A Great Recent Ancestor

A young man and woman were walking in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes in the summer of 1901. And contemplating suicide. It wasn’t romantic despair. They were in love and wanted to live. But as science students at the Sorbonne, they were taught that the world was without meaning, other than the arbitrary order that, scientists believed, had – randomly, somehow – come to be. Such a world seemed intolerable. They wanted something more, something that would give meaning and nobility and purpose to love and life.

The young man was Jacques Maritain, later the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. (Friday was the fiftieth anniversary of his death.) The woman was Raïssa Oumançoff, Russian and Jewish, who after their conversion (via the novelist and certifiable madman Léon Bloy) became a poet and mystical writer. The world always tries to avoid – or at least postpone answering – the question they faced head-on. Ultimately that’s impossible, as even the modern existentialists knew quite well: It’s God or nothingness.

For us a century later, entangled in age-old questions in new-age forms, the Maritains are helpful ancestors: near enough for a sense of continuity, and different enough to show how the great tradition can revive and blossom even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Many Catholics, who should know better, disparage the Neo-Thomism that Maritain and others helped to advance in the first half of the twentieth century. Usually, because they favor the subsequent personalist and communitarian nouvelle théologie and its developments in figures like Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger. But this is to create a division within the polyphony of Catholic tradition where there need not be one, especially decades later when we need what both currents can give us.

Personally, as an undergraduate at an Ivy League university in the 1970s, it was a Godsend to discover Maritain (by “chance”) and that whole Aristotlean/Thomistic world with its intellectual solidity, careful distinctions, and spirited engagement with art and poetry. (When one TCT founder, Michael Novak, read Maritain’s magisterial Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, he had to go out walking several times to catch his breath.) For me, the scholasticism was a bulwark against 1960s chaos. And for good reason.

As Cardinal Newman, not an Aristotlean or Thomist, wrote: “While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle, and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it.”

Behind the subtleties and complexities of Aristotle and Aquinas lie what Chesterton called “sanity,” deeply rooted in reality, not “socially constructed” as the sophists in every age claim, but the framework of the world in which we live and the truth about our own being as well. You can get an introduction to Thomism in a TCT course (click here) by another founder of this site, the great Ralph McInerny, who also wrote The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain. Must reading.

A path in Jardin des Plantes (Paris Tourist Information photo)

As an elder statesman now, less vulnerable to chaos, I myself often turn to Plato, Augustine, and the recent theologians and philosophers who practice ressourcement by drawing on the Early Church Fathers, as did Newman. We desperately need the personalism and communitarianism they seek. But such concerns were hardly unknown to Maritain (cf. his Person and the Common Good, True Humanism, etc.). And we will not retrieve the human person or community without Aristotlean/Thomistic sanity.

The sheer size (about 14,000 pages in my French edition of the complete works) and scope of Maritain’s output should draw our attention. No one else carried out Leo XIII’s desire in Aeterni Patris for a Thomistic renewal of society with such creativity – or had such resonance well beyond the Catholic Church. In addition to works on philosophy, theology, history, Scripture, and Judaism, Maritain influenced public affairs. Even before he was forced into exile by the Nazi invasion of France, he’d been working out “Christian democracy,” a substantial alternative to the collectivism of Communism, the scientific racism of Nazism, and the political totalitarianism of Fascism.

I own The Things That Are Not Caesar’s (London, 1939, one shilling) a translation of the French “The Primacy of the Spiritual,” disintegrating because of the acidic paper on which it’s printed, but a treasure from the World War II era. The title speaks volumes: modern politics, as we now know only too well even in America, tries to swallow up everything, even the realms of the spiritual life. Christian democracy on Maritain’s model actually helped form political parties that were crucial in keeping Soviet Communism out of Western Europe and several Latin American countries.

After the war, Maritain was named French ambassador to the Holy See. He played a pivotal role in developing the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite the sad spectacle of the  U.N. in subsequent years, the Universal Declaration is no small achievement.

The European Union, too, was initially set in motion by Christian Democrats in France (Robert Schumann), Germany (Konrad Adenauer), and Italy (Alcide de Gasperi). Their vision was sound because Catholic social doctrine and Maritain’s contributions to it were sound. But like the America of today – which has drifted far from its Constitutional moorings – the E.U. has taken on some of the very totalitarian characteristics Maritain fought against in their earlier guises.

These are many and great contributions to the Church and the world from just a few decades ago that warrant study in our own troubled days. The old foundations are not lost forever because they can’t be. They’re just waiting for us to revive them, with creative adaptations to our moment, to be sure.

And personally, I owe a debt to the Maritain who rescued me from 1960s disorder. Dante wasn’t more relieved when Virgil showed up, sent by the three holy women, to lead him out of the Dark Wood. Read him.

Jacques and Raïssa Maritain

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Being a Person

Brad Miner’s Marc Chagall’s Jesus

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.