Jacques Maritain’s Carnet De Notes: What it means for a Catholic to be devoted to the life of the mind

Maritain published this book in 1965, toward the end of his long life, though eight years and several books would intervene before he died. Still to come were On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus (1967) and Of Christ’s Church (1968), neither of which had the enormous effect of The Peasant of the Garonne, published in 1966. The last book made Maritain a controversial figure one more time. Often in the past he had surprised those who thought they knew exactly where he stood. The Peasant was a final surprise, reminding those who needed the reminder, that Jacques Maritain was a thinker not easily categorizable in terms of superficial, even journalistic, labels. Looked back to from the stir caused by The Peasant, the Carnet de Notes has a serene, nostalgic, even valetudinarian air about it.

The editing of Raissa’s Journal — it appeared in 1962 — had been a labor of love for Jacques. He was more than willing to let the journals of his wife (dimidium animae meae) suffice for them both. Among her effects where four little notebooks, covering the time from 1906 to 1926, and there was a journal of 1931 as well as some loose sheets covering the years 1931-1939. Jacques prepared these for the press, added a number of brief texts of Raissa’s, and seemed willing to let that book fulfill his duty to their shared past. To the degree, that is, that the lives of the Maritains could become a public matter.

When Maritain published the Carnet de Notes in 1965, it became clear that Raissa’s final illness and death and the great sense of loss that followed had interrupted a work begun in 1954. In fact, the ultimate work is made up of geological layers that give it a peculiar fascination. The basic text consists of chapters composed at a decade’s distance from one another and appendices include materials dating from the times written of in the chapters. Throughout, wherever possible, Maritain refreshes his memory by appealing to small pocket diaries that he kept over the years. Indeed, he sometimes inserts passages from these into the text.

I say that he relies on such pocket diaries when he can because, as he remarks, he destroyed many of the earliest ones. From 1906 to 1911 he kept careful notes and they became somewhat voluminous. “Ensuite, j’ai fait de petits carnets de poches, de plus en plus rapides et sommaires; plusieurs de ces carnets ont ete perdus; Thereafter I kept little pocket notebooks in an increasingly quick and summary way; several of these were lost.” Fewer than he thought, actually. Several of these pocket diaries can be found in the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, gifts of Rev. Edward O’Connor, C.S.C.

I have before me as I write Maritain’s Agenda pour 1924, three inches by five, stiff brown cover, the unnumbered pages printed on graphed paper, each date accompanied by the saint of the day. The pocket diary was purchased at Magasins Reunis. It is the rare date that does not have an entry of some kind, most of them unreadable, as if Maritain sought to mimick the litera inintelligibilis of his master. Nulla dies sine linea? Well, some sort of note anyway, a name, an address, quite frequently a drawing, always a head, often as seen from above. Usually Maritain made his entries in pencil but except rarely they have not faded. His hand is hard to decipher even when, as in the back of the book, he is writing connected prose. One can see how such notebooks could quickly evoke people, events, ideas and images, the past. It is a moving experience to page through even so modest a little relic as this, to turn the pages turned by the philosopher, to imagine what a reference to a Carmelite convent might mean, to wonder why Tea Room occurs like that, in English, and so on.

A somewhat similarly fascinating item in the Jacques Maritain Center is Maritain’s copy of St. Thomas, Quaestio Disputata De Veritate. The margins are thick with notes and there are loose slips scattered through the book containing notes and, of course, outlines. Maritain was not the kind of Thomist who wrote exegetical studies but such a book makes clear the care with which he read Aquinas, assimilating the thought of the Angelic Doctor which he would then make use of in his own idiom in his own books.

The eight chapters follow on a forward written in 1964 and a preface dating from 1954. I. Old Memories Prior to Baptism. II. Old Memories After Baptism. III. Our First Trip to Rome. IV. Meeting with Pierre Villard. V. Thomist Study Groups and their Annual Retreats. VI. Our Sister Vera. VII. Love and Friendship. VIII. Apropos of the Heavenly Church. In the 1964 forward, Maritain tells us that the first two chapters were written in 1954; the fourth was begun in 1954 and finished in 1961; the fifth in 1963 (although the final pages were written in 1954); the sixth in 1964, the seventh in 1962 and the last in 1963.

I pass on this lore as proof of the way this book about the past has a past of its own and to show that the geological metaphor used earlier is not inappropriate. To pass from the general to the specific, let us look closely at chapter five.

Les C ercles d’Etudes Thomistes flourished from 1919 to 1939, one of the casualties of the Second World War. Maritain, writing in 1963, recalls the origins and formations of these circles, dating the first meeting as taking place at their home in Versailles in Autumn of 1919, though the seed of the gatherings seems to have been planted in 1914. Some of his students from the Institut Catholique, some friends, came together casually and without plan, but within a few years, the meetings having continued, the idea occur¬red to put them on a more formal basis. It was at Meudon that they took on their special character, bringing together men and women students, professors, lay people (the majority) and clerics, professional philosophers, doctors, poets, musicians, business men, the wise and simple, mostly Catholics but some unbelievers, some Jews, Orthodox and Protestants. This list is a close paraphrase of Maritain’s ac¬count and it suggests the heterogeneity and liveliness of the gatherings. What bound them all together? “L’unite venaite soft d’un amour profond, soft d’un interet plus ou moms grand pour la pensee thomiste; What bound us together was either a deep love or an interest large or small in Thomistic thought.”

The atmosphere was not that of a classroom, but of a salon, with drinks and cigarettes and, finally, tea. For a long period of time, the basis of the conversation was a text of St. Thomas or a passage from John of St. Thomas, characterized by Maritain as the last of the great commentators. The aim of it all was to bring a number of things into unity — reason and faith, philosophy and theology, metaphysics, poetry and politics, along with whatever was suggested by modern culture. Maritain himself made a presentation and the list of topics is formidable: Angelic knowledge; How angels know future contingents, singulars and secrets of the heart; Intellectual knowledge; In what sense is sociology a science?; Practical knowledge; Justice and Friendship; the Trinity, on and on. Maritain recalls his wife’s remark in We Have Been Friends Together that his fidelity to scholastic jargon was undeviating and he cites the comment of Charles Du Bos that his vocabulary was unintelligible save to an infinitesimal few. But what comes through is the level of intellectual excitement these meetings sustained.

When he quotes from notebooks kept at the time, Maritain records the following. “Il faudrait que les membres se declarent resolus a se guider sur saint Thomas avec une entiere fidelite, a lire la Somme une demi-heure par jour au moms, a faire au moms une demiheure d’oraison par jour; Members must state their intention of being guided by St. Thomas in complete fidelity, to read the Summa at least half an hour a day and to pray for at least a half hour daily.” No single sentence could better convey the spirit of these Thomistic Circles. Prayer and understanding, the blending of the spiritual and intellectual lives, the quest of sanctity through the degrees of wisdom. Little surprise that there grew up the custom of an annual retreat for the members. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the great Dominican Thomist, with whom Maritain would have political disagreements, gave the first retreat. Towards the end, two to three hundred people took part in these retreats. Chapter Five of the Carnet de Notes concludes with a lengthy discussion of the Vow of Prayer.

In recent years, this particular book of Maritain, indeed this particular chapter five, has often come to mind as new groupings and gatherings of Catholics have taken place, informally at first, then organized. The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and, more ecumencially, The Society of Christian Philosophy, come immediately to my mind, both of them flourishing, both of them answering in different ways to the hunger felt by the Maritains that the Cercles were meant partially to assuage. Organization, of course, has its repellent side. Nor was Maritain without a joke about that side of it. Imagine Pascal, he tells himself, or for that matter, in a different age, a Chateaubriand or a Joseph de Maistre, imagine a Dostoevsky, a Leon Bloy, a Peguy or Bernanos, organized in teams for common efforts! That is surely difficult to conceive. Whatever good the Cercles did, Maritain did not want himself or others to forget what unorganized, and unorganizable, Christians can and have done.

That being said, there is a need to come together on the part of those with a seemingly dual vocation, the life of the mind, the life of the soul, the intellectual and spiritual lives. It was the effort to unite these — witness the little book written with Raissa and called in English Prayer and Intelligence — that characterized the Cercles. It may be the single most important thing in the influence Jacques Maritain continues to play for those who both believe and live the life of the mind. Should that be true, as I think it is, this presentation of the Carnet de Notes can fittingly end with a translation of a portion of the appendix to chapter five.



0 Sapientia, quae ex ore

Altissimi prodiisti, attingens

a fine usque ad finem

fortiter, suaviterque

disponens omnia: veni ad

docendum nos viam


I. General Principles

1. In making Saint Thomas Aquinas the Common Doctor of the Church, God has given him to us as our leader and guide in the knowledge of the truth. The doctrine of Saint Thomas is the one the Church recommends above all others and enjoins her masters to teach. It imposes itself on the mind as a chain of certitudes demonstratively linked and more than any other is in perfect accord with dogma. It possesses the proof of a holiness inseparable from the teaching mission of the Angelic Doctor which effects a sort of effacement of his human personality in the radiance of the divine light. “Having profoundly venerated” the Fathers and holy doctors who preceded him, Saint Thomas, as Leo XIII wrote, “inherited as it were the intelligence of them all.” He so lost himself in the truth that one can say of him, as one cif his greatest students did: Majus aliquid in sancto Thoma quam sanctum Thomas suscipitur et defenditur; in Saint Thomas it is something far greater than Saint Thomas we accept and defend. Inheritor of the past and future treasure, he alone can teach us to become, following his example to the degree our weakness permits, transparent to the truth, docile to the Spirit who gives understanding, open to the common and catholic wisdom with which the Church has been imbued. An active loyalty, progressive and conquering, but absolutely pure and whole, to the principles, doctrine and spirit of Saint Thomas is thus the means par excellence of serving the Truth who is Christ, and it is particularly required for the salvation of the understanding, menaced nowadays on all sides.

2. Along with that, we believe that the human understanding is by nature so weak and further weakened as a result of Original Sin, whereas the thought of Saint Thomas is of so high an intellectuality, both from the metaphysical and theological points of view, that there is needed, in order for us to assimilate that thought, all the supernatural graces, and aid of which the eminent holiness as well as the unique mission of the Angelic doctor assure us, and that the special help of the Holy Spirit is necessary and always will be in order that it live among men.

In our error-filled time, we particularly believe that where the discipline and graces proper to the religious life do not obtain, it is impossible for Thomism to be maintained in its integrity and purity without the special helps of a life of prayer.

We know that this union of the spiritual life and the life of study was not only achieved in an eminent degree by Saint Thomas himself, but also by his most authoritative commentators, like Banez, the spiritual director of Saint Teresa most prized by her, like Gonet, who dedicated his Clypeus thomisticae theologiae to the great contemplative, like the Masters of Salamanca (Salmanticenses) who remained loyal on all points of Thomistic theology and who saw in it the foundation of the great spiritual doctrines taught by Saint Teresa and by Saint John of the Cross.

3. Thomism, thanks to the powerful impulse given by Leo XIII, has already begun to win minds among diocesan clergy and lay people, it is destined to do so more and more. How else can it conquer modern understanding? It must permeate the dough in order to raise it. In order to extend in time and renew philosophy, assimilating the material acquired since the Middle Ages and directing its progress into all domains, disengaging the true meaning of all the partial truths and research accumulated by particular sciences, to animate and clarify the intellectual renaissance which is potential in the realm of art and letters and whose role could be immense and, finally, to shape the general understanding which more than ever has need of a general philosophical and theological culture — to do all that, Thomism must enter into the intellectual life of those who live in the world, of lay people, and find practicioners there.

Its very diffusion can give rise to dangers. To the degree that modern minds insufficiently armed and prepared and more or less under the influence of modern prejudices seek to examine it, it runs the risk of being seen from the wrong angle and of being diminished by partial and danger is not imaginary.

4. In order to promote the doctrine and spirit of Saint Thomas in the world, while taking into account the danger just mentioned and maintaining the Thomistic synthesis in the higher light it requires, it thus seems useful and opportune that souls of good will who, out of love of Truth and the Church, wish to work for the diffusion of Thomism or to be inspired by it, be united in study circles which will help them perfect their knowledge of Saint Thomas, make it better known, and serve to preserve the living tradition of the masters of Thomism among the laity in an enduring way.

5. The chief element being, as we have seen, the spiritual and supernatural one, and such a group being valuable and effective only if its members are open in the fullest way to the action of the Holy Spirit, every member must be bound by a private vow to devote himself to a life of prayer. In that way this group of diocesan priests and lay people will have at the base of its activity a profound and intimate gift of the self to God and will offer to souls who aspire to perfection while remaining in the world a very real aid, without however in any way interfering with anyone’s freedom, since the vow of prayer concerns only the absolutely personal relation between God and the soul.

The usefulness of the study circles is twofold: on the one hand, they will help maintain in its integrity and purity the renewal of Thomistic studies in this century, and this by means of prayer, and, on the other hand, they will serve to maintain the renewal of spirituality in this century in rightness and purity, and this by means of Thomism.

In an age when the majority is interested in anything but God and seems to have lost the capacity to rise to the First Cause, it seems desirable that members include among their intentions that of intellectual reparation. For if it is true that intellectuals have in a special way the duty to recognize in God the supreme object of understanding and to ponder with love and reverence the depths of natural and supernatural theology, it is equally true that God is in our time especially offended by them. Therefore it is necessary that intellectuals devote themselves in a special way to render God the homage refused him by modern philosophers and at the same time to intercede for those who are the victims, willing or unwilling, of error.

There follows a second longer part having to do with the organization of the various circles and more detailed as to their activities. Reading Maritain on this matter, his later reflections, interspersed as they are with notes taken at the time, and then reading these statutes, we get a powerful sense of his vision of what it means for a Catholic to be devoted to the life of the mind. The centrality of the role of Saint Thomas Aquinas could scarcely be more dramatically emphasized. Some may find all this frightfully preconciliar. They may think that the days of Thomas Aquinas are behind us. They are wrong. But if Thomas is to continue to play his central role it is only on the terms that Maritain recalls as he recounts the story of the Cercles d’etudes thomistes.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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