Jacques Maritain Center : Art and Prudence / by Ralph McInerny


Jacques Maritain published his Carnet de Notes in 1965, toward the end of his long life, although eight years and several books would intervene before he died. Still to come were On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus (1967) and Of Christ’s Church (1968), neither of which had the enormous effect of The Peasant of the Garonne, published in 1966. The 1966 book made Maritain a controversial figure one more time. Often in the past he had surprised those who thought they knew exactly where he stood. The Peasant was a final surprise, reminding those who needed the reminder that Jacques Maritain was a thinker not easily categorizable in terms of superficial or journalistic labels. Looked back to from the stir caused by The Peasant, his Notebook by contrast has a serene, nostalgic, even valetudinarian, air about it.

The editing of Raïssa’s journal, which appeared in 1962, had been a labor of love for Jacques. Indeed, he was more than willing to let the journals of his wife suffice for them both; after all, he had called her dimidium animae meae – half my soul. Among her effects were four little notebooks covering the time from 1906 to 1926, a journal for the year 1931, and some loose sheets covering the years 1931 to 1939. Jacques prepared these for the press, added some brief texts from her published writings as well as a letter about Raïssa written by their goddaughter Antoinette Grunelius, and seemed content to let that book fulfill his duty to their shared past. To the degree, that is, that the lives of the Maritains could become a public matter.

When Maritain published his own Carnet de Notes in 1965, it became clear that Raïssa’s final illness and death, and the great sense of loss that followed, had interrupted a work begun in 1954. In fact, that ultimate work is made up of geological layers that give it a peculiar fascination.

The basic text consists of chapters composed at a decade’s distance from one another and the appendices include materials which date from the times written about in those chapters. Whenever possible, Maritain tells us, he refreshed his memory by consulting small pocket diaries he had kept. Sometimes he actually includes passages from them.

He relies on such pocket diaries when he can because, as he remarks, he destroyed many of the earliest ones. From 1906 to 1911, he kept careful notes and they sometimes became voluminous. “Thereafter I kept little pocket notebooks in an increasingly quick and summary way, several of which were lost.” Fewer than thought, actually. Several of those pocket diaries can be found in the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame.

I have before me as I write Maritain’s Agenda pour 1924, three inches by five, stiff brown cover, the unnumbered pages printed on graphed paper, each printed date accompanied by the name of the saint of the day. The little diary was bought at Magasin Réunis. It is the rare date that does not have an entry of some kind, most of them unreadable, as if Maritain sought to mimick the litera inintelligibilis of his master. Nulla dies sine linea? Well, some sort of note, anyway, a name, an address, frequently a drawing, always a head, usually as seen from above. More often than not, Maritain made these entries in pencil but they have not faded. His hand is difficult to decipher even when, as in the back of the book, he is writing connected prose. It is easy to imagine that these notebooks would evoke people, events, ideas and images, the past, for the one who kept them. Who could be unmoved at paging through even so modest a relic as this, turning the pages written on by the great Catholic philosopher himself, asking what a reference to a Carmelite convent might mean, wondering why Tea Room occurs like that, in English, and so on.

A somewhat similarly fascinating item in the Maritain Center is Jacques’s copy of the Quaestio disputata de veritate of St. Thomas Aquinas. The margins are thick with notes and there are loose slips of paper scattered through the two volumes of the work which contain more notes and, of course, outlines. Maritain loved outlines and schemata. Since he was not the kind of Thomist who wrote exegetical studies of the master’s works, it is important to see how carefully Maritain read St. Thomas, assimilating the thought of the Angelic Doctor which would emerge in Maritain’s own idiom in his books.

Maritain’s Notebook contains eight chapters which follow a Foreword written in 1964 and a Preface which dates from 1954. The chapter titles are indicative.

In the 1965 Foreword, Maritain tells us that the first two chapters were written in 1954, the fourth was begun in 1954 and finished in 1961, the fifth was written in 1963 (although the final pages date from 1954), the sixth in 1965, the seventh in 1962, and the last in 1963. The earlier invocation of geological layers to speak of this book was prompted by the dating of its parts.

The Thomistic Study Circles, the subject of the fifth chapter and of a lengthy appendix, flourished from 1919 to 1939 and were one of the casualties of the Second World War. Writing in 1963, Maritain recalls the origins and formal constitution of these circles, dating the first meeting, which took place in their home in Versailles, in the Autumn of 1919, though the seed for the gatherings seems to have been planted in 1914. Some of his students from the Institut Catholique as well as some friends came together casually and without plan at first but within a few years the meetings had become a fixture and the idea occurred of establishing them on a formal basis. It was at Meudon that they acquired their special character, bringing together men and women, students and professors, doctors, poets, musicians, businessmen, the majority lay people, but members of the clergy too, the wise and the simple, mostly Catholics but some unbelievers and some Jews, Orthodox and Protestants. Needless to say, some of these categories overlap. What bound them all together? “A deep love of, or an interest large or small in, Thomistic thought.”

The atmosphere was not that of a classroom but rather of a salon, with drinks and cigarettes and, at the end, tea. For a long period of time, the basis of the conversation was a text of St. Thomas or a passage from John of St. Thomas, characterized by Maritain as the last of the great Thomistic commentators. The aim of it all was to bring diverse things into relation with one another – reason and faith, philosophy and theology, metaphysics, poetry and politics, along with aspects of contemporary culture. Maritain himself would present the topic and the list of those covered is formidable: Angelic knowledge. How angels know future contingents, singular things and secrets of the heart. Intellectual knowledge. In what sense is sociology a science? Practical knowledge. Justice and friendship. The Trinity. And so on. Maritain recalls his wife’s remark in We Have Been Friends Together that his fidelity to scholastic jargon was undeviating, and he quotes Charles Du Bos to the effect that his vocabulary was unintelligible save to an infinitesimal few. Surely Maritain exaggerates. What comes through to the reader is the level of intellectual excitement these meetings sustained.

When he quotes from notebooks kept at the time, Maritain records the following. “Members must state their intention of being guided by St. Thomas in complete fidelity, to read the Summa at least half an hour a day and to pray for at least a half hour daily.” No other single sentence could better convey the spirit of these Thomistic Circles. Prayer and understanding, a blending of the spiritual and intellectual lives, the quest of sanctity through the degrees of wisdom. Little retreats for the members. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the great Dominican Thomist, with whom Maritain would later have political disagreements, gave the first retreat. Toward the end, two to three hundred people took part in these retreats. Maritain concludes the fifth chapter with a lengthy discussion of the Vow of Prayer.

In recent years such phenomena as the founding of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and, more ecumenically, the Society of Christian Philosophers, are partial responses to the needs addressed by the Thomistic Study Circles. Organization has of course its repellent side, nor was Maritain without a joke about that side of the effort. Imagine Pascal, he writes, or for that matter, in a different age, a Chateaubriand or a Joseph de Maistre, imagine a Doistoevsky, a Léon Bloy, a Péguy or a Bernanos, organized in teams of common effort! Impossible to conceive. Whatever good the Cercles did, Maritain would not permit himself or others to forget what unorganized and unorganizable Christians can and have done.

That being said, there is a need on the part of those with seemingly a double vocation to come together. It was the effort to unite those bent on living the life of the mind and the life of the soul, the intellectual and spiritual lives, that characterized the Cercles. The little book Jacques and Raïssa co-authored, La vie d’oraison – Prayer and Intelligence in English – addresses the same ideal. This conviction that development of the mind must go hand in hand with development of spirit is the single most important element of the influence Jacques Maritain continues to have.



O Sapientia,
quae ex ore Altimissimi prodiisti,
attingens affine usque ad finem fortiter,
suaviterque disponens Omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

I. General Principles

1. In making Saint Thomas Aquinas the Common Doctor of the Church, God has given him to us as our leader and guide in the knowledge of the truth. The doctrine of Saint Thomas is the one the Church recommends above all others and enjoins her masters to teach. It imposes itself on the mind as a chain of certitudes demonstratively linked and more than any other is in perfect accord with dogma. It possesses the proof of a holiness inseparable from the teaching mission of the Angelic Doctor which causes a sort of effacement of human personality in the radiance of the divine light. As Leo XIII wrote, “Having profoundly venerated” the Fathers and holy doctors who preceded him, Saint Thomas “inherited as it were the intelligence of them all.” He so lost himself in the truth that one can say of him, as one of his greatest students did: Majus aliquid in sancto Thoma quam sanctum Thomam suscipitur et defenditur: it is something far greater than Saint Thomas that we accept and defend in Saint Thomas. Inheritor of the past and treasure of the future, he alone can teach us to become, following his example as much as our weakness permits, transparent to the truth, docile to the Spirit who gives understanding, open to the common and catholic wisdom with which the Church has been imbued. An active loyalty, progressive and conquering, but absolutely pure and whole, to the principles, doctrine and spirit of Saint Thomas is thus the means par excellence of serving the Truth who is Christ; and it is particularly needed for the salvation of the understanding, today threatened on all sides.

2. Along with that, we believe that human understanding is by nature so weak and has been further weakened by Original Sin, and the thought of Saint Thomas is so intellectually demanding, both philosophically and theologically, that in order for us to assimilate his thought we need all the supernatural grace and help of which both the eminent holiness as well as the unique mission of the Angelic Doctor assure us and that the special help of the Holy Spirit is and always will be necessary for it to live among men.

In our error-filled time, we particularly believe that where the discipline and graces proper to the religious life do not obtain, it is impossible for Thomism to be maintained in its integrity and purity without the special help of a life of prayer.

We know that this union of the spiritual life and the life of study was not only achieved in an eminent degree by Saint Thomas himself, but also by his most authoritative commentators, like Bañez, the spiritual director most prized by Saint Teresa, like Gonet, who dedicated his Clypeus thomisticae theologiae to the great contemplative, like the Masters of Salamanca (Salmanticenses) who remained loyal on all points of Thomistic theology and who saw in it the foundation of the great spiritual doctrines taught by Saint Teresa and by Saint John of the Cross.

3. Thomism, thanks to the powerful impulse given by Leo XIII, has already begun to win minds among diocesan clergy and lay people, and is destined to do so more and more. How else can it conquer modern understanding? It must permeate the dough in order to raise it. In order to continue in time and renew philosophy while assimilating what has been acquired since the Middle Ages and directing its progress into all domains, disengaging the true meaning of all the partial truths and research accumulated by particular sciences, to animate and clarify the intellectual renaissance which is possible in the realm of arts and letters whose role could be immense and, finally, to shape the general understanding which more than ever needs a general philosophical and theological culture – to do all that, Thomism must enter into the intellectual life of those who live in the world, of lay people, and find practitioners there.

Its very diffusion can give rise to dangers. To the degree that modern minds which are insufficiently armed and prepared and more or less under the influence of modern prejudices seek to examine it, it runs the risk of being studied in an inappropriate light and thereby subjected to diminished, partial and deforming interpretations. Experience shows that the danger of the materialization of Thomism is not imaginary.

4. In order to promote the teaching and the spirit of Saint Thomas in the world, taking account of the dangers just mentioned and maintaining the Thomistic synthesis in the higher light it requires, it thus seems useful and opportune that souls of good will who, out of love of Truth and the Church, wish to work for the diffusion of Thomism or just to be inspired by it, be united in study circles which will help them perfect their knowledge of Saint Thomas, make it better known, and help preserve the living tradition of the masters of Thomism among the laity in an enduring way.

5. The chief element being, as we have seen, the spiritual and supernatural one and such a group being valuable and effective only if its members are open in the fullest way to the action of the Holy Spirit, every member must be bound by a private vow to devote himself to a life of prayer. In that way this group of diocesan priests and lay people will have at the base of their activity a profound and intimate gift of self to God and will offer to souls who aspire to perfection in the world a very real aid without in any way interfering with anyone’s freedom since the vow of prayer concerns only the absolutely personal relation between God and the soul.

The usefulness of the study circles is twofold. On the one hand, they will help maintain with integrity and purity the renewal of Thomistic studies in this century by means of prayer and, on the other hand, they will help maintain the renewal of spirituality in this century in rightness and purity by means of Thomism.

In an age when the majority is interested in anything but God and seems to have lost the capacity to rise to the First Cause, it seems desirable that members include in their intentions that of intellectual reparation. For if it is true that intellectuals have in a special way the duty to recognize in God the supreme object of understanding and to ponder with love and reverence the depths of natural and supernatural theology, it is equally true that God is in our time especially offended by them. Therefore it is necessary that intellectuals devote themselves in a special way to giving God the homage refused him by modern philosophers and at the same time to intercede for those who are the willing or unwilling victims of error.

There follows a second longer part having to do with the organization of the various circles which goes into great detail concerning their activities. To read Maritain’s Notebook on such matters, his later reflections interspersed with notes made at earlier times, and then to read these statutes is to receive a powerful sense of his vision of what it means for a Catholic to be devoted to the life of the mind. The centrality of the role of Saint Thomas Aquinas could scarcely be more dramatically emphasized. Some may find all this frightfully preconciliar. They may think that the days of the influence of Thomas Aquinas are behind us. They are wrong. But if Thomas is to continue to play a central role in Catholic intellectual and cultural life, this will only be in the way laid down by Jacques Maritain as he recounts the story of the Thomistic Study Circles.

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