About Jacques Maritain
Jacques Maritain was born to Geneviève Favre and Paul Maritain on November 18, 1882, on the rue Moncey in northwest Paris. Through his mother, he belonged to the distinguished Favre family, which counts among its members St. Peter Faber (Pierre Favre), co-founder of the Society of Jesus alongside Sts. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, and Jules Favre, republican statesman, member of the Académie Française, and Maritain’s own grandfather. Despite their esteemed heritage (or perhaps partially owing to it), Jacques and his sister Jeanne experienced a turbulent childhood. Weeks after Jacques’ birth, his parents legally divorced, after which time the young Maritain siblings were raised by their mother. Though financially supported through a sizeable inheritance and Geneviève’s work as a translator, the family was frequently subjected to changing residences and social circumstances, such that Jacques experienced no lasting home in his early years.
With his grandfather having embraced Protestantism and his mother forswearing any religious affiliation in the decade before his birth, Maritain was raised in a freethinking, liberal milieu, under whose auspices he was inculcated to pursue a rigorous education and cherish the life of the mind. His close friendship with Ernest Psichari, grandson of historian and biblical critic Ernest Renan, fortified young Jacques’ esteem for freedom of thought and erudition.
As he entered his adolescence, Maritain also grew attentive to injustices suffered by the working classes and nourished hopes for political reform to lessen their plight. During these years, Maritain swung between a bright-eyed political activism under the tutelage of Jean Jaurès and Charles Péguy and a world-weary aestheticism that dreamed of escaping the austere intellectualism of his daily environs. It was in this context, as the winter of 1900 gave way to the spring of 1901, that Maritain met Raïssa Oumançoff, with whom he quickly found a deep spiritual affinity.
Raïssa, an emigrée from Russia, was born into an Hasidic Jewish family on September 12, 1883 in Rostov-on-Don. Moving with her family to Mariupol two years later, Raïssa came to show great intellectual promise in her early schooling but faced an uncertain future given discriminatory laws limiting the educational opportunities for Jewish students. Esteeming the education of Raïssa and her younger sister Vera above all else, Raïssa’s parents decided to leave their homeland and settled in Paris in 1893.
A Shared Venture
Jacques and Raïssa recognized in each other the same deep thirst for truth, as Raïssa later recalled:
“Together we had to rethink the entire universe, the meaning of life, the fate of man, justice and injustice in societies. We had to read the poets and contemporary novelists, attend classical concerts, study paintings in the museums … Time was passing by too rapidly and we could not waste it on life’s banalities.” —Les Grandes Amitiés (We Have Been Friends Together)
Following on the heels of this great desire for intellectual fulfillment was a sense of disquiet concerning the materialistic positivism that formed the academic consensus of their day. In such a milieu, the undertaking of philosophy as the search for wisdom was barred from the outset. Immersed in these intellectual currents, Jacques and Raïssa had become convinced of the cold reality of materialism, against their best hopes. Faced with the eventuality of an absurd existence, the young couple set themselves an ultimatum: either they would come upon a truth that could give meaning to the universe or they would take their lives while yet in the blossom of youth.
At the behest of Charles Péguy, Jacques and Raïssa began attending the lectures of Henri Bergson at the Collège de France. They soon found a salve to their incipient despair in his dynamic philosophy which valorized the power of intuition over rigid concepts and the innate sympathy between self and world over the scientism regnant in the academy.
Having been initiated by Bergson into a philosophy that quenched their anguished thirst for meaning, Jacques and Raïssa received a new warrant for life. Dedicating themselves to the cultivation of a perfect love, they married on November 26, 1904. Jacques’ marriage to Raïssa soon estranged him from his mother, who nourished ambitions for her son increasingly at odds with his own.
Entrance into the Church
Not long after, however, Jacques and Raïssa came under the spiritual guardianship of one who could hardly differ more from Geneviève Favre. Jacques and Raïssa first came to learn of the Catholic writer Leon Bloy through the reading of his novel La Femme Pauvre (The Woman Who was Poor), in which they discovered, “the immensity of his believing soul, his burning zeal for justice, the beauty of a lofty doctrine which for the very first time rose up before our eyes” (Quelques pages sur Leon Bloy). Above all they were inspired by Bloy’s exhortation, “There is only one sadness, not to be saints.” As they drew nearer to Bloy, Jacques and Raïssa were inspired by his embrace of poverty, his devotion, and his fiery advocacy on behalf of the suffering.
Slowly the Maritains found themselves drawn also to the Church which, as Bloy intimated to them, revealed the meaning of human history in the mystery of salvation. With Bloy as their godfather, Jacques and Raïssa were baptized on June 11, 1906, together with Raïssa’s younger sister Vera. In the following years, the Maritains kindled an apostolic zeal characteristic of neophytes, instituting a daily regimen of study and prayer and seeking the conversion of their closest friends. Having undertaken to live their newfound Christian faith with a childlike earnestness, Jacques and Raïssa dismayed and confused many of those closest to them, for whom the act of faith appeared nothing more than a sacrifice of the intellect. The young couple too had initially imagined that their entrance into the Church would entail the renunciation of philosophy, and were thus astonished when they were introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas by their spiritual director, the Dominican Father Humbert Clérissac. It was Raïssa who first immersed herself in the thought of the Angelic Doctor. Jacques, following in her footsteps, engaged in the difficult task of weighing Aquinas’ thought against that of Henri Bergson, his previous master in philosophy.
Passing a number of years engaged in the secluded work of editing, Maritain reentered the public stage of the academy in 1912, teaching philosophy at the Collège Stanislas. First in his lectures, then in his publication of La Philosophie Bergsonienne (English: Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism), Maritain announced his decisive break with Bergson's philosophy in favor of Thomism, joining to his philosophical critique the resentment of a student sorely misled. With this public avowal of his intellectual conversion, Maritain also resituated himself in the social landscape of turn-of-the-century France. While the Third Republic was executing the separation of Church and State as of 1905 and inaugurating a policy of laïcité, the Church sought both to reassert its claims in the country and quell the modernist tide jeopardizing its articulation of doctrine. Maritain’s disavowal of Bergson’s philosophy came shortly after the listing of Bergson on the Index of Forbidden Books and coincided with his growing participation in the political movement Action française.
When the Great War broke out in August 1914, the Maritains did not share in the spirit of unknowing excitement that gripped much of the country. In the first months of war, Jacques lost his two closest friends, Ernest Psichari and Charles Péguy. The war years would also bring the deaths of Fr. Clérissac, the Maritains' spiritual director, and their godfather Leon Bloy. Initially exempted from service for reasons of health, Jacques took up a teaching position at the Institut Catholique de Paris during the war years. Only in 1916 was he eventually called to serve in an artillery regiment in 1917.
If Maritain's development as a Catholic thinker before the outbreak of war entailed a harsh repudiation of his secular milieu, his activity in the years following can be described as a reintegration of these spheres by attending to the meaning of art. Throughout the years, Jacques and Raïssa had never given up their love for literature, music, the performing and visual arts, and their home often served as a gathering place for young artists of Paris. In his Art et Scolastique (English: Art and Scholasticism), published in 1920, Jacques sketched a theory of the fine arts from Thomist principles while engaging with the artistic currents defining his own day. In the same breath, Maritain would mention Aquinas and Baudelaire, Aristotle and Stravinsky, finding the modern artists to embody and advance the principles found rough-hewn in the Stagirite philosopher and his medieval heir.
In this first attempt to bring Thomist philosophy to bear on the issues of contemporary society, Maritain struck out upon a path that he would follow througout the rest of his career. While Maritain remained largely critical of modern philosophy in works such as Antimoderne, Théonas, andThree Reformers : Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, he found much to praise in modern art and recognized the seeds of a more humane politics at hand in his generation. A passage from Maritain's published letter to the artist Jean Cocteau (1926) represents well Maritain's resolve to develop a constructive rather than critical vision:
"Our business is to find the positive in all things; to use what is true less to strike than to cure. There is so little love in the world; men's hearts are so cold, so frozen, even in people who are right — the only ones who could help the others. One must have a hard mind and a meek heart."
In the 1920's Maritain's work continued to find a receptive audience in the members of Action française, which under the direction of Charles Maurras came to represent France's aspirations for a royalist, integralist government . The movement garnered the support of many Catholics, both lay and clergy, who witnessed the Church suffer under the anticlericalism of the Third Republic, even while its leader Maurras was an agnostic who valued the Church primarily in social and political terms. Increasingly alarmed by this confusion of ends at the heart of the movement, Pope Pius IX condemned Action française in 1926. This papal condemnation vexed many Catholic members of the movement, including literary figures such as Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. Maritain, however, quickly came to the defense of Pius IX's decision. Seeking to reorient the political energies of Catholics away from Maurras' nationalist integralism, Maritain wrote Primauté du Spirituel in 1927 (English: The Things That are Not Caesar's).
In the years that followed, the Maritains continued to welcome an eclectic crew of priests and artists, academics and tradesmen, to study the Common Doctor during the Thomist Study Circles held at their home in Meudon. Among the more influential participants in the circle were the Dominican Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who served as a director and retreat-master for the group, and Father Charles Journet, who would establish the theological journal Nova et Vetera with Maritain in 1926.
In 1932 Jacques published his masterpiece of epistemology, Distinguer pour unir ou Les degrés du savoir (English:The Degrees of Knowledge), in which he gives a critical-realist account of human knowledge in its different modes, considering in turn the natural sciences, philosophical speculation, revelation, and mystical experience. It remains among Maritain's most well-regarded works, illustrative of the expanse of topics upon which he exercised his mind.
Integral Humanism in a World at War
In 1936, Maritain published Humanisme Intégral (Integral Humanism), which advocated for a spiritually rich understanding of the human being that had been lost in modern humanism. Here too he called for a New Christendom at once faithful to its divine calling and attentive to its role in a pluralistic society. Appraising the present situation, Maritain feared that Catholics would simply coalesce into a bloc within one or another ascendant political ideology. This fear was realized in the Spanish Civil War, where republican and nationalist factions pushed violent conflict into every corner of civil society. Maritain, working with his one-time student Yves R. Simon, marshalled humanitarian support for refugees entering France and aimed to quell the charge issuing from both factions that only one side was to blame for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in war.
In the late 1930s Maritain also devoted himself to advocacy on behalf of Jews, amidst increasing waves of discrimination and violence across Europe. An outspoken Dreyfussard in his youth, Maritain had long been sensitive to antisemitism in and beyond France, something that was only heightened by his marriage to Raïssa. In works such as Les Juifs parmi les nations (English: Antisemitism), Maritain endeavored to draw attention to the plight of European Jews and reflect theologically on Jewish-Christian relations.
After the Second World War engulfed Europe in 1939, the French government considered the Maritains to be in particular danger and arranged for Jacques, Raïssa, and Vera to take refuge in the United States. Over the course of the previous decade Maritain had already toured the U.S. and Canada multiple times at the invitation of Étienne Gilson, who had settled in Toronto and helped to found what would become the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in 1929. Maritain thus arrived in the U.S. with a wealth of professional contacts at the Universities of Chicago, Notre Dame, Columbia, Princeton, and Toronto. Nevertheless, when they took up residence on Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City, Jacques, Raïssa, and Vera found themselves strangers in a strange land, whose exile was all the more mournful when France succumbed to German control in July 1940. At France's surrender, Maritain quickly set about arranging emergency visas for those whom he knew to be in great danger on the European continent, among them the philosopher Jean Wahl and painter Marc Chagall. Maritain was an outspoken critic of Vichy France, but he retained doubts about the counter-government that developed around General Charles de Gaulle in the following years, putting him in a straitened position both with supporters of de Gaulle (such as Yves R. Simon) and supporters of the Vichy government (such as Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange).
In addition to assuming temporary positions at the aforementioned universities, Maritain also helped to found the École libre des Hautes Études in New York, around which congregated many French intellectuals who had been exiled to the U.S. during wartime. Despite General de Gaulle's best efforts to rally Maritain to his side in London, Maritain felt called to remain in the U.S. throughout the war, where he could pursue his intellectual projects on the human person in society and speak freely on behalf of France without being subordinated to a political enterprise about which he remained uncertain. Maritain's most significant works of the period, including Les Droits de l'Homme et la Loi naturelle (English: The Rights of Man and Natural Law) and Christianisme et démocratie (English: Christianity and Democracy) built upon his idea of integral humanism and sought to lay a groundwork for social cooperation at the end of the war.
Shortly after the Allies liberated France in 1944, the Maritains voyaged back to their home country. There, in addition to visiting their many acquaintances in Paris, the couple was welcomed by the Grunelius family to their manor in the Alsatian village of Kolbsheim, a place to which they would return often in subsequent trips to France. Despite his somewhat tenuous relationship with General de Gaulle and Free France during the war, Maritain was appointed the French ambassador to the Vatican from 1945 to 1948, during which time he worked closely, if not always amicably, with Angelo Roncalli, apostolic nuncio to France and future Pope John XXIII. In 1947, Maritain was also selected to represent France at the UNESCO General Conference's second session in Mexico City. Maritain's extensive theorizing about human rights and the political order proved influential at the drafting of the United Nation's Declaration of Human Rights one year later, which Maritain himself hailed as, "the preface to a moral charter of the civilized world."
A Parisian in America
After these appointments, however, Maritain elected to return not to France but the United States, where he accepted a professorship at Princeton and regularly visited Notre Dame and the University of Chicago as a lecturer. Maritain's main works of the period were written in response to the main struggles facing the world after the war. In the midst of civil reorganization according to one or another political ideology, Maritain wrote La personne et le bien commun (English: The Person and the Common Good) and Man and the State (originally delivered as the 1951 Walgreen Lecture at the University of Chicago). With an eye towards the ascendant atheist existentialist philosophy, Maritain wrote his Court traité de l’existence et de l’existant (English: Existence and the Existent) and La signification de l’athéisme contemporain. At the same time, he continued writing in the field where he first met great success, namely, philosophy of art. Representative works from the period include Creative Intuition in Art and History andThe Responsibility of the Artist.
Although Maritain struggled to be welcomed fully into any philosophy faculty, his works found a receptive audience in the American public, and he quickly assumed a role as public intellectual within the country. One of Maritain's most significant American interlocutors was Mortimer J. Adler, who had long aimed to present Aristotelian and Thomist philosophy as an intellectual resource for the American public. Maritain also developed close working relationships with John U. Nef, founder of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Gerald B. Phelan, director of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies and founder of the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame, and Joseph W. Evans, who would found the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame in 1958.
Beyond the academy, Maritain also grew to value the vibrancy and dynamism of American society, appreciating especially the country's ripeness for community activism and social change. He saw these instantiated by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Saul Alinsky, whose correspondence with Maritain has been published as The Philosopher and the Provocateur, edited by Bernard Doering. The positive reception of Maritain's own political reflections among American Catholics was a key factor in their integration into the country's civic life.
The Long Retreat
The end of the 1950's brought with it a number of tragedies. In 1959, Raïssa's sister Vera, who had continued living with the Maritains throughout the years, died of bone cancer, with Jacques and Raïssa at her side. One year later during a summer trip to France, Raïssa, who had already been chronically ill at the beginning of her married life with Jacques, worsened in her condition and died in Paris on November 4. Jacques, left without his dear wife and their closest companion, found himself all the more estranged from the world, from which he had already forsworn any lasting home. Over the next decade, Maritain lived primarily in Toulouse with the Little Brothers of Jesus, founded by the missionary hermit Charles de Foucauld. He also regularly returned to the Grunelius' home in Kolbsheim, which had become a sort of second home for him. In his own eyes, Maritain viewed these last years of his life as a long retreat in preparation for death.
Even so, Maritain would continue to exercise significant influence from his reclusive position, now upon the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council. Opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, the Council sought to attend to the particular needs of the modern world through a process of aggiornamento. At John XXIII's death in 1963, the Council continued under the papacy of Paul VI, a deep admirer of Maritain's thought who personally consulted the French philosopher a number of times throughout the Council. At the Council's conclusion in 1965, Paul VI presented to Maritain his "Message to Men of Thought and Science," one of seven addresses to different groups throughout the world.
In 1966 Maritain would travel to the United States one final time, accompanied by his close friend, journalist and photographer John Howard Griffin. After visiting colleagues at Princeton, Maritain trekked to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to meet with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose own writings were greatly influenced by Maritain's philosophy.
Also in 1966, Maritain published his Le paysan de la Garonne (English: The Peasant of the Garonne), in which he freely assessed the Church' situation in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Inciting strong reactions from every corner, Maritain's trenchant criticism of different currents which he viewed as threats to the Church hearkened back to his polemical works written shortly after conversion. Thereafter, he devoted himself to properly theological topics, publishing De la grâce et de l'humanité de Jésus (English: On the Grace and Humanity of Christ) and De l'Église du Christ (English: On the Church of Christ).
Out of regard for his extensive contributions to Catholic thought and the development of the Church in the twentieth century, Pope Paul VI endeavored to bestow the title of cardinal upon Maritain in 1968. Although Maritain declined the Pope's honorary gesture, he remained (together with Fr. Charles Journet, incardinated in 1965) a counselor of Paul VI in the final years of his life. In 1970, Maritain bound himself permanently to a life of prayer and contemplation, taking the habit of the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse. It was there that he spent the final three years of his life. Dying on April 28, 1973, Maritain was buried beside his beloved Raïssa in Kolbsheim.
Together with Pope John Paul II, Maritain is counted as the greatest Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. Beyond leading Thomism's revival and transformation in the first half of the century, Maritain proved to be a singular influence on the development of Christian Democratic movements in Europe as well as North and South America. He also made signal contributions to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Second Vatican Council. In each of these, Maritain showed forth both the incisiveness of a philosophical mind, "seeking such certitude in each thing as the nature of that thing allows," (Aristotle, NE Bk. 1, 1094b24) and the ardent faith of a Christian, "taking every thought captive to obey Christ" (II Cor 10:5).
Christopher Enabnit is project coordinator at the Jacques Maritain Center.
Originally published November 15, 2023.