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




1923 June 5. The Maritains moved to 10 rue du Parc at Meudon, where they will live until war breaks out in 1940.
September 26-30. Second retreat of the Thomistic Circles at Meudon. These will continue annually until 1940, save for 1936.
October 13. Jacques and Henri Massis interviewed by Frédéric Lefèvre.
Lecture at Avignon. “Saint Thomas, the Apostle of Modern Times.”
Volume 2 of Elements of Philosophy, the Introduction to Logic.
December 14. Attempts to persuade André Gide not to publish Corydon.
1924 July. Jean Cocteau at Meudon.
Reflections on Intelligence (Reflexions sur l’intelligence) published.
1925 March. Roseau d’Or founded. First title, Jacques’s Three Reformers, dedicated to his mother.
Meets Nicholas Berdiaev.
Jean Cocteau meets Père Henrion at Meudon and three days later makes his confession.
August 2. Raïssa’s mother baptized.
August 29. Maurice Sachs baptized.
September. Paul Claudel visits.
1926 January. Cocteau’s Letter to Jacques Maritain published and, at the same time, Maritain’s Reply to Jean Cocteau. The exchange was published in English as Art and Faith.
Georges Bernanos, Under the Sun of Satan (Sous le soleil de Satan) published by Roseau d’Or.
Meets Julien Green.
August. Cardinal Andrieu makes a declaration about Action Française and Pius XI responds.
September 25. Meeting at Meudon of Maritain, Marras, Massis, and Garrigou-Lagrange.
October. “An Opinion about Charles Maurras and the Duty of Catholics.”
December 20. Pius XI Condemns Action Française.



Jacques’s most active involvement in Action Française was from 1920 through 1926, thanks to his connection with La Revue Universelle. Jointly financed by Maurras and Maritain from money they had each received from the fallen Villard, it was meant to convey the ideas of Action Française to readers beyond those who subscribed to the official publications of the organization. Maurras had begun his career as a literary critic, and Maritain was now disposed to turn his attention to the world around him.

        During the year following the end of the war, Jacques was granted a leave of absence from the Institut Catholique, and the Maritains -- meaning the little flock of three: Raïssa, Vera, and Jacques -- retreated to Vernie, near Solesmes, where they lived in a rectory. The ostensible purpose of Jacques’s leave was to enable him to write the first volumes in a manual of philosophy he had agreed to do, but it was to be a year when a fundamental change in Maritain’s understanding of his vocation occurred.

        The three members of the little community sought to live a life in communion with the Benedictine ideal; all three were oblates of Saint Benedict. An intense spiritual life governed the household and provided the background for Jacques’s intellectual work. Jacques compared the two sisters to Martha and Mary, Vera being a solid practical presence while Raïssa was ethereal and withdrawn, given to closely monitoring her spiritual life and recording it in her journal. She was clearly influenced by what she read about the saints and mystics, though it is doubtful that any of them kept so obsessive a record of the ups and downs of their inner life. It is clear that Raïssa longed for mystical experiences. She withdrew into her room to devote herself to hours and hours of prayers and then noted in her journal how things had gone. But accounts of her health vie with accounts of her spiritual experiences. We will return to this when we discuss the posthumous publication of her journal and Jacques’s interpretation of it and of his wife’s spirituality. For now, this contemplative penchant of Raïssa’s, plus the removal of any financial concerns thanks to the Villard legacy, made plausible the idea that the three would simply withdraw from the world and develop contemplative spiritual lives. A recurrent question in Raïssa’s journal is wondering what God wants her to do{1} If the withdrawal did not happen, the reason was Raïssa.

        When Raïssa emerged from prayer, she sometimes brought with her a decision as to what was to be done. Thus it was Raïssa who broke the logjam of conflicting advice about the proposed journey to Rome to see the pope while war was raging. So too, during the year of seclusion at Vernie, it was Raïssa who decided that they must seek to have a direct impact on the world in which they lived.{2} It seems clear that one of the things bothering Raïssa was how her life was to fit into Jacques’s. His lectures attracted attention, his book on Bergson had been a sensation, he was invited here and there to talk. Raïssa notes that her health mysteriously deteriorates as soon as he leaves. The vow that they had taken clearly required a prolonged effort if their celibate life and their intimate cohabitation were to be reconciled. Raïssa sometimes sees Jacques as a rival with God for her love. When young, they had fallen madly in love with one another and now, as a convert seeking ever closer union with God, Raïssa had fallen madly in love with her creator. Amour feu is the phrase Jacques uses. She vows (May 22) to detach herself from “everything to which she is particularly drawn,” such as to follow Jacques in his work and to help him. One thing she did was help him with was a book he was writing that would be called Art and Scholasticism. This little book, which was destined to have a tremendous impact throughout the century on working artists, suggested an outlet that was denied Raïssa so far as philosophy was concerned. Culture was not exhausted by abstract thought, and the path of the poet seemed an outlet that was denied Raïssa so far as philosophy was concerned. Culture was not exhausted by abstract thought, and the path of the poet seemed analogous to that of the mystic. Thus was born Raïssa’s decision that they must return to the world and seek to influence their time through its artists and poets. The 1919 entries in her journal that reflect this new direction reveal an original and interesting mind.{3} It is a mistake to isolate oneself from men because one has a clearer view of truth. If God does not call one to solitude, it is necessary to live with God in the multitude, and make him known and loved there.”{4} By May 12, 1919, she is speaking of the different ways to God: a mystical way, the way of truth, the way of beauty, and so forth.



So it was that the Maritains returned from Jacques’s leave of absence with a richer sense of their common vocation. The life of solitude was not to be theirs, but their involvement was not to be limited to Jacques’s teaching and his philosophical writing. The Cercles d’etude thomistes took on new scope and the range of intellect was seen to be appreciably broader.

        As a signatory of the 1919 Pour un parti de ‘l’intelligence, Jacques aligned himself with those who saw France as the chief guardian of civilization a vocation that could be fulfilled, however, only insofar as a mere understanding of the nation was had. The key role of Catholicism in France and western culture generally was emphasized.



Although Maritain had been given leave to write two introductory manuals of philosophy{5} – a task that might have recalled his hack work of 1908 – it was the little book in which he sought to expand the scholastic conception of art and apply it to fine art that represented an important new direction in his thought. Originally destined for appearance in a review, the study, fortified (and more than doubled in size) by appendices and notes, became a veritable treatise on aesthetics. It was also Thomistic, but only in the sense that Maritain had found in Aquinas the elements of the theory. However, it was far from being a reconstruction of a possible medieval aesthetics. Maritain was seeking in Thomas principles that could be applied to contemporary art and thus link the effort of the artist to his effort as a Thomist. Despite its small size, this first essay of Maritain into aesthetics is full of wonderful things. Here we shall concentrate on the way in which Maritain develops the analogy between the moral and/or mystical life and the work of the artist.

        Aristotle distinguished between two virtues that perfect the practical use of our mind, prudence and art. Prudence or practical wisdom is aimed at directing the agent’s acts to his true good with the result that the agent becomes good. The aim of prudence is the good of the agent. When the mind puts itself to the task of making something, on the other hand, the virtue of art insures that the thing will be well made. In his discussions of art, Aristotle has in mind building, shoemaking, medicine, and the like: the acts, as we might say, of the artisan. Although the Poetics deals with tragedy and speaks of irritation, we find in Aristotle no effort to bring sculpture and poetry and drama under the same umbrella as medicine, architecture, and shipbuilding. No more do we find in Thomas, who followed Aristotle in this regard, any discussion of aesthetics in a later sense. Maritain begins his discussion by underscoring this. Before he can show the relevance of a scholastic aesthetics to contemporary art, he must first show that there is such an aesthetics.

        There is perhaps no more accessible example of the nature of Maritain’s Thomism than Art and Scholasticism. Elements are brought together from various works of Thomas. Often an aside in an answer to an objection in the Summa theologia will loom large. Extending the workaday discussions of “making” in Aristotle and Thomas to artistic creation is no easy task, and Maritain relies on the analogous sense that can be given to terms whose native habitat is if the discussion of how to build a boat or how to bind up a wound. But it is transcended concept of beauty that is at the heart of Maritain’s argument.{6}



Students of Thomas’s teaching on the transcendental properties of being often have trouble with beauty as a transcendental. In the early discussions of being and its transcendental properties, beauty is not mentioned. And indeed Thomas’s teaching on this subject has to be pieced together from discussions having quite different ends. The beautiful, Thomas quotably remarked – James Joyce embraced this account – is that which, when seen, pleases: il quod visum placet.{7} Maritain takes this to mean that there is an intuitive knowledge of beauty that gives joy.

        The beautiful is what distinguishes the fine arts from the products of the artisan. The latter is chiefly concerned to make something useful – shoes for walking, a house to live in – whereas the fine artist … Well, how does he differ from the mere artisan? Like the artisan, the artist makes something, and there may well be, as in the case of the sculptor, a good deal that is quite sweaty and servile in that making. Maritain suggests that the making component arises from man’s sensible nature, whereas the beautiful component answers to that which is spiritual in him. He then suggests the analogy between contemplation and art. The fine arts should turn our minds to the transcendent, should sublimate the material so that it signifies the immaterial.

        As he develops a theory of fine art from hints and asides in Thomas, Maritain is at the same time applying it to contemporary artists. This entails a critique of modern art that echoes his critique of modern philosophy. “From this point of view, it seems that modern art, having broken with the métiers, tends in its own way to the same claim to absolute independence, aseity, as modern philosophy” (note 44). It is clear that Maritain is not fashioning a Thomistic aesthetic that will serve merely as descriptive of what is going on in the arts; it is meant to provide both a criticism and a guide.

        The definition of beauty as that which, when seen, pleases, might seem in the case of the fine arts, to apply to the viewer rather than the maker. One of the most distinctive contributions of Maritain to the Thomistic aesthetics that he fashioned is the concept of poetic knowledge. This is antecedent to the making or, in any case, not simply the technical knowledge required to write a poem or paint a picture. This knowledge was dubbed connatural by Maritain and thus required that he spell out the similarities and dissimilarities of the artist’s knowledge and action from those of anyone acting morally. This is so because Thomas’s most noteworthy employment of the term “connatural” is in the context of moral knowledge. This is not to say that it figures prominently even in those texts. But its few occurrences catch the eye and, when pondered, open up what he is saying about moral knowledge.



Thomas contrasts the general or universal knowledge that one might have about how to behave – general rules, reflections on action, anticipations of moral difficulties – and the knowledge that is embedded in particular actions. It is a melancholy commonplace of human life that we can know what we ought to do yet not do it. Moral philosophers and theologians can give good general advice about how we ought to act even when they themselves do not act in accord with the knowledge they are passing on to us. To such a figure, Thomas opposes one whose moral advice is rooted in the life he lives and is not expressed in terms of universal rules and principles. Thomas imagines us asking these two kinds of advisors for advice in a matter of chastity. The moralist will base his advice on a general understanding of human nature, what is fulfilling and what is thwarting of it, and in this learned way advise us against taking such and such a course. The advisor whose wisdom has been wrung from the life he has led would perhaps reply, “Well, what I would do….”

        The chaste man makes judgments, and may give advice, based on his kinship with the ideal of chastity, on the fact that his will and desire are fixed on the ideal of bringing his sense desires under the sway of his mind and thereby humanizing them. Thomas calls this judgment one that is per modum connaturalitatis or per modum inclinationis. Acting chastely is second nature to the chaste man because he is inclined to, has affinity with, the good of chastity.

        Of course one could go on about this distinction in its moral import, and elsewhere Maritain does. Here he is interested in suggesting that the poet’s knowledge, that out of which his creation comes, is like that connatural knowledge of the virtuous person. This creates a problem for Maritain, needless to say, since he has begun with and has not abandoned the notion that prudence or moral wisdom is one virtue, having as its aim the perfection of the agent, and art another, whose aim is the perfection of the thing made. But in the case of the fine arts, Maritain wants not so much to erase this distinction as to develop a close analogy between the procedures and assumptions of the fine arts and moral wisdom, the discursive activity of the virtuous person.

        A feature of the analysis of effective moral judgments, particular judgments, is that moral virtue is a necessary presupposition of them. That is, unless and until the true good is my good, I am unlikely to direct my particular acts to that good or in the event even see my circumstances in its light. The reason is that my bent tends to take me elsewhere. If I have a long history of unchaste actions, that very history inclines me to act in a similar way in the future. I may know at some level of generality that such acts thwart me and distance me from the end that alone can fulfill me, but in the crunch I act as I have so often before. This is the reverse of the inclination and connaturality of the virtuous person. It is the wrong kind of behavior that is second nature to me: hence the recurring question as to the relation between knowledge and virtue. Knowledge at a level of generality is compatible with a life lived in conflict with that knowledge. Moral change thus requires more than information. It requires a change of disposition, acting against what has become one’s inclination, a long and choppy effort to bring one’s life into conformity with moral truth. The knowledge of the good that follows on the good having become my good is efficacious in a way more general knowledge can never be.

        It is that kind of affinity with its object that Maritain ascribes to poetic knowledge. What is more, he even suggests that there are analogues of the moral virtues that insure that the judgment of the artist does not go awry.{8}

        When we connect the aesthetic theory developed in Art and Scholasticism with the decision made at Vernie to eschew the life of seclusion for a more active involvement in society, we have the means for understanding one of the motivations behind the formation of the Cercles d’études thomistes, the apostolate to contemporary intellectuals and artists.



It was in 1920 that Maritain became the cofinancier as well as collaborator in La Revue Universelle. While Action Française origins of the review are incontestable, equally incontestable is the fact that increasingly Maritain saw his social role as a Thomist in more commodious terms. Two books, which followed on the publication of Art and Scholasticism and the at-first privately circulated De la vie d’oraison, were gleaned from Maritain’s contributions to the review, namely Thomas and Antimoderne. But it was Jean Cocteau’s association with the discussion at Meudon and with Maritain personally that suggested the possibility of another effort.

        André Gide had become the undisputed leader of the literary and artistic circle gathered around the Nouvelle Revue Française. A gifted writer who had been raised a Protestant, Gide was a perverse and fascinating figure for those who saw the return to Catholicism as the best hope of French culture. Gide had a way of suggesting an openness to Catholicism that first drew the efforts of Paul Claudel. Claudel, a ferocious Catholic, was tireless in his proselytizing efforts, and he saw in Gide someone ripe for conversion. That Gide took delight in encouraging an effort for which he felt little true sympathy is clear from the voluminous correspondence of the two men that was eventually published.{9} Now it became Maritain’s turn to address Gide.

        Maritain regarded Gide as a sinister figure, and he threw down the gauntlet in 1923 when, with Henri Massis, he granted a lengthy interview to Frederic Lefèvre that appeared in Les nouvelles Litteraires. Maritain described Gide as suffering from a spiritual sickness and accepted his self-description as a heretic among heretics. “But nothing is more monotonous than heresy. Heresy is incapable of development, it can assimilate nothing to itself. Only dogma progresses, only truth is capable of enrichment and novelty.”{10}

        Gide was a homosexual at a time when this mode of life was receiving notable literary attention, as in Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. Gide had written a book, Corydon, the publication of which would be his emergence from the closet. The book celebrated homosexuality, and Maritain took upon himself the task of dissuading Gide from publishing the book. He wrote to Gide and asked to see him. Gide agreed. The meeting which took place on December 10, 1923, failed of its purpose; Maritain was revealed as naïve, Corydon was published. It is Gide’s account of the meeting that we have.{11} Out of this ill-considered effort, an idea formed. Gide must be countered by forming a rival group. In part, this was the role of the Cercles d’études, but it was to be supplemented by books to be published under the heading of Le Roseau d’Or, the title suggested by the Apocalypse and signifying that “the things of the spirit have a measure which is not of this world.” The series was launched in 1925 and had the support of Paul Claudel, Paul Reverdy, Jean Cocteau, and others. But this series soon revealed the risk of seeking to wed authentic values with new directions in the arts. Perhaps no more surprising conjunction could be imagined than that of Jacques Maritain and Jean Cocteau.



Cocteau, an enfant terrible of artistic innovation, a man whose lifestyle was even more flamboyant than that of Gide – a homosexual drug addict, but a poet and dramatist of undoubted flair – sought Maritain out at Meudon. What drew him there? He came into an atmosphere that stood in stark contrast to his own mode of life, and Maritain discerned a spiritual hunger in the young man. Soon he was urging Cocteau to return to the faith, make his confession, and end his evil ways. At the same time, Maritain became an enthusiastic supporter of Cocteau’s poetry and drama. This unusual friendship between Jacques and Raïssa Maritain and Cocteau flourished.

        Before pursuing that, it should be noted that the Roseau d’Or occasioned the first breach between Maritain and his fellow Catholics. In his effort to evangelize culture, Maritain was giving support to some rather equivocal works. He treated gently an iconoclastic work on Joan of Arc by Joseph Delteil. Many were shocked. Maritain’s response to this criticism took the part of the artist against pious Catholics. “It Is important not to be silent about the truth, but it is also important not to turn over to the side of the devil, out of incomprehension and misunderstanding, a whole movement of art and poetry which nowadays, amid a thousand follies and some anguish seeks to true light. It is on the side of intelligence that the Catholic renaissance now has its best chance.”{12} The risk involved in going an extra mile in order to win the seemingly hostile poet to the cause is nowhere more clear than in the case of Cocteau.

        When the young Cocteau came to Maritain in 1924, the philosopher assured him that he had come in search of God. God would give him no rest. He must watch and pray. Cocteau had recently lost his companion Raymond Radiguet and had plunged into opium, thus threatening his health. He felt suicidal impulses and was unable to write. Finally, in 1925 Cocteau took part in a meeting of the director of Roseau d’Or, to which he promised to contribute a book. The car that was to take Cocteau back to Paris was late in coming to Meudon and that it was by chance that he was still in the house when Father Charles Henrion strode in.

        Henrion had converted under the influence of Paul Claudel, become a priest, and was a missionary in the Sahara associated with Father de Foucauld. He was a dramatic figure in a white habit, and his entrance stunned Cocteau. The poet’s reaction seems undeniably one of infatuation, and he thought that Maritain had arranged the dramatic entry in order to overwhelm him. Maritain seized upon this reaction to further Cocteau’s return to the practice of the faith. Not many others shared Maritain’s interpretation of Cocteau’s sudden interest in the faith. In any case, Maritain set up an interview with Henrion, brought Cocteau to Meudon for the occasion, and the poet and priest retired. Then Raïssa heard their footsteps as they went to the chapel in the Maritain home. Cocteau made his confession. The following morning at Mass, along with the Maritains he received the Eucharist from the hand of Charles Henrion. The news of Cocteau’s conversion did not long remain secret.



The names of those Maritain was instrumental in bringing back to or into the Church would make a very long list indeed. For many men and women over his long lifetime, he proved to be the occasion for a profound spiritual regeneration. He had a knack for knowing what might prove the catalyst of conversion. He gave a young poet, André Grange, John of the Cross to read. Pierre Reverdy, after his conversion, burned all his manuscripts and retired to a little house near Solesmes in 1926, where he remained in seclusion for thirty years. And there were others, such as Max Jacob and Erik Satie and Maurice Sachs.

        The reversals of these conversions were often dramatic and made Maritain look naïve and hasty. Sachs was another homosexual, an habitué of Le Boeuf sur le toit, where jazz and booze diverted such men as Picasso, Aragon and Erik Satie. As an adolescent, Sachs fell in love with Cocteau who made him his secretary and cast him in minor roles in his plays. Cocteau’s mention of Maritain sent the young man to Meudon. Sachs was eighteen in July 1925. Two months later he received the sacraments in the chapel at Meudon. But first fervor died, and soon Sachs felt the pull of the life he had thought to leave behind. Nonetheless, he decided to enter the seminary and was encouraged by Raïssa. Claudel, in one of his visits to Meudon, was introduced to Sachs and remarked upon the unlikely convert in his journal.{13}

        Maritain’s influence should not of course be assessed in terms of back-sliders, and Sachs and Cocteau were certainly that. What impresses about these efforts is Maritain’s refusal to exclude anyone from the call to pursue holiness. The more troubled the person, the more obvious the need. The published exchange of letters between Maritain and Cocteau doubtless had a radiating effect on many. As for Maritain, even in his last years, living with the Little Brothers, he wrote of Cocteau to one of the young persons who continued to seek his advice and counsel. “Cocteau came to see us because he felt, by his poetic intuition, that the very evil that shocks and scandalized us makes us cry out to the innocence of God and that if we have to suffer the intolerable and inadmissible, it is because on the other side of the tapestry, hidden from our view, there is a love infinitely more true than all the misery through which we must drag ourselves.”{14} Claudel put it in a way that seems initially harsh, but in the end makes a similar point. “Evidently Maurice Sachs and the characters of Proust are similar to vermin. But doesn’t Job say to the worms: you are my brothers and sisters?”{15}


{1} When Jacques's mother visited them in June, the two women got along. Geneviève told of a friend who was led to God by spiritism. Raïssa countered with the story that, when she was thirteen, in sleep, she heard a voice speaking in her left ear, a voice so strong it woke her and then impatiently said, "You're always asking what you should do. You have only to love God and serve him with all your heart." Journal de Raïssa, June 7, 1919, pp. 247-48.

{2} See Barré, Jacques et Raïssa Maritain, pp. 202-3, which relies on a March 1919 entry in Raïssa's journal.

{3} For example, the entry that discusses intelligence and shame as signs of the spirituality of the soul (March 10, pp. 237-38).

{4} Ibid., p. 237.

{5} His Introduction to Philosophy was published in 1920 and Formal Logic in 1923.

{6} A "transcendental" in this sense is the concept of a property which, like being, is not confined to one category but transcends the categorical divisions because, again like being, it is found, though differently, in a number of different categories. Not only substance is being, but also quantity, quality, and the like. The term "being," accordingly, is not said univocally of its various instances -- substance and quantiy are not being in the same sense -- but, as Thomas put it, analogously or according to analogy. Maritain's point is that "beauty," too, is an analogous term.

{7} Summa theologiae, 1a, q. 5, a. 4, ad 1m. Chapter 5 of Art and Scholasticism is devoted to the notion of beauty.

{8} "This conception of the work oeuvre which depends on the whole spiritual and sensible being of the artist, and above all on the rectification of his appetite with respect to Beauty, and which bears on the end of the activity, is to art as the intention of the end of the moral virtues is to prudence." (N.95)

{9} Paul Claudel / André Gide Correspondance 1899-1926, Préface et notes par Robert Mallety, NRF (Paris: Gallimard, 1949).

{10} Frédéric Lefèvre, "Une heure avec MM. Jacques Maritain et Henri Massis," Les nouvelles littéraires, 2eme année, n. 52 (13 Octobre 1923).

{11} André Gide, Journal 1889-1939 (Paris: Gallimard, 1951).

{12} Quoted by Barré, Jacques et Raïssa Maritain, p. 265.

{13} Noë, visite chez Maritain à Meudon où je vois le jeune Juif converti par Copeau, Sachs, qui va entrer au séminaire (!!)." Paul Claudel, Journal I (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, 1968), p. 699.

{14} See Doering, Jacques Maritain and the French Catholic Intellectuals, p. 240.

{15} Paul Claudel, Journal II, p. 645.

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