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




1927July. Primacy of the Spiritual. Conversion of Charles de Bos. Meets Yves Simon and Olivier Lacombe.
October. A Few Pages on Léon Bloy (Quelques pages sur Léon Bloy).
December. Why Rome Has Spoken, by many authors, among them Maritain. Jacques had been summoned to Rome by Pius XI and asked to plan such a book.
1928Peter Wust visits Meudon. Emmanuel Mounier frequents Meudon.
October. First number of Vie Intellectuelle, in which publication Maritain played a decisive role. Maritain leaves chair of modern philosophy and assumes that of logic and cosmology.
1929March 23. Gabriel Marcel baptized. Ecumenical meetings at Meudon and at Berdiaev’s home.
July. The Angelic Doctor published.
October. The Clairvoyance of Rome. Jacques takes leave of absence to write major work.
1930Religion and Culture kicks off new series of books called Questions Disputées, edited by Charles Journet and Jacques.
1931Friendship with Etienne Gilson begins. First visit, in company of Nicholas Nabokov, to Kolbsheim, chateau of Antoinette and Lexi Grunelius, eventual resting place of Raïssa and Jacques.
1932The Dream of Descartes and The Degrees of Knowledge published.
June 1. Roseau d’Or is replaced by Les Iles, edited by Jacques with the assistance of Stanislas Fumet.
September. Journée d’études of the Thomist Society at Juvisy on the topic of phenomenology. Edith Stein visits the Maritains.
1933First trip to Toronto’s Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (directed by Gilson). Visits University of Chicago.
May. On Christian Philosophy. “Christian Philosophy” is the theme of the French Philosophical Society: contributions by Jacques, Gilson, and Emile Bréhier.
December. Du régime temporal et de la liberté (Freedom in the Modern World).
1934Pour le bien commun, statement by Maritain and others about repression of riots in Vienna. Lectures in Rome at the Angelicum, at Nimegen, and at Santander in Spain on “Spiritual and Temporal Problems of a New Christianity.” Second visit to Canada and United States. Sept leçons sure l’être (A Preface to Metaphysics).
1935Frontiers of Poetry and Philosophy of Nature. Manifesto on war in Ethiopia. Letter on Independence. Science and Wisdom.
1936July 26. Integral Humanism. Accused of being a Christian Marxist. Visits Argentina and Brazil.
1937Writes Manifesto of Protest by Catholic Writers against the Bombing of Guernica. Maritain declared Public Enemy Number 1 in Spain.
Sept suppressed by ecclesiastical authorities. Foundation of Temps Present, in the first issue of which Jacques publishes “Profession of Faith.”
1938Stormy lecture, subsequently published: Les juifs parmi les nations (A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question). Signs many manifestos – against the Anschluss, against aerial bombing in Spain. Defended by Mauriac. Questions de conscience.
October-November. United States, first visit to the University of Notre Dame.
1939Lecture, subsequently published: Le crepuscule de la civilization. (The Twilight of Civilization). Quatre essais sur l’esprit dans sa condition charnelle (Scholasticism and Politics). Attacked by Marcel De Corte and Paul Claudel.
September 3. Declaration of War.
1940January 4. With Raïssa and Vera, leaves France for America.



The 1930s represent a golden period of Jacques Maritain’s life as a Christian philosopher. During this decade he produced his masterpiece The Degrees of Knowledge and a host of other works of greater or lesser importance, but all testifying to the magisterial role he now played for so many. His guidance was not confined to the intellectual or spiritual lives. Maritain’s liberation from Action Française, which had been accompanied by estrangement from and even enmity with former comrades, permitted his original political and social predilections to come to the fore. The young boy who had discussed socialism with the husband of the family cook in the kitchen of his mother’s home, the young student who had agitated for various causes, had been supplanted by the young husband and philosopher whose chief aim was to acquire holiness. The attraction of Action Française for many French Catholics was that it represented an alternative to the secular drift of the French Republic. It is impossible to dismiss as simple dupes the large numbers who rallied to the banner of Action Française. That their allegiance required a willful blindness seems clear in retrospect. When the movement was condemned by Rome, the scales fell from Jacques’s eyes. This change took place at a time of unprecedented turmoil in the West.

        The Great Depression cast a pall over the western democracies. The Wall Street crash prompted a new and critical look at capitalism. The John Dos Passos trilogy of novels U.S.A. provides a vivid sense of the political and social upheaval in the United States, where the Depression had begun. Leaving Action Française might have stirred up the political enthusiasms of his youth, but Jacques Maritain did not find a ready-made solution to the economic and political crisis in which the whole world seemed to be embroiled. To switch one’s fealty from the Right to the Left involved difficulties of an intellectual and spiritual kind that Maritain was unlikely to overlook. He began a series of meditations of the political order, the nature of democracy, and the principles of political philosophy. And in Integral Humanism he proposed a project of breathtaking scope that would address the secular present, not by a nostalgic attempt to replicate medieval theocracy, but by finding a new path between authentic secular values and those of Christianity.

        The thirties of the last century were not simply an occasion for leisurely and academic debate. The Left represented by Communist Russia seemed to be making inroads in the European democracies brought low by the ravages of the Depression. French Catholics seemed to have distanced themselves from the aspirations of the working classes, where the politics of the Left became de riguer. And in Germany, Adolph Hitler battened on the economic chaos as well as German resentment of the terms of Versailles peace treaty and rose, improbably as it must have seemed, to power. On the level of power politics, a militant communism seemed pitted against a rising fascism. In this chaotic time it was not easy to find one’s way. Maritain, on the level of discussion and theory, made signal contributions. In the practically practical order, as he might have put it, his actions were somewhat ambiguous. The flashpoint for him was the war in Spain.



Even apart from that, Maritain had misgivings about the emphasis on attracting writers to the meetings at Meudon. As the preceding decade wound down, he expressed doubts on this score to Julien Green in a letter of May 1929. Doubtless such second thoughts were powerfully aided by George Bernanos’s attack on Maritain, accusing him of presumption in seeking to lead a literary movement. “I lend my poor voice to those for whom you are an intolerable scandal,” Bernanos wrote on May 2, 1928. “You say you are there on the part of Our Lord Jesus Christ. You have no authority from the hierarchy, your only authority comes from your books, your talent, your deeds. The role of voluntary judge, benevolent executioner is less yours than perhaps you think. I love you with all my heart because no one has done me more harm than you.”{1}

        Bernanos was always a crusty character, and became more so with age. He attacked Paul Claudel with something approaching venom for reasons not obvious to others. Maritain had, it appears, suggested revisions in Bernanos’s first novel, and of course no writer accepts advice easily or soon forgives a favor. For all that, Maritain came to see that the Cercle d’etudes must emphasize the spiritual and the intellectual, philosophy and theology.

        The Primaté du spiritual marks the change, as does the formation of new friendships, among them with Yves Simon and Gabriel Marcel. But another note was introduced by Maritain’s friendship with Emmanuel Mounier, whose journal Esprit would be the controversial vehicle of personalism. In the Primauté, Maritain rejected the notion of a theocratic utopia, and he began to explore political notions with Nicholas Berdiaev as well. Indeed. Maritain’s mother, Geneviève Favre, began to frequent Meudon. Pondering the example of Mahatma Ghandi and influenced by Massignon, Maritain sought to put together the inner purification brought about by the spiritual life, on the one hand, and political action on another.

        Bernanos’s accusation draws attention to a feature of Maritain’s career that is so obvious is can easily be overlooked, perhaps by seeing it anachronistically through post-Vatican II eyes. Jacques Maritain was a layman. As a Christian he had the missionary impulse to share the good news: to be a believer was to be an evangelist.




Questions as to the relationship between the mind’s quest for understanding, on the one hand, and religious faith, on the other, are as old as Christianity. Has faith overcome the need for philosophy? Is there a necessary enmity between faith and reason? In what sense can one who is a believer be a philosopher? Maritain had confronted such questions in a personal way almost from the outset of his Catholic life. And eventually he addressed them abstractly as well.

        When the Société Thomiste convened in September 1933 to discuss the topic of Christian philosophy, Jacques Maritain had already published a little book with that title. And, indeed, his views on the matter were closely discussed, praised, and criticized throughout the meeting whose participants were the leading Catholic philosophers of France. Maritain himself was unable to attend, which is a shame. Etienne Gilson, whose Gifford lectures The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy had also appeared prior to the meeting, became an increasingly active participant, and the exchanges between him and Father Mandonnet are among the most illuminating of the session, since they express views that are diametrically opposed.

        The president of the society was Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., and the day was organized around two papers: in the morning, that of Aimé Forest, then of the Université de Poitiers; in the afternoon, that of Father Motte, professor at the Saulchoir. Each paper was followed by a lively discussion, both of which are valuable for seeing how the question of Christian philosophy polarized the participants. Indeed, the proceedings may be said to cover the essential pros and cons of the topic.{2} Chenu, in opening the meeting, said that Gilson had shown that history provides a sense of what Christian philosophy is and that the conjunction of Christianity and philosophy, unlike that of, say, German and philosophy, involves more than a factual connection. There is an intrinsic influence of the faith on philosophizing. It is that intrinsic link that he hopes will be the focus of the meeting.



Father Motte, in his paper, gave support to the view that there is an intrinsic link between faith and philosophy. The world Thomas Aquinas lived in is one in which man had been called to the supernatural order. The distinction between reason and faith, between the natural and supernatural, does not disturb this whole. “For Saint Thomas there are not two compartments of being, two creations, the second of which by improvisation comes to the help of the first; there are not two final ends, one for natural man, the other for man raised to the supernatural level, no more than there are two gods, a natural God and a triune supernatural God, but one and the same God, whose nature is precisely to transcend all nature and to burst into a trinity.”{3} Man is made for grace and the beatific vision.{4} Although grace is a complement to nature added from without, it is nonetheless an essential element in the concrete plan of predestination. Without grace, man cannot enjoy the privileges of his own nature.{5} In short, the supernatural organization of the world is a fact; and for Saint Thomas, the enclosing of nature within a higher order acquires a de iure value.

        The supernatural thus answers to a kind of structural necessity, as is clear, Motte says, from Thomas’s description of the final end of our rational nature. “Insofar as rational nature knows the universal nature of good and being it has an immediate order to the universal principle of being; the perfection of the rational creature, therefore, does not consist only in that which belongs to it given its nature, but also in that which is attributed to it by a supernatural participation in divine goodness.”{6} Motte’s main point is that wisdom is one: integral reality answers to a wisdom that can only be one. “Saint Thomas saw this better than anyone. But in explaining for us the law according to which nature and grace unite without being confused with one another in the total order of providence, he has also perhaps at the same time furnished us a precious key to resolve the problem of the Christian influence on philosophy without touching the just aspiration of philosophy.”{7}

        Reason as such is insufficient to gain the vision of integral reality Motte has put before us. Philosophy is essentially inadequate because it cannot grasp things beyond its range, and there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in any philosophy. How then can philosophical wisdom fail to distort reality? If it takes for everything what is not everything, it is a snare and delusion. “The autonomy of philosophy must therefore be legitimated. From the unity of being, we must come to a distinction of points of view. At least, knowing that on the side of the real the bridges are not blown, let us understand that revelation and philosophy, as distinct as they are, can encounter one another.”{8}

        How does all this agree with Thomas’s teaching of a twofold truth, that of reason and that of revelation?{9} Our mind is such that its activity depends of what is first grasped by the senses; what we think about is either the nature of sensible reality or that which can be known with reference to sensible reality. The sensible world, as the effect of God, leads to knowledge of him; but the richness of the cause is infinitely impoverished in the being of its effect, and the world cannot enable us to gain access to God’s proper being. It is this defect that deprives philosophy of its claim to be the sovereign wisdom.

        Is unbaptized reason then incapable of truth? Saint Thomas doesn’t think so, and that is the point of his duplex veritatis modus. There are limits to what unaided reason can do, but within those limits it is capable of astonishing accomplishments. “The human intellect has a form, namely, the intelligible light itself, which is in itself sufficient for knowing some intelligible things, namely, those to knowledge of which we can arrive through sensible things.”{10} So it is not a matter of everything or nothing. Knowledge need not be exhaustive in order to be true. To abstract is not to lie.

        In a discussion that might be called the grandeur et la misère of philosophiy, Motte draws attention to the aspirations and the limitations of natural reason. “From the mystery of the divine being the limits of philosophical knowledge flow: creation, obediential potency, the angelic world, ultimate finality and eschatology and the interpretation of history mark the points where reason sees its object escaping it.”{11} Motte concludes a philosophical pluralism from this. “In short, although the sciences have a true existence and represent bodies of universal truths that impose themselves on all (and are moreover susceptible of growth), philosophy does not exist, there are only philosophies and philosophers who reflect on the same problems but do not arrive at solutions on the basis of evidence that conquers all minds. The contradictions and groping of the history of philosophy show more than the history of any science that these are not accidental facts: they respond to the fundamental difficulty, which comes from the very object of philosophy.”{12}

        In any case, philosophy and revelation do not meet as equals, and philosophy confronts a choice. It might simply surrender its autonomy or, remaining free, receive from revelation what it can be given without losing its nature. The first choice is, in effect, to become theology; the second, if it results in a true philosophy, it will be one that can be called Christian. Motte enters into an extended discussion of theology, in which philosophy is put at the service of the faith. The question then becomes: if philosophy in the old sense can still go on, will the Christian engage in it? “Supposing a Christian who philosophizes, who means to do pure and authentic philosophy, can he and his speculation not be affected with a quite specific sign? That is the problem.”{13}

        Taking philosophy in the sense of metaphysics, Motte reminds us of how difficult it is to lay hold of its subject, being as being, even for Aristotle. “Judeo-Christian revelation in naming God ‘He who is’ and In making the world depend on him to the depths of its being, imposed this point of view right off and by that fact truly gave metaphysics to itself.”{14}



It is at moments like this that one wishes Maritain had been there. Motte’s defense of Saint Thomas is radically confused because he has a different view of Aistotle’s achievement than does Thomas himself. What Motte has said makes sense only if we think that Aristotle failed to assign a first cause of the being of things. But this is precisely his achievement, according to Thomas Aquinas. If Thomas is right, Motte’s plea for a constitutive influence of Christianity with respect to metaphysics has to be rejected. Of course this lapse is not peculiar to Motte; it comes to characterize the Thomism that develops in the wake of the Christian philosophy controversy.

        When Motte goes on to see analogy and its application to metaphysics as a Christian deliverance, it becomes even clearer that the niceties of historical accuracy have been left behind. That Christian revelation tells us massively more about God than philosophy could discover, that the angelic universe receives a detailed characterization on the basis of Revelation quite beyond anything philosophical – all this is of course true. But what is not made clear by Motte is whether this additional knowledge is intrinsically dependent on revelation or not.

        Maritain, for his part, had insisted on the difference between the speculative and practical orders in their dependence on theology. There is no suggestion from him that the praeambula fides presupposed for their acceptance the faith they are a preamble to. But Maritain has surprises in store when he turns to the moral order. Motte himself rejects Maritain’s notion of a “moral philosophy adequately considered.”{15}



Already in The Degrees of Knowledge, Maritain had made suggestions about the grades and levels of moral knowledge that had attracted a great deal of attention. Moral discourse is grounded in the principles of synderesis – natural law - and moves toward the judgment of prudence as its term. If the action is the conclusion and natural law provides first principles, attention soon turns to the middle distance between these two, the knowledge through which one passes from generalities to this here-and-now act. It is in that middle distance that Maritain proposed a distinction between what he calls “speculatively practical” and “practically practical” knowledge. Maritain was trying to make room for the moral relevance of such writers as Saint John of the Cross. Important as this distinction is, and controversial as some found it, it paled in significance to Maritain’s description of what a morally adequate moral philosophy must be.

        The governing principle of what Maritain has to say is the fact that man has been called to a supernatural end: that is the ultimate end of human endeavor with reference to which actions must be assessed as good or bad. Any discussion of human action that ignores the fact that we are called to a supernatural end and that there is no other ultimate end for human agents must be inadequate to its subject. An adequate moral philosopher accordingly, must be governed by a truth it borrows from theology, namely, our supernatural vocation.

        That, roughly, is what led Maritain to say that, in order to be considered adequate, moral philosophy must be subalternated to theology. One of the basic underpinnings of this view is Saint Thomas’s position that the virtues discussed by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics are virtues only in a sense, secundum quid, not perfect virtues. In order to be the latter, they must be informed by the theological virtue of charity. Maritain took this doctrine to be warrant in Thomas for the view that moral philosophy can only be adequate when subalternated to theology, just as acquired virtues can only be truly virtues insofar as they are animated by charity.{16}

        Can there be no purely philosophical moral philosophy? As a practical science, morals aims at the regulation of the concrete singular act. As a science it is in the middle distance between the most common principles and the judgment of prudence. The question we are considering concerns what Maritain called speculatively practical science. Maritain contested the claim that a purely philosophical morality could be a true practical science. It would be possible in the state of pure nature, before the Fall; “But in the state of fallen and redeemed nature in which we actually live, a purely philosophical moral science would prescribe good acts, because it would be based on natural right - such as not to lie, not to commit injustice, to practice filial piety, etc. But the prescription of certain good acts is not enough to form a practical science, a true science of the use of freedom, a science which prescribes not only good acts, but which also determined how the acting subject can live a life of consistent goodness and organize rightly his whole universe of action”{17} Before examining what it could not do, we must note what Maritain allowed a purely philosophical moral science could do: it can provide us with a system of ends, of rules, and of acquired virtues. But it is because it would not be seeing these as directed to our de facto ultimate end that it falls short of true practicality. How could it direct us to an end it knows not of? That was the nub of Maritain’s view of a purely philosophical ethics. In order to be adequate, ethics must be governed by our true ultimate end. But the supernatural end is not something that is knowable in pure philosophy. Therefore moral philosophy adequately considered has to depend on a higher light – faith, theology – if is to be organized in terms of man’s true ultimate end.

        Of course Maritain did not want to deny that natural ethics exists. But it would have to be a false morality unless, as with Aristotle, this is avoided thanks to the “unsystematic character of his ethics.”{18}

        At the Juvisy meeting, Father Sertillanges advocated an across-the-board dependence of philosophy on theology, and he was surprised that Maritain, who rejected this at the outset, embraced it when it was a matter of moral philosophy. He found that illogical.{19} Either the whole of philosophy is dependent on theology, or none of it. But the real dynamism of action and the deep exigencies of willing suffice to establish the deficiency of a purely natural moral theory.

        The abiding tension between believers and philosophers is the tendency of philosophy to regard itself as self-sufficient and as wisdom while the believer knows philosophical wisdom is only partial. The philosopher is likely to regard faith as a priori unacceptable, as too much to ask – or at least as something that can be ignored: believers can operate with the faith but we philosophers must be content with philosophy. “Combatting this position within philosophy, by showing its insufficiency and lures to the faith it offers of itself, is a far more fundamental effort of Christian philosophy if not more profound than that which deals with the partial objective benefits and subjective reinforcement that comes to philosophy in a Christian setting.{20}

        But he was not done. He went on to agree with Mandonnet that, strictly speaking, there cannot be a Christian philosophy! The influence of Christianity on philosophy can be assigned to the order of discovery; but in the order of demonstration, either the argument is good or it isn’t. For example, Thomas believed in creation. When he went on to demonstrate it, he then held it on that basis. So Christianity might inspire the philosopher, but so can poetry. But he was willing to call that philosophy Christian which was in fact stimulated by the faith, whether objectively or subjectively. Such a philosophy might live in a Christian setting, but there was nothing Christian in its very notion.



By the end of the day at Juvisy, repetition had set in, unsurprisingly. What has been the upshot of the discussion? While some of the participants come close to saying that in Christian philosophy there are some truths held because they have been revealed or on the basis of their having been revealed, there was no formal assertion of this. Indeed, whenever Maritain’s notion of moral philosophy adequately considered was mentioned, it was regarded as pure theology.

        Gilson, the liveliest voice at the meeting, had persuaded everyone of the historical fact of the influence of the faith on philosophy. But to admit this was a far cry from holding that there is a continuing formal, objective dependence of philosophy on the faith.

        What was and was not confronted was the idea that philosophy in the standard modern sense is taken to be an activity that proceeds without any analogue of the Christian influence that occupies the participants. Philosophy that seeks to be autonomous was said to conceal its own inadequacy from the philosopher. But whence comes this antecedent desire for autonomy? What are the existential conditions for philosophizing tout court, however they might differ between believers and nonbelievers?

        In his work devoted to the subject of Christian philosophy, Maritain made the important distinction between the essence of philosophy and its state. Maritain’s little book arose out of a lecture he gave at the University of Louvain in December 1931 that expanded the communication he had made to the Juvisy conference devoted to the subject, a conference he himself did not intend. “The fact that a theologian of the stature of Father Garrigou-Lagrange and philosophers such as Etienne Gilson and Gabriel Marcel saw fit to express their accord with the view I upheld on those occasions provided the necessary encouragement to have them published in their present form.”

        The position Maritain intended to avoid was that which denied any autonomous character to philosophy but which makes it intrinsically dependent on divine faith. “The rationalists – and even some neo-Thomists – infer that because philosophy is distinct from faith it can have nothing in common with faith, save in an entirely extrinsic manner.”{21} Emile Bréhier represents the rationalist position. Maurice Blondel functions in a very complicated way in Maritain’s little book. Blondel inveighed against a separated philosophy, which is the spirit of the times and which sets philosophy against the faith, looking “upon the philosopher himself as dwelling in a condition of pure nature.”{22} But Blondel’s effort, one that would be shared by Henri de Lubac, to introduce apologetics into the heart of philosophy, was one that Maritain rejected. “To achieve its purpose, apologetics, by its own nature and essence presupposes the solicitations of grace and the operations of the heart and will on the part of the one who hears, and the light of faith already possessed on the part of the one who speaks; whereas philosophy by its nature and essence exacts neither faith as in the one nor the movements of grace as in the other, but only reason in the one who searches.”{23}

        The distinction required to maneuver between such extremes is that which is between the order of specification and the order of exercise, “or again, in the terminology which I shall adopt, between ‘nature’ and ‘state.’” That is, he proposed that we distinguish between what philosophy is in itself and the historical conditions in which it may exist from time to time in the human subject. Natures subsist in subjects: the nature of philosophy is specified by its object, but it is a flesh-and-blood individual who philosophizes here and now. From the first point of view, there is a whole range of truths attainable by the human mind relying on its natural powers. Philosophical widom is captured, Maritain suggests, by the Thomistic phrase, perfectum opus rationis perfected rational activity. This means that calling a philosophy Christian does not refer to the essence of philosophy; as philosophy it is independent of Chrisitian faith. What then is the Christian state or exercise of philosophy?

“To philosophize man must put his whole soul into play, in much the same manner that to run he must use his heart and lungs.”{24} That human nature is weak is something both Christians and non-Christians have realized; both recognize as well that many errors can be made on the way to the acquisition of wisdom. When that wisdom is pursued by a human subject who has the faith, the pursuit is assisted in objectively observable ways. Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy laid out the objective case for the way in which Christianity has prompted philosophical gains. Maritain mentioned clarity about creation, about nature, about the person. In the moral sphere, there is the concept of sin. Gilson spoke of “revelation begetting reason,” and Maritain observed that, strictly taken, this would apply to theology, not philosophy. Revelation is relevant to philosophy because it contains truths knowable by reason, preambles as well as mysteries of faith. There is also the presupposition of revelation that faith is a reasonable act; this has acted as a stimulus in resisting skepticism, as is clear from Augustine’s Contra academicos.{25}


Maritain’s reflections on Christian philosophy are central to his understanding of what he had undertaken from the outset of his study of Thomas Aquinas. It was not merely a question of winning an argument against such critics as Bréhier or of correcting what he took to be a mistake in Maurice Blondel. Behind the discussion we can sense the response to the materialist flatland that Jacques and Raïssa had encountered as young students at the Sorbonne. He had been saved from that, first by Bergson and Bloy, then by Thomas Aquinas, and had found a way of understanding his philosophizing as integral to the pursuit of holiness, which is the one thing needful. The distinction between the nature and state of philosophy enabled Maritain to recognize the autonomy of philosophical arguments without losing sight of the fact that it is concrete human subjects who philosophize. The condition in which philosophy finds itself can be either beneficial or the opposite to the attainment of philosophical truth. The philosophy of the Sorbonne came out of human subjects whose prejudices ended by thwarting the philosophical impulse, cutting the mind off from the spiritual, clearing the philosophical landscape of truths fully within the reach of reason. The great benefit of the faith is that it creates a subjective condition which may – there is no necessity about this – enable the subject to attain truths fully philosophical but hitherto undreamt of by philosophers of the kind that Hamlet chides.




In 1928, Jacques switched from the chair in modern philosophy to that in logic and cosmology at the Institut Catholique. Toward the end of the following year, in October, he went on leave of absence to write the book that is his acknowledged masterpiece. Distinguer pour unir. Les degrés du Savoir, as it was originally called (Distinguish in Order to Unite), was soon known by its subtitle alone, The Degrees of Knowledge. The book is the fruit of his philosophical reflections over the many decades since he had turned to the guidance of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Many books have been written on the Thomistic “synthesis,” mostly efforts to summarize the summaries that largely make up the work of Aquinas. Not all such books are pedestrian, almost none inspired. In The Degrees of Knowledge, Maritain both exemplified and amplified what he had learned from Saint Thomas. The main lesson he had learned provides the structure of the book. Things hang together. Beneath diversity there is a profound connection between things and this is also true of the human efforts to address reality. No one has better expressed the fusion of the intellectual and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, the conceptual and the mystical, than Maritain did in The Degrees.

        The book is, in an obvious sense, an account of the degrees of knowledge: the ascent through degrees of rational knowledge, science, philosophy of nature, metaphysics; and then the ascent through degrees of wisdom. Wisdom is taken to be a supreme knowledge, universal, which judges things in the light of first principles. There are, Maritain says, three wisdoms.

        First, there is the wisdom that defines philosophy. The love of wisdom passes through a number of disciplines and inquiries of interest in themselves, but, as philosophical disciplines, they are teleologically ordered to the acquisition of wisdom. Aritstotle’s development of the nature of wisdom occurs at the outset of his Metaphysics. It soon emerges that it is a divine science – both the kind of knowledge we would attribute to God and a human knowledge that aspires to such knowledge of God as is possible for human reason. This is so because wisdom is knowledge of all things in the light of their very first and ultimate causes. Unsurprisingly, Maritain’s three wisdoms are three ways of knowing God.

        Aristotle called the ultimate goal of philosophy theology, knowledge of God. The theology of the philosophers consists in establishing that He exists and what can meaningfully be said of him on the basis of what is known of the things of this world. Saint Paul’s remark in the Epistle to the Romans that, from the things that are made, we can come to knowledge of the invisible things of God has long been taken as a scriptural account of the kind of knowledge of God that unbelievers and pagans, and, of course, Christians too can have on the basis of their knowledge of the world.

        Natural theology is the name given this philosophical effort, and obviously from a perspective beyond philosophy. The implicit contrast is with supernatural theology, that inquiry that applies the method of human science and argument to the truths God has revealed. The connatural object of the human mind is the essence of sensible reality, but this does not mean that the mind cannot know suprasensible things. Invoking a principle of Neoplatonist provenance that Thomas often uses, that in a hierarchical order, there is some participation in the higher by the lower, Maritain observes that in the human mind, intellectus, nous, is an opening to being as such. That is why the human intellect is not restricted to sensible things. “If our intellect is directly ordered, as human, to being as it is concretized in sensible things, it remains ordered, as intelligence, to being in all its amplitude, and the being grasped in sensible things is already an object of thought which surpasses the sensible, and spirit draws itself to conceive an area of being freed from the limits of the sensible and to seek in this area the highest explanations of all the rest.”{26}

        Above the theology of the philosophers is the discursive reflection on the Christian mysteries called sacred theology. ”It develops in a rational manner and according to the discursive mode that is natural to us truths virtually contained in the deposit of revelation.”{27} The principles of this science are the believed truths of revelation, truths about God that we cannot understand in this life and which are, accordingly, mysteries. Because of the certainty of faith and the source of the truths reflected on, the theology based on Sacred Scripture is higher than that of the philosophers. “Thus, it knows the very same thing that God and the blessed see in God in a very imperfect way, but the only way in which the revealed treasure can be communicated to the human race.”{28} In Scripture, God speaks to us in human language, proportioning truths about himself to our ability to understand. But the discrepancy between our mode of knowing and the truth that is God can be bridged only by analogy. Among God’s effects, we come upon perfections that need not be limited as they are in creatures – just, understanding, being, goodness. And words like “just” and “intelligent” and “being” and “good” are analogically common to creatures, extended from that creaturely use to express something of what God is.

        It is clear that what sustains theology in this sense is the grace of faith, thanks to which we accept as true what God has revealed. It is at this point that Maritain enters into a discussion of sanctifying grace and the state of grace as the Holy Trinity dwelling within the soul. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, enumerated in Scripture, developed in the Summa theologiae and in the great commentary on the latter by John of St. Thomas, provide the bridge from theology as discursive scientific meditation on the truths of faith and intrinsically dependent on faith, so that only the believer can be a theologian in this sense – to the mystical life, the sustained effort to draw ever closer to God and to experience him as he dwells within the soul.

        In the very first question of the first part of the Summa theologiae, Thomas Aquinas asks whether the sacred doctrine he is embarked upon can be called wisdom. Since the wise man is one who judges well, it is possible to distinguish kinds of wisdom based on different kinds of judgment. Thomas illustrates what he means first of all in the moral order. If you ask for moral advice, you could get it from a moral philosopher or moral theologian, and they would give you an argument as to why a certain kind of conduct is right or wrong. Their judgment, Thomas says, is a cognitive one (per modum cognitionis), as good as the premises on which it is based. But you might ask advice from someone whose behavior exemplifies goodness. A young person goes to an older person who is not learned but manifestly good and asks moral advice. The reply would come in the mode of “Well, what I would do is such-and-such.” This judgment arises out of the orientation of that person’s life, what they are and not just what they know; Thomas says it is an affective judgment, a connatural judgment (per modum incllinationis). It is this distinction that enables Thomas to compare the wisdom of sacred theology and the wisdom that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The former manifests itself in judgments that are per modum cognitionis; the latter in judgments that are experiential, dependent on a connaturality with the object per modum inclinationis.

        This explication of the third kind of wisdom, that of the holy person animated by a gift of the Holy Spirit, is the culmination of Maritain’s masterpiece. He approaches it by a lengthy reflection on Saint Augustine and a comparison of Augustine and Thomas, but then turns to the great Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross. The chapters of the second part of The Degrees are not unprecedented as such. It is clear that Maritain has learned much from his mentor in the Cercles d’études, Father Garrigou-Lagrange. Indeed, he dedicates the discussion to Garrigou-Lagrange. What is new, what is truly original, is seeing the links between and the hierarchy among the various kinds of knowledge and the kinds of wisdom discussed. No mere scholar could have written this book.


The Degrees of Knowledge is in many ways the roadmap of Maritain’s life, a map on which all roads lead to mystical experience. Good Thomist that he is, Maritain does not think we can bypass the knowledge of the world gained by the sciences and philosophy. As a Christian, he knows we cannot be content with the theology that is an achievement of philosophy. Thomas Aquinas is author of landmarks of sacred theology, but it is clear that, in his own life, what he was seeking as the ultimate goal is union with God. Indeed, in the last year of his life he had a vision that caused him to stop writing and to leave the Summa theologiae unfinished, saying that everything he had written seemed to him now mere straw.

        Thomas had spent hours poring over the texts of Aristotle and of the Fathers and such medievals as Peter Lombard, but he was above all a magister sacra paginate, a professor of Scripture. What attracted Maritain to Thomas was that all these things were part of a single personal effort to become what one is meant to be. No one can understand the kind of philosopher Jacques Maritain was without assimilating the profound implications of The Degrees of Knowledge.


The Degrees appeared toward the end of 1932. As if accompanying it, The Dream of Descartes also appeared. This little book, a remarkable tour de force, in many ways more profound than the section devoted to Descartes in Three Reformers, recalls the mystical origins of the Cartesian method, the dreams in which Descartes, not unlike the ancient poet Parmenides, is granted an insight that will enable him to change the course of human thought. One is reminded of Pascal’s “memorial,” the account of his conversion that Pascal had always with him, sewn into the lining of his coat, when one reads of Descartes’s account of his fateful dream and his analysis and decoding of it. We are told that Descartes had this in written form when he died in Stockholm, but it has come down to us only indirectly and in the account of others. It had become the practice for historians to ignore all this, doubtless embarrassed by the fact that the father of modern philosophy, so grateful for the revelation he had received in a dream, vowed to make a pilgrimage to Loreto to which the house of the Holy Family had been miraculously transported. Descartes kept that vow.

        But Maritain’s little book is important for far more than paying attention to this important event in the life of Descartes and in the history of modern philosophy. It occurs to Maritain, the student of the Angelic Doctor, that the account Descartes gave of human knowledge bore a strong resemblance to what Thomas had said of angelic knowledge. The knowledge of the angels is not gained from experience but it is an infused gift; further, the essence of the angel is a means for it to know other things. Descartes, having applied the method of doubt to all candidates for knowledge, ended with thoughts and ideas and no way of establishing that they were thoughts or ideas of anything outside the mind. Only a proof of the existence of God, based on the claim that the idea of God in my mind is not not one I could myself be cause of, so it must have an extramental cause: God – only this proof enables Descartes to get out of his mind. But this is to put the most difficult philosophical task, proving the existence of God, at the very threshold of philosophy.

        Earlier, in Three Reformers, Maritain accused Descartes, along with Luther and Rousseau, of bringing about the rise of subjectivism that would prove to be the death knell of philosophy.




Almost before Maritain and Etienne Gilson met, the two men, were linked together as if they were two barrels of the shotgun that would scatter the confusions of the contemporary world with Thomistic pellets. One is reminded of the twinning of Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Chesterton in England, productive of the armored vehicle George Bernard Shaw called the Chesterbelloc. But the relations between Maritain and Gilson were by and large at a distance, à longe. They exchanged compliments in print, not least on the issue of Christian philosophy, in which each man saw his as complemented by the other’s . Gilson was instrumental in Maritain’s invitation to Toronto and tried unsuccessfully to sign his countryman to a permanent presence at the Pontificl Institute of Mediaeval Studies. But Maritain proved elusive. Published praise of the other continued to appear from the pen of each man. For the Thomistic revival, Maritain and Gilson were of supreme and all but equal importance.


When Jacques Maritain began to study Thomas Aquinas, he did not regard himself as an isolated individual confronting a text that had survived from the thirteenth century. He learned from such mentors as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange that there was a tradition of interpretation, a Thomistic school, and that among the giants of that school were the commentators Cardinal Cajetan, John of St. Thomas, the anonymous Carmelites of Salamanca, and others. The commentary of Cajetan was included by the editors of the Leonine edition of the Summa theologiae. As Father Labourdette remarked, although many sought to confine themselves to simple Thomism itself, looking askance at the commentators of the intervening centuries, “Jacques Maritain judged that the thought of St. Thomas was powerful enough to have opened a veritable tradition, a tradition that remained alive by confronting new problems and old.”{29} In Thomas, Maritain had said that a living thought never ceases to grow and that in the hands of the great Thomists his [Thomas’s] thought, far from petrifying became more alive as it evolved. This disposition to benefit from the great commentators characterizes the Thomism of Maritain throughout his life.

        As the citations suggest, there is another kind of Thomist. It came as a surprise to many, when the letters of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson were published,{30} to come upon a veritable campaign by Gilson to get Maritain’s agreement to the Gilsonian vendetta against Cardinal Cajetan and even Aristotle. That this was indeed a campaign, and that the enlistment of Maritain in it was regarded as of tremendous importance, is testified to by Gilson’s premature claim of victory in a letter to Anton Pegis. Gilson wrote that Maritain “does not believe in John of St. Thomas any longer but does not want the rumor to spread. He vaguely suspects that Cajetan is no better.”{31} Gilson clearly mistook Maritain’s diffident reaction to his intimidation for agreement.

        Even more remarkable is the letter to Father Armand Maurer, included by Géry Prouvost in his edition of the Gilson-Maritain’s approach to Saint Thomas and his own. The letter was written in 1974, after the death of Maritain, and was occasioned by the posthumously published Untrammeled Approaches.{32} Prouvost provides the original English of the letter in his volume.{33} He finds the letter bouleversante, and one can only agree. How does the aged Gilson compare his own work with that of Jacques Maritain?

        He begins by declaring that reading the posthumous Maritain had made him realize that he “had never understood his true position.”

I was naively maintaining that one cannot consider oneself a Thomist without first ascertaining the authentic meaning of St. Thomas [sic] doctrine, which only history can do; during all that time, he was considering himself a true disciple of St. Thomas because he was continuing his thought. To strive to rediscover the meaning of the doctrine such as it has been in the mind of Thomas Aquinas was straight historicism. We have been talking at cross purposes all the time. (P. 275).

        At first blush, this seems to be an instance of a familiar opposition. Exegetical and historical work on a text is often opposed to efforts to read it in the light of other and later discussions. This would appear to be a division of the labor rather than a division of viewpoint on the text: not everyone can do everything, and there are editors and historians whose work provides an indispensable basis for replicating and extending the sort of thinking the text records. Where would Thomists be without the largely anonymous mass of scribes and editors to whom they owe the very presence of the text? Where would Thomists be without the careful historical recovery of the setting in which particular works were written, their occasion, and so forth? Doubtless those who engage in the one kind of work regard their opposite numbers warily: but for all that, their work would seem to be complementary rather than contradictory, as if one had to do either one or the other.

        In part, this could be what Gilson is saying. Insofar as it is, it would be wrong to see him on one side of a line and Maritain on another, as if all Gilson’s enormous corpus was historical in the sense of the above quotation. But it is clear that Gilson was stung by what he read in Untrammeled Approaches, not least a passage in which Maritain, writing about philosophy in relation to Vatican II, distanced himself from Gilson on the issue of the great commentators.{34} Maritain was still firmly a member of the Thomistic school that Gilson had come to loathe. Perhaps it was the realization that his long effort to persuade Maritain had failed that led him to continue the comparison in an unfortunate direction. He ends with a blanket condemnation of all Maritain’s efforts to assimilate and develop the thought of Thomas Aquinas.{35}

        Magnanimity was not the besetting virtue of Gilson’s last years, and this is an unfortunate valedictory. But it can be taken to underscore the nature of Maritain’s interest in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. In an appendix to Bergsonian Philosophy, Maritain gives us a remarkable analysis of recent work on Aristotle and of the nature of the commentaries Thomas wrote on treatises of Aristotle. In the book in which he reflects on the meaning of the Church’s proposing of Thomas Aquinas as major mentor in theology and philosophy, Maritain reveals the mandate for his own lifelong effort. The Thomistic revival is not an invitation to become a medievalist, an historian: it is an effort to assimilate the thought of Thomas and bring it to bear on questions and problems of our own times.


From this point of view, one can marvel at the range and depth of the works of Maritain. It would be difficult to cite any of his works as historical in the Gilsonian sense, but this does not mean that he did not pore over the text. His copy of Thomas’s Quaestio disputata de vertate is in the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame, and the text is full of marginalia and there are slips of paper inserted in the volumes attesting to Maritain’s close and analytical reading of the text. But when he wrote, his interest was to express what he had learned and to show its surprising relevance centuries after Thomas wrote. Moreover, the Thomism of Maritain goes into areas Thomas had not gone. His political philosophy, his aesthetics, amount to genuine innovations that have their source in Maritain’s study of Thomas but cannot be parsed back into texts of the master. Maritain is never more Thomistic than when all the elements of what he presents are well known, but his putting them together provides a breathtaking synthesis hitherto unknown. I think, of course, of The Degrees of Knowledge.




“Read Bergson. I have criticized him a lot, but read Bergson!” Thus Jacques Maritain spoke to Yves Floucat in 1960. Misgivings about the severity of his criticisms of Henri Bergson in his first published book, The Bergsonian Philosophy, were already expressed in the second edition. However profound Jacques Maritain’s disagreements with Bergson might be, he could never forget the decisive role the philosopher had played in saving himself and his fiancée Raïssa from the despair induced by the philosophy taught in the Sorbonne at the turn of the century.

        In her memoirs, written during their wartime exile in New York, Raïssa recounted in the unforgettable pages that bear the heading “In the Jardin des Plantes” the crisis the young couple had reached. Their cultural milieu, the ambience of the Sorbonne, was materialist and could not provide any answer to the most fundamental question of all: What is the meaning of life? Raïssa and Jacques did not see any reason to go on living if indeed there were no reason for living at all. This despairing gloom first began to lift when they were taken to the Collège de France by Charles Péguy to follow the Friday afternoon lectures of Henri Bergson. Here, the possibility of metaphysics, of something transcending the material, was opened up to them in a way that, years later, both Jacques and Raïssa were still effusive in describing.

        No doubt it was precisely the profound impact that Bergson had on him that was the basis for Jacques’s personal need to attack him when Jacques saw that a thinker who had once been so great a boon became an obstacle to the truth he had found in Saint Thomas Aquinas. But at those lectures in the Collège de France, Péguy Ernest Psichaari, Raïssa, and Jacques sat spellbound. The Bergson book, in its first version, was perhaps necessary to exorcize the defects of Bergson’s philosophy as they were revealed to the eye of one schooled in Thomism. But it was only right that, this being done, Jacques should return to Bergson and moderate his criticism in the long preface to the second edition.

        The vagaries of reputation in philosophy are a story unto themselves. There was a time when the writings of Henri Bergson were a constant point of reference. This is no longer so. It would be ironic if he became known to present-day readers only through such a massive criticism as that which Maritain leveled in his first book. When he wrote it, Maritain was taking on a superstar of the times, whose reputation seemed assured and could not have been mortally damaged even by so thorough a critique as that found in The Bergsonian Philosophy. Maritain would be the first to urge the reader to go to Bergson’s own writings in order to appraise what is said of them in his book. Of course, not all of Bergson’s major works had appeared when Maritain wrote this book. But Maritain could assume a thorough knowledge of his opponent on the part of the reader. As he said to Floucat, “Lisez Bergson!”

        Maritain’s own reputation has known its ups and downs. When the Jacques Maritain Center was founded at the University of Notre Dame in 1957 under the triumvirate of Rev. Leo R. Ward, C.S.C., Frank Keegan, and Joseph Evans, it was envisaged as the eventual repository of Maritain’s papers. Raïssa died in 1960 in France, to which they had returned for treatment; and from that point on, the center of gravity of Jacques Maritain’s life returned to his native land. The more than dozen years of life left him came to be divided between Toulouse and the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order in which Jacques himself would take the three vows of religion in 1971, and the chateau at Kolbsheim where he was the honored guest of the Gruneliuses. It was there that Raïssa lay buried and where Jacques would lie beside her after his death in 1973. He was no longer a household word in his native land, perhaps, but Kolbsheim fittingly became the repository of his papers; there, under the capable administration of René Mougel, the groundwork was laid for the renaissance in which the sixteen volumes of his work edited by Mougel and others have played the major role.


Since his death, the reputation of Jacques Maritain has been recovering from the dip it took with the appearance of The Peasant of the Garonne, his mordant look at what some were making of Vatican II. The prescience of those misgivings has long been clear. Meanwhile, new societies devoted to the thought of Maritain have sprung up; in Kolbsheim, of coure, but also in Rome, in Latin America, in Canada, and in the United States. John Paul II cited Jacques Maritain by name in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio as a model of the continuing effort to effect a modus vivendi between faith and reason. Young Catholic intellectuals are finding inspiration in the motto Jacques Maritain took from John of St. Thomas, Philosophandum in fide. One should philosophize in the ambience of the faith.

        On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first book, Bergonian Philosophy, Maritain wrote a lengthy preface in which he expressed regret at the tone he had taken in criticizing Henri Bergson. It was not that he thought that the criticisms he had made were invalid, but that the book did not convey the tremendous role that Bergson had played in the thought of Raïssa and Jacques as well as of countless others. We have vivid word pictures of the lecture hall in the Collège de France in the late afternoon, the green shaded lamps on the professorial table lit, the seats filled with as heterogeneous a group as has ever attended philosophical lectures – but then Bergson was opening anew the path to the spiritual, for which there was a hunger on all levels of French culture. And there was another thing that would have influenced Maritain’s mellower mood: Bergson too had come into the Church, if only on his deathbed.



        By accepting immediately the condemnation of Action Française and undertaking to explain and defend the church’s action, Maritain was effectively declaring independence of a political outlook that, while it was anti-capitalist and antibourgeoisie, also rejected democracy and parliamentarianism. Moreover, Maritain alienated many fellow Catholics who accepted only with difficulty, if at all, the papal condemnation.

        After the dust settled, Maritain began work on The Degrees of Knowledge and for a year his life took on an almost monastic regime. The meetings of the Circle of Studies loom even larger in his life, and he continued to make new friends because of them. In September of 1931, the tenth annual retreat was held with Garrigou-Lagrange as director. In December of that year, Jacques visited Kolbsheim and the chateau of the Gruneliuses. Did he have any premonition that it was in the little graveyard there that he would bury Raïssa and later still be buried with her? The chateau is now the locus of the Cercle d’Etudes Jacques et Raïssa Maritain, and it is there that René Mougel and his associates edit the Cahiers Jacques Maritain. From Kolbsheim came the magnificent sixteen-volume edition of the writings of Jacques and Raïssa already mentioned. Work on the The Degrees continued through 1932, punctuated by meetings of the circle; and in September the annual retreat was held. Also in September occurred the visit of Edith Stein described at the beginning of this book. The following year, Jacques made his first trip to Toronto and visited the University of Chicago as well. Freedom in the Modern World (Du régime temporal et de la liberté) was published in 1933 and then, in 1934. Pour le bien commun, a joint statement by Maritain and others on the repression of riots in Vienna. His lectures that year in Rome, in Nimegen, and in Spain, concentrate on the spiritual and temporal problems of Christianity. There is no diminution of more theoretical works; the interest in aesthetics continues, but one notices the increased involvement in practical questions and in direct action. In 1935, Maritain took part in a manifesto on the war in Ethiopia. When Integral Humanism appeared in 1936, some accused Maritain of being a Christian Marxist. In that year, Maritain visited Argentina and Brazil. In 1937 appeared the Manifest of Protest against the bombing of Guernica. Maintain was named Public Enemy Number 1 in Spain. He spoke out against anti-Semitism, and a stormy lecture on that subject was later published as A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question (Les juifs parmi les nations).{36} Maritain’s name appeared on many manifestos against the Anschluss and against aerial bombing in Spain. He had come a long way from Action Française, and François Mauriac felt compelled to come to his defense against Catholic criticism. In 1938 Maritain again went to North America and, for the first time, visited the University of Notre Dame.

        By the end of the thirties, Maritain was manifestly a man of the Left. He found himself at odds, in political matters, with his spiritual and intellectual mentor Garrigou-Lagrange, something painful to both men. And there were others as well who lamented the change in Maritain.




Among the old friends and admirers who were put off by Maritain’s political activities during the thirties was Paul Claudel, poet, diplomat, dramatist. In a moving account, Ma conversion,{37} Claudel describes the cultural scene in Paris when he was a student and trying to find his path as a poet. The depressing materialism that the Maritains would sense a decade or so later lay like heavy hand on the human spirit. The influence of Ernest Renan, the apostate, was everywhere. Renan distributed the diplomas and prizes when Claudel graduated from the Lycée, and he was the grandfather of Jacques’s boyhood friend, Ernest Psichari. One Christmas Eve, 1886, at Notre Dame in Paris, looking in on the liturgy out of aesthetic motives, Claudel felt his lost faith come surging back into his soul. Some years would pass before he brought his life into line with his recovered faith but that event in Notre Dame became an event in French cultural history as well as in the poet’s biography. The visitor to Notre Dame will find Claudel’s conversion memorialized on a plaque in the sanctuary.

        Claudel’s spiritual advisor had told him to read Thomas Aquinas, both of the summas, the Summa contra gentiles as well as the Summa theologiae, and to read them neat, without commentary. As a young consul in China, Claudel did this, and it was formative of him as a poet.{38} How would there not be a friendship between such a man and the Maritains? Of course, Claudel’s life was spent largely outside France on diplomatic assignments in China, Brazil, Japan, the United States, etc. But surely, if belatedly, his genius was recognized in France. The Maritains recognized it from the outset, reading Claudel’s Art poétique. In early 1921 Claudel mentions Maritain in his journal and in August records that Maritain had sent him a wonderful comment by Saint John of the Cross on Psalm 45, verse 5. (Claudel’s immersion in Scripture was lifelong, ending in the volumes of commentary that make up a significant part of his collected works.) In December came the Christmas visit to Meudon when he met Maurice Sachs. In July 1930, he made another visit to Meudon and some weeks later wrote this: “Maritain says that the power of the system of Saint Thomas lies in the fact that he grounds it on the great truths of common sense that the human heart obstinately retains even when one verbally denies them: the existence of the world, finality, freedom, providence, the existence of God, responsibility, the existence and immortality of the soul.”{39} Clearly here was a thinker Claudel admired. That it was mutual is clear from Maritain’s participation in the issue of Vie Intellectuele dedicated to Claudel in 1935.

        In 1917, Maritain signed a manifesto on behalf of those Claudel characterized as the “Basque traitors.” For his part, Claudel had written a long poem “To the martyrs of Spain.”{40} “I wrote to that imbecile telling him what I think of him.” Strong words. On the same page Claudel quotes a Latin adage: Plus potest objicere asinus quam solvere philosophus: An ass can raise more difficulties than a philosopher can resolve.

        Perhaps it was his professional absences from France that enabled Claudel to make friends among groups at odds with one another. He was uncontaminated by any connection with Action Française. As a servant of the Republic, he could scarcely embrace a movement that was fundamentally antidemocratic. And he was repelled by fascism as he was by communism. Consequently, one of Maritain’s manifestos brought a severe reaction from the older man. Maritain had written, “So long as modern societies secrete misery as the normal production of their functioning, there can be no rest for a Christian.” “Mr. Jacques Maritain is a great philosopher,” Claudel responded. “Under that title, he would not be unaware of what the Scholastics call the per se and the per accidens, or in other words the normal and accidental result or effect. But he tells us that misery is the normal result of the functioning of current society, in other words the end for the sake of which it exists. This to go further than Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself in whose steps our Thomist follows. It is excessive to pretend that the end of any society, as degraded as it might be imagined, is the misery of each or of some of its members.”{41} Not only does Claudel seize upon the claim that the intended aim of modern society is the misery of its people, he also comments on Maritain’s statement that “There is no rest for a Christian: il n’y a pas de repos pour un chrétien.” It is a Christian obligation in justice or charity actively to seek a remedy for the general imperfections of society. “This is to be beyond the founder of our religion,” Claudel comments. Christ advises the apostles to wait for the harvest season before determining what is wheat and what is weed. Our competence and our power to distinguish evil is limited, Claudel observes. He ends by doubting that there is anything like the social question. There are particular problems to be addressed, of course, and he lists alcoholism, prostitution, pornography, the family, housing, and unemployment, not to mention education. He ends by doubting that there is anything like the social question. There are particular problems to be addressed, of course, and he lists alcoholism, prostitution, pornography, the family, housing, and unemployment, not to mention education. For Claudel, the real cause of social ills is ideology and an unchecked sentimentality coupled with a blind confidence in one’s own abilities and lights, the bane of the bookish and intellectuals. Maritain, in short, is naive.


In response, Maritain pointed to the social encyclicals of the popes. He denies that he meant that misery is per se the end of modern societies. “As for philosophers who treat the problems of social philosophy, it would seem to be precisely their duty as philosophers to bring about what they teach. If they are mistaken, attack their errors. But to blame them for undertaking a task that is part of their profession would be an obvious absurdity.”{42}

        Claudel replies that it is one thing to recognize social ills, ills he has never denied, and quite another to say that such ills are the normal product of the functioning of a society. “Mr. Maritain repudiates this and says that he did not mean what he said. I congratulate him. Nonetheless he said it. In so grave a matter it is usual for a philosopher to express himself with precision.”

        Well, one can see here a fundamental difference of the kind Gilbert and Sullivan immortalized. Maritain is a born liberal, Claudel is a born conservative. What is important here is that both are Catholic and both think and argue in a common context. To pounce upon the exaggeration of Maritain is a debater’s trick, but then Maritain, in the heat of political zeal, opened himself to such critiques. No doubt, for Claudel it was their very different reactions to the war in Spain that underlay this later exchange. Claudel can stand for the large number of devout and intelligent Catholics who were offended by Maritain’s apparent alliance with those who were persecuting the Church in Spain. There is no apologia for Franco in Claudel. Perhaps like the Bernanos of The Moonlit Cemeteries, Claudel would say that, on the political level, there was no good side in the Spanish Civil War. His critique of Maritain was not a defense of fascism anymore than Maritain’s agitation against the atrocities committed by Franco was a justification of the martyred priests and nuns.


{1} George Bernanos, Combat pour la vérité: Correspondance inédite 1904-1934 (Paris: Plon, 1971), pp. 323-24.

{2} La philosophie chrétienne, Journées d'etudes de la Société Thomiste (Juvisy: Editions du Cerf, 1933).

{3} Ibid., p. 78.

{4} Motte cites Q.D. de veritate, q. 14, a. 10: "Ab ipsa prima institutione natura humana est ordinate in finem beatitudinis -- non quasi in finem debitum homini secundum naturam ejus, sed ex sola divina liberalitate."

{5} Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 8, a. 4.

{6} Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 2, a. 3: "Natura rationalis, in quantum cognoscit universalem boni et entis rationem, habet immediatum ordinem ad universal essendi principium: perfectio ergo rationalis creaturae non solum consistit in eo quod ei competit secundum suam naturam, sed in eo etiam quod ei attribuitur ex quadam supernaturali participatione divinae bonitatis." In a note to p. 82, Motte adds: "Il va de soi que la nature et l'existence même de ce secours surnaturel ne peuvent se déduire philosophiquement. Du moins sa possibilité est-elle certainement contenue dans la toute- puissance divine: Saint Thomas le prouve par l'absurde au moyen du fameux argument du désir naturel de connaître. (cf. Bulletin Thomiste, 1932, pp. 651-76) Il n'en faut pas dadvantage pour que le philosophe, dès là qu'il pose Dieu, réserve comme possible tout un ordre de participation surnaturelle du crée à l'incrée. Mais nous ne nous limitons pas ici au point de vue du philosophe."

{7} La philosophie chrétienne, p. 93.

{8} Ibid., p. 84.

{9} Summa contra gentiles, I, 3.

{10} Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q. 109, a. 1: "Intellectus humanus habet aliquam formam, scilicet ipsum lumen intelligibile, quod est de se sufficiens ad quaedam intelligibilia cognoscenda, ad ea scilicet in quorum notitiam per sensibilia possumus devenire."

{11} La philosophie chrétienne, p. 93.

{12} Ibid., p. 94.

{13} Ibid., p. 98

{14} Ibid., p. 99

{15} Ibid., p. 103, note 1. "Au surplus la 'philosophie morale adéquatement prise' subalternée à la théologie morale et la morale strictement philosophique (De la philosophie chrétienne, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1933, pp. 108-66), semble difficile à concevoir, le scheme classique de la subalternation pouvant malaisément chevaucher deux plans d'intelligibilité aussi distincts que celui de la foi et celui de la raison philosophique."

{16} One of the more extended discussions of these matters is to be found in Jacques Maritain, Science and Wisdom (London: G. Bles, The Centenary Press, 1940).

{17} Ibid., p. 162.

{18} Ibid., p. 167.

{19} "Si la foi seule peut nous fournir notre fin réele et nos réeles conditions existentiels -- motifs invoqués par M. Maritain -- c'est parce que la foi seule manifeste aussi notre lien réel, nos réels rapports avec notre Principe, tellement que tout systématisation, qu'elle soit théorique ou pratique, ne peut s'achever réellement, je veux dire avec une portée réelle et décisive, que par l'effort combiné de la philosophie et de la foi. Qu'on songe que, pour saint Thomas, la providence même ne se démontre pas en philosophie! La philosophie chrétienne, p. 118.

{20} Ibid., p. 120.

{21} Jacques Maritain, An Essay on Christian Philosophy (New York Philosophical Library, 1955), p. 4.

{22} Ibid., p. 8.

{23} Ibid., p. 9.

{24} Ibid., 17.

{25} Ibid., p. 25.

{26} Bernard Doering, ed. and trans., The Collected Works of Jacques Maritain (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), p. 264.

{27} Ibid., p. 265.

{28} Ibid., p. 266.

{29} Revue Thomiste 84 (1984), pp. 663-64. Quoted by Serge-Thomas Bonino in "Historiographie de l'école thomiste: Le cas Gilson," in Saint Thomas au XXe Siècle (Paris, 1994).

{30} Deux approaches de l'être: Correspondence, 1923-1971 / Etienne Gilson - Jacques Maritain, ed. Gêry Prouvost (Paris: J. Vrin, 1991).

{31} See Laurence K. Shook, Etienne Gilson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984), p. 318.

{32} Doering, ed., The Collected Works of Jacques Maritain, p. 20.

{33} Prouvost, ed., Etienne Gilson - Jacques Maritain Correspondence, p. 275ff.

{34} "Your severity with regard to Cajetan is expressed with a nuance and moderation that make me grateful to you. You know that my position with regard to the great commentators is not the same as Gilson's. They are far from being infallible and have often hardened our differences. I gladly recognize the serious deficiencies of Cajetan. But it remains my position that these great minds (and especially John of St. Thomas -- from whom on occasion though I do not hesitate to separate myself) are like very precious optical instruments which enable us to see much more clearly certain depths of St. Thomas's thought even though other depths are given short shrift by them." Translation cited from Doering, Jacques Maritain and the French Catholic Intellectuals, p. 67.

{35} "Unfortunately, on all the points on which he prides himself on improving, completing Thomas Aquinas, my own feeling is that he is distorting the true thought of the Angelic Doctor." Prouvost, Etienne Gilson - Jacques Maritain Correspondence, pp. 275-76, note.

{36} See Jacques Maritain and the Jews, edited by Robert Royal, the proceedings of the American Maritain Association (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).

{37} Paul Claudel, Oeuvres en prose (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), pp. 1008-14.

{38} See Dominique Millet-Gerard, Claudel thomiste? (Paris: Champion, 1999).

{39} Claudel, Journal I, p. 924.

{40} The poem was published as the preface to a book by M. Echtachill, La persécution religieuse en Espagne (Paris, 1937).

{41} "Question sociale et questions sociales" first appeared in Le Figaro Littéraires, June 24, 1939. See Claudel, Oeuvres en prose (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1965), p. 1326.

{42} Le Figaro, July 8, 1939.

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