Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


It could be said that the philosophy of art has had as little influence on its ostensible subject as the philosophy of science has had on its. Thus it is noteworthy that Jacques Maritain’s reflections on art and poetry, which span his long active career, not only were inspired by a profound involvement with art and artists but also influenced a number of artists when they reflected on their own efforts. To cite a single instance, Flannery O’Connor, in the letters selected by Sally Fitzgerald under the title The Habit of Being, often acknowledges her debt to Art and Scholasticism.

What precisely was it that O’Connor learned from Maritain? It seems that the basic negative lesson was that art is not self expression.

Also to have sympathy for any character, you have to put a good deal of yourself in him. But to say that any complete denudation of the author occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration. A great part of the art of it is precisely in seeing that this does not happen. Maritain says that to produce a work of art requires ‘the constant attention of the purified mind,’ and the business of the purified mind in this case is to see that those elements of the personality that don’t bear on the subject at hand are excluded. Stories don’t lie when left to themselves. Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story. (p. 105)

Art as a virtue of the practical intellect whose end is the bonum operis, the good of the thing, made is a notion Maritain got from Thomas Aquinas who got it from Aristotle. It came to Flannery O’Connor as a fresh wind. It both confirmed her own hunch and influenced her later work. But the passages she puts in quotation marks is one that any student of Maritain will recognize as what is most distinctive about the great French Catholic philosopher’s views on artistic knowledge.

Maritain once said that he would prefer to be seen as a Paleo-Thomist rather than as a Neo-Thomist. He was steeped in the thought of his master – Vae mihi si non thomistizavero – but like all genuine disciples he was a creative follower, extending the insights he found in Thomas into areas undreamt of by his mentor. This is nowhere more evident than in the uses to which Maritain put the concept of judgment by connaturality he found in St. Thomas. Maritain’s analogical prolongation of connatural knowledge from its Thomistic setting into the realm of poetic knowledge not only provides a topic central to Maritain’s aesthetics but also a good test case of his style of creative Thomism.

In what follows, I shall recall the Thomisic doctrine, developing it in the settings St. Thomas himself did, and then go on to consider Maritain’s extension of connatural knowledge to poetry, emphasizing first how the analogy limps and then its essential fruitfulness. My first task involves some rather technical discussions but in pursuing it I will keep technical language and scholarly folderol to a minimum. A basic way of pursuing the second task would be to pursue the chronological development of Maritain’s thought on the matter, singling out the persistent strands, drawing attention to aspects which emerge only gradually and later. This will not be my approach here. Rather, assuming without proving the essential unity and consistency of Maritain’s thought on this matter, I will blend together a number of sources with an eye to giving the strongest possible presentation of his thought.


In the First Question of the First Part of the Summa theologiae, where St. Thomas is setting forth his conception of theology, the question arises as to whether theology can be characterized as wisdom. The third objection in Article Six suggests that theology cannot be called wisdom because it is acquired by means of study whereas wisdom is an infused gift of the Holy Ghost. Thomas’s reply to this objection caught Maritain’s eye and planted a seed that was to bear an immense fruit.

Since judgment pertains to wisdom, wisdom will vary as types of judgment vary. In one way, a person judges by way of inclination, as one who has the habit of virtue rightly judges the things that are to be done according to that virtue insofar as he is inclined to them: that is why it is said in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, that the virtuous man is the rule and measure of human actions. In another manner, [a person judges] by way of knowledge, as someone instructed in moral science can judge the acts of a virtue even if he does not possess the virtue. (Summa theologiae Ia,1.6.ad3m.)

As is well known, the Summa theologiae was intended to be an introductory work but, since the neophyte in theology is supposed to be already instructed in philosophy, preliminary discussions of theological issues often ride on brief reminders of what is already presumed known from philosophical study. The remarks St. Thomas here makes concerning the judgment of the virtuous man and the judgment of the man learned in moral matters, the moral philosopher, is meant to remind his reader of what he has learned from the study of such works as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Let us recall some of those presuppositions.

The reader of the Ethics is not someone on the threshold of the moral life; he comes to this work of philosophical reflection against the background of his personal history of acting. Human action, by definition, is rational behavior, so the presupposition of moral philosophy is an experience which has a cognitive component. Anyone who acts knows what he is doing: for a human being to act is to act consciously. This is not to say, of course, that any human agent has a theory of human action. We may even ask if one needs the kind of reflection moral philosophy is in order to act well. The answer is surely negative. Moral philosophy is not a requirement for good human action. On the contrary, it could be argued that unless there were instances of good human action, moral philosophy would have no empirical base on which to build. It would be an odd claim that without three credits in ethics one could not become a good man. “One does not become good by philosophizing.” Aristotle observes and, in the passage referred to by St. Thomas, Aristotle says that with respect to human actions the virtuous man is a rule and measure. The moral philosopher is guided in his reflections by noticing the way good men behave.

Moral action involves a judgment as to what is the good or fulfillment or perfection of the agent as well as judgments as to how that good can be achieved in fleeting and changing circumstances. A more sobering Aristotelian observation is that most men are bad. The fact that every human person after a certain age is willy-nilly engaged in the moral life obviously does not entail that everyone is acting well. This suggests a kind of paradox. Were we to select at random a human agent – it might be ourselves – the statistical probability, if Aristotle is right, is that we will have selected a bad man. Nonetheless, the agent we have chosen will be such that, besides that in him which explains why he is going wrong, there is also some intimation of what his good really consists in.

Moral philosophy as practiced by Aristotle is the effort to sort out the judgments latent in human action and appraise or assess them in the light of principles which are also latent in them. The aim of moral philosophy is not simply to attain theoretical knowledge of human action, but to provide guidelines which enable the agent to act well in the future. Moral philosophy thus appears as reflection on the level of generality which takes its rise from particular human deeds and seeks to close the circuit by being helpful in future action. That is what is meant by calling it practical knowledge. Its ultimate aim is not the perfection of the mind, but the perfection of action, choices, decisions.

On the assumption that happiness is a term anyone would accept as designating the point of acting at all, Aristotle argues that most men seek their happiness or fulfillment where it cannot really be found. Once true happiness has been clarified, the moral philosopher is in possession of his most powerful tool for determining the kinds of action conducive to or destructive of human happiness. That is the basis on which he gives his general advice. It is the generality of moral philosophy which is its grandeur et misère. Clarification of what we ought to do is an achievement but, being general, it cannot immediately apply to the singular circumstances in which we must act. True, the moral philosopher can develop cases, tell stories of typical human acts, but these are meant to range over many instances and there remains the problem of application. Moral philosophy cannot by itself close the circuit mentioned earlier.

The judgment of the moral philosopher is a purely cognitive one; it does not as such engage his subjectivity. That is why, as St. Thomas points out, the moral philosopher can speak of the demands of a virtue he does not himself possess. The recognition that the judgment embedded in the singular act is not purely cognitive leads to the distinction between kinds of judgment. By moral upbringing, by the study of moral philosophy, or even without it, I act in the light of more or less articulate notions of what one ought to do in circumstances of a given kind. What happens when my action is not in conformity with my knowledge?

Let us say that I know I should be temperate in the consumption of alcohol. I may be a veritable poet of temperance and yet, alas, regularly overindulge and later feel remorse. My defective action does not seem to follow from a cognitive defect. I know what I ought to do, yet when I overindulge I decide to do so, I judge that here and now it is good for me to have yet another drink. Knowledge is in conflict with knowledge, judgment with judgment. The singular action or decision will be in conformity with the principle when the good expressed in the principle is my good, which my appetite is habitually inclined to it. This is why St. Thomas speaks of the singular moral judgment as true by conformity with rectified appetite: that is, with the appetitive orientation to the true good. If I am appetitively inclined to what is not my true good, my purely cognitive recognition of the true good cannot be efficacious in action.

Perhaps this can suffice as a gloss on the passage from the Summa theologiae. Any singular moral judgment is a judgment by way of inclination and it will be a good one if I am inclined to what is my true good. If we ask advice of a good man who is not also a moral philosopher, his answer, after reflection, is likely to take the form, “Well, what I would do is . . . ” That is, he puts himself in our shoes and judges in accordance with his steady orientation to the true good. The advice of the moral philosopher, on the other hand, does not thus depend on his own moral condition.

The judgment by appetitive inclination or, as it is also called, affective connaturality, has its natural habitat in the analysis of singular moral decisions. Thomas himself extended it to discussions of the assent of faith as well as to judgments made under the influence of the Gift of Wisdom. In the primary instance, will or appetite has a steady inclination to the true good thanks to the possession of habits of virtue. That is why the virtuous man is the measure in human action. In the case of faith, it is the will prompted by grace that moves the intellect to assent. Judgments made under the influence of the Gift of Wisdom presupposes an appetitive orientation. But nowhere does St. Thomas apply judgment by inclination or connaturaliy to the realm of art.


Not only does Thomas not speak of a judgment by way of inclination or affective connaturality in the case of art, there seem to be good reasons why he would not have done so. Prudence or practical wisdom is the virtue of the practical intellect thanks to which a person judges well as to what will make his actions, and himself, good, and this judgment, in order to be efficacious, depends upon the possession of moral virtues, that is, on a steady appetitive orientation to the true good. The aim of prudence is to make the human agent good. Art, on the other hand, is a virtue of the practical intellect whose aim is the good or perfection of the thing made. Prudence is concerned with doing (agere) and art with making (facere). Maritain, in Art and Scholasticism, Chapter III, develops the contrast between them.

Art, which rules Making and not Doing, stands therefore outside the human sphere; it has an end, rules, values, which are not those of man, but those of the work to be produced. This work is everything for Art; there is for Art but one law – the exigencies and the good of the work. [Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, translated by Joseph W. Evans, Notre Dame University Press, p. 9.]

The sequel to this passage may well be what Flannery O’Connor found so liberating in Maritain’s presentation.

Hence the tyrannical and absorbing power of Art, and also its astonishing power of soothing; it delivers one from the human; it establishes the artifex – artist or artisan – in a world apart, closed, limited, absolute, in which he puts the energy and intelligence of his manhood at the service of a thing which he makes. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing ceases at the door of the workshop. [ibid.]

Maritain is here being guided closely by St. Thomas Aquinas. In speaking of art as a virtue (recta ratio factibilium), Thomas stresses the independence of art from the condition of the appetite of the maker: it is not his good but the good of the work that is in view. An artist is not praised as an artist because of his appetitive condition but because the work he makes is good. Non enim pertinet ad laudem artificis, inquantum artifex est, qua voluntate opus faciat; sed quale sit opus quod facit. (IaIIae, q. 57, a. 3.) This leads Thomas to see an affinity between art and the speculative virtues. The aim of the latter is truth and a mathematical argument is assessed without reference to the moral character of the mathematician. Summarizing this, Thomas introduces, almost as an aside, an extremely important point. The virtues of the speculative intellect and art are capacities to do something well, whether arriving at the truth or producing good artifacts – but they do not insure the good use of those capacities. This means that, in order for the artist to use well the art that he has, he must be in possession of moral virtues which perfect his appetites.

The tradition within which Maritain moves sees the capacity of the artist to produce good artifacts as independent of his moral condition. There is no intrinsic dependence of art on moral virtue anymore than there is an intrinsic dependence of geometry on the moral character of the geometer or for that matter of moral philosophy on the appetitive condition of the moral philosopher. There is such an intrinsic dependence in the case of prudence or practical wisdom; unless a person’s appetite is steadily oriented to the true good he cannot have the virtue of prudence. That is why Thomas says that prudence gives both a capacity and its use. The suggestion is that theoretical knowledge and art are amoral.

If the judgment of the artist were to be one by way of affective connaturality, therefore, this would entail that the appetite of the artist is in some way in conflict with the good of the artifact and that he is in need of moral virtue to bring his appetite under control and thereby make the many particular judgments he must make in order to effect the artifact. But Thomas Aquinas, on whom Maritain is relying, does not see this to be the case. The judgment of the artist as he proceeds in his work is not intrinsically dependent on virtues which steadily orient his appetite to the good of the artifact. From this it follows that the judgment of the artist cannot be described as proceeding by way of affective connaturality. No more could one describe the judgments of the geometer or of the moral philosopher as instances of judgments by way of affective connaturality.

From a narrowly exegetical point of view, then, one would have to say that the thought of Thomas Aquinas provides Maritain no basis for speaking of poetic knowledge as an instance of affective connaturality; on the contrary, it prevents him from doing so. Any student of Maritain will know that on many occasions he was confronted with criticism of this sort, someone pointing out to him that the texts of Thomas on which he sought to rely do not sustain the use to which he wished to put them. This was true in political philosophy, philosophy of science, his discussions of degrees of practical knowing, and so on. As often as not the critics were right. Maritain was working from texts of Thomas, not providing glosses on them, although it must be said that sometimes he himself seemed only imperfectly aware of this.

I want to show that what he had to say of art and morality, which has a good Thomistic textual base, provided him with the opening through which he went on to speak of creative intuition as involving affective connaturality, thereby extending the Thomistic notion of affective connaturality, but not in a way which conflicts with his master, however much he has gone beyond him.


The distinction Thomas makes between capacity (facultas) and use and his claim that speculative virtues and art give only a capacity and not an inclination to use it well, are in many ways puzzling. On the one hand, he underwrites the obvious fact that a good geometer need not be a good man; on the other hand he seems to invite the almost excessive divorce of art from human life of the kind we saw in the passage from Art and Scholasticism we quoted earlier. There is something unsavory in the suggestion that one has a choice between being a good artist or a good geometer, on the one hand, and a good man, on the other. Furthermore, to do geometry or to write a poem would seem to be instances of human actions and these, we saw, are by definition moral. How can some human activities escape the net of morality if human actions are as such moral? One is reminded of Yeat’s poem The Choice.

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

Maritain himself quotes this poem.

If we begin with the speculative sciences, a way to resolve the difficulty suggests itself. In Chapter 4, I have discussed this in relation to Maritain’s notion of Christian philosophy. Doing geometry is a human act and as such is subject to moral appraisal. Let us imagine a mathematician, in his office, at the blackboard, chalking his way toward a proof hitherto unknown to men. He achieves it. On that basis we will say that he is a good geometer. Why does that not suffice for us to call him a good man? Well, let’s say that, while he works, his assistant who had been leaning out the window fell and dangles precariously by his fingertips, shouting for help and the geometer ignores him. No achievement in geometry is going to override the misfortune of the assistant who loses his grip and plummets to his death just as the geometer turns from his board and cries, “Eureka!”

The skill or capacity of the geometer is put to use in a context which provides ways of appraising what he is doing in a moral and not a mathematical way. It is the same activity that gets him good grades as a geometer and bad grades as a man. A more morally sensitive geometer does not, on that score, get good grades as a geometer but as a human being. The moral considerations always take priority; they are overriding. At the funeral of his assistant, the geometer can not justify what he did, or failed to do, by sketching for the widow the proof he was writing on the blackboard the afternoon her husband fluttered down seven stories to become a lifeless messy asterisk on the pavement below. Thus the use of his capacity is in the moral order and for the assessment of that the usual moral considerations obtain, including the doctrine of prudential judgments by way of affective connaturality.

This is the sort of consideration we find Maritain undertaking in the final chapter of Art and Scholasticism where he discusses art and morality.

Because it exists in man and because its good is not the good of man, art is subject in its exercise to an extrinsic control, imposed in the name of a higher end which is the beatitude of the living being in whom it resides. (Op. cit., p. 71)

The little book called The Responsibilities of the Artist is a later and more thorough discussion of the matter. What has been said of the geometer may be said of the shoemaker or sonneteer. Painting an undraped model in a public park at noonday would require a justification from the artist other than the result on canvas, or at least it would have in a saner day. Taking samples of human skin with a sharp knife in the subway cannot be justified by the artist’s claim that he is in search of more realistic pigments. The contralto ought to pay her bills and her high notes do not suffice. The artist is a human being and the common moral demands on human beings apply to him. These demands may dictate that he not practice his art in certain circumstances.

All that is true enough, but it is scarcely interesting. Or at least it would not be if some artists have not wished to fashion a morality controlled by the good of the work alone, everything else being resolutely subordinated to it. Maritain’s discussion of Art for Art’s Sake, in the little book just mentioned, relies heavily on his personal knowledge of such artists as Jean Cocteau and his readings in others such as Oscar Wilde. He knew that artists have often devised a pseudo-morality, requiring great self-abnegation, even asceticism, with ruthless treatment of others, in order to accomplish the ends of their art. They are a facet of the phenomenon Kierkegaard calls the Aesthete. The Kierkegaardian aesthete is not necessarily an artist in the usual sense. He may simply be a hedonist. But hedonism too makes demands lest one become jaded. There must be a rotation of crops to stave off boredom and retain some novelty in the constantly repeated activity.

This shadow morality, while it does not question the distinctions Maritain has taken from Aquinas, modifies them subtly. The artist can take the end of his art as his supreme good in the way Yeats’s poem suggests. Morally evil action may then be justified as providing experience important for the production of artifacts. Wilde, noting that the poet must be able to depict both good and evil, took this to justify the claim that the poet must be good and evil.

None of this takes us to the center of Maritain’s contention that poetic knowledge involves affective connaturality. But it is the way to the center. The morally good use of the capacity which the virtue of art provides is extrinsic to art as such; it merely places it in the wider human moral context in which art is exercised and enables us to make a twofold assessment of it, intrinsic as art, extrinsic as moral. Maintain wants to argue for more than an extrinsic or per accidens connection of morality and poetic knowledge.

A moral poison which warps in the long run the power of vision will finally, through an indirect repercussion, warp artistic creativity – though perhaps this poison will have stimulated or sensitized it for a time. At long last the work always avows. When it is a question of great poets, this kind of avowal does not prevent the work from being great and treasurable, yet it points to some soft spot in this greatness. The Responsibility of the Artists, Gordian Press, New York, 1972.

In Maritain’s The Range of Reason, one finds essays on artistic judgment and knowledge through connaturality. See as well Rafael-Tomas Caldera, Le Jugement par Inclination chez Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Paris, 1980.

There is a refreshing lack of moralizing in Maritain’s discussions of the relationship between art and morality. He is not interested in denying that men who are reprehensible human beings nonetheless produce works of art of undeniable excellence. Yet he is attraced by the view that the morally good person, all other things being equal, will be a better artist.

This can mean at least two things, as we have already seen. It can mean that artistic activity is engaged in by a human being and thus comes under a moral assessment as well as an aesthetic one. The discipline required of the artist is itself a moral achievement and can indeed form part of a network of practices which make up his way of life. Maritain will regard this as a shadow morality if the good of the artifact is taken to be the supreme good of the artist as man as well as artist. The undeniable discipline and restraint and asceticism in such a life may be such that the ordinary demands of morality are ruthlessly set aside as conflicting with the good of the work.

But there is a sunnier possibility, Maritain feels, and that is when the moral virtues, while retaining their orientation to the human end, also facilitate the achievement of the ends of art. And then, speaking of the artist’s affinity with his subject matter, Maritain suggests that a parallel can be drawn between art and contemplation. The contemplative enters into affective union with God and this affectivity supplies a cognitive union with God and this affectivity supplies a cognitive object, a type of knowledge. Amor transit in conditionem objecti, as John of St. Thomas put it: the appetitive relation between lover and beloved itself becomes thematic. Here we have the basis of Maritain’s prolongation of the notion of affective connaturality to poetic knowledge.

We have also reached the point where Maritain’s use of the notion of affective connaturality in speaking of poetic knowledge touches on his use of intuition for the same purpose. Increasingly, his interest turned to the preconceptual or non-conceptual knowledge out of which the fashioning knowledge of the artist arises, the sense of the world and of reality which precedes the constructive work. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, perhaps the most important single work on aesthetics Maritain wrote, is precisely devoted to this.


The text in Aquinas from which Maritain began, with its distinction between the judgment of the moral philosopher and the judgment of the moral agent, suggests a contrast in aesthetics that Maritain did not draw, namely that between criticism or theory, on the one hand, and practice or production, on the other. The working artist does not require a theory of art anymore than every human agent must have an articulated moral theory. The dependence of criticism on art also emerges from pursuing this parallel. Just as the moral philosopher must presuppose the existence of good men and be guided by them as he develops his theory, so too criticism and aesthectic theory are parasitic on the existence of artifacts. Given the artifact and the ostensible good intended, the critic can assess how well and to what degree the artist has achieved the end he set himself. Finally, just as moral theory has what use it has when it is returned to the order of singular actions from which it takes its rise, so criticism and aesthetic theory are ultimately justified by the way they enhance our appreciation and understanding of art.

Martitain went in a different direction from the passage in question, a direction that finally led him to the view he summarized thus:

Let me add that the highest form of knowledge through inclination or congeniality is provided by that kind of presence of the one within the other which is proper to love. If the novelist is the God of his characters, why should be not love them with a redeeming love? We are told (it is irrational, but it is a fact), that Bernanos could not help praying for his characters. When a novelist has this kind of love even for his most hateful characters, then he knows them, through inclination, in the truest possible way, and the risk of being contaminated by them still exists for him, I think, but to a lesser degree than ever. [Responsibility, p. 114.]

A novelist’s way of seeing his characters, their hopes and dreams and actions, in short, his vision of life – is it to this that Maritain would draw our attention? There are many things which contribute to the way an artist, or anyone, sees the world. The novelist, whatever his vision, must struggle to be true to it, to enable his reader to see in Conrad’s sense or, in the Hemingway sense of it, to write truly. As for the artist’s vision, apart from its metabolic, psychological, genetic and other accidental components, there seems room in it as well for an influence from his moral character. Maritain has suggested a number of ways in which the artist’s moral character can influence his art. His position remained tantalizingly vague. That may be one of its attractions. Who today will dare to carry on the line of investigation Maritain opened up?

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