Saturday 24th March 2018

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Jacques Maritain Revisited

September 10, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


A good philosopher must have a mind that is, to a certain extent, independent. It should be independent from the errors of his predecessors, but certainly not from reality or from reason, which is the means by which one ascertains certain truths about reality. He must also be an original thinker, not in the sense of being novel but in tracing things back to their origins. This combination of independence of mind and originality of thought, so qualified, is quite rare among philosophers.
When Jacques Martian came into the world, on November 18, 1882, Europe was teeming with intellectual activity. In Germany, Friedrich Nietzsche was proclaiming the death of God and the advent of the Superman. In England, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer were expanding the evolutionary concepts of Charles Darwin. The economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were gaining a stronger foothold in the sociopolitical arena. In France, the positivism of Auguste Comte was still in sway.
Maritain was very much aware of these various trends and yet repudiated all of them, preferring to delve into the depths of reality rather than succumb to what happened to be popular.
At the same time, he found a special intellectual kinship with the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Maritain’s mind was independent of trends but not of truth. Thus, his thought, like that of his philosophical mentors, is relevant for all ages. And lest we suspect that he may have been short on humility, we are set aright by his abiding conviction that “the philosopher seeks to find, of course, but he does not normally find without having sought; and as a matter of fact, he spends more time seeking than finding, and he never stops seeking.”
Maritain was a meticulous thinker and a careful writer. We are wise to take what he has said with a respectful attitude and an open mind. His Freedom in the Modern World, though written in 1933, is a good example of his independence of mind and realistic grasp of things.
“A prime error,” he writes, “which seems to be the root error of many of our contemporaries lies in the confusion of the two kinds of freedom that we have distinguished: freedom of choice and freedom of autonomy.”
This error, according to Maritain, makes freedom of choice the highest freedom and an end in itself. In elevating freedom of choice above freedom of autonomy, the latter is ignored and all but disappears.
Maritain could not be more accurate as well as relevant to our times than he is on this point. Abortion advocates rationalize abortion solely on the basis of choice, giving no regard whatsoever either for the object of choice or how it does or does not contribute to the good of the person. Freedom of choice is our birthright. No one could be anti-choice in this sense any more than one could be anti-seeing or anti-thinking.
But this form of choice, as Maritain explains, is morally neutral. It is the object of choice, namely, something that is good, that gives choice its moral significance. And what is more, by directing one’s freedom of choice to a series of goods helps to produce freedom of autonomy (or freedom of fulfillment) which is the good of the whole person. Simply stated, freedom of choice is not an end in itself but exists for freedom of autonomy which is an end in itself.
The great violinist Isaac Stern was once asked by interviewer Dick Cavett which of his two arms would he prefer not to be injured by an elevator door. It was a rude and impertinent question. Stern could do nothing more than state that both arms are equally valuable and he could not prefer one over the other. The bow itself is neutral. It can wave in the wind, but unless it sweeps across the strings of a violin, no music is produced. The bow can be analogically compared with freedom of choice. Alone it can do a number of meaningless things, but cannot fulfill its original purpose without being wed to something other than itself, namely the violin.
As Bishop Sheen, who was not averse to using puns, once said, “Every violin needs its bow (beau).” He was, at the time, talking about how the two sexes need each other. “It is not good for man to be alone,” nor is it good for a violin bow to be alone. The comparison is apt when we think of the violin as receptive, feminine, and resounding, and the bow as initiating, masculine, and causing the sound.
There was never a violinist who was satisfied with brandishing his bow. Nor was there ever a baseball player who was content to swing his bat while never hitting a pitch. It may also be said that the mere exercise of freedom of choice is unfulfilling unless it is directed to a good. The point here fully accords with common sense and does not require the rigor of a high-powered intellectual analysis. Freedom of choice does not make one autonomous. Waving a bow does not produce music, nor does owing a baseball bat make one a champion hitter.
Why is it, then, that so many people, many of whom are very intelligent, misconstrue freedom and believe that freedom of choice is the highest freedom and an end in itself? No one lives that way. Laws proscribe a number of choices, from homicide to shoplifting. No one really believes that he can get away with any choice whatsoever or that he can be the object of another person’s reckless choosing. The answer lies outside of philosophical thinking. Ideas that have no intellectual justification can become popular for no other reason than the fact that they are convenient, support one’s preferences, or happen to be “the rage.”
When this happens, such ideas can be infectious. Being infected by the errors of the day is easier and requires less psychic energy than striving to achieve that special independence of mind and love for reality that are necessary for good philosophical thinking.
We can thank Professor Maritain for his independence of mind, persistence, and humility, and his ability to shed light into a darkened world. We cannot be free, in the best sense of the term, unless we are first enlightened.

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