Reflections on America

Editor’s Note: This excerpt from a book with the same title by the man who was probably the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century shows how a highly perceptive thinker saw two possible paths for America, just a little over fifty years ago: one that led to materialism and despair, the other to hopes for this nation and the whole world. The staff at TCT wishes you all a blessed Thanksgiving today. – RR

Given the contingency of matter and the free will of men, there are, at each moment of history, always two possible different directions open regarding the future.

Thus there is a possibility that in the course of centuries America may become embourgeoisée – a nation interested only in its own materia1 welfare and power. The realization of such a possibility is, to my mind, improbable. The obvious fact is that America is not a nation like others; and she will not become so as long as she remains true to the specific, original impulse and spirit by virtue of which she was born.

Her true future. . .lies in the task of somehow clearing the way for a new Christian civilization. If such an undertaking takes place, it will be a common undertaking. It can be accomplished only in cooperation with all the nations that are stirred by the Christian ferment. (And, no doubt, those Christians who are now the “silent Church” and suffer persecution behind the Iron Curtain will have in this connection particularly great lessons to teach the world, if and when they can speak out freely.)

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I said in 1943: “here is indeed one thing that Europe knows well, and knows only too well; that is the tragic significance of life. . . .here is one thing that America knows well, and that she teaches as a great and precious lesson to those who come in contact with her astounding adventure: it is the value and dignity of the common man, the value and dignity of the people. . . .America knows that the common man has a right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ the pursuit of the elementary conditions and possessions which are the prerequisites of a free life, and the denial of which, suffered by such multitudes, is a horrible wound in the flesh of humanity; the pursuit of the higher possessions of culture and the spirit. . . .Here heroism is required, not to overcome tragedy, but to bring to a successful conclusion the formidable adventure begun in this country with the Pilgrim Fathers and the pioneers, and continued in the great days of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War.”

“No lasting good can be done to the world if the sense of the tragedy of life, and that quality of heroism which Europe must display to overcome its tragedy, and the sense of the great human adventure, and that quality of heroism which America must display to lead her adventure to completion, are not joined with one another in boldness and faith. . .”

“The First Thanksgiving, 1565” (detail) by Hugo Ohlms, 1965 [Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida]
“The First Thanksgiving, 1565” (detail) by Hugo Ohlms, 1965 [Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida]

“It will be necessary for the European spirit and the American spirit to meet and cooperate in common good will. We do not believe that Paradise will be reached tomorrow. But the task to which we are summoned, the work we will have to pursue, with all the more courage and hope as it will be incessantly betrayed by human weakness, must have as its aim, if we want civilization to survive, a world of free men penetrated in its secular substance by a real and vital Christianity, a world in which the inspiration of the Gospel will direct the common life of man toward an heroic humanism.”

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There is no place in the world where Christian philosophy is more needed and has better opportunities than in this country.

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The great and admirable strength of America consists in this, that America is truly the American people.

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We have noted that priests have usually been able to intimidate the policemen, and that philosophers can usually check the politicians. There is fair historical ground to anticipate that moral and intellectual leadership will appear capable of balancing our Frankenstein creations. Men working in that range are measurably steeled to resist normal pressures and often free from normal fears. They frequently have a rough time on the way. It is no accident that some of the greatest saints in the Christian Calendar were non-conformist deviants in their time; but they still grasp the future with their conceptions.

These, I think, are the real builders of any “City of God” Americans would come to accept.

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“America was Promises” – that is the title of a beautiful poem by Archibald MacLeish.

From the very beginning the European peoples dreamed of America as the Fortunate Isles, the land of promise here below. America can give them goods, food, industrial equipment. They will take them, of course, but they will never be content with them, and never be grateful to America for them.

What they expect from America is: Hope. And please God that this critical fact may never be forgotten here.

It is possible to be more specific, and to say: what the world expects from America is that she keep alive, in human history, a fraternal recognition of the dignity of man – in other words, the terrestrial hope of men in the Gospel.

Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was a Roman Catholic philosopher, respected both for his interpretation of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and for his own Thomist philosophy.