University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   



M. Jacques Maritain


The humanistic tradition is something exceedingly complex and intricate. It originates in Greek and Latin antiquity; second, in Christianity, particularly the Christian cultural developments which took place in the Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries; third, in the rupture of Christian disciplines, the rehabilitation of the creature, and the revelation of Man and Reason which are characteristic of the Renaissance. And the subsequent centuries have enriched or altered this tradition in manifold ways. With such historical complexity, I wonder whether it is possible to enumerate and classify the elements of the humanistic tradition in a complete and unquestionable manner. I shall be satisfied in pointing out, perhaps according to criteria somehow arbitrarily, nine elements which seem to me, from a philosophical viewpoint, to be chiefly significant in this tradition:

First, the respect for the creature and the affirmation of its own dignity. And, accordingly, the notion of the value of the individual person, I mean of the basically equal value and the basically equal rights of all human persons.

Second, the consciousness of the value of introspection and subjectivity.

Third, the development of scientific thought, as a means of assuring the mastery of man over matter and nature.

Fourth, the recognition of the primacy of justice and law as essential norm and preserver of human society and human common life.

Fifth, the longing for emancipation from any state of servitude and for the conquest or achievement of freedom.

Sixth, the awareness of the superiority of internal over external forces, and of the invincibleness of the inner world of man confronting material pressure or coercion.

Seventh, the sense of the universality of reason.

Eighth, the sense of the sacred character of truth, which is to be loved for itself and which liberates man by its own virtue.

And ninth, the sense of the superiority of delectation or delightfulness (bonum delectabile) over usefulness (bonum utile), -- of wisdom over science, information or power, -- and of the immanence of contemplation (with regard to knowledge, art and poetry as well as spiritual life) over the transitory nature of action.


The points I should like to make are as follows:

1. These nine elements are permanent in the humanistic tradition as such, and the rejection or ignoring of any of them impairs this tradition, but the permanency of the humanistic tradition is not necessarily warranted by human history.

2. In the present state of our civilization, the first five elements are still recognized, even emphasized, but are seriously threatened.

3. The last four elements are either disregarded or flatly thrown aside.

4. If the century ahead is to preserve the humanistic tradition, a hard spiritual struggle must be waged to strengthen or revive all of these elements. In such a struggle we must appeal to reason, and to the very power and inner resources of reason to heal the wounds that reason itself has suffered for three centuries. But reason alone is not enough, it has to be quickened by love, I means love for man, love for the people, and love for God.

I am aware of the fact that too many diverse views are encompassed in my summary, and that a long time would be necessary to develop and clarify them.

For the sake of brevity, I should like only to emphasize some of the points I made.

All of the nine elements which I have pointed out in the humanistic tradition can be related both to the inspiration of Christian faith working in the depths of human consciousness and to the progressive unfolding of the powers of reason, to the progressive crise de pouvoir of reason in Western culture.

Christianity and reason, or, if you prefer, Christianity and rationalism.

But reason and rationalism can be meant in two quite different senses, or furthered and cultivated in two quite different directions.

Either they are considered in continuity with faith, and as improved, liberated and established in their own realm and dignity under the quickening influence of faith itself. Humanism of St. Thomas, Theocentric humanism.

Or they are considered in opposition to faith and as freeing themselves from faith and religion tradition and finally rejecting them. Realm of pure reason. Humanism of the rationalistic tradition in its strictest sense. From Descartes to Kant, Comte, Hegel. Anthropocentric humanism.

I need not lay stress upon the misunderstandings which took place in this regard in the XVIth century, at the very beginning of our modern culture.

As a matter of fact, these two interpretations were intimately intermingled in the vital forces which made up our humanistic tradition, though, on the part of the philosophers and the intellectual leadership of our civilization, the second interpretation was to take the upper hand more and more.

(I observe, by parenthesis, that marxism and communistic atheism are in the line of anthropocentric humanism and rationalism. The ultimate point of evolution, -- the catastrophe of it.

Profound difference with nazism. They are in.)

To come back to my considerations, the mixture of these two opposite trends, their natural struggle and conflict were an element of tension and progress in modern history, but at the same time an element of tragic ambivalence and a hidden principle of rupture.

Now the humanistic tradition is at stake.

1. The permanency of the humanistic tradition is not necessarily warranted by human history. It is not automatically certain that this tradition will survive and prevail.

2. The nine elements are permanent in the humanistic tradition as such. Matter of observation. Teaching of history. All of them have outstanding representations in this tradition. Matter of reason. Logical connection.