Thomas and the [anonymous] Theologians of Salamanca." Members would take a private vow to devote themselves to the life of prayer to the degree that their state of life permits. A year's trial and the advice of a confessor is recommended before taking the vow for a year or even perpetually. But such a vow is not an absolute requirement for membership.


Complementing the statutes of the circles was a little book written by the Maritains in 1922, the year the circles were formally organized. It was first circulated privately and not published and made available in bookstores until 1925. The authors disclaim that their work is meant to substitute for a treatise on spirituality or even serve as an introduction to the most elementary work in that area. What they have sought to do is lay out in the spirit of the Christian tradition and of Saint Thomas, in the simplest way, the grand lines of the spiritual life of persons living in the world devote themselves to the life of the mind.

        The book is prefaced by the testimony of Reginald of Piperno, the socius of Thomas in the Dominican Order who worked closely with him and could thus describe the saint with authority. "My brothers, while he lived, my master prevented me revealing the wonderful things of which I have been witness in his regard. One of them is that he did not acquire his knowledge by human industry but by the merit of prayer, for each time he intended to study, discuss, read, write or dictate, he would first withdraw for private prayer, and he prayed with tears that he might find the truth of the divine secrets, and thanks to this prayer, although before he had been in a state of uncertainty , he came away instructed...."

        The intellectual life is in any case a mysterious thing. Describing it after the fact is one thing -- formalizing it into arguments and setting forth presuppositions, premises, relevant supports is another. How does it actually evolve? Where do ideas come from? What is the source of the insight that comes seemingly without prelude? The life of reason can seem to ride up on a sea of mystery. Of course, like self-made men, thinkers take credit for their thoughts as if they brought them forth with full lucidity and intention. But the image of the apple hitting Newton on the head suggests another possibility.

        That being said, it will not seem that Thomas is taking unfair advantage in having recourse to prayer, asking divine light on the task before him. An argument for prayer in the schools is lurking here. No less an authority than Alfred E. Newman said it was the only way he could have graduated. More seriously, what we have here is what Saint Augustine, whose motto was taken from Matthew's gospel, emphasized in On the Teacher. You have but one teacher, Christ. The capacity to learn is given: the human teacher can only address it, invoking a light that untimately comes from the Word of God, the eternal logos.

        Our tendency to think that prayer is a brief recess from acts over which we have full control and of which we are the sole causes is in conflict with Paul's injunction: whatever you do . . . . Once more, the animating principle of the circles is seen to be only a special case of the general condition of Christians.


De la vie de l'oraison has two parts: The Intellectual Life and Prayer, and The Spiritual Life. Anyone acquainted with the opusculum called De modo studendi, attributed to Thomas Aquinas, will be reminded of it when he opens this little book by Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. Each of the nine chapters (three in part 1, six in part 2) bears as its title a Latin citation on which the text is a commentary. But of course it is the conjunction of the intellectual and spiritual lives that gives the book its stamp, and one which, in the modern world, will surprise.

        The progressive secularization of philosophy has had its effect on the sense of what the vocation of a philosopher is. Of Descartes's account of knowledge Maritain remarked that it bore a peculiar similarity to Thomas Aquinas's account of angelic knowledge. Methodic doubt led Descartes to the first certainty that, even if he were deceived about any and everything he might think, of one thing he could not be deceived, of the fact that he was thinking. From this starting point the Cartesian project of reconstruction began. Descartes regarded himself as a thinking something, a res cogitans, and his project was to see if he could get outside his mind, mind being all he is at this point. This is the origin of the so-called mind-body problem. It is not surprising that such an understanding of the philosophical task has influenced the philosopher's notion of his calling. It comes to be seen as an almost exclusively cerebral pursuit of knowledge unrelated to the wider life that, presumably, the philosopher leads. The madman, Chesterton said, has lost everything except his reason.

        This impoverishment of the pursuit of truth is something to which Maritain responded in a variety of ways. The later discussions of Christian philosophy are obviously related to it. The distinction between the nature and the state of philosophy, between philosophy and philosophizing, obviously address this issue. But from the beginning, after their conversion and consequent pursuit of a spiritual life under the guidance of a director, any philosophizing would necessarily be seen in the context of the spiritual life. The book on the life of prayer -- in English it would be called Prayer and Intelligence -- was first published anonymously in 1922, reprinted under the names of the authors in 1925, then with changes in 1933, and with more changes still in 1947. The basic text of the book remained the same, with the variations occurring in the notes and addenda. This history of the book may be taken to underscore that its subject represents a profoundly abiding concern of the authors.

        "O Wisdom, which proceeds from the mouth of the Most High , reaching from end to end mightily and sweetly disposing all things, come and teach us the way of prudence." The technique of the book is to provide brief reflections on a series of Latin tags coming from various sources. The first part meditates in order on the following.

1. Verbum spirans amorem: The Word breathing forth love.

2. Et pax Dei, quae exsuperat omnem sensum, custodiat intelligentias vestras: May the peace of God which surprasses all the senses take over your understanding.

3. Sint lucernae ardentes in manibus vestris: Let there be burning lamps in your hands.

Verbum spirans amorem: the Word breathing forth love. It is necessary that in us too love proceed from the Word, that is, from the spiritual possession of the truth in Faith. And just as whatever is in the Word is found in the Holy Spirit, so too what is in our knowledge must pass into the affections by way of love, and come to rest only in it. Let love proceed from truth, and knowledge be made fruitful in love. Our prayer is not what it should be if either of these two conditions be lacking. By prayer we mean above all that which takes place in the secret of the heart and is ordered to contemplation of and union with God.

        Union with God is the ultimate end of human existence, the common goal of all. Once again, we are reminded that the reflections before us are only a special instance of the common human vocation. That end will be reached by action aided by grace or sometimes simply by an act of God with the soul in the passive condition described by the mystics. Saint Gertrude is cited but also the Summa theologiae's discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thomas makes clear that God moves man in a way appropriate to his nature: man is not a mere instrument or tool of the divine action. "But man is not an instrument of that kind, for he is moved by the Holy Spirit in such a way that he himself also acts as a creature endowed with free will" (Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 68, a. 3, ad 2). Deliberate effort on our part, moved by grace of course, can prepare the way for God's special action in us. Our intellect can only develop to the full its highest capacities if it is strengthened by a life of prayer. "There is a quite special connection between the intellectual life and the life of prayer, in this sense that prayer seeks to remove the soul from the realm of sensible images so that it might rise to the intelligible and beyond, but reciprocally, the activity of intellect is the more perfect as it is freed from these same sensible images." Again this echoes Saint Thomas (IIaIIae, q. 15, a. 3; In Boethii de trinitate, q. 6, a. 2.) Prayer alone can unite us with absolute fidelity to the truth and fill us with charity toward our neighbor, "in particular, a great intellectual charity." Prayer alone will enable us to move from truth to practice.

        In those whose lives are dedicated to intellectual work, prayer must be sustained and nourished by theology. Theology makes surer and shorter the spiritual path and can spare us a host of errors along the way: in the Purgative Way, the first and ascetic step mentioned by the saints whereby we wean ourselves from base desires and self-love; in the Illuminative Way, theology has a purifying power that turns the human self toward God alone; and finally, in the Unitive Way, it roots the soul in faith and divine truth, a disposition essential to the life of union.

        Charity takes pride of place, not least because in this life we can love God more perfectly than we can know him. God lifts up the most simple to the sublimest contemplation, but knowledge can become an obstacle because of our perversity and vanity. However, it would be presumptuous to expect an infusion of doctrinal lights that are in our power to attain. The normal way, for those given the grace, is to pursue both paths: to unite the life of intelligence to that of charity and let the one be of aid to the other, remembering that the second is far more valuable than the first.


The Maritains make passing mention of the character of the intellectual life in modern times; and no reader will fail to see how fundamentally different from the modern is the vision of the life of the mind set forth in this little work, a vision that underlies the Thomistic Study Circles. Jaques Maritain did not see the faith he had been given as a mere garnish, something added to his workaday life in a more or less incidental manner, something that might lead perhaps to saying a prayer before sitting down to study. The Christian faith initiates a life, and grace is to pervade all aspects of it. This required Maritain to embed the intellectual life into the common Christian vocation, thereby transforming it.


The second part of this little work meditates on the following Latin phrases:

4. Estote perfecti: Be thou perfect.

5. Caritas vinculum perfectioni: Charity the bond of perfection.

6. Mihi autem adhaerrere Deo bonum est: It is good for me to cling to God.

7. Qui spiritu Dei aguntur, ii sunt filii Dei: They who are moved by the spirit of God are the sons of God.

8. Averte oculos meos ne videant vanitatem: Turn away my eyes less they look on vanity.

9. In omnibus requiem quaesivi et in hereditate Domini morabor: In all things I have sought rest and I will dwell in the inheritance of the Lord.

10. Qui volens turrim aedificare, non prius sedens computat sumptus: He who wishes to build a tower without first counting the cost....

11. Praebe mihi cor tuum: Show me thy heart.

12. Si qui vult post me venire, abneget semitipsum, et tollat crucem suam, et sequatur me: He who wishes to come with me must first deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.

        The second part begins with an appeal to the Rule of Saint Benedict, cites Père Lallemant, author of a work called Spiritual Doctrine, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux; Thomas Aquinas; his commentator Cajetan; Saint Albert the Great; John of St. Thomas; Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite; and, explicitly and implicitly, of course, Sacred Scripture. Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Teresa of Avila, Père Humbert Clérissac, and Cassian are invoked as well. Despite their disavowal, the Maritains have in these few pages profived a florilegium of texts from the Christian tradition of reflection on the spiritual life, arranging the texts and invoking the authorities with the special purpose of laying out for others, as doubtless they first did for themselves, the only way in which, as Christians, they could continue to pursue the life of study. It is imperative that this be seen as the bedrock of Maritain's long and industrious life. The spirit in which he thought and taught and wrote makes him a congenial figure even if one is initially less than persuaded by what he says. The voice that one hears is not that of a careerist, an academic, a man jealous of his reputation.


A personal remembrance: When I was a very junior member of the faculty at Notre Dame, Jacques Maritain visited. He would speak that evening in the auditorium of what was then the new Moreau Seminary on the far side of St. Joseph's Lake on campus. We walked along the road that leads north from the Grotto under autumnal trees still aglitter with golden leaves, scuffling through those that had already fallen. Before reaching the community cemetery where, under identical crosses, the dead members of the Congregation of Holy Cross lie in a kind of clerical Arlington, we turned to the right and continued on to Moreau. Much of the audience was made up of seminarians, and we all took our seats and waited until an old man was led down the aisle, stooped, his hair white but still full. Around his neck he wore a scarf in the way a priest wears a stole, but this was a layman, one of the most beloved and respected figures of the Thomistic revival. I cannot say that I remember much of what he said -- he spoke on the philosophy of history -- and this is not only because his English was difficult. It was the man one heard first of all, the person speaking; what he had to say was filtered through a self that had spent a long life trying to avoid the one tragedy of which he had read in Léon Bloy so many years before. This was not just another lecture, because he was not just another lecturer. The ideal of the intellectual life he embodied inspired generations of laypeople who decided to devote their lives to philosophy or theology or to see whatever they did sub specie aeternitatis. That was a long time ago, over forty years ago, and since then the faculties of colleges and universities have taken more secular models for what they do. There have been many changes. Changes, not improvements.



The foregoing chapter should make clear that when Maritain amends the cry of Saint Paul, "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel," into the slogan that provides the title of this section, he is not putting Scripture to secular use. The study of Thomas, the intellectual life, was not something separate from the spiritual life for Maritain. What grounded his conviction that in taking on the Catholic faith he was effectively taking Thomas Aquinas as his main mentor in things intellectual? We have seen that this did not come home to him immediately. Some years passed after his conversion before he began to read Thomas Aquinas. But once he began, nothing was ever the same again.

        In 1879, a quarter of a century before Maritain's conversion and three years before his birth, Leo XIII issued an encyclical known from its pening words as Aeterni Patris. As its title made clear, the pope wanted Christian philosophy in the matter of the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, to be established in Catholic schools. Thomas Aquinas had been recommended time and again by the papal Magisterium; he held pride of place in the intellectual training of members of his own order, the Dominicans, as well as others. Editions of his works continued to appear, but by the time of Leo XIII, Thomas no longer played a significant role in the intellectual life of the Church. How this came about has much to do with the extraordinary character of Leo's encyclical.

        The Summa theologiae and the Bible were displayed on the altar during the sessions of the Council of Trent as the principal works of reference for the bishops gathered to consider what was to be done about the issues raised by the Reformation. The renewal in the Church occasioned by the defection of Luther and others was characterized by the reform of seminary education. The prominence given Thomas Aquinas at the Council's sessions would seem to promise that he would function as mentor in philosophy and theology. But the Tridentine church does not seem to have enjoyed anything like a Thomistic revival. Rather, historians provide us with an increasingly bleak and fragmented picture. When John Henry Newman, recently converted to Catholicism, came to Rome in 1846 expecting to find a bastion of Thomism, he found anything but. "I have read Aristotle and St. Thomas," a Jesuit told him, "and owe a great deal to them, but they are out of favor here and throughout Italy. St. Thomas was a great saint -- people don't dare to speak against him, but put him aside." We may wonder what had happened since the time of Descartes at the Jesuit college of La Fleche, where he was introduced to at least the tail end of the Thomistic tradition, i.e., the commentator on the Summa, Toletus.



One thing that happened was Descartes himself, who, putting away what he had learned as mere opinion and verbiage, set out to put philosophy on so firm a foundation that the endless quarrels that had characterized previous history would come to an end. Descartes was a Catholic; when he died in Stockholm, where he had gone as a guest of Queen Christina, it was feared that he was trying to convert her to Rome -- a conversion that did indeed eventually take place after Descartes's death: Christina's life ended in the eternal city. The Cartesian method was not aimed at undermining religion, but with Descartes we see the beginnings of a philosophy self-consciously separating itself from Christian faith. In time, philosophy would come to see itself as completely secular, an alternative to Christianity, but this was far from the immediate result. Well into the nineteenth century, philosophers saw themselves as providing the only defense of Christianity possible in modern times. In the eighteenth century, Kant would recommend a religion that kept within the limits of reason alone; while in the nineteenth, Hegel saw his philosophy as the apotheosis of Christianity: philosophy as the truth of religion. The modern philosophy that dominates the history of the discipline can seem merely an extension of the Protestant Reformation -- and this despite the role that Descartes, Malebranche, and Pascal, Catholics all, played in its first generation.

        Catholic thinkers seemed to take as their first task the assessment of Descartes's rejection of scholasticism. With the success of what may be called the epistemological turn, with the endless variations on it that were to come, confronting the claims of the moderns, as such, pretty well filled one's plate. It is an old story that one who spends his life refuting another will end by being more like than unlike his foe. The case of Claude Buffier, S.J. (1661-1737), is interesting in this regard. His writings exhibit a fascination with Descartes as well as the intention to save from the possibility of doubt certain truths of common sense.{7} Buffier thus anticipates the Scottish School; indeed Thomas Reid has been unfairly accused of plagiarizing the Parisian Jesuit. Buffier may be taken to represent a kind of philosophical minimalism, the defense of those common truths that guide men's lives because the suggestion that they may all turn out to be false is socially and morally disruptive. Buffier recognized the difference between beliefs that recommended themselves only because they were familiar and the prejudice of the times and did not of course defend as true whatever was commonly said. Defenses of common sense notoriously become quite sophisticated, and Buffier lead the way in that, as in much else.

        Taking Buffier as a bellwether, we might see Catholic thought as more and more defined by positions it was disposed to contest, defenses, giving up territory by inches, fighting a losing battle. Hence the hodgepodge Newman encountered in the schools of Rome where ecclesiastics were trained, many of them destined to become bishops and have seminaries of their own.

        Here and there during the nineteenth century, circles were formed dedicated to rediscovering Saint Thomas. Presumably the Dominicans had never lost him, but they do not seem to have been vigorously engaged in making him felt in the wider world. Of course, in France, with the Revolution, the religious orders were suppressed; indeed the political and social upheavals of Europe are the background against which the development to which we refer must be seen. Italy was in tumult; the pope was chased from Rome in 1848 and then brought back from Gaeta to become the prisoner of the Vatican. The fruits of modern thought were becoming visible all around, and they were not favorable to the faith.



Perhaps these irresponsibly sweeping remarks are enough to ground an understanding of the twofold aim of Aeterni Patris. It reposed on a negative assessment of modern culture and of the philosophy that had produced it. The effects of modernity were to be seen within the Church as well, so what Leo wanted was a revival of Christian philosophy ad mentem Sancti Thomae in the Catholic schools, in order that modern errors could be effectively countered and their danger to the faith neutralized -- but only after the truth had been grasped.

        It was Jacques Maritain's dissatisfaction with the philosophy he had encountered at the Sorbonne that disposed him for the grace of faith. Modern thought reduced man to matter, made life pointless, and led to despair. If it was true, death would be preferable to life. First Bergson and then Bloy showed Maritain that there was an alternative. With the grace of faith came the certainty that life had a meaning, a meaning that was pursued along a path very different from that traversed by modern philosophy. In the first years of his life as a Catholic, Maritain continued his biological studies and then engaged in humdrum editorial work as an alternative to taking a post teaching philosophy in a lycée where the curriculum was set by the thinkers he had rejected. Raïssa was given Thomas as spiritual reading; she passed on her enthusiasm to Jacques and the rest, so to say, is history.

        Maritain's own way of coming to Thomas colors his career as a Thomist. First and primarily, there is the enthusiasm and delight that the reading of Thomas gave him, the conviction that at last he was coming into possession of the truth. But this brought the secondary conviction that Thomas was the remedy and refutation of the errors that had infested the Sorbonne. The fundamental truth was that the human mind is designed to know reality. This apparent truism had been called into question in a variety of progressively more inventive ways by modern philosophy. And it all began with Descartes.

        The Dream of Descartes was published in 1932, but the first three chapters of the book were written contemporaneously with Prayer and Intelligence. Maritain did not come to the reading of Thomas with his mind a philosophical tabula rasa, and it is inevitable that he should compare what he was learning from Thomas with what he had been taught in school. (Notice the surface symmetry of the trajectories of Descartes and Maritain: each departing from what he had been taught toward what was certain and true, but Maritain seeking to recapture what Descartes had flung away, albeit in a doubtless disposable form.)



Jacques and Raïssa Maritain were on the Isle of Wight, and thus effectively in Great Britain, when World War I broke out in August 1914. They had left for the Isle of Wight, where the Solesmes community was in exile, in June, despite the impending danger to France. Jacques was in his thirty-second year; but Charles Péguy, his senior, and Ernest Psichari, his coeval, fell in combat during the first month of hostilities. Jacques's mother, Geneviève Favre, was appalled at her son's absence from the country and suggested perhaps sarcastically, that he take up permanent residence in England, as France would be an uncomfortable place for those who had not risen to her defense. In response, Jacques claimed that he was being held prisoner on the isle. Moreover, his monarchist beliefs came into play. Democracy, he told his mother, had exiled the monks whose only crime was that they prayed. As for himself, he would remain where God had put him. As it happens, Jacques had an exemption, although later, in the spring of 1917, he would be temporarily mobilized. But he would have a different kind of war from his fallen friends.

        Jacques had been teaching at the Collège Stanislas since 1912, but in June 1914, just before he left for the Isle of Wight, he was appointed an adjunct professor at the Institut Catholique. It was there that he gave, in the academic year 1914-1915, a series of lectures in which he probed the underlying causes of the enmity between France and Germany. These lectures were published in the journal La Croix, the first in its entirety, while the remaining twenty-one lectures were summarized.{8} While many of the ideas contained in this series of lectures were adumbrated earlier and would be extended and developed in later writings of Maritain, here we have them hot off the press, as it were. In them, Maritain speaks not of the material combat but of the underlying moral and intellectual conflict.

        There is a false image of the war that must first be confronted. France is seen as the champion of world democracy and of the Revolution, whereas Germany is the champion of reaction. There may be some Frenchmen who imagine they are fighting for the revolutionary ideals of 1789, but the vast majority, Maritain says, are fighting simply for France, and a subclass of these see France, as the eldest daughter of the Church. As for the ideas of the French Revolution, they have prospered in Germany more than in France. Germany has the kind of despotism that results from the ideals of the Revolution and is the antithesis of the principles of order and tradition. Germany has developed technological marvels, but they are "at the service of an ego immersed in nature alone, at the service of a humanity freed from every spiritual and supernatural principle."{9} In short, Germany enshrines the individualism and naturalism of the Reformation.

        Maritain had spent two years studying biology in Germany, but there is nothing anecdotal about his analysis. We might say that the tone of these lectures is reflective of the rhertoric of wartime, and there is something to that, but these were not fugitive notions in Maritain's development. His "true image" of the war is as severe against his own country as it is against Germany."

        If the French Revolution set in play political ideals that changed the face of Europe, it was the Cartesian revolution that was the source of the modern philosophy on which Maritain passed a negative judgment throughout his career. His instinctive dissatisfaction with modernity is present from his student days. As his thought developed, the theory in terms of which he underwrote that distaste varied. What Descartes set in motion in the world of thought, Luther a short time before had set in motion in religion: the solitary individual standing in judgment on tradition, having to verify for himself each and every claim on penalty of being less than human, or less of a Christian. But Maritain's philosophical appraisal of modernity proved to be far more durable than the undoubted Action Française mentality that animated Maritain. As a boy he had been a socialist. Now he was a monarchist for whom democracy and its ideals were anathema. Eventually Maritain would claim that democracy is the best political expression of Christianity, but he is a long way from that in 1914, and will have to go through a number of political convolutions in the intervening years to get there.



        But if Maritain's political theories were to vacillate back and forth between Left and Right, there is a solid continuity in his moral and intellectual appraisal of modernity. With his conversion, Jacques began to see the world through the lens of his faith and he could scarcely overlook the atheistic tendencies of the Left. The view of man and his destiny that was predominant in the modern world -- at least in culturally influential circles -- was at odds with the Christian view. When Maritain turned to Thomas, he found not only a theologian who articulated revealed truth, but one whose conception of theology presupposed a philosophy that could arrive at truths about man and the world and God independently of Revelation. Throughout his long career, Maritain steeped himself in the thought of Thomas and sought to do in his own times something analogous to what Thomas had done in his.

        And this meant that the culture had to be redeemed. It would not do to abandon art and literature and philosophy to forces hostile to religion and to withdraw into a sectarian redoubt waiting for the end times.


{1} Elements de philosophie, 1: Introduction; 2, Petite logique. OC II. These appeared in English as An Introduction to Philosophy, trans. by E. I. Watkin (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1930); and An introduction to Logic (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1937).

{2} J. Maritain, Carnet de notes, p. 184.

{3} In a letter of February 12, 1928, Edith Stein wrote, "It was through St. Thomas that I first came to realize that it is possible to regard scholarly work as a service of God. Immediately before, and a long time after my conversion, I thought living a religious life meant to abandon earthly things and to live only in the thought of the heavenly realities. Gradually I have learned to understand that in this world something else is demanded of us, and that even in the contemplative life the connection with this world must not be cut off. Only then did I make up my mind to take up scholarly work again. I even think that the more deeply a soul is drawn into God, the more it must also go out of itself in this sense, that is to say in the world, in order to carry the Divine life into it." Edith Stein, Werke VII, Selbstbildnis in Briefen, 1916-1934 (Freiberg: Herder, 1976), pp. 54-55.

{4} Tommaso Leccisotti, in San Tommasso d'Aquino e Montecassino. Badia di Montecassino, 1965, has clarified the status of oblates. It would not be accurate to say that Thomas was ever a professed Benedictine monk.

{5} J. Maritain, Carnet de notes, p. 185.

{6} John Henry Newman, Letters and Diaries XI, p. 279.

{7} Claude Buffier, S. J., Oeuvres philosophiques (Paris: Charpentier, 1843).

{8} See OC I (1906-1920), Annexe, pp. 889-1025.

{9} Ibid., p. 893.

{10} In April-May of 1914, Maritain began his discussion of the spirit of modern philosophy with a lecture on the Cartesian Reform. Cf. OC I, pp. 823-87.

<< ======= >>