Jacques Maritain Center : Readings

Jacques Maritain

by Marie and Tony Shannon

Courtesy of the Catholic Truth Society 40-46 Harleyford Rd., London 00 44 171.

On 28 April 1973 there died in Toulouse, France, at just over ninety years of age, a man who has been hailed as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, a man whose writings tackled the fundamental problems of man in the modern world, a man whose personality, by its strength and warmth, has influenced the lives of Popes and Presidents, poets and painters, and people of many countries and many levels of society.

The man was Jacques Maritain, and whatever the popular image of a philosopher might be the outstanding characteristic of Maritain was his capacity for friendship; and of all his friends his best had been his wife, Raissa. Theirs was a marriage made in heaven but lived very much on earth. Their lives were very much touched by the great events of this century, as well as by the little things, which often do not seem so little at the time, that make up all our lives.

Jacques and Raissa were born within a year of each other, he in 1882 into a Protestant family in France, she in 1883 into a Jewish family in Russia. Their backgrounds were so different it was unlikely enough that they would ever come together, let alone become Catholics and marry and lead the lives described so beautifully in two of Raissa's books, the aptly titled We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace. The stories unfolded there describe their lives from the time they met as students at the University of Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Of his years at the Sorbonne, Jacques was later to say: 'The best thing I owe to my student days is that they enabled me to meet the one who since then has always, happily for me, been at my side in a perfect and blessed communion'.

Their origins

Jacques was born in Paris on 18 November 1882. The family atmosphere was that of nineteenth century liberal Protestantism. His father, a member of the Paris bar for almost thirty years, had little direct influence on his son, especially after he had separated from his wife, Geneviéve Favre-Maritain. Jacques and his sister, Jeanne, were left to the care of their mother.

The Favres were one of the great intellectual and political families of republican France, and Geneviéve's father, Jules Favre, a prominent statesman, had passed on to his daughter his passionate feelings for liberty. 'In Jacques' family tradition the dominant element was an idealistic love of the people, the republican spirit, and the political struggle for liberty.'(1)

As a child Jacques was what we might call a 'bookworm'. His health was not good, although his mother did encourage him to get outdoors to sketch and paint. The many friends and admirers of the brilliant and vivacious Jeanne, who was seven years older than her brother, helped to stimulate the intellectual gifts of the young Jacques. But in no sense was Jacques 'too good to be true': amongst other things, he had to learn early in life to moderate a very lively temper, part of the strong independence of character which he always displayed.

Raissa, too, had shown precocious intellectual ability as a child, but her temperament was one of gentle confidence. She was very keen on dancing, especially at the gatherings of the Russian colony in Paris, where her parents had emigrated ten years after her birth at Rostov-on- Don in 1883. She, too, had a sister, Vera, who was three years younger and who was eventually to spend most of her life with Raissa and Jacques. Both girls received many opportunities to develop their talents in literature, history and music, and Raissa was only sixteen when she entered university. There she enrolled in botany, physiology and embryology, and it was there that one day, as she left a class, she met Jacques for the first time.

Early times together

In appearance Raissa Oumansouff, as she was then, was very attractive, with large brown eyes, a broad forehead and neatly arranged dark hair. Jacques, on the other hand, was in those days fairly tall, with blue-grey eyes and blonde hair and beard. This is how he looked when he met Raissa for the first time interrupting her thoughts to seek her signature for a protest against the ill-treatment of Russian socialist students by the Tsarist police. Many of Raissa's compatriots who availed themselves of her parents' open-house were anti-Tsarist liberal intellectuals or Marxist students. Not only did she sign, but she joined Jacques in collecting signatures.

Their meeting was timely for each of them. Both were disappointed with their scientific studies, which had failed to penetrate beyond the surface appearance of things to their essences. Both, too, were perplexed about the question of the existence of God. Not that their conversations were confined to such deep issues. They were both, in their own ways, essentially joyful people, and their companionship blossomed during long walks through Paris.

Paris was the centre of the artistic world at the turn of the century, and Jacques took great pleasure in introducing Raissa to the world of art, particularly painting. In the words of Raissa, 'Rembrandt was the innocent cause of the first violent difference which I had with Jacques, wherein was first revealed to us the need we had of finding ourselves at all times absolutely in agreement with one another'.

Their attendance at the lectures of Henri Bergson soon gave them that 'sense of the absolute' which they were seeking and which has been so basic to their writings. This was in contrast to the courses of other lecturers, such as Felix Le Dantec: he was typical of those for whom the intelligence was merely 'a flabby material which functions at a temperature of thirty eight degrees', and consciousness was 'an epiphenomenon'.

This period of history was racked by the pessimism which so often follows unbridled materialism, and sensitive students like Jacques and Raissa were inevitably caught up in the issues and controversies of the day. Was life really meaningless? Although Jacques was later to be quite severe in his criticism of Henri Bergson, it was this lecturer at the College de France who introduced them to the intellectual tools with which they were able to see through the anomalies of man's existence. And just in time: Jacques and Raissa had made a pact that if they could not find within one year the meaning of 'truth' and the existence of evil they would kill themselves.


Jacques and Raissa were married in 1904, and they rented a small apartment in Paris while Jacques completed his philosophy course. This he did in 1905, after which he registered in an advanced biology course. In the meantime Raissa had to discontinue her formal studies because of poor health following a throat abscess. Thereafter she was never to be entirely free of illness.

At about this time the newly wed Maritains came across the writings of Léon Bloy. They were immediately impressed by his stirring faith in Christianity, and his impatience with lukewarm, nominal Christians. Christianity had not been something the Maritains had seriously considered before but Bloy's ardent faith, so manifest in his written words, was like a glowing coal for them.

On enquiring more about Bloy from their friends, they learnt of the author's poor financial situation, and so they sent him some money, little realising that this simple act of generosity was to be a major step in leading them to God.

Soon they were invited to Bloy's humble home on Montmartre, where he lived with his wife and two surviving daughters. Two decades later Jacques was to write of this memorable visit: 'Once the threshold of this house was crossed, all values were dislocated, as though by an invisible switch. One knew, or one guessed, that only one sorrow existed there - not to be a saint. And all the rest receded into the twilight'.

Through Bloy the Maritains met artists and scientists who were devout believers and who saw no conflict between reason and faith. This impressed the young couple and led them to read more of Bloy's books. Raissa, in particular, was very much moved by his work on the historic mission of the Jews, Salvation is from the Jews. In fact, they were so impressed that they paid for it to be reprinted, and Bloy, in turn, dedicated it 'to my little Jewess Raissa (Rachel) whom her brother Jesus will well know how to reward'.

How right he was! This book induced them to read the Scriptures and to see the link between the Old and New Testaments. Not that the path was smooth: in late 1905 Jacques was praying, 'My God, if you exist and if you are the truth, make me know it'.

A stumbling block on the path was the behaviour of the so-called Christians around them. How much we shall have to answer for at the Judgement if we do not try genuinely to live Christianity in the events of our everyday lives! And, on the other hand, how many souls, unknown to us perhaps, can be led to God by the unspoken sermon of our beliefs being shown in how we go about the little things that make up our routine existence!

In early 1906 Raissa was again dangerously ill, and this seemed to act as a catalyst in the Maritains' acceptance of Catholicism. In June 1906, along with Raissa's sister, Vera, they were received into the Catholic Church, a year to the day after their godfather, Léon Bloy, had first heard from them.


Jacques' interest and competence in biology had increased to the extent that they went on a fellowship to Heidelberg, where Jacques studied experimental embryology under Hans Driesch. As so often happens in life their original plans, which might have directed Jacques to become just another scientist, were thwarted. The work in Heidelberg was to be one more influence moving Jacques towards the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas. Hans Driesch's studies of the development of embryos of the sea-urchin had forced him to reintroduce into biology concepts akin to those of Aristotle, notably the concept of entelechy, and this had upset the mechanistic ideas current at the time.

After their return to Paris in 1908, Jacques spent some time working for the publishing firm of Hachette. The routine work there did not extend Jacques' talents in any way, but it left him with time to prepare articles for publication and to keep up his scientific and philosophical reading.

The latter soon extended to Thomism, the intellectual movement which attempted to understand and develop the theology of St Thomas Aquinas and to relate it to the problems and needs of the modern world. The final 'push' towards Thomism came from his spiritual director, a learned and holy Dominican named Father Humbert Clérissac. Though his philosophical emphasis was very different from that of the Maritains' first Catholic influence, Léon Bloy, Father Clérissac shared Bloy's hatred of mediocrity, and his forceful character overcame their prejudices against what they thought were the dry subtleties of Thomism.

Raissa was the first to open the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas, as part of the theological and philosophical formation which her director had planned for her. Raissa spent much time in mental prayer and spiritual reading, relatively confined as she was by her poor health, and her interior life was progressing rapidly. Not that she did nothing else -- she helped Jacques when she could in his compilation of several reference books for Hachette -- but she learnt to utilise the limitations imposed by her sickness as the raw material of her striving for genuine holiness.

Despite Raissa's enthusiasm for the poetry as well as the philosophy of Aquinas, Jacques allowed a year to pass before he, too, became engrossed in St Thomas. This was to be another turning point in Jacques' life, and his thorough study of Thomas was to be the foundation of his fame as one of the great commentators on Aquinas and one of the most able philosophers of this century.

For Maritain, 'Thomism is the only philosophy whose peculiar characteristic is that it is peculiar to nobody, strictly impersonal, absolutely universal'. Claims such as this usually bewilder the non- philosopher and often irritate non-Thomist philosophers, who often see in Thomism a medieval body of dogma, irrelevant to the concerns of modern man. But on the contrary, Jacques saw himself as a perennialist, a philosopher of everlastingness, of those patterns common to all things which recur and remain identical as patterns century after century. Person and society, man and the state, authority and freedom, human rights and equality, education and schooling are all topics on which Thomism helped to form Jacques' views. He never hid his religious affiliation, and so his judgements were often labelled as moralising by non-moralists and as incorrect moralising by those who moralised in a different way. In reality, Jacques was hard to pigeon-hole.

The Church and St Thomas

All of the popes of modern times have emphasised the continuing importance of Thomistic philosophy. What might be called a Thomistic renewal within the Catholic Church began in 1879 with Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical, Aeterni Patris, and this document was just coming to some sort of fruition about the time the Maritains were beginning their study of the Summa Theologiae.

More recently the present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, addressed the Eighth International Thomistic Congress in 1980 on the relevance of St Thomas to contemporary problems. After noting that since the beginning of his pontificate he had not let any propitious occasion pass without recalling the sublime figure of St Thomas Aquinas, the Holy Father went on to point out that the principle of unity in St Thomas is the harmony between the truths of reason and those of faith, so necessary to balance rationalism (reason without faith) and fideism (faith without reason). One of the reasons that has induced successive popes to commend St Thomas as a sure guide in theological and philosophical disciplines is his having set down so well the principles underlying the relationship between faith and reason. Pope John Paul II added two other reasons why St Thomas is so relevant today, and which were also characteristics of the work of Jacques Maritain, his understanding of the nature of man, and his understanding of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the words of Pope John Paul II: 'St Thomas has pointed out a path that can and should be followed and updated without betraying its spirit and fundamental principles, but also keeping in mind modern advances in science. Science's true progress can never contradict philosophy, just as philosophy can never contradict faith. . . Light can never be dimmed but only strengthened by light. Science and philosophy can and should work together so that both remain faithful to their own method' (The Pope Teaches, vol. III, No.4, p.293).

This, then, was to mark the pattern of Jacques life's work. Raissa was to help, but her expertise was to be more in the relationship between philosophy and art, particularly poetry. Thus truth, goodness and beauty were the foundations of their married life, their intellectual life, and their interior life.

The Great War

But the Maritains were never other-worldly intellectuals. Their capacity for friendship blossomed, and they began what was to continue for many years, an informal open house at which everyone was made welcome. Raissa and Vera served tea and circulated amongst their guests, making sure everyone was introduced. Vera now lived with Jacques and Raissa, acting as their secretary and housekeeper, and helping her sister through her many sicknesses.

During these formative years before World War I, when he also taught and studied philosophy at the College Stanislas, Jacques came in contact with and was influenced by some of the most brilliant and sensitive minds in France: Ernest Psichari, Charles Péguy, Georges Rouault and Jean Cocteau.

In 1914 Jacques accepted the chair of modern philosophy at the Institut Catholique in Paris, a position he held until 1939 when he was sent to the United States of America by the French Government. At the outbreak of the First World War Jacques presented himself for military service, and again in 1917 and in 1918, but each time he was classified as medically unfit because of lung weaknesses arising from childhood pleurisy.

The war was to claim many of their closest friends, including Ernest Psichari and Charles Péguy, the poet, playwright, polemicist and patriot, whose friendship with the Maritains went back to their student days. Both these men fell in action during the early days of the war. Father Clérissac also died about this time, and many other friends were also to die during the next four years of the war. One of the last was a former student of Jacques, Pierre Villard.

Pierre was a sensitive young intellectual who had been drifting into despair at the desolation of the war and had turned to Jacques for inspiration. Jacques was never slow to respond to a cry for help, and through a long correspondence he was able to encourage the development of Pierre's high moral aspirations. Little did Jacques know that Pierre was a young man of great wealth, who on his death was to leave half his fortune to the Maritains. With the money Jacques was able to start a circle for the study of Aquinas' teachings, so that Jacques and Raissa could share his philosophical and spiritual riches with a still wider group of friends. These circles were later to develop into a number of well-organised Thomist Centres.


As mentioned earlier, an over-riding impression one gets of the Maritains throughout their lives is their capacity for friendships. Here, they serve as models for our own lives. They were first of all trying to cultivate their friendship with God; they were friends with one another; and they made friendships with a wide circle of people that lasted through thick and thin. Friendship was a fundamental part of their apostolate.

Not that they used their friends in any way. They certainly helped to bring many friends to God, just as their friend Léon Bloy had helped them. They also helped their friends to bring other friends to God. While these friendships had a supernatural dimension -- and surely true friendship must desire the ultimate good, the eternal happiness of the friend -- their friendships were very human, very warm, very genuine.

Friendship is demanding, friendship is giving. Friends are frank with one another. Friendship is something we have to be aware of, to take stock of, to work at. Friendship is a natural means whereby we bring other people to God, and they in turn can bring other people, in a kind of ripple effect. This does not mean preaching; it means that one tries to develop a fervent love of God and our neighbour so that people might feel the glow of the fire of this love.

This pre-supposes that we are trying to develop an interior life. This does not just happen without effort. We need grace and spiritual direction. God has promised us the grace and through his Church has left us the means to acquire it. Spiritual direction is necessary, so that we can interpret the road signs on the path of life as we strive towards our final goal. It does not mean that we should all follow the same path towards this common goal, but it is easy to get lost without a map.

Action française

This capacity of the Maritains for friendship was soon to be tested after the Great War by what was known as the Action française affair. Action française was a movement, a school of thought rather than a highly organised group, which had been founded in the late nineteenth century and aimed at restoring the monarchy in France. This was somehow seen by its adherents as a solution to the evils in French society.

By 1920, Action française had gained considerable influence among intellectuals and it was substantial enough to bring out a daily newspaper, L'Action Française, edited by two eminent writers, Léon Daudet and Charles Maurras. The movement was opposed to the secularist and anti-clerical laws of the French republic, and most of the Maritains' friends were associated with it. Jacques had often been praised in its newspaper, and it had promoted some of his early books, but the Maritains never had any formal connection with the movement.

In 1926 Action française was finally condemned by the Archbishop of Bordeaux and Pope Pius XI as a danger to the essence of the Christian spirit. Furthermore, their newspaper and several of Charles Maurras' books were placed on the index of forbidden books. Many aspects of the business remain obscure, and it would divert us from our story to explore them. But the affair had a number of effects on the Maritains.

Some Catholics did not submit to the ban, and others did so only reluctantly. Jacques and Raissa tried to help them see the good sense of the Pope's judgement. Out of this came some important writings, especially Jacques' The things that are not Caesar's. Like the Church's ban on the movement, this was concerned with the primacy of the spiritual order, while at the same time vigorously defending the intrinsic excellence and worth of the temporal common good. Spiritually, the book was rich in its charity and humility, and its concern for souls going through a very real ordeal. Theologically, the book was a landmark for its exploration of the relations between Church and State, between the sacred and the profane.

Freedom and authority, politics and philosophy were henceforth to play a large part in the writings and in the lives of Jacques and Raissa. Spiritually, the experience not only enriched their own virtues of obedience and charity, but by their example they were able to help many other Frenchmen deepen their love for the Holy Father.

True Humanism

Artists, scientists, and composers visited the Maritains during the twenties, while they developed the study of St Thomas in order to apply it to contemporary problems. The opportunity for serious philosophical study and the inspiration it gave them in their work drew people to their study circles. The quiet strength of the Maritains' spirituality resulted, with God's grace, in many conversions, so that Jacques and Raissa became godparents many times over. Many vocations to the priesthood and the religious life were born, too, as well as an appreciation, gradual at first, but which was to reach fruition in Vatican II, of the positive aspects of the vocation of the laity.

Some critics of the Maritains have disliked their constant association of philosophy with apostolic concern. But for the Maritains philosophy was nothing if not practical. Perhaps it is appropriate here to look briefly at some aspects of Jacques' philosophy. His writings are characterised by exact thought and lack of irrelevancies, and few men can be compared to him in respect to the acumen with which he has analysed political, economic and social questions. Out of these analyses he has formulated a true humanism, suitable for modern man, but arising from an appreciation of historical man.

In the middle ages, for instance, man was recognised as a person, 'a unity of a spiritual nature, endowed with freedom of choice, wounded in nature, made for a spiritual end'. The middle ages affirmed 'the sovereign liberty and efficacy of divine grace, and the reality of the human free will'. What Maritain calls 'the practical attitude of man in the face of his destiny' was one of unconscious and unreflecting simplicity of man's response to the effusion of divine grace'. Then, through the influence of the philosophy of Descartes, although 'much progress has been made . . . the misfortune of modern history is that all this progress has been directed by a spirit of anthropocentrism, by a naturalistic conception of man, and a Calvinist or Molinist conception of grace and freedom'.

The proposed remedy for this warped humanism is a humanism which tends to make man more truly human, which respects the rights of the human person. This does not mean a reversion to the humanism of medieval Christendom. The present era demands a society which is 'vitally Christian rather than one which is decoratively so'. To this end, Jacques emphasised the need for pluralism and personalism. Pluralism is demanded by the variety and diversity of the modern world. Likewise, without fitting respect for personality, as distinct from individuality, the new civilisation cannot function.

Jacques saw the acceptance of a true philosophy of knowledge as one of the fundamental solutions to the spirit of anthropocentric humanism. 'This conquest of being, this progressive attainment of new truths, or the progressive realisation of the ever-growing and ever-renewed significance of truths already attained, opens and enlarges our mind and life, and really situates them in freedom and autonomy' (Education at the Crossroads, p. 12).

Jacques and Raissa were as much students at St John of the Cross as they were of St Thomas Aquinas. Although it is probably more obvious in Raissa's writings, especially her poetry, both Maritains had the souls of contemplatives, despite their increasingly hectic lives. Not that they were dreamers in any sense; rather, their apostolic lives were the fruit of their contemplation, particularly their mental prayer.

Their contemplation was more than mental prayer though. It was an awareness of the presence of God in their daily lives, a sense of being at ease with the will of God, in somewhat the same way as a happily married couple can be concentrating on different things in the same room yet are nevertheless aware of each other's presence.

Their long study of mysticism and poetry made them realise the inadequacies of language, and it is partly this, and partly Jacques' pedagogic instincts, which make him return again and again to the same themes, such as the interplay of freedom and authority, man and the state, science and religion, faith and reason, grace and nature. Furthermore, most of the books which deal with these topics grew out of talks and essays.


Jacques was in great demand as a speaker, even though he underestimated his gifts in this regard. It was this ability, as well as the fame of his writings, which led to invitations to visit America in the 1920s.

During these trips he continued to analyse the relationship between divine grace and free will. Out of this grew his belief in the excellence and worth of the temporal common good. The common good of people requires that political society should have a hierarchical structure, but, at the same time, authority must be exercised for the sake of people. Jacques believed that the American ideal of government of the people, by the people and for the people was meaningless if the people were intellectually undeveloped. Hence the enormous importance of education.

In education, as elsewhere, Jacques emphasised freedom, but not the licence of unbridled freedom. Individuals, and nations too for that matter, can become intolerable dictators if their assertion of freedom degenerates into mere licence, such as when they ignore the rights of others or their own responsibilities, or when they refuse to give to others the tolerance they demand for themselves. He espoused a liberal education requiring discipline and bending and shaping, but not moulding. Which is why we need teachers, but teachers who respect the spiritual dynamism and the mysterious identity within each child.

The Maritains had gone to Chicago in 1932 after Jacques had given a series of lectures at the Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. This had been found by the Basilian Fathers, and Etienne Gilson and Gerald Phelan, with whom Jacques was to enjoy a long collaboration. Phelan later founded a similar institute at Notre Dame University, which was also to benefit from the Maritains' visits during the thirties.

These visits were to continue until 1938, when they also visited Argentina and Brazil - there had been a Jacques Maritain Centre in Rio de Janeiro since 1925.

It was in 1938 in New York that Jacques Maritain met Thomas Merton, who later recalled in The Seven Storey Mountain: 'I only spoke a few conventional words to Maritain, but the impression you got from this gentle, stooping Frenchman with much grey hair was one of tremendous kindness and simplicity and godliness. And that was enough; you did not need to talk to him. I came away feeling very comforted that there was such a person in the world'.

Although the Maritains' interests in the USA increased during the 1930s they were still as involved as ever in events in Europe, particularly in their homeland. Thus we find Jacques a co-signatory in 1934 of a pamphlet entitled Pour le Bien Commun. This manifesto expressed the Maritains' attitudes to social issues, and was an application to France of the teachings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.

The Second World War

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the French Ministry of Cultural Relations urged Jacques to carry out his planned schedule of lectures in North America: he was of more value to France as a symbol and source of encouragement than a possible prisoner (particularly with a Jewish wife) in Europe. Thus the years of the war were spent in exile in USA, where, in addition to his lecturing and writing, Jacques helped to found with Jacques Hadamard, the famous mathematician, and others, the École Libre des Hautes Études, a university-in-exile in New York. Much of the material produced in these years was widely distributed by underground groups in France to sustain resistance to the invaders and their puppet regime.

It was during the years of the Second World War that Raissa produced those two beautiful books, We Were Friends Together and Adventures in Grace. Her admirable translator into English, Julie Kernan, had this to say of Raissa: 'As our association and friendship deepened, I appreciated even more her gentleness and simplicity, the charity of her judgements, the remarkable range of her mind, her modest estimate of herself'. Raissa's natural timidity reasserted itself during the war years, and, with her poor health and the depressing news from France, she became something of a recluse. It was left to her more practical sister, Vera, to manage the details of the small household, while Raissa spent much time at her desk.

As soon as the USA entered the war Jacques began regular broadcasts to France. By 1942 his effect on French morale was so great that Jacques was invited by General de Gaulle to enter his National Committee of Free France. Jacques turned down the offer though, as he felt he had more to offer France by continuing in his role of teacher and broadcaster.

Moved by natural compassion, as well as the love of his friends and his knowledge of the cultural heritage of Raissa and Vera, Jacques made several attacks in his broadcasts on anti-Semitism. Many of Jacques' radio pleas to his compatriots in France were on the the theme of fraternal unity, and it was a bitter disappointment when he returned to France at the end of the war to see how little there was of it. Perhaps this is why he felt that he could no longer ignore the plea of General de Gaulle to serve his country in public life.

Ambassador to the Vatican

For three years from 1945 Jacques served in the post of French Ambassador to the Vatican. The particular importance of this position at that time arose from the fact that France had been torn by both the occupation and the Liberation, and many problems had arisen for Church- State relations in what was a nominally Catholic country. In particular, the provisional government's demand that more than thirty bishops resign their sees required delicate handling by Maritain and his opposite number in Paris, the Papal Nuncio to France, who was none other than Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, later to be Pope John XXIII.

Another issue was the worker-priest movement, to which both Archbishop Roncalli and Jacques were sympathetic. A number of the French clergy were experimenting with this form of apostolate, but it was later to be condemned by Rome because of its excesses. Jacques' interest was symptomatic of his concern over many years with how best Christianity should come to terms with secular reality, and how Christ could be brought into every aspect of society, and not just a particular time on Sundays.

Another who was involved in encouraging such developments was Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, later to be Pope Jolin's successor as Pope Paul VI. He had long been an admirer of the Maritains, and was later to refer to Jacques as his 'teacher'. He had actually translated into Italian one of Jacques' early books, The Three Reformers, many years before.

The influence of Jacques on the two Popes cannot be fully assessed here, but there are indications of Jacques' thought in the great social encyclicals of these Popes, John's Mater et Magistra, (CTS S 259) and Paul's Populorum Progressio (CTS S 273).

Pope Paul's encyclical on the development of peoples received universal acclaim for the way in which, as Arthur Bottomley, the British Minister of Overseas Development in 1966, put it, it 'proclaimed in loud and clear tones what everyone's responsibilities are in a world where two out of every three persons live in conditions which we in this country would not wish on our domestic animals'.

Pope Paul refers explicity to Jacques' writings (cf.n.20) and Jacques' overall influence is well illustrated by the following quotation from the encyclical: 'if further development calls for the work of more and more technicians, even more necessary are the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism which will enable modern man to find himself anew by embracing the higher values of love and friendship, of prayer and contemplation. This is what will permit the fullness of authentic development, a development which is for each and for all the transition from less human conditions to those which are more human'.

Raissa was enraptured by the beauty and history of Rome, even though the living conditions there in the first post-war years were terrible. As well as her social duties as the wife of an ambassador, she managed to do a lot of writing whilst in Rome. She finished a work on Abraham and the first ages of the human moral conscience, some poems inspired by various Roman scenes, and a book on the art of Marc Chagall, a formidable effort testifying to her versatility, sensitivity and learning.

Jacques gave a number of lectures at the University of St Thomas in Rome (the Angelicum) and saw some of his wartime writings published. His ambassadorial duties were demanding in that era of reconstruction and resettlement of refugees, and the time he had to give to these was at the expense of the reading and reflection which had previously characterised his life.

During this time, too, Jacques was appointed President of the French delegation to a UNESCO Conference in Mexico. There he gave the opening address on the topic of 'The Possibilities for Cooperation in a Divided World'.

Last years together

The period in Rome was followed by seven years at Princeton University, New Jersey, as Professor of Philosophy. Princeton then conferred the title of Professor Emeritus on him, and other honours came the way of Jacques from many other universities, not the least being the emergence of a number of Jacques Maritain Centres such as that established at Notre Dame University, Indiana, in 1958.

During his time at Princeton Jacques had continued to give lectures at Chicago, Notre Dame and Hunter College, New York. The great product of this period was published eventually as Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems.

1954 saw Jacques felled by a heart attack from which he recovered slowly. Throughout this ordeal the affection in which Jacques was held by so many people moved Raissa to tears, as Julie Kernan recounts in her book, Our Friend, Jacques Maritain. A heart attack also struck Vera in 1956, to be followed by cancer, from which she died after a long illness on the last day of 1959. As well as acting as their secretary and housekeeper, Vera had been as close to Raissa as two sisters could possibly be. It was not long before a fatal illness was to strike Raissa, too. Back in Paris in mid-1960, she suffered a cerebral thrombosis. Her ordeal turned out to be particularly painful, but she bore it with the serenity of one who had always lived in the presence of God. He eventually called her to her final home in the month of the Holy Souls that year.

Jacques was devastated. Their marriage had been so very, very happy, despite Raissa's illness. Only a few years after their wedding they had, with the approval of their spiritual director, decided to live a life of celibacy within marriage for the love of God. This is almost incomprehensible in a world preoccupied with sex, but in the context of their marriage, and only with the advice of their confessors, it was a life of real heroism.

Childless though they might have been, their obvious affection for one another right through their married lives spilled over to their friends, and particularly to their numerous godchildren. Distraught as Jacques was by the loss of his best friend of 56 years, God was not going to allow Jacques to be alone, or idle.

The Little Brothers

A call for help soon came to Jacques from Father Rene Voillaume, the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus. Jacques was invited to be the lay advisor on their philosophical studies at their study centre in Toulouse. There he found himself surrounded by about sixty young men who had joined this unusual religious congregation. Its ideals are those of Father Charles de Foucauld, a former army officer and explorer who devoted his life to the salvation of the desert nomads of the Sahara. When they have finished their period of preparation the brothers work at menial tasks and return to their religious houses each evening to spend many hours in prayer. They wear a habit over their working clothes when at home in community.

In preparing lectures and seminars for these students Jacques grew younger and healthier, and out of these talks came one of his most important contributions to Thomism, God and the Permission of Evil.

Honours kept coming to Jacques despite his relative seclusion in the Garonne, honours he would have loved his dear Raissa to share. As Julie Kernan reports, he never recovered from her loss, and kept fresh flowers before two pictures of her on his desk.

The year after her death Jacques started working through Raissa's notebooks and papers, which dealt with her interior life and which she had naturally kept to herself during her lifetime. Eventually, under pressure from friends, these were published as Raissa's Journal, a powerful testimony of spiritual growth whilst living in the midst of the world.

During the Second Vatican Council Jacques was invited to Rome. He was much moved by the ecumenical efforts of Pope Paul VI and the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I, an effort of reconciliation which Jacques had fostered more than thirty years before. In his closing address Pope Paul paid special tribute to 'the great Christian philosopher Maritain'.

Some of the questions to be discussed at the Vatican Council were issues which Jacques had spent his life struggling with, particularly the relationship of Christianity to the spirit of the age. The aim of Jacques Maritain was to separate the wheat from the chaff in modern thought; a false egalitarianism often prevents us from recognising the chaff.

Maritain himself regarded the delineation of the lay vocation as one of the great accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council. Jacques was an 'inveterate layman' who was opposed to that form of clericalism, still extant, where the clergy try to regiment the laity in the temporal sphere.

Lay people must become the eyes and ears, the voice and legs and arms of Jesus Christ, as they try to Christianise the secular world, but in a lay way, not in a clerical way, and acting on their own responsibility. Many of these ideas appeared in Jacques' two books, The Peasant of the Garonne and On the Church of Christ, which appeared as he neared his ninetieth birthday.

Yet in 1969 this complete layman asked to join, and was accepted into the Little Brothers, with whom he had spent so much time in Toulouse. A number of concessions were made to his frailty, and eventually he made his vows. Curiously, the Little Brothers, whose congregation includes priests, have many of the characteristics of the worker-priest movement which so interested Archbishop Roncalli and Jacques many years before, but with safeguards to ensure that in doing the work of the Lord they do not forget the Lord of the work, as Pope John Paul II was to put it when he spoke to priests and seminarians in Ireland.

He steadily grew more feeble, but he managed one last visit to Raissa's grave in Kolbsheim before returning to Toulouse where he died of a heart attack on 28 April 1973. It was almost seven hundred years after the death of St Thomas Aquinas, interest in whose work he had done so much to foster, and in the city where the Angelic Doctor had been reburied. His last wish was to be buried beside Raissa, and that is where his earthly remains now lie, while they await the final resurrection.


What more can we learn from the Maritains' lives? To appreciate their thought one must really go to their books, and we have mentioned some of the easier ones to read. Many of Jacques' works, such as his Introduction to Logic and Introduction to Philosophy, are by no means easy reading. He was not always well served by his English translators, and his books, which often grew out of lectures, sometimes presuppose a milieu of interaction within a group of people. They demand concentration and effort, but the persevering reader will be rewarded by clarity of thought, nobility of vision and an uncommon common sense.

The Maritains' approach to God was never legalistic or narrowly scholastic. It was based on love: adherence to the will of God, not the avoidance of sin, was their guide. This is a matter of being open to the grace of God, and of really wanting to please God in the same way a successful businessman wants to make money or a hard working student wants to learn.

How can we please God? One way is to use our talents for the glory of God, and in this we can make Jacques and Raissa our model. It is one thing to make a morning offering; it is quite another to offer up all the details of our humdrum, everyday activities. Of course, Jacques and Raissa were superbly talented in their different ways, but all of us have talents on loan from God, whether it be the one, the five or the ten of the Gospel parable.

If we focus on the highpoints of the Maritains' lives, their great success as writers and teachers, we can miss the effort needed by Raissa to accept cheerfully her almost constant illness and to try to maintain a plan for her interior life, and not just adopt an invalid mentality. We can miss the effort of Jacques to read, to reflect, and to struggle with the difficult passages of philosophy and theology and to do things as a layman and not just a cleric in lay clothes.

We can miss their efforts to be true friends to their friends, their efforts to realise that to fail to be concerned for the eternal salvation of a friend is to fail to be a friend, that friends do not count the cost, that friends are not begrudging of time or effort.

The lives of the Maritains, impressive as they were, are more than something to be read about, to be admired, and then forgotten. Both their writings and the no less real qualities of their virtues are part of the heritage we share as members of the Universal Church, for which we thank God as we honour the centenary of their births.

1.This quotation is from We Have Been Friends Together, p.40; as this is not intended to be a scholarly document, references will only be included occasionally, to aquaint the reader unfamiliar with the Maritains' main books and essays.