Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


The title of this chapter is meant to recall a famous controversy of some forty years ago that involved Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, I. Thomas Eschmann, O.P., and Charles DeKoninck. Three of these men were connected with the University of Notre Dame. Jacques Maritain regularly lectured here and in 1957 was present at the inauguration of the Jacques Maritain Center. Yves Simon was a professor in the philosophy department before going to the University of Chicago – though he never left South Bend – and Charles DeKoninck in the late 50’s and early 60’s divided his academic year between Laval University in Quebec and Notre Dame. I shall approach the doctrine of the common good by way of a review of some aspects of the controversy involving these men.

They were all Thomists. That is, having taken note of the Church’s naming of St. Thomas Aquinas as, in a special way, the guide and patron of Catholic intellectual life, they devoted themselves to the study of his work, not as historians, not as antiquarians, but as seekers after truths that travel, truths that while encountered in a medieval setting could, with appropriate and linguistic adjustments, be made to speak to modern man and his problems.

Maritain once wrote, “Vae mihi si non thomistizavero.” “Woe is me if I should cease to be a Thomist” and DeKoninck wrote, “I hope so to understand Saint Thomas as to remain always a disciple who trusts his master.” Well, the French express themselves in dramatic ways, and the Flemish too, but let no one imagine that these statements express a policy of intellectual servitude or dogmatism. Neither man held any position because St. Thomas held it.

I mention this to suggest the ambience in which the best Catholic intellectual work has been done. Within a tradition, certainly, but interpreting, expanding and developing that tradition. “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot’s essay dealing with the way in which a poet both belongs to and alters the tradition in which he writes, makes a point both Maritain and DeKoninck would accept wholeheartedly. That a sympathetic reading of common sources does not produce identical understandings is clear from the dispute that arose over Maritain’s effort to develop a Catholic, even Thomistic, personalism.

The most pertinent books by Maritain are Three Reformers, published in Paris in 1925; Du régime temporal et la liberté, Paris, 1933; Humanisme Intégral, Paris, 1936; Scholasticism and Politics, New York, 1939; Les droits de l’homme et la loi naturelle, Paris, 1947; La personne et le bien commun, Paris, 1947.

Individual and Person

Maritain’s efforts to develop a personalism were intended to provide an alternative to what he did not shrink from calling the divinization of the individual in modern thought and practice which had led to a divinization of the state. In “La conquête de la liberté,” Principes d’une politique humaniste, New York, 1944. Maritain wrote of the false political emancipation and false conception of human rights which derive from the anthropocentrism of Rousseau and Kant based on the autonomy of the human person. One is free if he obeys only himself. Maritain cited three political and social consequences of this divinization of the individual: (1) a practical atheism in society, since God appears as a threat to the autonomy of the individual; (2) the theoretical and practical disappearance of the idea of the common good; (3) the theoretical and practical disappearance of the idea of authority. The notion of the Mass Man and of a leader who is an inhuman monster follow. Bourgeois liberalism thus paves the way for revolutionary totalitarianism.

This is stern stuff. Maritain is asserting that the political horrors of this century are a consequence of a false understanding of person and society and that they can only be effectively combated with a true understanding. Here is Maritain’s summary statement of that true alternative.

True political emancipation, on the contrary, or the true city of human rights, takes for its principle a conception of the autonomy of the person in conformity with the nature of things and thus theocentric. Given this, obedience in the service of justice is not opposed to liberty, but is rather the normal way to achieve it. Man must progressively achieve a liberty which in the social and political order chiefly consists in his becoming as independent as given historical conditions permit of the constraints of material nature. In short, the human person inasmuch as he is made for God and to participate in absolute goods, transcends the earthly society of which he is a member, yet insofar as he is what he is thanks to that society, he is part of society as of a larger and better whole. ibid., p. 30

A theocentric view, one that sees man as part of society but also as ordered to absolute goods, provides a sounder conception of man as citizen of the earthly and heavenly cities. The essay from which I quote was published in 1944, but the thoughts expressed were already familiar ones in Maritain’s writings. In Scholasticism and Politics, citing a distinction between individuality and personality, Maritain insists that the "humanism of the individual and democracy of the individual in which the twentieth century had placed its hopes, must be replaced today – if we want to save civilization – by humanism of the person and democracy of the person." Scholasticism and Politics, p. 56 That distinction between individual and person is already present in the essay on Luther in Three Reformers in 1925 and in Du régime temporal et liberté in 1933, in Humanisme Intégral in 1936, as well as in Les droits de l’homme et la loi naturelle in 1942. But, if it was already a distinction prominent in his writings, it was now put to a crucial use.

Any student of Jacques Maritain’s writings will know that ideas that appear early in his thought and continue to be used throughout his long career often undergo development over time, becoming clearer and more subtle. But sometimes in later writings Maritain will simply take over whole passages from earlier works, indicating satisfaction with the earlier statement. Sometimes, however, an idea will wax and wane as far as clarity goes and then it seems a good principle of interpretation to let passages comment on one another without exclusive regard for chronology. In the case of Maritain’s distinction in man between individual and person, which has such a long career in his writings, we have an instance of the third kind. It is not always the later expressions which are the clearest and there are certainly some statements of the contrast which invite criticism.

The contrast between individual and person is used for a variety of purposes, but an abiding note is that it will help us avoid an anthropocentric humanism or personalism, one that is effectively atheist, and to embrace in its stead a theocentic humanism or personalism. The social and political consequence of the contrast is that man is a part of civil society as individual, but as person transcends that common good.

Furthermore, man as individual relates to material goods, but as person he relates to spiritual goods. Pascal said “the ego is hateful” whereas Thomas held that the person is that which is noblest in the whole of nature. “It is this material pole, and the individual becoming the center of all things, that the words of Pascal aim at. And it is on the contrary with the spiritual pole, and with the person, source of freedom and of goodness, that the words of St. Thomas are concerned.

The individuality of things is rooted in matter, matter sets off thing from thing; it is an appetite for what benefits the individual as such. “In so far as we are individuals, each of us is a fragment of a species, a part of this universe, a single dot in the immense network of forces and influences, cosmic, ethnic, historic, whose laws we obey. We are subject to the determinism of the physical world. But each man is also a person and, in so far as he is a person, he is not subject to the stars and the atoms; for he subsists entirely with the very subsistence of his spiritual soul, and the latter is in him a principle of creative unity, of independence and of freedom” ibid p. 58

Since Maritain works with the definition of person that had been bequeathed to the Scholastics by Boethius – a person is an individual substance of a rational nature; that is, a person is a kind of individual – the contrast he wants to draw presents difficulties. It is not simply a matter of distinguishing those individuals who are persons from those who are not – men from monkeys, say – but rather two ways of looking at man.

The contrast is not meant to point to two distinct things – man as individual, man as person – so much as to draw a moral contrast. Man as individual is grasping, acquisitive, egocentric; man as person is open to the spiritual. Maritain quotes with approval this passage from Garrigou-Lagrange: “Man will be fully a person, a per se subsistens and a per se operans, only in so far as the life of reason and liberty dominates that of the senses and passions in him; otherwise he will remain like the animal, a simple individual, the slave of events and circumstances, always led by something else, incapable of guiding himself; he will be only a part, without being able to aspire to the whole” Three Reformers, p. 24 To be an individual thus appears to be a morally defective state for which one is responsible, and to be a person a morally praiseworthy condition.

It is this that renders other passages which make social and political applications hard to understand. “Thus the individual in each of us, taken as an individual member of the city, exists for his city and ought at need to sacrifice his life for it, as for instance in a just war. But taken as a person whose destiny is God, the city exists for him, to wit, for the advancement of the moral and spiritual life and the heaping up of divine goods.” Ibid. p. 22 Here what pertains to man as individual and what pertains to him as person seem fixed and more or less definitional.

But what is puzzling about Maritain’s position is that he seems to hold that man is both subordinate to the common good and that he transcends it. Consider the following from Three Reformers.

On the contrary, according to the principles of St. Thomas, it is because he is first an individual of a species that man, having need of the help of his fellows to perfect his specific activity, is consequently an individual of the city, a member of society. And on this count he is subordinated to the good of his city as to the good of the whole, the common good which as such is more divine and therefore better deserving the love of each than his very own life. But if it is a question of the destiny which belongs to man as a person, the relationship is inverse, and it is the human city which is subordinate to his destiny. If every human person is made directly, as to his first and proper good, for God, Who is his ultimate end, and ‘the distinct common good’ of the entire universe, he ought not therefore, on this count, in accordance with the law of charity, to prefer anything to himself save God. So much so that according as personality is realized in any being, to that extent does it become an independent whole and not a part (whatever be its ties on other grounds). ibid.

A puzzling position. Human development seems portrayed as a matter of escaping the net of society and its demands and relating oneself to spiritual goods, preeminently to God, with the result that only God can be preferred to oneself.

The Controversy

The difficulties and complexities of Maritain’s contrast of individual and person with its implications for the common good invited criticism. And, in 1943, that criticism came in the form of a small book, Charles DeKoninck’s De la primauté du bien commun, published in Quebec. The nub of the book had already been presented to L’Académie Canadienne Saint-Thomas d’Aquin in October, 1942, as “La notion du bien commun,” but the issue of the proceedings in which it appeared was not published until 1945. The 1943 book contained that essay and another, “The Principle of the New Order.” The subtitle of DeKoninck’s book was significant: Against the Personalists. Was it an attack on Maritain? Maritain is not mentioned either in the original presentation or in the book. Nevertheless, two eminent philosophers took it to be an attack on Maritain and rose to his defense.

Yves Simon, writing in The Review of Politics (Vol. VI, 1944, pp. 530-533), had praise for DeKoninck’s interpretation, finding that “it constitutes a very sound foundation for any further development of the theory of the common good” and adding that “insofar as DeKoninck’s essay vindicates the primacy of the common good and carries out the criticism of definite positions, it is entirely praiseworthy.” Indeed, Simon characterizes the target of DeKoninck’s attack as “vicious stupidities” and “monstrosities.” We are not surprised, accordingly, that Simon does not consider Maritain’s views to fall within the target area. Nonetheless, Simon laments the fact that the book’s subtitle, “Against the Personalists,” could invite the interpretation that Maritain is its target, or one of its targets, because Maritain has embraced a kind of personalism. The views attacked by DeKoninck are as odious to Maritain as to anyone else and it would be pure calumny to suggest otherwise.

There is then a possible interpretation of DeKoninck’s book that could have been cleared up in a quince. But, alas, the Dominican I. Thomas Eschmann decided to enter the debate with his “In Defense of Jacques Maritain.” The Modern Schoolman XXIII, 4, 1945, pp. 183-208. Father Eschmann maintained that the position DeKoninck attacked was that of Maritain, indeed that of St. Thomas Aquinas and all the Fathers for the past two thousand years, and Eschmann proceeds to defend the position.

Did DeKoninck intend to attack Maritain anonymously, as a personalist? Is the position he attacked accepted or rejected by Maritain? I do not know the answer to the first question for certain, but I am confident the answer is no. DeKoninck meant to attack Personalism. Eschmann’s piece could scarcely be ignored, since his claim was that DeKoninck had misunderstood St. Thomas, fighting words to any Thomist, and DeKoninck replied in a lengthy piece, “In Defense of St. Thomas.” Laval théologique et philosophique, I,2, pp. 3-103. The tone is unfortunate, however much it echoes that of Eschmann’s; moreover the reply to Eschmann is longer than the original book and is structured by Eschmann’s charges. Maritain does not figure in the exposition. It is fair to say that DeKoninck demolished Eschmann. It is also clear that Maritain does not hold the positions Eschmann attributes to him, certainly not in the explicit way the Dominican embraces them. When Maritain wrote The Person and the Common Good in 1947 he expressed himself with a great deal of clarity on points that had figured in the controversy. It is therefore puzzling that the only allusion he makes to the controversy is oblique. In a footnote, he thanks Father Eschmann for defending him while insisting that the positions attacked are not his!

I thank the author of these lines for having defended me in a lively debate which took place in Canada and the United States. It was curiously the case that in criticizing ideas which are not mine, it was obliquely suggested they were even though my name was not mentioned. I hope that the present essay, by correcting some excessive formulations I myself never used, will put an end to misunderstandings and confusions indigenous to such controversies.

This is an extremely Delphic remark. Maritain thanks Eschmann, who ascribed to Maritain the positions DeKoninck attacked, but which Maritain never held, and hopes in the present work to correct excessive formulations he never used (and which presumably Eschmann had). Without naming DeKoninck, Maritain suggests that DeKoninck was attacking him, though DeKoninck did not name Maritain nor attribute the positions he criticized to Maritain either in the original book or in the reply to Eschmann. The temperature of this controversy was raised by Eschmann’s rhetoric which prevented any fruitful exchange. Simon’s review is straightforward and civil and one can imagine a wholly different sequel if Eschmann had not muddied the waters.

In a letter he wrote to Maritain on December 11, 1945, Yves Simon relates a conversation he had with Jacques de Monléon in Quebec the previous summer. In it Simon summed up the doctrine on the common good in five propositions on which “there is complete agreement between you, me, Dekoninck and himself.” The five points are: (1) Any good of a higher order is greater than any good of a lower order. (2) Within a given order, there is absolute primacy of the common good over any private good. (3) When a person is an absolute person (God), there is an absolute coincidence of common and personal good. (4) To the degree that a created person is a person there is a tendency toward a coincidence of personal and common good. (5) There is no restriction on the primacy of the common good in its order; when the primacy disappears (as in 3 and 4), this is not because the primacy then belongs to a private good, but that the problem of primacy disappears. Simon was convinced from first to last that there was this fundamental agreement and that any suggestion that there was not was libelous. There is little doubt that Simon agreed with the major contentions of DeKoninck’s book and was certain Maritain himself did. Why then did Maritain extend thanks to Eschmann and not to Yves Simon? Surely Simon was in the right and Eschmann in the wrong.

Person and Common Good

Beyond the five points of difference of expression, this controversy conveys the centrality of the common good, indeed, the primacy of the common good. What these Thomists are as one In opposing is the liberated individual of modern thought, the Kantian person who has become his own end, the autonomous individual presupposed by contract theory, the Marxist person for whom all claims other than private ones are alienations to be overcome – God and society and family deprive me of what is proper to me and they must be overcome.

Such a view of the human person, of the individual of a rational nature, tends to look at societal relations, politics and political economy, as devices whereby the good of the individual as such can be most prudently achieved. The social contract is something I enter into for my own good, my own proper good. The notion of the common good is thereby denatured and becomes a mere abstraction. By that I mean that it becomes some such claim as this: It is common to all individuals to look out for Number One.

In our tradition, on the contrary, man is by nature a political animal. He is a part of a larger whole, not by choice, but of necessity – he could not otherwise come into existence and survive. Human persons do not fall out of the sky to confront one another and the possibility of a social contract. They are born to mothers, nurtured at the breast, raised and educated by father and mother, brought from total dependency to the point where they can be responsible members of the social groups to which they belong. Moral autonomy, according to this view, is not a matter of progressively weakening links to others, but of developing them in terms of what is truly perfective and fulfilling of the kind of entity a human person is.

Even this beginning of a sketch makes it clear why the Church is opposed both to laissez-faire capitalism and to socialism. Both are grounded on a defective notion of the person and therefore of society. An economic system that aimed at profit only and saw others merely as objects of exploitation on the way to amassing more and more wealth without end would be the private good of the pursuer of wealth not only above the private goods of all others but also above the goods shared by many. But of course such would deny that there is any good perfective of members of society which is not simply the private good of any of them, goods like peace and order. One who wants peace and order simply as a means to self-aggrandizement does not want them as common goods.

Classical socialism sees persons as mere units, without history, without family, without any features independent of their being parts of the invented social whole. Any discrimination between persons on the basis of property or talent or gender becomes abhorrent. It is Mass Man who becomes the ideal – the featureless constituent of the social machine.

It will be rightly pointed out that present day capitalism developed away from this condemned capitalism, and the same could be said for present day socialism. To suggest that whatever nowadays is called capitalism or socialism automatically comes under 19th century condemnations would betray a singular lack of subtlety.

What the traditional doctrine of the common good requires is that our defense of the capitalist system include the recognition of the primacy of the common good. And indeed most defenses of entrepreneurial capitalism maintain that this system best insures the welfare of members of a society and that it is this that motivates the entrepreneurial capitalist. Of course it will not do to say that there is some law according to which the greedy pursuit of wealth results in the best for most others. If this were merely the unintended accidental consequence of greed it cannot be introduced as moral justification.

What the traditional doctrine of the common good requires is that any defense of even a modified socialism include the primacy of the common good. Not the collective good, not the greatest good of the greatest number, not some abstract criterion of particular acts no one knows how to apply. The recent criticisms of Consequentialism must be taken into account by those who would defend even a modified socialism.

Our bishops are wise to see the defense of the family as a fundamental concern, since if we do not learn of the primacy of the common good in the family it is doubtful that we will see it in the political and economic orders. The good of the family is my good, one I share with other members of the family, and it takes precedence over my merely private good. I must love this shared or common good precisely as shareable by many and if I make sacrifices for it is not because I put the private goods of others above my private good. Rather, I acknowledge the primacy of a good common to many and more important than the individual or collective private goods of the many.

It is because human persons are ordered to a variety of common goods that the assertion of the primacy of the common good can sometimes seemingly imply unacceptable consequences. When Maritain wrote of man as a person transcending the common good of society, what he meant is not that in the crunch, qua person, my private good takes precedence over the common good. Rather his concern was with the common good that transcends the common good of the city, the supernatural end to which we are called. The human person is ordered to God as to his happiness, his ultimate end, his supreme good. But God is the common par excellence. It is not the Catholic view that human persons relate to God one-to-one, so to speak, with God being my good in an exclusive sense. Indeed, to love God merely as to my good would be a defective love. It would be to turn God into my private good, as if there were commensurability between my finite will and infinite goodness. The only appropriate way to love God is as a good infinitely shareable. The rule of charity makes this clear. I must love my neighbor as, like myself, ordered to a common good.

The conception of the human person as chiefly and primarily perfected by common goods because he naturally and inevitably is a member of society, as opposed to the view of man as chiefly a monad whose good is a private one such that societal arrangements are for his private good although always diminishing it has implications for political theory and for political economy. The doctrine functions as a guide or measure. It is not the case that one can simply deduce from such considerations the best political or economic arrangements. More likely than not, such principles can be embodied in a variety of arrangements whose desirability of preferability has to be decided on other grounds. But any economic or political system which collided with the primacy of the common good would be to that degree unacceptable from the point of view of the Catholic tradition – and the truth.

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