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Jacques Maritain - French philospher of the 20th century


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Jacques Maritain - French philosopher of the 20th century

Maritain was born in Paris in 1882. His father was a lawyer; his mother the daughter of a French statesman. He attended the Sorbonne where he got degrees in both philosophy and natural sciences. Maritain was raised as a Protestant, but by the end of college, he had become basically irreligious or even atheistic from studying various modern philosophers

Things were so bad that he and his girl friend, Raissa, vowed to commit suicide in one year if they were unable to find a philosophy that gave them hope. They found Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, got married, and lived half a century together.

In 1921 he was named a full professor of philosophy at the Institut Catholique in Paris where he taught for several years. In the 1930's he began too accept teaching assignments in other places. He taught in South America in the 1930's and was named a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters while at the same time being condemned in Chile as a “man of the left”. He spent WWII in Toronto and New York. He taught at both Columbia and Princeton and helped Voice of America prepare broadcasts aimed at the areas of France under German control. In 1945 he helped France by serving as its ambassador to Vatican City. Later he helped UNESCO draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pope Pius XII asked him to become a lay Cardinal of the Catholic Church, but he declined this very rare honor.

When Maritain’s wife preceded him in death (1960) he choose to live his remaining years with a Catholic religious order in Toulouse, France where he died in 1973. He is buried next to his wife at Kolbsheim (Alsace) France.

General View of Philosophy

As an undergraduate, Maritain had been a student of both physical science and the modern philosophers (e.g. Spinosa, Kant, Kierkagaard, etc.). This lead him to his early despair, but it also gave him deep understanding of the shallow, circular arguments these modern philosophers promoted. However, Maritain realized that simply promoting Thomas Aquinas was not going to counter these moderns. Aquinas needed to be restated and perhaps augmented to deal with the modern mind. That restatement became Maritain’s life’s work.

Modern philosophers had focused primarily on the study of “how we know things”. Maritain realized that the first study must be the study of “who we are”. For Maritain, the study of philosophy must begin with man’s situation.

During his lifetime Maritain developed a wide set of friendships with social reformers and artists. He had a long term relationship with Saul Alinsky, the radical reformer whose work later inspired a community organizer named Barack Obama. When asked about Alinsky, Maritain said “I don’t know if Saul Alinsky knows God, but I can assure you God knows Saul Alinsky”.

Maritain felt that both art and science speak to us about ourselves, about God, and about His universe which surrounds us. Maritain felt intuition should join logic as a means for figuring out proper attitudes toward God, proper behaviors for individuals, and the proper design of our communities and the world. Maritain was prepared to take ideas from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and even Saul Alinsky to create his new philosophy which both his admirers and critics called “existential Thomism”. Maritain once summed up his view of life by saying “we do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve”.

Metaphysics (i.e. the study of reality, of first principles, the study of being) is Maritain’s starting point. He notes that each person has a self awareness and an awareness of the universe about him. Man understands innately that he has a relationship with this universe and its source. Each man knows he’ll have an earthly end just as he had a earthly beginning; however, he innately senses that somehow he always was and always will be attached to this greatness about him.

Here Maritain uses Aristotle and Aquinas’ distinction between the matter of a thing that determines its individuality and the essence of a thing which is defined by the class of things in belongs to. So while the matter may have a limited life, the essence of a thing may have a finite or infinite life depending upon its group characteristics. For instance humans have the ability to grasp the scope of the universe and the infinitude of its creator. Therefore they attached to this universe, its creator, and its infinitude even as they realize their physical bodies will die.

Going further, this understanding is, for Maritain, a matter of “eidetic” intuition. This is a gift, which he admits not all man possess. This is “a perception direct and immediate .... it is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration .... of a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it” in other words “it is an awareness of the reality of one’s being ... [an awareness] which is decisive and has a dominant character”.

Maritain insists people must emphasis the “act of existing”, and for this reason he is called an “existentialist”. He maintains this point of view is presumed in St. Thomas’ philosophy.

It should be noted that Maritain’s “existentialism” is quite different from the existentialism of the moderns like Kierkegaard, Marcel, and Sartre who used the same word in a different way. (Note: It is appropriate to recall that Sartre once said “the only important decision for each man is deciding when to commit suicide”.)

Maritain held that, as we hold this intuition of our being, we are naturally lead to investigate the deeper questions of our being, our creator, our purpose, etc. This takes our thinking to God, his desires for us, and other core metaphysical beliefs; thus Maritain adds “eidetic” intuition to Thomas Aquinas’ famous five proofs of God from the 13th century.

Epistemology - (the study of knowing or knowledge)

Although he assigned this branch of philosophy a secondary place, Maritain did not ignore it. Here Maritain follows the lead of Thomas Aquinas with a largely practical, realist view of knowing (i.e. what you perceive is what is). He rejects the modernist view that much of what humans perceive is simply created by their own minds.

Maritain holds that things exist in reality and once things are seen or otherwise perceived by the human mind they also exist, in a way, within that human’s mind. Going further Maritain said the human mind can perceive something which it has only grasped intellectually such as a concept or ideal. These realizations led Maritain to say knowing an object has two aspects: the passive reception of a sense impressions and the active constructing of actual knowledge from those received impressions.

The forgoing allows Maritain to insist we can “know” about material things, but we can also know about abstract things and processes: such as mathematics, such as self reflection, .... such as mystical things including God himself, etc. Maritain argues that to know something is to know “why it is”. He argues that the scientific way of knowing by sampling and testing is very limited because it fails to get to the essence of things, the true “why it is”. Maritain refers to superficial knowledge of something as knowledge at the first “degree of abstraction”. Knowledge expressed with qualifications, numbers, or exponents is knowledge at the second degree of abstraction. Finally, he notes that deeper knowledge is knowledge at the non-material level. It looks at the essence of things, particularly such things as poetry, art, sublime ideas, or God. It is knowledge at the third degree of abstraction. Maritain points out that knowledge of this third category is often arrived at through analogical reasoning, an indirect process that involves referring mentally to other things or creatures.

After studying Augustine and John of the Cross, Maritain further applies categories to this third degree of knowledge. He speaks of “theological wisdom” which can be known by both reason and the teachings of the church. He notes there is “mystical knowledge” which is knowing about God from “outside”, of knowing God by “connaturality”. This is knowledge acquired by “mystical contemplation” and is found in many religious traditions. This Maritain creation, namely knowledge by “connaturality”, is something like “knowledge by intuition”. Martian feel this sort of knowledge is manifest in religious settings but it is also manifest in and through the arts: paintings, poetry, plays, etc.

Philosophy of Nature - (a search for the first principles of physical things, the things of scientific studies including the most important physical thing, human beings).

Here Maritain reminds the reader that his early college training was in the physical sciences so he feels comfortable commenting on this area of philosophy. He notes that this branch of philosophy operates between metaphysics and the individual sciences. It acknowledges the important role that the sciences play in measuring and quantifying the physical world, but it looks beyond measurements per se, it looks to the essences of the physical things, of the real world. It is in the focus on “essences” that the philosophy of nature moves to a level deeper than science itself.

This difference is well illustrated in the current debate about the use of fetal body parts and stem cells in America. Abortion is itself problematic but when the product of abortion is lauded by men of science as a source of desirable by-products, the philosopher of nature steps in to say “lets look at the essence of this process”. These philosophers ask important questions “what is the true nature of the aborted baby?” and “is it a good idea to destroy one life to improve the life of another living person?” and finally “is it prudent for a society to hold out the destruction of a unborn life as a positive good because living persons benefit from the spare parts and/or stem cell thus obtained?”. The typical scientist is not trained to sort out the “essences” here; whereas, the philosopher of nature is better equipped to think through these profound questions.

Natural Theology and the Philosophy of Religion - (a study of ultimate truth and right behavior ) -

Here Maritain holds with Aquinas that there is no conflict between true faith and true reason. He goes further saying religious truths should be open to rational examination, and he believes many religious truths can be philosophically demonstrated. Maritain’s position stands in square opposition to most modern philosophers. Maritain goes further saying philosophy and theology are complementary studies with philosophy serving as the “handmaid of theology”.

In this area, Maritain’s assertion that human intuition is a proof of God and serves as an example of philosophy bolstering religious truth. This insight was augmented by Maritain in several ways; for instance, he felt each man had a sort of sharing in God’s infinitude. Since God has known for all time that each of us would be born and since each of us has a soul that will survive forever, it could be said each of us has an infinite existence.

Maritain, while acknowledging that philosophy can rationally show the existence of God, notes it is not capable of flushing out as much detail as God has provided through scriptures and revelation.

Moral and Political Philosophy plus the Philosophy of law -

Here Maritain builds on the Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law tradition. Although Maritain honors Aristotle’s contribution, he notes that this ancient philosopher developed his moral philosophy without knowing man’s ultimate ends. Maritain also felt Thomas was correct in saying nature provides guidance in these things. By studying each item in nature including himself, man can gain insight into each thing’s proper moral use. As Maritain says: natural law is “an order or disposition that the human reason may discover and according to which the human will must act to accord itself with the necessary ends of the human being” . He then says this law “prescribes our most fundamental duties” and is coextensive with morality.

Maritain held that there is one single natural law governing all human beings and that basic law can be known “connaturally”, not necessarily rationally or through concepts. This Maritain idea is similar to Aquinas’ idea of syndesis. So natural law is “natural” because it not only reflects human nature but can be known naturally by humans. Maritain acknowledges that certain people are intellectually limited while others come out of cultures where natural law is not followed very closely. Maritain also notes that the requirements of the natural law unfold gradually even to the most diligent student and no one knows all of its nuance.

Intimate to any discuss of natural law is a discussion of human freedom. Maritain notes that a desirable end for humans is freedom which he differentiates from license. He clarifies by saying humans define themselves by their acts of free choice, however, these free acts should be compatible with the social order of society. Maritain has been both praised and criticized for subjecting the free choice of the individual to the needs of the broader social order.

Maritain realized he had to explain how a person can be given free choice but is limited at the same time. He explained thusly. A person’s temporal needs or desires must be subjected to the common good; whereas, his spiritual good comes ahead society’s requirements. He went further and said is times of societal stress (e.g. war, natural disaster, etc) the society has the right to preempt personal freedom (e.g. the draft, compulsory evacuation, etc.).

Maritain view of larger social systems was mixed. He liked representative democracy but was unsure about the desirability of capitalism. Most of all, he felt governmental institutions must operate with theocratic humanism, remembering that all men have both a physical and spiritual side. The state, therefore, should legislate to help meet man’s physical requirements (e.g. security needs, fire protection, streets, etc.) while respecting his need for freedom and his right to practice his religion. In short, a God centered state that honors the individual.

Maritain identified four types of law: eternal, natural, common law of civilization, and positive. Each deserves a short discussion. Eternal law is the law of God as revealed by God through the scriptures and His Church. Natural law is learned from “connaturality” and stems from understanding God’s design of man, man’s purpose in this life, and nature more generally. The law of the civilization is the extension of natural law to the overall society where we find ourselves, encompassed here are traditions and culture. Positive law is the law enacted by the government at a particular time. These various laws are not of equal merit. They rank in the order presented. Accordingly, a positive law that runs counter to say a natural law or eternal law is actually no law at all. An example might serve to illustrate. The eternal law and the natural law and the law of our civilization would all indicate that praying to God is a good thing and should be encouraged in the youth. So when the Supreme Court issues a decision banning prayer in school, one could, probably should, argue that the court decision is against the more important types of law and should be considered “no law at all”.

Going even further, Maritain argues that it is a natural right of each person to seek moral and spiritual perfection, and society has a duty to make the means available so this “seeking after perfection” might occur. This places a positive duty on society which critics have argued is not even found in the 1948 U N. Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain argues that this is true today, but he says recognition of human right is like recognition of natural law, that is that such recognition comes only slowly and with careful thought.

All the foregoing explains why Maritain favored a liberal democratic state inspired by Christian values and yet accommodating individual desires and pluralism. His desires seem naive in the 21st century. Many liberal democratic states today are experiencing unrest as diverse pluralistic groups use their democratic rights to undermine the liberal and Christian values of their societies (e.g. the Muslims in modern France). Maritain had foreseen this possibility, so he also recommended smallish states working together in federation rather than the large “polyglot” states we see today (e.g. China, Russia, the U.S.A., etc.).

Some have noted that Maritain might have been thinking about the kind of country the American founders envisioned in 1776, a federation of more or less independent “smallish” states working together on matters like - the military, foreign affairs, and interstate commerce.

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art -

Maritain had a life long interest in the arts and artists. His thinking was shaped by his wife’s interest in poetry and the many artists in their lives. The Maritains counted Chagall, Rouault, Laurie, Borneans, Cacti, and Green in their list of friends.

Maritain felt art was an example of the practical intellect making something beautiful. He noted that the processes of making something beautiful stimulated the intellect and intuition which in turn brought one closer to understanding the meaning of life. He particularly admired the fact that art involves both thinking and making. Since art involves the creation of something beautiful, it necessarily involves the transcendentals: goodness, truth and unity.

Going further Maritain felt the artist requires freedom from the state and religious authority to create. However he warns the artist’s freedom must not be license. He said even art is limited to expressing only the true and must be subject to “the spiritual conditions of honest work”. He felt human art was analogous to God’s creative activity and is the “highest natural resemblance to God’s activity”. Thus honest, truthful artistic endeavor perfects the artist.

Maritain rejects art which is simply the reproduction of earlier ideas through mechanical technique. He wanted to see intuition and a grasping for new insight. He felt such effort stimulated his precious “connaturality” in the artist and caused new philosophical insights to emerge.

He had a profound influence on the creative people of the 20th century. The American writer Flannery O’Connor said “she cut her artistic teeth” on Maritain. Morley Callaghan, a Canadian author, said “Christian artists were finding new dignity and spiritual adventure” in Maritain’s work.

General Assessment

Although at the time of his death Maritain was undoubtable the best known Catholic philosopher in the world, today his work is most highly prized by political scientists and civil rights leaders. The ideas he inserted into the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 have found there way into a number of constitutions and declarations of rights adopted in the 20th century. The number of new constitutions adopted in this period is noteworthy as many colonies became stand alone countries and many eastern European countries emerged from Soviet domination. Also both Paul VI and John Paul II have memorialized his ideas in their various official pronouncements.

His ideas on the arts and the formation of youth have found purchase in Latin America and French speaking Africa.

His politics were definitely in the middle of the road neither clearly conservative nor clearly liberal. He was no strong supporter of capitalism, and he joined Pope John Paul II in condemning “liberation theology” which was one of the many excesses that grew out of the Second Vatican Council.

Today there is a Jacques Maritain Center on the campus of Nortre Dame University and that university arranged to publish his complete works in English in the mid 1990's. ...... (prepared by Hugh Murray on 12/15/2019)


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This page hopes to bring a common sense, old fashioned view to today's news. The comments displayed on this page were prepared by Hugh V. Murray, who can be reached at hvm@aol.com