By DONALD DeMARCO
When his beloved wife and collaborator, Raissa, died in 1960, Jacques Maritain withdrew to a secluded life of silence and prayer, living in a hut with the Little Brothers of Jesus near the Garonne River at Toulouse, France. There, at age 85, he produced what he claimed to be his final work: The Peasant of the Garonne.
The image pays tribute to the peasant who dares to call a spade a spade. Philosophy is a journey to wisdom, but one must honor the common sense of the peasant in order to begin such a journey. In this respect, he was true to his mentor St. Thomas Aquinas.
In his delightful book on St. Thomas, G K. Chesterton declares that he established his philosophy “on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs.”
Hegelians might have believed that eggs are really what they will become: hens. Followers of Bishop Berkeley, who rejected matter, would contend that eggs were merely dreams. Pragmatists would argue that the importance of eggs is their market price.
“The Thomist,” Chesterton maintains, “stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.” Maritain’s identification with the peasant does not exclude him from philosophy, but places him on its rightful path.
Jacques Maritain was born in Paris on November 18, 1882. He grew up in that city, barely nourished spiritually on the lukewarm Protestantism of his mother.
When he entered the Lycée Henri IV, he possessed no particular religious convictions. He enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1901 during France’s rich and corrupt Third Republic, a time when rabid French anti-clericalism had turned the Church into an intellectual ghetto. The school’s rigid empiricism had effectively excluded any respectful discussion of spiritual matters.
One day, as Jacques walked hand in hand through a Paris park with his Jewish girlfriend, Raissa, the two made a pact that if, within a year, they could not find any meaning to life beyond the material, they would commit suicide.
That despair dissolved when they heard lectures at the Collège de France given by Henri Bergson, whose theories of creative evolution exalted the spirit of man and his ability to discover the intelligibility of things through intuition. In 1905, Jacques and Raissa, now newlyweds, met a passionate Catholic named Leon Bloy (“A Christian of the second century astray in the Third Republic”) who led them into the Catholic faith.
Maritain soon began studying the massive works of St. Thomas Aquinas. As Aquinas had found in Aristotle a philosophical basis for harmonizing human reason with Christian faith, Maritain discovered in Aquinas possibilities for bringing a rejuvenated Thomism into a modern age of skepticism and science.
“The disease afflicting the modern world,” he wrote, “is above all a disease of the intellect.” In one of his early works, The Degrees of Knowledge, Maritain sought to unify all the sciences and subdivisions of philosophy in the pursuit of reality. Maritain was open to all trends and studied them carefully. He could do this, however, without ever losing sight of the perennial significance of philosophy.
A close friend of his, the Russian existentialist, Nikolai Berdyaev, accurately captured this feature of his esteemed colleague when he wrote these words about him in his autobiography:
“He is very sensitive to new modern tendencies. But curiously enough, this has no effect on his philosophy.”
At the height of his fame, in the 1920s and 1930s, Maritain lectured at Oxford, Yale, Notre Dame, and Chicago. He also taught at Paris, Princeton, and Toronto. After World War II, he served three years as France’s ambassador to the Vatican. In 1963 the French government honored him with its National Grand Prize for Letters.
The 50 or so books that Maritain wrote, spanning a period of more than half a century and translated into every major language, earned him the distinction of being “the greatest living Catholic philosopher.”
In his books, articles, and lectures, Maritain repeatedly and passionately called upon the Church to bring its theology and philosophy into contact with present-day problems. His liberal thoughts concerning political and social justice issues won him bitter enemies among ultra-conventional Church thinkers. Attempts were even made, though unsuccessful, to have his books condemned by the Vatican.
Pope Paul VI honored Maritain during Vatican II, and in 1967 gave him unprecedented credit for inspiring the Pontiff’s landmark encyclical on economic justice, Populorum Progressio. He also considered making Maritain a cardinal, but the philosopher rejected the suggestion.
Maritain once referred to himself as “a man God has turned inside out like a glove.” In a letter to poet Jean Cocteau, he wrote: “I have given my life to St. Thomas, and labor to spread his doctrine. For I, too, want intelligence to be taken from the Devil and returned to God.”
Indeed, no modern Catholic thinker has done more in an effort to achieve this end than Jacques Maritain. When he passed away in 1973, Pope Paul VI described him publicly as a “master of the art of thinking, of living, and of praying.”
There has not appeared, since Maritain left the world, his equal as a lay Catholic philosopher.
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(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That Is Going Mad; Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart; How to Flourish in a Fallen World, and Footprints on the Sands of Time: Personal Reflections on Life and Death are available through Amazon.com.
(Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. He is the 2015 Catholic Civil Rights League recipient of the prestigious Exner Award.)