Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


We Americans are embarrassingly eager to be instructed by others and there is ever a fresh supply of visiting pundits, condescending continentals and ideological intelligentsia to supply our need. Nowadays the United Nations has become a running seminar where diplomats from various totalitarian and/or undeveloped societies instruct us in our duties. And we pay for the privilege. I leave it to historians to determine if there has ever been docility such as ours since the beginning of recorded time.

In earlier, more leisurely eras, a book of reminiscences on America was a mandatory addition to a visiting European’s oeuvre – once he was safely home. Mrs. Trollope made a fortune with a book telling of her adventures among the wild Americans during her ill-fated effort to found an emporium in Cincinnati. Dickens’s Notes on America were more gentle, but still critical. He particularly disliked the spitting of tobacco juice. Anthony Trollope and Thackeray – not to mention Oscar Wilde – were more positive. In our own time, the negative British estimate of the United States has been carried on by Graham Greene.

All this by way of preface to some remarks about Jacques Maritain’s reflections on America – those contained in the 1958 book of that title, and those which antedate and follow it. Maritain himself refers to Chateaubriand and Tocqueville and we are at once put in mind of a French tradition in the literary genre referred to whose contributions are of a much more cerebral kind. Book 6 through 8 of Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe tell of Chateaubriand’s youthful visit to these shores and include his charming account of dropping by Washington’s house in Philadelphia and being asked to come back for dinner. His comparison of Washington and Napoleon is striking: Washington, having helped lift his country to independence, died among the universal grief of his compatriots. Napoleon robbed France of independence, died in exile and the posted notice of his death was ignored by passersby. Like Tocqueville, Chateaubriand had come here to see the future and found that it worked. What failed in France, still flourished here. One gifted with a strong historical imagination can visualize the scene that met those friendly, intelligent and aristocratic eyes. America represented a political culture which, whatever its faults, was the future.

It was perfectly fitting that Maritain should cite these predecessors – like theirs, his admiration for this country had profound roots. If democracy is the best political expression of Christianity, as Maritain held, and if democracy has achieved its highest level in the United States, as he also held, his interest had to be as intense as it was.

And yet his love for America surprised him. He had nursed the European prejudices he cites at the beginning of Reflections on America. In Humanisme Intégral (1936), he sketched a political ideal which could only follow on the liquidation of capitalism. The latter book, incidentally, appeared three years after Maritain’s first sight in 1957, a love which hits one “because he is confronted with a moral personality, a moral vocation, something of invaluable dignity, which is spiritual in nature, and which I think, in the last analysis is quickened, in one way or another, by some spark of the Christian spirit and legacy,” there may be some second sight in his rememberance of his first sight. Nonetheless, the way Maritain describes the America to which he responded with love can serve as my text.

Maritain in America

Jacques Maritain’s first visit to North America was in 1933 when he was asked to give a course at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at Toronto. From Toronto, he went to Chicago, where he lectured on “Culture and Liberty” in English, a language he claims he did not then know. Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, John U. Nef – friendships were made on that occasion that lasted a lifetime. Unsuccessful efforts were made to get Jacques an appointment at the University of Chicago, but he returned to give some lectures in the autumn of 1934. The visits to Chicago were repeated in 1938 and in 1940, when Jacques brought with him his wife Raïssa and his sister-in-law Vera Oumansoff. During the early Thirties, Maritain also began his connection with the University of Notre Dame where his friend Yves Simon was to teach before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago. Waldemar Gurian, founder of Notre Dame’s Review of Politics, was involved in arrangements for Maritain’s course on social and political philosophy given in South Bend in 1938. On this occasion, Maritain’s anti-Franco stand called forth some sharp questioning, but this did not prevent the beginning of a long and almost sentimental association. Maritain was present for the opening of the Jacques Maritain Center in 1957 – a photograph of the then ageing philosopher, flanked by Joseph Evans, the first director of the Center, Father Leo R. Ward, C.S.C., and Frank Keegan, commemorates the event – and he actually bequeathed his heart to Notre Dame, but French medical laws prevented this wish from being carried out.

You will see that Maritain’s first encounters with the United States were in the Midwest. Nonetheless. He spoke in New York in 1934 – where, along with academic and cultural notables, he came to know Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement – and he lectured in Washington at the Catholic University of America. Thereafter, on his way to Toronto, as in 1938, he would spend some time in New York. He met the staff of The Commonweal and that was to be another long association; he also met Thomas Merton at this time. They were to be lifelong friends and among the most moving photographs John Howard Griffin took were those of Jacques and Merton in the latter’s hermitage at Gethsemani Trappist Abbey in Kentucky.

In January, 1940, Maritain, his wife and his sister-in-law, sailed from France for what was to be a five-year war time exile in the United States. The Maritains lived in New York and Jacques was involved in the Ecole Libre which was housed in the New School. He continued to lecture at various universities – Columbia, Princeton, Chicago, Notre Dame, Toronto – as well as to give courses at the Ecole Libre. And he wrote. Late in 1944 he made a flying trip to France. The American sojourn ended in 1945 when Maritain was appointed French Ambassador to the Vatican.

Three years later, Maritain was offered and accepted an appointment to Princeton University, where he taught Thomistic moral philosophy for five years, from 1948 to 1952, after which he was given emeritus status. The Maritains continued to live in Princeton until 1960 when Jacques took his dying wife back to France. During this period, Maritain continued to teach and lecture at various universities – the Walgreen lectures at the University of Chicago became Man and the State.

Maritain on America

I do not propose to present the full scope of Maritain’s Reflections on America. For one thing, such a summary would suggest that the book itself is difficult, or large, or in need of some intermediary. It is none of these. It is a short book that speaks with immediacy to the reader, retaining the conversational tone of the three lectures to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago which form the basis of the book. I wish only to draw your attention to one or two items of random curiosity and then to concentrate of what seems to me essential to Maritain’s vision of America.

One who reads this 1958 book some thirty years later will, I think, be struck by the absence of any reference to the atomic bomb or nuclear weapons. It has become fashionable to say that our minds have been haunted by thought of imminent annihilation since 1945. It is nice to have one’s own memories corroborated by this silence in Maritain’s reflections.

One is also struck by an untroubled certainty that democracy is not only the essence of America but that it is as well the future of the globe. These lectures were given during Eisenhower’s second term, Adlai Stevenson is quoted in them, in a few years Kennedy’s inaugural would give eloquent voice to the country’s sense of an international mission. Maritain is clearly at home with this vision. How distant we seem today from that untroubled confidence, forever reading sinister motives in the almost missionary internationalism that then characterized the two national parties.

Again, one is struck by Maritain’s remarks about capitalism. Among Maritain’s first impressions of the country, he notes, was the sense that there is a conflict between the inner logic of capitalism and the people he saw living it. What is that inner logic? “Its inner logic, as I knew it – originally grounded as it was on the principle of the fecundity of money and the absolute primacy of individual profit – was, everywhere in the world, inhuman and materialist.” This was the way he had envisaged capitalism in Integral Humanism. “But by a strange paradox, the people who lived and toiled under this structure or ritual of civilization were keeping their own souls apart from it. At least as regards the essentials, their souls and vital energy, their dreams, their everyday effort, their idealism and generosity, were running against the grain of the inner logic of the superimposed structure. They were freedom-loving and mankind-loving people, people clinging to the importance of ethical standards, anxious to save the world, the most humane and the least materialist among modern peoples which had reached the industrial stage.” He returned to this in his sixth chapter, “The Old Tag of American Materialism,” in which he develops at some length his conviction that we are not a materialist nation. Americans may be middle-class, but they are not bourgeois, not stingy, avaricious, narrowly possessive.

Well, all that makes pretty bracing reading, and it leads to what I regard as central to Maritain’s notion of what America is. If we are not materialist, are we spiritual? Not only are we that, Maritain maintained that there is in this country a great thirst for, a great potential for – contemplation. He mentions the popularity of the writings of Thomas Merton. He cites his own judgment of 1938 that a small but effective turn to contemplative activity will gradually “modify the general scheme of values.” Characteristically, Maritain illustrates what he means by invoking American literature. “Let me only add that from Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter to Look Homeward, Angel and Requiem for a Nun – from Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson to Hart Crane, Allan Tate and T. S. Eliot (who has remained an American in spite of himself) – American literature, in its most objectively careful scrutinies, has been preoccupied with the beyond and the nameless which haunt our blood. Man, as it sees him, is a restless being gropingly, sometimes miserably, at grips with his fleshly condition – whom obviously no kind of materialist paradise can ever satisfy.”

These last remarks occur in a section late in Reflections in which Maritain makes explicit reference to the views he had expressed in Integral Humanism. There he had put forth an ideal of society as personalist, communitarian and pluralist. That society would be, not a sacral, but a secular one. What then of religion in America? In what way can the United States manifest the following notion? “One of the main themes in Humanisme Inteégral is the notion of a temporal civilization which is not ‘sacral’, but secular in nature, and in which men belonging to diverse spiritual lineages work together for the terrestrial common good, but which, for all that, is a civilization religiously inspired and vitally Christian in its concrete behavior and morality as a social body.” Maritain quotes an article by Peter Drucker in The Review of Politics (July, 1956) entitled “Organized Religion and the American Creed.” Speaking of the “establishment clause” in the First Amendment, Drucker takes it to mean that the state must neither support nor favor any one religious denomination. “But at the same time the state must always sponsor, protect, and favor religious life in general. The United States is indeed a ‘secular’ state as far as any one denomination is concerned. But it is at the same time a ‘religious’ commonwealth as concerns the general belief in the necessity of a truly religious basis of citizenship.” By citing this, Maritain accepts it as a gloss on what he means by a secular as opposed to a sacral society. Moreover, he quotes the following description of the Constitution from Man and the State: “It can be described as an outstanding lay Christian document tinged with the philosophy of the day. The spirit and inspiration of this great political Christian document is basically repugnant to the idea of making human society stand aloof from God and from any religious faith. Thanksgiving and public prayer, the invocation of the name of God at the occasion of any major official gathering, are, in the practical behavior of the nation, a token of this same spirit and inspiration.” He sees the thought of the founding Fathers, “their philosophy of life and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights” permeated with concepts “worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakable religious feeling.”

What strange reading these thoughtful remarks make just thirty years after they were spoken. I propose to reflect on them in the light of recent national experience.

The Wider Context

The student of Maritain will realize that these reflections on American repose on a vast amount of writing about religion and politics in the modern state. One can speak without exaggeration of Maritain’s political philosophy but then one can speak of his aesthetics, his philosophy of history and of science, his metaphysics, his account of contemplation. Maritain is a philosopher in the grand manner, of the old school; he is a systematic philosopher, not in the sense of professing a seamless whole closed in upon itself where every question has its answer. He is a Thomist, a student of St. Thomas from the time of his conversion. This inspiration – Vae mihi si non thomistizavero, he has exclaimed – opened his mind to the full range of practical and theoretical questions and his published work makes it clear that he considered no part of knowledge and culture alien to him. Now, the importance of this for understanding his political views is clear. His ultimate perspective will be, if not overtly theological, then metaphysical, and by that I mean theistic.

For the Thomist, man acts for an end because he is part of a teleological cosmos. Purpose is not confined to the human realm but permeates the natural world as well. This by contrast to discussion of morals and politics which assume that the natural world – and this includes the human body – is the realm of necessity, pushed from behind, not tugged forward by a goal, whereas man with his projects is superimposed on this inert background. How can freedom blend with such necessity? For Maritain, the world and man have destinies, from God they come, to God they go. If this is the case, then an atheistic account must be wrong.

It will be seen that this is almost precisely the opposite outlook from that which seems dominant now. The current working assumption is that our view of man and society must be godless, at most neutral toward theism, in practice antagonistic to it. The citizen who thinks his religious beliefs are relevant to political action is regarded as a menace, one who would impose his private beliefs – false, of course – on his fellows. If he would function in civil society, he must become for the nonce an agnostic, a believer for whom his religious beliefs are irrelevant. Is not this the prominent understanding of the separation of Church and State, so much so that it is espoused and preached by Catholic politicians? Is this not why we find it almost quaint for Maritain, and Peter Drucker, to say that while the state must espouse no one denomination, it must promote religion? From the latter day point of view, Maritain’s vision of the secular state looked decidedly sacral.

Democracy as a Faith

One of the most astonishing aspects of Maritain’s political theory is the use to which he puts the Augustinian distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. What he calls a sacral society is a state of political community which smudges the difference between the two cities. This fusion was possible in times when there was a religious faith common to all citizens, but in modern times, where a diversity of faiths and indeed the presence of atheists within the political community are commonplace, such a sacral approach is no longer possible.

It must not be thought the Maritain regards the gradual separation of the spiritual and temporal as a declension, as a failure of Christianity. Au contraire. or at least, not quite. This separation is a result of a “process which was in itself but a development of the gospel distinction between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s – the civil society has become grounded on a common good and a common task which are of an earthly, ‘temporal’ or ‘secular’ order, and in which citizens belonging to diverse spiritual groups or lineages share equally. Religious division among men is in itself a misfortune. But it is a fact that we must willy-nilly recognize.” In the temporal order, however, democracy can play a role analogous to that faith plays in the religious realm. Maritain does not hesitate to speak of “the democratic secular faith.” “A genuine democracy implies a fundamental agreement between minds and wills on the bases of life in common; it is aware of itself and of its principles, and it must be capable of defending and promoting its own conception of social and political life; it must bear within itself a common human creed, the creed of freedom.” He contrasts this with bourgeois liberal democracy of the 19th century that imagined that it could accommodate conceptions inimical to its own foundations, that it could be “neutral even with regard to freedom.” It lacked a common good, it had no real common thought, it produced a society with no common faith. “The faith in question is a civic or secular faith, not a religious one.” Not only is this faith not a rival to religious faith, according to Maritain, the more lively the religious faith, the more deeply would the secular faith in the democratic charter be adhered to. The reason for this is simply that democracy itself has sprung from a Christian inspiration It is a political expression of the Gospel.

Maritain is not through with the analogy. If faith, then heretics. There are, he says, political heretics who work to destroy the bases of common life, which bases are freedom and the practical secular faith expressed in the democratic charter.

I draw attention to these few facets of Chapter V of Man and the State because they are clearly what underpins Maritain’s views toward this country in Reflections on America. Those few remarks at the end of the latter work which suggest that, much to Maritain’s own surprise, the United States is close to the ideal he sketched in Humanisme Integral, are seriously meant.

Here is a sort of sorites expressing Maritain’s outlook:

Maritain was a Roman Catholic with an unshakeable faith in the truth of Christianity.

If Christianity is true, then what it says of man and human destiny is also true.

The freedom and dignity of the person are central to the faith and these tenets have fostered a gradual evolution of political thought and institutions in the direction of democracy.

But democratic faith in free cooperation need not be grounded on Christian faith – the very Christian distinction between God and Caesar asserts this.

That is why, despite the talk of the democratic faith and political heretics, Maritain considers the democratic charter to be productive of secular rather than a sacral society.

Moreover, despite the conflicting justifications that may be offered for the democratic charter – the democratic faith is, he holds, a matter of practical rather than theoretical agreement – there is a sense in which this does not matter. There is implicitly present in this faith its true foundation, no matter the false theories that might be constructed.

The secular foundation of the democratic faith is natural law.

In that sequence, we have, I believe, the nub of Maritain’s thought about democracy. And, of course, the retort will be that Natural Law is every bit as problematical to the “modern mind” as Christian faith.

The Rights of Man

What prepared Maritain’s position on the democratic faith and its true foundation was his reflections on the notion of universal human rights. Chapter IV of Man and the State both recalls and completes his thoughts on this subject, and the lengthy title of the opening section is a statement of his fundamental thesis: Men mutually opposed in their theoretical conceptions can come to a merely practical agreement regarding a list of human rights. Maritain had before him not only the 18th century universal declaration of human rights but also the International Declaration on Human Rights published by the United Nations in 1948. Indeed, he had been his country’s delegate to the UNESCO meeting in Mexico City that fashioned this document. How was agreement on such a list possible between governments and societies of such divided ideas on man?

There is, of course, a cynical reply to that. Nor must we think Maritain is naïve. Later in Man and the State, discussing world government, he notes that his basic Aristotelianism makes him wary of such a concept. It should also dictate wariness about international declarations on human rights. It will be noticed that Maritain insists that the agreement is not an agreement on the basis of those rights. “Yet it would be quite futile to look for a common rational justification of these practical conclusions and these rights.” Nonetheless, rational justifications are necessary, indispensable, even though they are powerless to create agreement among men. “As long as there is no unity of faith or unity of philosophy in the minds of men, the interpretations and justifications will be in mutual conflict.” The agreement, he maintains, is practical, even pragmatic, rather than theoretical.

Now Maritain holds that there is one true theoretical or philosophical foundation of human rights and that others are false or woefully inadequate. He thinks others have a theoretical or philosophical foundation and that, if it is in conflict with his own, it is false. Yet, from a practical point of view, this does not matter.

Surely this is a curious position, and if this were all there is to it, the obvious retort would be that the agreement Maritain speaks of is at most verbal. If “freedom of expression” or “freedom to emigrate” mean quite different things in different societies, what is the value of “agreeing” on freedom of expression and freedom to emigrate? Unless Maritain can maintain that in some fundamental sense those who disagree are in agreement – and not merely what he calls practical agreement – his position must seem cynical. But of course Natural Law is a justification which includes the claim that everyone has the wherewithal right now to see the truth of that justification. This is the point of introducing here his distinction between the ontological natural law and the gnoseological natural law, the former being the real basis for the latter recognition.

Natural Law theory maintains that even those who reject it are accepting it, at least to some degree, and the degree to which they accept it is the seed of theoretical and not merely practical agreement. The ontological natural law is therefore the implicit and often unrecognized basis for the kind of practical agreement Maritain speaks of, and it can ground a theoretical agreement as well when the ground (the ontolotical) is known (the gnoseological). As St. Thomas insisted, it is very much like saying that one who denies the principle of contradiction must invoke it; so too, one who denies the precepts of natural law nonetheless implicitly honors them.


Jacques Maritain joins a long list of Frenchmen who saw beneath the surface roughness of this country, beneath its flaws and imperfections, a universal human ideal realized. When his earlier more or less standard anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism evaporated because of a lengthy sojourn here, he did not need to concoct a new theory to explain his affection and respect for the United States. Rather, it seemed to him that though he had not suspected it before, this country best exemplified a democratic ideal he had been trying to formulate earlier. His experience here did not generate a new theory. Rather familiarity with America led him to think that we met the specifications of a theory he had already formed. This is not said to diminish the very real love he felt for America. Who has not felt that his beloved assumes a waiting role even as she shapes and alters it?

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