JMC : Jacques Maritain Sampler

V. How the Thomist Philosophy Might Serve the World

(from The Angelic Doctor)

The unity of a culture is determined in the first place and above all by a certain common philosophical structure, a certain metaphysical and moral attitude, a certain common scale of values, in a word, a certain common conception of the universe, of man and human life, of which social, linguistic, and juridical structures are, so to speak, the embodiment.

This metaphysical unity has long been broken -- not certainly completely destroyed, but broken and as it were obliterated in the West. The drama of Western culture consists in the fact that its stock of common metaphysics has been reduced to an utterly inadequate minimum, so that only matter now holds it together, and matter is incapable of keeping anything together. The drama is all the more tragic for us because everything at the moment has to be re-created, everything to be put in place again in our European house. If a common philosophy succeeded in securing acceptance by an elite in Europe, it would be the beginning of the cure of the Western world.

As Thomas Aquinas united in his marvellously tempered constitution the talents of the men of the North and South, of Norman and Lombard, as he integrated in his doctor's mission the Italy of the Popes, the Germany of Albert the Great, the France of St. Louis and the University of Paris, as he combined the treasures of the Greeks and the Latins, the Arabs and the Jews, with the inheritance bequeathed by the Fathers and Christian wisdom, in a word the entire contribution of the known world of his time, so his marvellously synthetic and organic theology, open to every aspect of reality, offers the intellectual tendencies peculiar to the various nations, and more particularly to the three just mentioned, the means of exercising themselves freely, not in mutual destruction, but in mutual completion and consolidation.

The reason is that St. Thomas succeeded in constructing a philosophical and theological wisdom so elevated in immateriality that it is really free of every particularization of race or environment. Alas! what we have witnessed during the past few centuries is an absolutely opposite phenomenon, a kind of racial materialization of philosophy. Descartes is one of the glories of France, but he hypostasizes certain defects, certain temptations peculiar to the French intellectual temperament. Hegel does the same for Germany; William James, the pragmatists and the pluralists, for the Anglo-Saxon countries. It is time to turn to truth itself, which belongs to no particular country, time to turn to the universality of human reason and supernatural wisdom. The necessity is all the more urgent because it appears as though the advent of a new era in philosophy were imminent.

Imagine for a moment that Catholics in the various countries realized the primordial importance of intellectual questions, of metaphysics and theology, that they discarded senseless prejudices against scholasticism, that they considered it, not as a mediaeval mummy to be examined with archaeological curiosity, but as a living armour of the mind and the indispensable equipment for the boldest enterprises of discovery; imagine that they fulfilled in practice the ardent aspiration of the Church, which is not to conquer adherents as though Catholicism were a human undertaking, but to serve divine Truth everywhere in the souls of men and the universe imagine that they transcended intestine divisions and the petty rivalries of schools which everywhere sterilize their activity, finally, that they became conscious of the necessity of a serious and sustained intellectual co-operation among Catholics of all nations.

The common Doctor of the Church would then become in all truth their common master; with him to lead them, they might work effectively for the restoration of the West and its unity. Then there would be workers for the harvest. Then in the speculative sphere, Thomist metaphysics might assimilate into a true intellectual order the immense body of the individual sciences, abandoned at the moment to chaos and in danger of having their admirable progress exploited by aberrant philosophies, In the moral sphere, Thomist metaphysics and theology might architectonically preside over the elaboration of the new social order, the Christian economy, the Christian politics which the present state of the world so urgently requires. Finally, to revert to the great primitive symptoms and the great primitive causes of the divisions afflicting us, humanism, Protestantism, rationalism, at the end of their tether, having had time to suffer to the extreme the process of self-destruction developed by their initial error, and to experience also the value of many a reality which that error fails to take into account, would be astonished to find in the treasury of the Angelic Doctor the very truths which they coveted with no clear perception of their nature and which they have only been able to ruin.

I would add that Greek and Russian piety, which differs apparently from Catholic piety not so much in divergencies of dogma as in certain characteristics of spirituality, is much less hostile, in my opinion, to the philosophy of St. Thomas than might at first be supposed. It approaches the problems from another angle and the scholastic presentation as a rule irritates and offends it. These are merely questions of modality; and I am convinced that a proper understanding of the Thomist system would dispel innumerable misunderstandings and facilitate many unexpected encounters. I am also convinced that when our separated brethren are driven, under pressure of contemporary errors, to a more systematic and developed theological defence, they will be constrained to seek in the principles elaborated by St. Thomas trusty weapons against vain philosophy.

In all this St. Thomas appears to us as the great intellectual renovator of the West.

Need it be added that it would argue a very imperfect acquaintance with human nature to believe in the possibility of such a Utopia? Nevertheless, if a serious effort is not made in such a direction, one may as well proclaim that culture in the West is doomed. It may be hoped, in spite of everything, that such an effort will be made.

Is one entitled on any ground whatsoever to identify the Western world with the Christian religion? No! It would be a deadly and supremely impertinent error, which the tone adopted by certain careless apologists would seem occasionally to commit, but which is essentially repugnant to the characteristic par excellence, to the catholicity, of the religion of Christ.

Further to suggest that the West has not a particular mission to fulfil in regard to that religion would be another error. Pope Leo XIII himself defined the importance of that mission. If the West, which owes so much to the Church, has done duty so long as the profane embodiment of Christian culture, it is precisely because it was chosen to evangelize the rest of the world -- not to enslave the universe to its military or commercial interests, but to serve the universe by bringing to it the message of redemption.

Whatever may have been and whatever may still be the heroic effort of its saints, its missionaries and its martyrs, Western civilization has too long failed to discharge its duty. That duty is now imposed upon it under pain of death: it can now save itself only by working for the whole universe.

To be devoted to the particularities of a country, to its language, customs and liberties and so to continue for a little while longer the beauty of perishable things, the "works and days" stored in the genius loci, is the business of poets. The statesman too is, in a way, particularist; for the statesman is concerned with the common good of the country, which must be his first object, but yet in such a way that while loving his own country above all others, he does not therefore cease to admire other countries and to wish them well nor does he injure the rights of the human individual or the interests of the human race.

But in the order of the mind, of speculation, of culture, one must be determinedly universalist. The barriers of intellectual protectionism are now and forever things of the past. Every book, every newspaper article -- Catholic writers ought to realize it -- finds readers on the banks of the Ganges and the Yellow River no less than the Rhine and the Thames. All the products of the mind meet and mingle from one end of the world to the other. A choice must be made between an abominable confusionism and the spiritual unity of Christian culture with all the rigorous discipline, discernment and hierarchy involved in that unity. It is to the eventual restoration of that spiritual unity of Christendom that all the ardent desires of the Church of Christ at present tend, because the message of redemption is addressed to all men and because that message must be delivered.

Man is everywhere essentially the same, his mental and affective structure is found to be essentially identical in all climates, according to the formal testimony of missionaries, whether in the case of so-called primitive peoples or peoples of the most highly refined civilization, such as the Chinese. I gladly recall in this connection the observation of M. Meyerson, one of the most eminent of modern French philosophers of science, that "reason is catholic."

And above reason the Church again unites all mankind in a transcendent and divine unity, which is the unity of the kingdom of Heaven, of the very life of God shared on this earth, and, if I may say so, of the universe of the Incarnation; and it is because it is sustained from above by that supernatural unity of the life of grace that the natural unity of reason succeeds in producing its fruit.

Such a dual unity, dual catholicity of reason and grace, of the human spirit and the Church, needs an intellectual instrument to manifest, consolidate and diffuse it.

At a time when East and West are exchanging all their dreams and aberrations, when all the scourges which came near to proving the undoing of Europe -- scientism, atheism, modernism, the religion of inevitable Progress and the apotheosis of man -- are exported by Europe and afflicting Africa and Asia like so many gospels of destruction, when the mind in all countries is struggling against the most subtle enchantments of the philosophers of this world, are we to believe that Christian culture is under no obligation itself to employ a perfectly equipped intelligence, a tried and tested doctrine? It is the most highly developed and most perfect form of Christian philosophy, the lofty wisdom under the aegis of the common Doctor of the Church which provides it with such an indispensable instrument.

Saint Thomas has prepared the conceptual and rational apparatus, the metaphysical apparatus of the mind which Christian culture needs, and by means of which we may hope that it will achieve its unity in the great world.

And that is precisely the most exalted privilege of Western culture, what makes it in our eyes the most precious of all: that being fundamentally universal, adumbrated by a miracle of Providence in that strength and piety of natural reason which were characteristic of ancient Greece and Rome, and thereafter developed by the Church of Christ, it became capable of producing first a Plato and an Aristotle, then a Saint Paul and a Saint Augustine and, finally, a Saint Thomas. It is to be wished that the incomparable instrument so fashioned may be adopted and employed not only by apostles of the white but also by an élite among the coloured races, who will learn the lesson taught by Saint Thomas as we Gauls, Celts or Germans have learned the lesson of Aristotle. In this respect the intellectual co-operation among Catholics before referred to is more than ever a pressing necessity. But let it be well understood: nothing solid, nothing permanent, will ever be achieved without such recourse to the wisdom of Saint Thomas. It would be a tremendous illusion to think that in order to realize the task of unity more rapidly it were proper to jettison the whole inheritance of truths acquired at such a fearful price on the banks of the West. For it is precisely that inheritance which the world needs; it is the dispersion of it throughout the world which will unite the world. It must not be jettisoned but mobilized. And to mobilize it is not an easy matter, for the solution of all the new problems raised is not to be found ready-made in Saint Thomas: a new and original effort is required to disengage such a solution, an effort necessitating as much boldness in application to reality as fidelity to the most elementary principles of the master.

Not every philosophy is fit for baptism as it stands. It must first be corrected and in most cases transformed. And in many cases all that can be done is to destroy it. The reason why Aristotle could be baptized by Saint Thomas is that his metaphysical principles were based upon objective reality. And if the great metaphysical systems of ancient civilization differ from modern systems in having being for their object, and are therefore capable of being universally adopted, by that very fact they have a sort of longing, as it were, to be corrected by Aristotelianism and Thomism. How much more gratifying it would be to our indolence, how much more soothing to our spirit of adventure, what a relief to play truant and to dispense with the discipline of the philosophia perennis! But culture can not dispense with such a discipline, and will never more be able to dispense with Aristotle the Greek transfigured by the Angelic Doctor.

I do not say that the wisdom of Saint Thomas must be imposed as a dogma. The Gospel is not bound up with such wisdom. Nor do I say that all that is to be retained of the spiritual treasures of the East is what may have already been literally formulated in a system thenceforth deemed to be complete. The case is quite the reverse! What I say is that out of regard and respect for such treasures, and so that they shall assume their proper dimensions, and to co-operate loyally in preserving them against the forces of destruction, those who desire to integrate them in a permanent cultural achievement must equip themselves with an indefectible doctrinal apparatus. And Thomist philosophy itself will be the better therefor. It will emerge from the everlasting controversies of the School, it will run the highways, take the air. What Saint Dominic said with regard to men is equally applicable to ideas: "Grain rots in the heap but is fruitful when sown." Thomist philosophy in itself is a progressive and assimilative philosophy, a missionary philosophy, a philosophy constantly at the service of primary Truth. And Saint Thomas is not a relic of the Middle Ages, a mere object for the consideration of history and erudition. He is in all the fulness of the expression the Apostle of our time.

All religions other than the Catholic religion are in more or less narrow and servile fashion, according as their metaphysical level is high or low, integral parts of certain definite cultures, particular to certain ethnic climates and certain historical formations. Only the Catholic religion, because it is supernatural and proceeds from the riven Heart of God dying upon the cross, is absolutely and rigorously transcendental, supra-cultural, supra-racial and supra-national.

That is one sign of its divine origin. It is also one of the signs of contradiction which until the end of time will be a cause of the passion of the Church, raised like her Master between earth and sky. It is conceivable from this point of view that the world is entering a phase of particularly stern conflicts which may, perhaps, be compared to the conflicts of apostolic times in the Rome of the Caesars. On the one hand the non-Christian nations are incapable of distinguishing between their autochthonous culture, with all its human values in themselves deserving of respect and filial piety, and the errors and superstitions of their religions. And Christian universalism will have to show them how such a distinction can be made and how the Gospel respects and superelevates -- and by slow degrees transforms -- such particular values. The demonstration is, as a rule, not unattended with bloodshed. And the imbecile dogma of positivist sociologism, which is taught in all countries in the name of European science and according to which every religion is merely the specific product of the social clan (and Christianity therefore a specific product of the European races) will not make it any the easier.

On the other hand, when faith and charity decrease among the majority in the Christian nations, many people come to think that, because Christianity was the vivifying principle of their historical culture, it is essentially bound, enfeoffed to it. Certain apostles of Latinity (I bear it no grudge, let me assure them) are convinced -- the remark was made to me one day -- that our religion is a Graeco-Latin religion. Such an enormity is full of significance. Not realizing from what spirit they derive and oblivious of the divine transcendence of what constitutes the life of their life, they end in practice by worshipping the true God in the same fashion as the Ephesians worshipped Diana and primitive man worships the idols of his tribe. Christian universalism will have to remind them that the Gospel and the Church, without injuring any particular culture or the State or the nation, yet dominates them all in a pure unsullied independence and subordinates them to the eternal interests of the human being, to the law of God and the charity of Christ.

The metaphysics and theology of St. Thomas are expressed in a system of symbols, in a language and a form of exposition which are Latin, but the philosophy itself is no more bound to Latinism than to the astronomy of Aristotle or Ptolemy. It is bound to no particularity of climate, race or tradition, and therefore it alone is capable of re-creating between the minds of men, in the superior light of the Gospel, a true unity of human culture, or restoring a spiritual Christendom. Its principles and all its notional springs have been tried and tested for six centuries past, cleansed and scoured of every accidental and burdensome accretion. It emerges to-day in its genuine radiant youth. It must be careful "to stand aloof in order to command," as Anaxagoras said of the nous, not to let itself be particularized by any local condition whatsoever of tradition and culture or any party among its own adherents. To that end it must remain jealously attached to the superior virtues on which its integrity in the souls of men depends, and to the ministerial part it is called upon to play in regard to the Gospel and the blessed contemplation of the Church of Jesus Christ.

If all that has just been said is true, it will be realized that if the Thomist synthesis offers us a means par excellence of achieving the unity of Christian culture, nevertheless, and by the very fact of its being a means, an instrument, it is not sufficient for such a unity. It would be a great mistake to believe that philosophical or theological science by itself alone, and considered as a principal agent, so to speak, can exercise a formative and rectifying influence on culture.

We must begin by Christ. It is not St. Thomas, it is Christ Who makes Christian culture; it is Christ, through the Church and through St. Thomas; through the contemplation of the Saints and the love which unites them to the agony of the Son of Man; through the labour of the theologians and the philosophers, which brings to the service of the Son of Man all the virtues of the mind and all its scattered riches.

The consequence is that the doctrine of the common Doctor will radiate over culture only at the same time as the Gospel and the Catholic Faith -- the two radiances, one divine, the other human, helping each other and multiplying each other in accordance with the great law of the reciprocity of causes.

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