Maritain at the Cliff’s Edge: From Antimoderne to Le Paysan

Jacques Maritain was born in 1882 just three years after Æterni patris. By the time Maritain discovered St. Thomas, the Thomistic movement spurred by Leo XIII’s encyclical was well under way. It was a movement that not only nourished his searching intellect, but one which he substantially enriched. He came to Thomas, he would say, already a Thomist without knowing it. Maritain’s influence eventually extended worldwide, notably to Italy, Latin America, and North America.

The convert early on placed his intellect in the service of the Church. He knew first-hand the contemporary intellectual milieu, and shared Leo’s assessment of the dominant philosophies, clearly at odds with the Catholic faith. “If I am anti-modern, it is certainly not out of personal inclination, but because the spirit of all modern things that have proceeded from the anti-Christian revolution compels me to be so, because it itself makes opposition to the human inheritance its own distinctive characteristic, because it hates and despises the past and worships itself.”

Maritain’s critique of Luther, Descartes and Rousseau as well as the early critique of his mentor, Henri Bergson, display an intellect fully aware of philosophy’s impact on the practical order. Much of that early work would not withstand professional scrutiny today, however, largely because of its apologetic character, but also because it was often marred by a vagueness and imprecision which his critics easily exploited. Furthermore, in practice Maritain did not always keep clear the distinction between philosophy and theology which later made him an easy target for American philosophers schooled in pragmatic naturalism, such as Sidney Hook and Ernest Nagel. It also hurt his chance for an appointment at the University of Chicago. Robert M. Hutchins, while president of the University of Chicago, tried to get Maritain appointed to its faculty of philosophy three times. The department blocked the appointment each time, even when Hutchins offered to pay his salary from non-departmental funds, because in the words of one member of the department, “Maritain is a propagandist.” Hutchins shot back, “You are all propagandists.” On another occasion he sent an emissary, probably John Nef, to the chairman of the department who was a well known positivist. The response to Hutchins was, “Maritain is not a good philosopher.” The emissary then asked, “Do you have any good philosophers on your faculty?” The answer, “No, but we know what a good philosopher is.”

As a critic of modernity Maritain was at times violent and Raïssa was to say of his style, “As for the men whose ideas he criticized, he certainly respected them personally, but they were for him scarcely more than vehicles for abstract doctrines.” Etienne Gilson, when asked by a journalist to differentiate his method from Maritain’s, characterized Maritain as a thinker who sets bare ideas in juxtaposition, submerging the individuality of the philosophers who espoused them. Speaking of his own technique, Gilson said, “It is more important to try to understand ideas through men . . . in order to judge in a way that unites. . . . Pure ideas, taken in their abstract rigor are generally irreconcilable.” To this Maritain responded, “It is not psychology, but the critique of philosophers which brings truth to light.” Where truth is concerned there can be no compromise. One ought to be tenderhearted and tough-minded, not hardhearted and softheaded. Yet, Maritain could say, “I am content to owe something to Voltaire in what concerns civil tolerance, and to Luther in what concerns nonconformism, and to honor them in this.” In Theonas he acknowledges a respect for Comte insofar as he seeks the realization of human order, Kant for his restoration of the activity of the knowing subject, and Bergson for his recognition of the spiritual.

It is commonly acknowledged that Maritain’s best work in the area of social and political philosophy was accomplished during his years in America. What gives that work power, however, is its grounding in a solid metaphysics of being and an equally realistic epistemology. Maritain the metaphysician is at his best in his A Preface to Metaphysics and in his Existence and the Existent. As a theorist of knowledge he produced The Degrees of Knowledge, Philosophy of Nature, and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. With the exception of the last mentioned, those works form the background to his political philosophy, a political philosophy that had considerable influence not only on important thinkers such as Mortimer Adler, John Courtney Murray, and Yves R. Simon, but also on more than one generation of Thomists who staffed the Catholic colleges and universities then flourishing in the United States.

Maritain’s critique of the Enlightenment spirit is the focus of this essay. One of his earliest works sets the tone for much that is to come. The myth of “necessary progress” as found in philosophers like Condorcet and Comte is one of his major targets in Theonas, a dialogue first published in 1921. He quotes Condorcet, “There will then come a moment upon this earth when the sun will shine on none but free men who recognize no other master than their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid hypocritical instruments, will exist no more save in history and on the stage.” And Auguste Comte, “To re-establish the Catholic order it would be necessary to suppress the philosophy of the eighteenth century, and as this philosophy proceeds from the Reformation, and Luther’s Reformation in its turn was but the result of the experimental sciences introduced into Europe by the Arabs, it would be necessary to suppress the sciences.” Maritain, through the character Philonous, responds to Comte as follows: “That surely is a perfect text, I know it by heart: and it illustrates as clearly as the historico-economic synthesis of Karl Marx — What havoc the myth of progress can work in the mind of an intelligent man.”

As Maritain characterizes it, “the law of progress” demands the ceaseless changing of foundations and principles inherited from the past; but if foundations can change, that which rests on them must also change. The movement of humanity towards the better, according to this attitude, demands the regular destruction of all previous gains. The progressivists, says Maritain, fail to recognize that there are types of change. Some can be constructive as in Thomas building upon Augustine. Similarly, the truths of Ptolemaic astronomy survived in the Copernican revolution. The production of a plant is bound up with the corruption of the seed. “There is no destruction,” he argues, “that does not produce something, no production that does not destroy some existent thing. The whole question is to know whether it is the production or the destruction which is the principal event.” Judgment is required. The conservative takes newness to be a sign of corruption; the mystics of revolution take all newness for a newness of achievement. Placed in perspective, the myths of “humanity,” “the city of the future,” “revolution,” and “necessary progress” are but secular substitutions for Christian ideas such as the “church,” the “heavenly Jerusalem,” “regeneration,” and “providence.” “When men cease to believe in the supernatural,” Maritain says, “the Gospel is reduced to the plane of nature.”

Although Maritain’s early targets are Bergson and the three reformers, the real enemy is Immanuel Kant. In Maritain’s judgment, Kant’s critical philosophy is born of the convergence of the three intellectual currents represented by 1) Luther’s revolt in theology, 2) Descartes’ in philosophy, and 3) Rousseau’s in ethics. Kant represents a lack of confidence in the intellect’s ability to grasp being metaphysically. Bergson similarly underestimates the intellect. Maritain is willing to commend Bergson for attacking the anti-metaphysical prejudices of 19th-century positivism, but, in Maritain’s judgment, Bergson’s notion of intuition and his theory of conceptual knowledge lead, much like Descartes, to a subjectivism and irrationalism. In retrospect, Maritain may have more in common with Bergson than not. Nevertheless, he saw the difficulty of maintaining an objectivist metaphysics on Bergson’s somewhat anti-intellectualist epistemology. In Maritain’s judgment, both Bergson and Kant give too large a role to the activity of the experiencing subject in constituting the known. Maritain’s conviction that the realism of Aristotle and Aquinas is perfectly in accord with common sense and with modern science finds full expression in his mature work, The Degrees of Knowledge (1932).

Maritain’s notion of philosophy is important. “Modern philosophies,” he writes, “grow out of what has gone before, but rather by way of contradiction; the Scholastics by way of agreement and further development.” The result is that philosophy in our day is like a series of episodes simply stuck end to end and not like a tree, whose each branch is organically related to the others, and the whole to its roots. “The labor of the mind, by its very nature demands a collaboration running through the years.” There is such a thing as a philosophia perennis; although its source is in antiquity, it is forever open-ended.

In his closing years, Maritain returned to themes which he first approached as a young convert grateful for the insight provided by his newly acquired faith. In the last decade of his life, the old philosopher, equipped with both the faith and years of experience, reflected at length on the condition of his beloved Catholic Church. Between 1966 and 1973 he produced three books. One may view these simply as works of apologetics, but one may also find in them profound philosophical insight. The most widely noted is his Le Paysan de la Garonne published shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council when Maritain was 84 years of age. On the Grace and Humanity of Christ appeared in 1969; On the Church of Christ followed four years later.

Acknowledging that he was writing in a “troubled historical moment,” Maritain presents On the Church of Christ as a reflection of a philosopher on the faith accorded him through the instrument of the Church. The book, he proclaims, is not a work of apologetics, “It presupposes the Catholic faith and addresses itself above all to Catholics, [and] to our non-separated brothers who recite the Credo each Sunday.” It addresses itself to others to the extent that they “desire to know what Catholics believe even if the latter seem sometimes to have forgotten it.”

The last is not an idle remark. In Maritain’s judgment, Vatican. II unleashed a subversive movement in the Church which constitutes, perhaps, an even greater threat to her integrity than the external modernist attack of the 19th century. “The modernism of Pius X’s time,” he writes, was “only a modest hay fever” compared to the sickness which besets intellectuals today. In Le Paysan, he speaks of an “immanent apostasy.” The new theologians, through an exhausting work of “hermeneutic evacuation,” have emptied our faith of every specific object and reduced it to a “simple sublimating aspiration.” “The frenzied modernism of today is incurably ambivalent. Its natural bent, although it would deny it, is to ruin the Christian faith.” Ironically, Maritain says, the leaders of our neo-modernism declare themselves Christian, even though they have separated themselves from its basic tenets. In a way, their attitude is a backhanded compliment to Christianity itself, insofar as they still cherish their identification with the Church.

Maritain asks, “If divine transcendence is only the mythical projection of a certain collective fear experienced by man at a given moment in history,” then why should an observer faithful to the tradition, “be astonished that so many modernists believe they have a mission to save a dying Christianity, their dying Christianity for the modern world.” Simply put, modernism and Christianity are incompatible.

A Greek confidence in the human intellect and the intelligibility of nature is the cornerstone of Maritain’s philosophy of being. It led him, on first acquaintance, to an appreciation of the realism of St. Thomas whom he came to venerate both as a person and as a philosopher/theologian. Even before the end of the Second Vatican Council, Maritain sadly detects a drift away from St. Thomas on the part of Catholic theologians. He finds that all too often references to St. Thomas and the Scholastics are made in a disparaging tone. The call to de-hellinize Christianity, he is convinced, is usually a repudiation of philosophical realism and the first step toward a subjectivism which reduces the revealed word of God to mere symbols for truths accessible to human reason. He finds this regrettable not only because it repudiates a great teacher but because of its implications for theology as a discipline. Theology, heretofore, was thought of as “rational knowledge.” The new approach, by contrast, when it does not reduce the faith to praxis, seems to adopt a fideistic starting point. Christ is the way only if one is inclined to adopt Him as a starting point. In an aside, Maritain notes “some of our well-bred contemporaries are repelled by the vocabulary of Aquinas.” Yet it is hard to believe that men who understand Hegel, Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre should be terrorized by scholastic rigor. They should know perfectly well that every science has its technical vocabulary. Their difficulty lies much deeper, in the skepticisms they have unwittingly embraced, skepticisms which deny the intellect’s ability to reach being in knowledge and speech. The only way we can logically and clearly express many of the truths of the faith is by appropriating the language of ontology. If we cannot know reality in itself, but only as it appears to us, what are we to make of the teachings of Chalcedon, i.e., that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, one divine and one human? What are we to make of the doctrine of the Eucharist?

According to Maritain, the teaching of Aquinas “is not the doctrine of one man, but the whole labor of the Fathers of the Church, the seekers of Greece . . . the inspired of Israel” and the scholars of the medieval Arabic world. Far from reaching a dead-end, the Thomistic corpus “is and intelligible organism meant to keep on growing always, and to extend across the centuries its insatiable thirst for new prey. It is a doctrine open and without frontiers; open to every reality wherever it is and every truth from wherever it comes, especially the new truth which the evolution of culture or science will enable it to bring out.” Likewise, it is a doctrine open to the various problematics it may see fit to employ, whether created from within or adopted from without. Because it is an open doctrine, it is indefinitely progressive. Those who adopt the philosophy of St. Thomas recognize that their master does not require subservience. “The philosopher swears fidelity to no person, not any school — not even if he be a Thomist — to the letter of St. Thomas and every article of his teaching.”

Josiah Royce saw this more than a half century earlier. Writing as an outsider, he was convinced that the neo-scholastic movement endorsed by Leo XIII was an important one, in Royce’s words, “for the general intellectual progress of our time.” The use of St. Thomas, he says, entails growth, development, and change. He even uses the word “progress.” “Pope Leo, after all, let loose a thinker amongst his people — a thinker to be sure, of unquestioned orthodoxy, but after all a genuine thinker whom the textbooks had long tried, as it were to keep lifeless, and who, when once revived, proves to be full of the suggestion of new problems, and of an effort towards new solutions.” But Royce was also fearful that a resurgent Thomism might give way to the Kantian legions and their demand that the epistemological issue he settled first. In Maritain he would have found a kindred spirit.

The key to Maritain’s conception of philosophy, his love for St. Thomas, and his chagrin at contemporary drifts in theology is grounded in his doctrine on being. “To maintain . . . that the object of our intellect is not the being of things but the idea of being which it forms in itself, or more generally that we apprehend immediately only our ideas, is to deliver oneself bound hand and foot to skepticism.” Maritain’s controlling principle can be stated simply: being governs enquiry. There are structures apart from the mind which can be grapsed objectively. Or, put another way, being is intelligible. And not only being, but being in act is intelligible. The senses bring us into contact with a material, changing world, but, in the flux of events, there are identifiable structures which control enquiry. Although the senses are limited to the material singular, there is more in the sense report than the senses themselves are formally able to appreciate. The intellect’s ability to abstract enables it to grasp the universal, the intelligible nature, the “whatness” of the thing. Those things which are not self-intelligible need to be explained by means of things other than themselves. Acknowledging the principles of substance and causality, Maritain avoids the phenomenalism of Locke and the empiricism of Hume. So equipped, he is able to reason to an immaterial order and to the existence of God, ipsum esse subsistens. Maritain’s defense of the first principles of thought and being in his little book, A Preface to Metaphysics, is difficult to surpass.

Philosophies which fail to achieve a doctrine of being will inevitably be subjective in tone. Methodologically, they will be cut off from the transcendent source of being itself. Oddly, philosophy seems to entail a theology whether it reaches God or not. “When Feuerbach declared that God was the creation and alienation of man; when Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, they were the theologians of our contemporary atheistic philosophies.” They define themselves and their projects against a tradition they hope to supersede, but one in which their own roots are planted. “Why are these philosophies so charged with bitterness,” Maritain asks, “unless it is because they feel themselves chained in spite of themselves to a transcendence and to a past they constantly have to kill.” Theirs is, in fact, a religious protest in the guise of philosophy.

If any conclusion is to be drawn from this, one must acknowledge that the chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Chicago may have had it right when he said, “Maritain is an apologist.” He was one his entire professional life. But Maritain was philosophizing within a Thomistic framework where philosophy in the service of theology loses nothing of its integrity. In fact, as Maritain consistently affirmed, the philosopher himself may gain insight by his association with a theological perspective that thrusts new problems and demands greater precision. Maritain maintains that philosophy in the abstract is pure philosophy and can never be “Christian,” but concretely it is always pursued within a social setting which in providing a milieu for reflection, gives it color, if not direction. In Existence and the Existent he writes, “We do not philosophize in the posture of dramatic singularity; we do not save our souls in the posture of theoretic universality and detachment from self for the purpose of knowing.”

Maritain, the young apprentice, and Maritain, the aging philosopher, are not only men of the faith, but are both graced with that prelude to philosophy which we call “common sense.” Both are philosophical realists and both respect the claims of revealed truth. Maritain the lecturer at some of North America’s most prestigious universities, Maritain the signatory of the Declaration of Human Rights, Maritain the Ambassador to the Holy See, all remained in their diverse careers the disciple of Leon Bloy, Henri Bergson and Thomas Aquinas. The aging Maritain may have written a seemingly nostalgic Antimoderne, he may have called himself “Le Paysan,” but no historian will ever deny his “engagement” with the leading ideas of his day. Leon Bloy, Maritain’s spiritual mentor, called himself, “The Pilgrim of the Absolute”; Maritain, the inveterate foe of anti-intellectualism, might well be called the “Pilgrim of the Transcendent.”


Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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