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




1940 January 4. Leaves Marseilles for North America with Raïssa and Vera.
March 1. Having spent January and February in Toronto, leaves for New York.
De la justice politique published.
With the occupation of France and setting up of Vichy government, takes up residence at 30 Fifth Avenue.
October. Scholasticism and Politics published.
1941 January 4. Death of Henri Bergson.
March 6. First radio broadcast to France.
A travers le désastre published.
July. Raïssa finishes We Have Been Friends Together.
La pensée de saint Paul.
Confession de foi.
Ransoming the Time.
1942 January. “The End of Machiavellianism.”
February. Ecole Libre des Haute Études established in New York by Belgian and French exiles, with Maritain as vice president.
The Rights of Man and Natural Law published.
1943 January 9. The Maritain volume of The Thomist celebrates his sixtieth birthday.
April. Christianisme et democratie.
June 26. Death of Maritain’s mother, Geneviève Favre, in Paris.
August. Education at the Crossroads.
September 2. Begins weekly addresses on Voice of America.
1944 Principes d’une politique humaniste.
De Bergson à saint Thomas d’Aquin.
June 6. Normandy invasion.
July 10. On visit to New York, General de Gaulle proposes ambassadorship to Vatican.
Trip to Paris. Appointed French ambassador to Vatican.
Raïssa’s Adventures in Grace published.
1945 April 1. Leaves for Rome, where on May 10 he presents his credentials.
Raïssa and Vera come to Rome via Naples.
Maritain becomes close to Monsignor Montini, the future Paul VI.
1946 Maritain under attack by Julio de Meinvielle of Buenos Aires.
November 15. “Message aux amis argentins.”
1947 January 12. Concert of music of Sati, Lourié, Ibert, and Vlad presented by Maritains at Palais Taverna.
The Person and the Common Good.
Existence and the Existent.
UNESCO conference in Mexico; Maritain president of French delegation and president of the conference. His opening address, La Voie de la paix.



“I left France in January 1940 to give the courses which for several years I had been offering at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto and for a series of lectures in the United States. I planned to return to Paris at the end of June, but the tragic events of the month of June and the German stranglehold on my country, prevented me from doing so.”{1}

        On January 4, 1940, Jacques, Raïssa, and Vera – the “little flock” – boarded ship at Marseilles and sailed away from war and into a decade that would begin and end in the United States, first as exile, eventually as professor of philosophy at Princeton. One can only imagine the despondency with which they left behind their defeated country and the anxiety with which they looked ahead. Such financial assets as Jacques had were abandoned to the vagaries of the occupation. The Gestapo sought him in vain at the Institut Catholique, proof of the wisdom of his departure. In southern France an allegedly independent French government was set up under the venerable Marshal Pétain and some, like Mounier and Fumet, moved into the Vichy territory in order to carry on the publication of their respective journals, Esprit and Temps Present. From London, Charles de Gaulle broadcast a defiant rejection of the armistice the Germans had offered, and in Paris the Resistance began.

        After a few months in Toronto, they moved to New York, soon taking possession of a furnished apartment at 30 Park Avenue. Jacques was incapable of being anywhere for any length of time without exercising a magnetic attraction. Soon he was being looked to for advice and help from other emigrés. In New York, the emigrés founded a press that published their works in French. The Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes was founded under the presidency of Henri Focillon, and Jacques, who would succeed Focillon as president of the school, began teaching there. He also lectured at Columbia and Princeton. And after Pearl Harbor, he began to broadcast to France, courtesy of the American government. These talks were collected, published, and translated into English.



The war forced on Jacques Maritain, Christian philosopher, the opportunity to develop in acute form the ideas that had begun to take shape after the condemnation of Action Française. Maritain’s immediate need was to rethink, in the light of the Catholic tradition, the relationship between the temporal and the spiritual. In The Primacy of the Spiritual, he had, in an amazing tour de force, brought to bear on the twentieth century the Church’s thinking on its relation to the temporal realm, the realm of politics. Arguing for the primacy of the spiritual and the Church’s indirect power over the temporal order, something the condemnation of Action Française had made imperative, Maritin advanced an eloquent defense of the papal action. No Catholic can read the pages he devoted to the crucial role of the pope without being deeply moved and without seeing how distant the modern mind had become to the doctrine he defended. He invoked Joseph de Maistre and Bossuet, he touched on the Galileo affair, he cited Father Faber on the reverence in which a Catholic must hold the pope and the obedience he owes him. Action Française rejected the condemnation by claiming an autonomy for the temporal that Maritain saw as heretical. It was not that the Church denied anyone the right to be a monarchist or to be against democracy and parliamentary government. He recalled the time-honored truth that no single form of government was entailed by Christian belief. But when a political movement took positions that made it, in effect, a rival of the Church in the Church’s proper domain, the Church had no choice but to condemn it.

        This was a great turning point in Maritain’s thought, as has been mentioned; and he worked his way gradually toward the proposal of Integral Humanism, in which he saw that a nostalgia for the medieval, the wish to return to some earlier state of affairs, was simply not an option. But the first requirement was to become a critic of humanism.

        One can trace in Maritain’s writings of the 1930s the emergence of the crucial distinction he drew between anthropomorphic humanism, the humanism of the Renaissance, and a theocentric humanism. Along the way to this clarity, Maritain aligned himself with questionable allies, as in the signing of various manifestos – allies who espoused the very humanism he theoretically rejected. He even congratulated André Gide when he openly espoused communism. He condemned the aerial bombing in Spain but seemed to many to accept uncritically the liberal version of the bombing of Guernica. In his own mind, Maritain believed he was not joining any side or any political party, and no one can doubt the sincerity of his denial. But we must not look to manifestos for Maritain’s analysis of what had brought Europe to a flashpoint that would lead, inevitably it seemed, to World War II.



Perhaps it would be better to focus on the continuity of Maritain’s thinking rather than a major change in the 1930s. His first courses at the Institut Catholique had been devoted to the history of modern philosophy. Of course, no French philosopher could escape the pervasive presence of Cartesianism. The work that inaugurated the series Roseau d’Or, a series meant to provide an outlet for an alternative literature to that of the Nouvelle Revue Française and André Gide, was Maritain’s own Three Reformers. His cultural efforts were to be defined by an openness and receptivity to the modern; that and his association with Cocteau can be seen as an effort to assimilate and redirect surrealism. But in the inaugural volume, Maritain subjected Descartes, Luther, and Rousseau to a devastating critique, one in which he drew a relationship between the ideas and the persons who held them. This was not extending an olive branch to modernity but taking an axe to the roots of modern culture.

        What these three “reformers” had done was to sever the relationship between man and the transcendent. In their emphasis on the individual man and their exaltation of humanity, Maritain saw a humanism that began perhaps only by bracketing man’s relation to God, but ended by denying it. Culture, philosophy, became separated from Christianity. Maritain recalled that classical thought pursued the life of reason in order to rejoin “something better than reason and its sources.”{2} But the reason that emerged with Descartes cut itself off both from what was above it, the supranational, and from what was below it, the infrarational. Such a humanism required that man be his own savior and that he produce by his own efforts a terrestrial paradise. No wonder that someone like Kierkegaard attacked the reason that presumed to encompass Christianity and to reduce it to its own categories: religion within the limits of reason alone!



In 1939 Maritain had published a little book called The Twilight of Civilization, which summarized the social and political position he had been formulating. It is a resumé, as impressionistic as the preceding paragraph, but the power of the analysis is inescapable. The rejection of humanism is the rejection of a false view of man, and Maritain’s proposal was that a true humanism must be based on what man truly is, a being called to union with God. The earlier discussions of Christian philosophy seem abstract when compared to the actual thinking of the Christian philosopher. Thanks to his faith, Maritain had accepted truth that went beyond the truths the unaided mind is capable of. What he accepted was not an opinion or a theory but a revelation. Only through faith can a man fully understand what he is. The man of faith inevitably observes philosophy even while he engages in it. For him, its truths are not the sum total of truths, and he will commence philosophizing from out of his faith (philosophandum in fide), will be guided by it as he reasons, and will relate the achievements of reason to truths beyond its reach.

        In The Twilight of Civilization, after discussing the crisis of modern humanism, Maritain goes on to consider the great forces aligned against Christianity and the relation of the gospel to the pagan empire. Man is now threatened by totalitarianism, both the fascist kind and the Marxist kind. Marxism is seen as a grotesque caricature of Christianity, seeking a universal hegemony over mankind.{3} The atheism of Marx and the racism of Hitler seek to replace Christianity with a false and terrestrial faith. Maritain’s grasp of what modernity had become did not lead, despite the melancholy title of the little work, to despair. He rejected a shallow optimism as well as pessimism and turned to the great alternative of a new humanism, an integral humanism: one based on a true view of man and of his potential, both natural and supernatural. The new paganism generated a view of politics expressed by Carl Schmitt, which required the community to be based not simply on friendship among its members but on hatred of an opponent. For Schmitt, the state requires a hated enemy in order to thrive. Maritain rejected this with eloquent vigor, recalling the simple truth of Christianity.

        The solidarity of the race, grounded in the fact that man is created in the image of God and is called to a universal love that has no natural enemies, is the only possible basis for a genuine politics. Sin is to be hated but not the sinner. And then he turns to democracy.

        The discussion of Christianity and democracy in this little book begins with an explicit reference to America. If the modern world requires a new humanism to supplant the anthropocentric humanism of the Renaissance, it calls for a new democracy as well. Democracy has many senses, as he had already argued in An Opinion on Charles Maurras and The Primacy of the Spiritual. A democracy based on an anthropomorphic humanism is only another form of the same problem. “It remains that if it is true that there are always temperaments of the right and temperaments of the left, political philosophy itself is of neither the left nor the right, it must be simply true.”{4} So too Maritain envisages a democracy that transcends what are currently called democratic governments. “It is defined by the fact that it recognizes the inalienable rights of the human person and the vocation of the person as such to the political life, and which sees in those who have authority the vicars of the multitude, as Saint Thomas Aquinas put it” (p. 44). Individualistic liberalism stemming from Rousseau must be rejected, but – and here is a note, derived from DeMaistre, which will characterize Maritain’s thought from now on – one must seek in a false humanism and the democracy to which it gives rise the authentically human aspirations from which it springs.



The way out of the debacle is not simply to provide the pathology of anthropocentric humanism; one must see that it is the perversion of an aspiration that has a defensible development. Jacques Maritain, who began as a self-described antimodern, has become a critic of modernity who sees it as a failure to recognize its own deep aspirations. One must plunge into anthropomorphic humanism in search of these aspirations if one would provide an alternative to it, a new humanism that is an authentic development of these aspirations. “An integral humanism and an organic democracy, democracy inspired by Christianity of which the American episcopate speaks, proceeds from a theocentric inspiration. They really respect human dignity, not in an abstract individual, atemporal and non-existent, which ignores the historical conditions and historical diversity and which pitilessly devours the human substance, but in each concrete and existent person in the historical context of his life: (p. 45).

        What are those inalienable rights? Maritain finds them in Pius XI’s encyclical Divini Redemptoris: the right to life, to the integrity of the body, to the means necessary for existence, the right to tend to one’s final end along the path traced by God, the right of association, the right to possess and use property…. In Human Rights and Natural Law, Maritain addressed the vexed question as to the relationship between the traditional teaching on natural law - that there are moral guidelines anchored in our very nature – on the one hand, and the doctrine of natural rights, which had a quite different theoretical basis, on the other. In his postwar Walgreen lectures that became Man and the State, Maritain would present his matured thinking on the matter.



The increased tempo of Maritain’s life as he settled into wartime exile in New York – the writing, lecturing, teaching, consultation with representatives of General de Gaulle, radio broadcasts – did not distract Jacques and his little flock from the one thing needful. His reflections on politics place squarely in the center of the picture the human person called to holiness. About this time in Oxford, C.S. Lewis was writing the remarkable essay, “Learning in War Time.” How can we justify the pursuit of learning at a time of great danger when issues of life and death confront us? Lewis’s answer could have been Maritain’s as well: “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself…. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”{5}



Among the books Maritain wrote in New York is the remarkable The Thought of St. Paul, in which he reflects on the epistles with especial reference to the question of the “mystery of Israel.”{6} In Paris, Jacques had been the object of some vituperation for addressing publicly the question of anti-Semitism. Raïssa was Jewish – doubtless one motive for Jacques’s lifelong interest in the issue, largely from a theological point of view. “Salvation comes from the Jews.” Maritain begins with this quotation from John 4:22. All the apostles were Jewish, of course, not least the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, originally Saul. “It is from Israel that the Savior of the World came; it is in the womb of a young Jewish girl – the only absolutely pure creature among all human creatures – that the Word by whom all was made took on human flesh, soon to be spared in the first pogrom of the Christian era, the massacre of the innocent Jewish babes by which Herod sought fumblingly to strike their king.…” It is with Moses that Maritain compares Paul. Moses transmitted to Israel the tablets of the Law; Paul taught the universal church by the sword of the word that had been entrusted to him, a “chuch composed of Jews and gentiles,” the spiritual Israel that was “by the Law, dead to the Law, in order to live for God.”

        That is the Pauline mission and the source of Saint Paul’s importance for human history. It was thanks to him that Christianity was freed from Judaism to become universal, catholic. It had to be understood that the Son of Man had not come only for the Jew, but for Man, for the human race taken in its unity. The great intuition of Paul that flooded his spirit, Maritain writes, was the universality of the Kingdom of God and that salvation comes through faith, not through the law. And there is another pillar of Paul’s teaching: the liberty of the sons of God. “Saint Paul is the great teacher of liberty; the sense of liberty is rooted in the very marrow of the bones of the man who was Saul, the most fervent of the Pharisees, all the barriers of whose heart melted at the vision of the glorified Christ. From that point on, he knows no frontiers, but is at the mercy of Him whom he loves and who delivered him.”

        In this book on Paul the reader comes into contact with the scriptural bases of the spirituality of Maritain. The book has the deceptive look of being merely a florilegium of texts, and Maritain does indeed put many texts before the reader; but they are chosen to illustrate large themes and in their cumulative effect give a profound sense of the mission of Saint Paul. In such a book, it is the role of the author to be self-effacing, to let his subject speak. But if it were simply a matter of listening to Paul, we need only read the epistles and the Acts of the Apostles. This is a book by one who had long immersed himself in those texts and has discerned the major themes illustrated far and wide in the epistles. And the art of the book is to make us unaware of the very knowledgeable guide we are following. Under the headings of the mission of Paul, law and grace, the greatest of these is charity. Christ the redeemer, the economy of salvation, and the new man, Maritain enables us to assimilate the message of Paul. But there is another theme as well, that of the mystery of Israel.

        The Mosaic law prepared the chosen people for the messiah, as the natural law does others; and when the messiah comes, he is rejected. Paul bears witness for his own people, underscoring the enormous advantage of being Jewish: it is to the Jews that God has confided his oracles (Rom. 3:3). The Scriptures were put into the hands of the Jewish people. Paul’s love of his fellow Jews – he would accept exclusion himself if it were the price of their accepting Christ – is the measure of his anguish at their rejection of Christ (Rom. 9:1-5). God has not rejected his people, but Israel’s false step makes possible the salvation of the nations (Rom. 11). The reward of the Jews will be a greater spiritual abundance when at last they turn to Christ. The conversion of the Jews was looked forward to in the Middle Ages as to the third period of the Church and of Christianity. The gentiles have been grafted on to the olive branch of Israel (Eph. 2:11-18) and God will not withdraw the promises he has made to his chosen people (Rom.11). They will eventually convert. Maritain closes this discussion with a quotation from Thomas Aquinas’s commentary on John.

The two peoples, the Jewish people and the gentile people are symbolized at the tomb of Christ by the two apostles. They run together toward Christ across the ages, the gentiles by the natural law, the Jews by the written law. The gentiles, like Peter, who arrives second at the sepulcher, come later to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, but like Peter they enter first. The Jewish people, the first to know the mystery of the redemption, will be the last converted to faith in Christ…. Then, the evangelist writes, John will enter. Israel ought not remain eternally at the entrance to the sepulcher. After Peter has gone inside, they too will enter, for in the end the Jews, they too, will be received in the faith.{7}



And Raïssa? How could she possibly adjust to being transplanted to the New World, a stranger among strangers, after having established a modus vivendi at Meudon that enabled her to pursue in relative solitude the life of prayer? “Raïssa had lost the one place – Meudon, with the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in our home where she felt some shelter on the earth and where, running the risk of dying of pain, she found conditions exceptionally favorable in spite of everything for recollection.” Thus wrote Jacques, introducing that portion of her journal that runs from 1940 until 1960. But isn’t it normal, he asks, that anyone who sets out on the road to God must one day be deprived of all the facilities for prayer that for so long a time had been granted her? Here is a description of Raïssa by their friend Julie Kernan. “At this time as Jacques was submerged in work, Raïssa was particularly unhappy. Distressed by the news that seeped through to her from France, missing the peace and quiet of Meudon, she shrank from the bustle and noise of the big city around her and spent much time at her desk, leaving the apartment as rarely as possible. Even so, she graciously received visitors, and coped as best she could with the domestic problems that arose.”{8} By contrast, Vera is described as wading into the shops and markets, babbling away in the best English she could muster, the practical one of the trio who kept their ménage going, as she always had. Julie Kernan thought Raïssa had more knowledge of English, but she spoke it reluctantly, dreading to make mistakes – a fear familiar to many a monoglot. And yet she accompanied Jacques on his trips, for example, to Chicago in March where they stayed with John and Eleanor Nef and Jacques lectured at the university. As if contrasting his experience with her own, she wrote in her journal on March 25, “Jacques’s lectures at the university. For me this exile is a terrible trial.” On April 25, she vowed to die but then took it back when she considered how lonely that would leave Jacques and Vera. On January 5, 1941, she wrote, “Bergson died yesterday (January 4). Great pain for us. I think of all that we owe him, and that many others do as well. We heard in a letter from France that he had been baptized and did not want to declare it publicly out of consideration for the Jews subject to persecution in recent years. Our master, lost and found.”

        Judith Suther writes of this time. “It would nonetheless be inaccurate, as well as insensitive, to say that Raïssa ceased to contribute to the balance of love and mutual support that bound the ‘small flock of three’ together, or that she wailed in private while Jacques and Vera dealt with the world. What took place, to a greater degree than had occurred before, was a shifting of the balance and a sharpening of everyone’s roles. Raïssa became more withdrawn, Jacques more politically and intellectually engaged, Vera more serviceable and nurturing. Under the pressure of war and expatriation, their natural tendencies became more clearly defined.”{9}



However badly Raïssa took life in America, at least at first, nonetheless she soldiered on. And what was she doing at her desk, as Julie Kernan describes her? She was writing her masterpiece in two installments, the first called in English We Have Been Friends Together, and its sequel, Adventures in Grace. Memoirs. Somehow the term seemed inadequate to what Raïssa put down on these pages. She evoked her childhood, meeting Jacques, the encounter with Léon Bloy, conversion, and then the quest for holiness. For generations of American Catholics, she made the French Catholic world vibrant with life. One felt that he had known Ernest Psichari and Charles Péguy; Bloy seemed a presence in the room as one read Raïssa. The artists and writers, the philosophers and theologians, a whole world, peopled it seemed by converts or reverts to the faith, for whom Catholicism was the central fact of their lives and the key to making sense of the world and oneself. And she is the keeper of flame. She launched the explanation of Jacques’s long connection with Action Française – he was too responsive to the urging of his spiritual directors, unquestioningly altering what he considered his natural leftism for the monarchical and antidemocratic movement of Charles Maurras. He was never a member, of course, and he says he did not subscribe to the movement’s daily paper.

        Raïssa’s benign view of Jacques’s involvement with Action Française is symptomatic. Jacques is the hero of every encounter, and she portrays herself in a thoroughly subordinate role. Her sensitivity to the mildest criticism of Jacques is palpable. All that may be true, but it does not detract from the accomplishment of these two memoirs, which ultimately were fused into one volume. Nothing Jacques himself ever wrote conveys as powerfully the persons they were: Raïssa, Vera, himself. But Raïssa makes them and their friends lift from the page and invade the mind and imagination of the reader. Nor has her memoir lost its power to evoke people who hungered for God, for the life of the spirit, for holiness. The motto of them all might have been taken from Bloy: There is only one tragedy, not to be a saint.



Jacques and his wife and sister-in-law spent some summer weeks of 1944 at East Hampton. Raïssa responded with uncharacteristic exuberance. “This landscape is delicious, the light extraordinary; trees, bushes, everything seems marvelous to me. It is the first time since we came to American that I have felt myself 'received,' sheltered, firm on the earth, on reality.” But the best was yet to be. On August 25, Paris was liberated. In November, Jacques was flown to Paris in an American military plane. There he was persuaded by General de Gaulle and Georges Bidault, minister of Foreign Affairs, to serve as French ambassador to the Vatican. Here was an opportunity to serve his country in a public way, a country that was still at war.

        He was flown to Rome by military plane to take up his post and to await the arrival of Raïssa and Vera more than three months later. August 10, 1945, was their first day together in Rome. By then, the war was over in Europe and soon to be over in the Pacific. The great unknown of the postwar world loomed ahead.

        In the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for American literary people to serve as American consuls in foreign lands – Hawthorne for instance, in England, William Dean Howells in Italy – but the practice had long since fallen out of favor. The French, on the other hand, seem to have been favored by diplomats who developed their literary reputations while serving: Paul Claudel and St.-John Perse, to name but two of the most distinguished. For all that, there is something unexpected and delightful in the naming of Jacques Maritain as his country’s ambassador to the Vatican. During the years in New York, the ever-sensitive Raïssa had recorded her fears that critics of Jacques in Rome might have the ear of those in authority. There is no doubt that Jacques, the mildest of men, was regularly attacked by those who might more justly have seen in him an ally than an enemy. It would be possible to tell the story of his philosophical career in terms of the criticisms, even attacks, he was subject to.{10} But Maritain had always had powerful friends in Rome, and his arrival in 1945 could be described as triumphant.

        Julie Kernan records Jacques’s estimate of the France he visited in late 1944, when he agreed to the post at the Vatican. Certainly the somewhat furtive and unfriendly Parisians would have been emerging from a very dark period, and life was difficult with food and heat at a premium. But the larger question concerned the divisions that occupation and the Vichy regime had created among the French people. Some bishops had been supportive of the Vichy regime, and of course the Free French of de Gaulle would have regarded them as near traitors. De Gaulle demanded the removal from Paris of all diplomats who had recognized the Vichy government, and this included the papal nuncio! He was soon replaced by Angelo Roncalli, who had served during the war in Turkey and had been a key figure in the Vatican’s successful efforts to save some 860,000 Jews from certain destruction at the hands of the Nazis. Eventually he would become the beloved Pope John XXIII.



Installed in Palazzo Madama, the Maritains acquitted themselves of their diplomatic duties with aplomb. Jacques was no stranger to the Vatican, of course. Here was a layman who had been granted special audiences with several popes, not least with Pius XI when Action Française was condemned. He held an honorary doctorate from the Angelicum and had many admirers in the Roman universities. Of course, as is ever the case with a philosopher, he had his critics as well; and, in Rome, intellectual criticism often sought to express itself in disciplinary moves. Charles Journet had alerted Jacques to the animosity against him in some Roman circles on the eve of the war, but the German invasion blew all such intramural quarrels away. If France was divided, both in the temporal and spiritual realms, by accusations of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, Italy was still reeling from its near fatal flirtation with Benito Mussolini. The devastation and poverty in Rome were dramatically worse than in Paris.

        But still Rome was Rome. St. Peter’s and the other great basilicas were all around them, and just off the Piazza Navona was the church of St. Louis of France. There and elsewhere, Jacques performed the tasks of a cultural attaché, encouraging discussion groups and lectures. Nor did his own philosophical work cease. The postwar phenomenon of existentialism in Paris provided an occasion for Jacques to address what he saw to be a most unfortunate turn in French philosophy.



Existence and the Existent was published in 1947, but Jacques had made use of the work in progress for a talk he gave to the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas as well as for an article in the Revue Thomiste. It is clear that the work was prompted by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre had made a name for himself in the Resistance and, in the postwar period, made the philosophical view that came to be called existentialism a popular phenomenon. Sartre joked that a staid lady who uttered a vulgarity when provoked worried aloud that she was becoming an existentialist. Sartrean existentialism draws the ultimate implications of atheism.

        One who believes in God understands himself and the natural world as God’s creation, and God is seen on the analogy of a human artist who has an idea and sets out to realize it. The artifact is a good one if it fuftills expectations of the artist. Thus, for the theist, man embodies God’s intention; he has a nature or essence that is the measure of his acting well or badly. An automobile that functions well as an automobile is a good one. Its functioning well is determined by what an automobile is for, its end or purpose. For the theist, human nature provides the clue to human flourishing and its opposite.

        This sketch of theism is reasonably accurate, but Sartre provides it as a foil to his own view. What happens when you take God out of the picture? Man is no longer a creature; he had no nature or essence that provides a standard for his conduct. If the theistic view can be captured in the phrase”essence precedes existence,” atheistic existentialism is summed up as “existence precedes essence.”

        In what had been his approach for more than a decade, Maritain sought to show this despairing view of the human situation masked something important and true. Thus, he proposed not simply to question or refute existentialism but to argue that Thomism is the true existentialism. This was to view the movement as the tag end of a philosophical culture that still carried some echoes of its past, and there is truth to this. Thus it is that Maritain’s book begins with a metaphysical discussion. But where Thomism engages existentialism is in the practical order, and it was Maritain’s great insight to show this.

Precisely because in ethics or practical philosophy Thomist existentialism is ordered, not to the existence exercised by things, but to the act which the liberty of the subject will bring into existence, the differences in metaphysical point of view, profound though they be, will nevertheless not preclude certain contacts between this existentialism and contemporary existentialism. As a matter of fact, it is in the domain of moral philosophy that the views which modern existentialism contributes seem to me most worthy of interest.{11}

        The tags Sartre offered for theism and existentialism make it clear that the existence involved is human action. If the theist holds that essence precedes existence, this means that what he does must be in conformity with his nature. For the existentialist, human action has no such guide. Metaphysical assumptions abound on both sides, but the focus is on action, and that is what Maritain stressed. It also tells us much of his motivation for addressing a philosophical movement that had, so to speak, spilled over into the streets and become a matter of popular culture. It was not simply a matter of some professional thinkers making mistakes about which one can argue; existentialism was providing an atmosphere of antinomian despair, and this involved souls. Maritain had long observed the paradox that philosophical movements that focused on the human subject quickly led to conclusions destructive of the human person. Existentialism, at first blush seemed a kicking aside of all constraints on action, a call to insouciant pursuit of whatever you liked. But Sartre himself saw this as merely a middle-distance view. At bottom, the freedom of existentialism is a condemnation, a state of total responsibility with any effort to diminish it identified as mauvais foi, self-deception.



If Maritain’s recognition that existentialism was far more an ethics than a metaphysics is true, this little book also relates to what came to be called Thomistic Existentialism. Of course, Maritain’s point was that Thomism is the true existentialism, but it is when this is explicitly a metaphysical claim that critics stir. The existence that interested Kierkegaard was not the esse that Thomas distinguishes from essential, however much the Sartean tags might mistakenly suggest that. Of course, Maritain was not maintaining that esse substantiale is identical with the incidental being manifested in this action or that. But attempts to express Thomas’s thought in the jargon of the day can be risky. The prominence in the book of what Maritain called the “intuition of being” also puzzled his fellow Thomists and led to the kind of intramural disputes that dogged Maritain.

        All the more reason for us to stress what seems to have prompted Maritain to take on existentialism. All we need do is recall the sense of despair that Jacques and Raïssa had as students of the Sorbonne to see why Jacques would have wanted to arm a new generation of youth against the fashionable despair of existentialism. One of the sections in the final chapter of the little book is called “Philosophy and Spiritual Experience.” Here Maritain speaks in terms of the age-old issue of knowledge and virtue. He lauds the thought of Thomas Aquinas that recognizes various distinct intellectual enterprises but unifies them in a way that does not destroy the distinctions. Are we to be content with such cerebral unification? “The moral danger run by those whose doctrine mounts towards the heights of unity and peace is that they may think they have reached their goal when they have only started on the path, and they may forget that for man and his thought, peace is always a victory over discord, and unity the reward of wrenchings suffered and conquered.”{12}

        Earlier he had pointed out the sterility of mere introspection, the morbidity involved in minute analysis of one’s psychic innards. Such self-indulgence makes the self terminal, it is no longer an opening to the something more than self, as in Saint Augustine. The self is a creature and, as a creature, points to its creator. “What I should like to stress is that the spiritual experience of the philosopher is the nourishing soil of philosophy; that without it there is no philosophy; and that, even so, spiritual experience does not, or must not, enter into the intelligible structure of philosophy.”{13}

        The spread of a kind of matter-of-fact atheism in the postwar world drew many responses from Jacques Maritain. In contemporary parlance, Sartre could be described as Nietzsche Lite, but a popular atheism is all the more pernicious. The exclusion of God from consciousness, the refusal to acknowledge the terms of one’s own existence, is a tragedy – the only one, since the alternative to Bloy’s sanctity is the loss of one’s soul. Maritain devoted much thought to this after writing about existentialism, and lectures he gave at the Institut Catholique appeared in 1948 under the title The Meaning of Contemporary Atheism.{14} Anyone looking for Maritain’s influence on the ecumenical council Pope John XXIII called, and which began meeting in 1962, need only look at this little work.{15} Maritain said that he wanted to “discover the spiritual sense hidden in the present agony of the world.” While he is talking of a cultural phenomenon, Maritain seeks the roots of popular atheism on philosophical doctrines.



He begins with a discussion of the various kinds of atheism, pointing out that sometimes the “god” that is rejected is a false one, having nothing to do with the true God, and thus producing a pseudo-atheism. There are of course “absolute Atheists” who have a clear idea of the God they are denying, the one in whom believers believe. But even here, Maritain distinguishes a negative from a positive atheism In modern philosophers. The negative atheist is one who, rejecting God, does not replace Him with anything else, only a void. This can vary from the superficial atheism of the sevententh century libertines – an absence – or it can take the form depicted by Dostoyevsky’s Kiriloff, who asserts an absolute independence of the human self. What Maritain calls positive atheism might better be called an antitheism, a desperate, even heroic effort to reconstruct the universe in accord with the rejection of God. The tragic atheism of Nietzsche illustrates what he means, as does that of contemporary existentialism of the kind he confronted in Existence and the Existent. This is the character of contemporary atheism, and that is what Maritain discusses.

        In seeking the source of such contemporary atheism, Maritain observes that one does not become a positive atheist by way of an inquiry conducted by speculative reason into the problem of God. Negative philosophical conclusions may be taken into account, and comfort is taken in the platitude that science has simply rendered the question of God meaningless. But all that is of secondary importance, not the primary motive. The contemporary atheist simly accepts those claims; he believes them; he chooses them. “The point of departure of absolute atheism in my view is a fundamental act of moral choice, a free and crucial determination.”{16} As one rejects the subordination of childhood, one rejects all subordination as the requirement of moral maturity. Away with any moral law or ultimate end for man in a personal and free and deliberate act of choice. How could Maritain fail to notice that there is here a kind of degraded form of the act of faith? It is no longer a simple rejection of God, but a refusal and defiance. Any thought that conflicts with this fundamental choice is rejected as if it were a temptation to faith. But this calls for a constant and prolonged battle. Here is the first contradiction in atheism: proclaiming the disappearance of all religion, it becomes itself a religious phenomenon.

        There is another contradiction in contemporary atheism linked to the first one. Belief in God is taken to diminish man, to be an alienation of traits proper to man and dubbing them God. What is wanted is to return man to himself, in absolute immanence and autonomy. But what has been the actual result of such atheism? Truth and justice and freedom are the watchwords, but what can they now mean? They become the products of the vagaries of history, contingent creations. What is today a meritorious act becomes on the morrow a crime. With the rejection of transcendence, human destiny becomes something in the future, to which individuals are sacrificed. The absolute atheist gives his life for something he can never himself enjoy. It is an almost mystical dedication to what has been called the “immanentization of the eschaton.”

        These two contradictions are essential if contemporary atheism is to be confronted. If it is, as Maritain argues, a religious phenomenon that mimics the self-sacrifice of the religious man, what initially seems wholly foreign and alien takes on the look of the truth distorted. Perhaps nowhere is Maritain’s technique of looking for the lurking positive in positions that negate his own more effectively present than in his treatment of contemporary atheism.

        What lifts off such pages is the author’s dedication to the truth and his conviction that this is not some solitary occupation. It immediately puts one into relationship with the rest of mankind. The truth is a common good, to be shared; it is that for which we have been created. In kicking against the goad of truth, one pays tribute to it. Positive atheism is a longing for God despite itself. Mon semblable, mon frère is Maritain’s attitude. He has been down that road himself and learned that it can turn out to be the road to Damascus.

        When Maritain accepted appointment as the French ambassador to the Vatican, he agreed to serve for three years. Those years may have been the most heroic expression of his patriotism as a Frenchman. By all accounts he was a conscientious and effective diplomat. But France asked more of him. In November 1947, he attended the second general conference of UNESCO in Mexico City, as president of the French delegation. He spoke to the conference on the possibilities of cooperation in a divided world, and we can see another theme being struck to which he will return in the years just ahead.

        Jacques returned to Rome by way of New York; and it was there in a meeting with the president of Princeton University, Harold Dodds, that the next chapter of Maritain’s life opened up. Dodds offered Maritain a resident professorship at Princeton with the specific wish that he would offer a course in moral philosophy inspired by his knowledge of Thomas Aquinas. It was an offer that, in the event, Maritain could not refuse. But neither at the moment could he accept it. This was something he must discuss with Raïssa and Vera. Moreover, his three-year commitment to serve as ambassador to the Vatican ran until the following May. He submitted his resignation and was accepted. On June 1, he had a last audience as ambassador with Pope Pius XII. The little flock of three sailed from Naples a few weeks later: destination Princeton.


{1} A travers le désastre, Avant-propos. OC VII, p. 343.

{2} OC VII, p. 13 (La crepuscule de la civilization).

{3} One is surprised to find Maritain saying, in a note added in November 1941, "Now Russia is in the war against Nazism. Grafted thus into the western community. It is possible that profound inner changes will take place in it."

{4} Jacques Maritain, The Twilight of Civilization, trans. Lionel Landry (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), p. 43.

{5} In C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 44.

{6} See James V. Schall, Maritain the Philosopher in Society (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), pp. 181-99.

{7} Translated from Maritain's French. See Thomas Aquinas, Super evangelium S. Ioannis lectura (Ed. Cai. Turin, 1952), Cap. XX, lect. 1, n. 2480.

{8} Julie Kernan, Our Friend, Jacques Maritain, A Personal Memoir (New York, 1975), pp. 125-26.

{9} Suther, Raïssa Maritain, Pilgrim, Poet, Exile, p. 127. See also Ghiglia, I Tre Maritain, p. 321ff.

{10} One contretemps that was of particular interest in North America was occasioned by Charles DeKoninck's De la primauté du bien commun contre les personalistes (Quebec: Editions de l'Université Laval, 1943), DeKoninck was the youthful doyen of the Faculté de philosophie at l'Université Laval, whose early work had been markedly influenced by Maritain. In reviewing DeKoninck's book, Yves Simon agreed with the criticism that DeKoninck leveled but said that it would be pure calumny if it were thought to be applicable to Maritain. (There was no mention of Maritain, nor indeed of anyone else in DeKoninck's book, making his target difficult to identify.) I. Thomas Eschmann, on the other hand, claimed that the position DeKoninck criticized was indeed Maritain's, and he set out to defend it in a piece called In Defense of Jacques Maritain. DeKoninck responded with a lengthy In Defense of St. Thomas Aquinas: A Reply to Father Eschmann's Attack on the Primacy of the Common Good (Quebec: Editions l'Université Laval, 1945). Apart from his letters, Maritain's only reference to this controversy was a puzzling footnote in The Person and the Common Good, in which he thanked Eschmann for his defense and made no mention of Simon's demur.

{11} Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent (New York: Pantheon, 1948), chap. 2, n. 12.

{12} Existence and the Existent (New York: Image Books, 1956), pp. 148-49.

{13} Ibid., p. 151.

{14} OC IX, pp. 443-69.

{15} I have in mind the veritable little treatise on atheism to be found in Part One of Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

{16} Ibid., p. 449.

<< ======= >>