Jacques Maritain: La Vie Intellectuelle

By Capaldi, Nicholas | The Review of Metaphysics, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Jacques Maritain: La Vie Intellectuelle


Capaldi, Nicholas, The Review of Metaphysics


THIS ARTICLE IS OCCASIONED BY THE RECENT APPEARANCE of three books focused on the life and thought of Jacques Maritain (1882-1973): Jude P. Dougherty, Jacques Maritain, An Intellectual Profile; John P. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace, Thomism and Democratic Political Theory; and Ralph McInerny, The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain. (1) It is at the same time an attempt to reassess the work of arguably the most influential and important Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. The Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame is producing a 21-volume edition of his works in English. There are now a growing number both of national and international associations for the study of his thought. The unavoidable subtext is a reassessment of Catholic thought in general and some consideration of its future prospects.

Life and Influence. There are several reasons for dwelling on the life of Jacques Maritain. To begin, to weave a narrative, as McInerny does, of the connection between Maritain's life and thought is to gain a deeper understanding of that thought. Moreover, Maritain's thought evolved; and regardless of whether one prefers the earlier Maritain or the later Maritain, we gain a better understanding of that evolution and therefore in an important sense what the mature Maritain position is when we see what events occasioned the important transitions in his thought. Given the coherent narrative that McInerny provides, it would be difficult to dismiss the later thought. Maritain's life and the evolution of his thinking was not a purely personal journey; it reflected important intellectual and social issues of that period not only for the discipline of philosophy in general but for Catholic thought in particular. As Dougherty puts it, "Maritain's long and varied career is a chronicle of his time as well as a personal journey." (2) To see how a first-rate mind grappled with those issues is again to gain a deeper understanding of those issues as well as of Maritain himself. Finally, we are the inheritors of the intellectual and social issues of that period, and to understand Maritain is to understand ourselves better.

Maritain was born in France into a context of liberal Protestantism infused with scientism, the belief that science could explain everything and help solve every human problem. I dare say that this is still the dominant intellectual paradigm. We know it as secular humanism, but Maritain was familiar with it in Comte's "religion of humanity." Nevertheless, Maritain rejected that part of his intellectual inheritance because he came to see it as impoverished. Familiar as he was with the works of Emile Meyerson, Maritain recognized that positivism misrepresented even science itself. "Maritain's life work can be read as a rebuttal of contemporary claims that complex organic forms and the spiritual component of human nature are the result of material forces combining with random mutations, the result of necessity and chance, with no creative intelligence behind them. Cultural shifts, if not an outright hedonism, obviously flow from this line of reasoning." (3) For those of us who have had to make the same transition, or who are in the process of making that transition, Maritain's example becomes instructive.

Maritain married a Jewess, Raissa Oumansoff, and they both converted to Catholicism in 1906. So the question is raised, did (and does) Catholic thought offer a viable alternative to the liberal, Protestant scientism of modernity? The Maritains came to Catholicism while it was still in the process of digesting the revival of St. Thomas endorsed by Leo XIII (Aeterni patris was promulgated in 1879) and the beginning of the articulation of contemporary Catholic Social Thought in Return Novarum (the "Condition of Labor") promulgated by Leo XIII in 1891. The agenda had been set: St. Thomas was recommended in an effort adequately to address the intellectual shortcomings of modernity and the social challenges of the endemic nineteenth century European conflict between capital and labor. …

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