St. Thomas Aquinas / by Jacques Maritain

Preface to the First French Edition

This work is not an exposition of Thomist doctrine. Rather, it is an attempt to bring to light certain essential aspects of the personality and work of the Angelic Doctor. As much as of his past work, indeed even more than of it, I am speaking of his present and forever efficacious work. For it is not of a medieval Thomism, but of a lasting and present Thomism that I speak.

I wrote in the preface to Antimoderne: "It would be exceedingly naive to enter upon modern thought and to sympathize with all the good that there is in it without first attempting to discern its spiritual principles. . . . On the contrary, once this scrutiny has been completed, once the foundation-work which protects the specific character of our intellectual life has been assured, then -- but only then -- can we and ought we give free play to the universalist tendency, so admirably manifested in one like Saint Thomas Aquinas, which benevolently and peaceably draws Catholic thought to seek everywhere agreements rather than oppositions, fragments of truth rather than privations and deviations, to save and assume rather than destroy, to build up rather than break down. Assuredly work is not lacking for Catholics, and there is in such work something to try their spirit of initiative. For they are obliged to face a task of universal integration. . . ."

It is above all to this task of integration that contemporary Thomist philosophy will henceforth, we hope, apply its effort. It was necessary to begin by renewing the vital bonds which permit wisdom to continue among men, and by undoing the great errors which impeded this continuity. This critique of past error ought truly never cease; but it is toward the future that we are turned.

We have no illusions about the fact that such an enterprise has to be continued amid an environment of general frivolity. As regards Catholics, if it is true that too great a number have not been willing, even after fifty years, to comprehend the lessons of the Holy Spirit and of Rome, which asked them not to diminish a divine religion by imposing on it too human standards, how can one be surprised that too often also, in the face of that most difficult of all tasks -- which however is theirs -- of thinking the present world and moment in the light of eternal truths, they have refused to acquire, as Leo XIII exhorted them to do, the doctrinal equipment they needed from the Common Doctor of the Church. Thus it is not surprising that from the midst of an intelligentsia at once pious and shallow, the most insidious and the most lively opposition to Saint Thomas has appeared.

As to those regions where one believes himself to be free from the First Truth, what would be extraordinary is if Thomism were not there the object of strong aversion.

These enmities, however, can but encourage us to persevere the more. They show how much the Thomist renaissance inconveniences both a certain eclectic complacency, as well as all those who contemn Christian culture. Already it has triumphed over many obstacles; one can no longer ignore it, one can no longer stifle it, and all over the world it attracts minds to its study. We know that the wisdom of Saint Thomas traverses the paths of the earth before the footsteps of God. The more the powers of illusion increase, the more those who love truth will feel themselves drawn toward the vast light of this wisdom: ibi congregabuntur et aquilae.1 Our task is to pave a way toward it. This is why we have said and say again: Vae mihi, si non thomistizavero.2

If those who are scandalized by this sentence had done me the honor of reading with some attention, instead of indulging in convenient simplifications, they would perhaps have understood that it is not "for the tranquillity of my soul" but rather for the love of their souls that I thomistize; they would not allege that I am interested only in "declaring illegitimate" and "doing away with" the aspirations of our time, and they would not hold against me the very thing that I too am thinking, to wit, that "it is a matter of putting in order the abundance of those desires which the modern world engenders, and in order to accomplish this it is necessary to reckon with them." Finally they would realize my aim is not to "proclaim order" but rather, as long as my strength and voice hold out, to summon workers who under the direction of the Angelic Doctor will consecrate themselves to "making order" according to the truth. In the domain of philosophy this work was begun a long time ago; yet it was hardly begun, so vast is the work and so difficult to conduct. As for me, I feel I have as yet done nothing.

It is simply nonsense to interpret, as do other critics, neo-Thomism" as a "panacea" proposed in order to dispense with intellectual effort and encourage immobility, or destined, in the words of yet another, to assure a feeling of social security; to pretend that for Thomists the Summa Theologiae is a "massive and even exclusive revelation" of all truth, etc. I confess some satisfaction in seeing the adversaries of a philosophy I love reduced to such obvious untruths.

Nonetheless, I am taking advantage of the occasion they furnish to declare again:

There is a Thomist philosophy; there is no neo-Thomist philosophy. I am not trying to include the past in the present, but to maintain in the now the presence of the eternal.

Thomism does not want to return to the Middle Ages. As I wrote in the preface to Antimoderne, "If I am anti-modern, it is not by personal taste, certainly, but because modern self-complacency, the offspring of the anti-Christian revolution, obliges me to be so by its spirit; because it itself makes opposition to the human patrimony its own distinctive characteristic, hates and despises the past and adores itself, and because I hate and despise this very hating and despising and this spiritual impurity; but if it is a matter of saving and assimilating all the riches of being which are accumulated in modern times, of desiring renewals, and of loving the effort of those who continue to pioneer and break new ground, then I wish nothing so much as to be ultra-modern. And in truth do not Christians beseech the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth? Are they not awaiting the life of the world to come? It is there that there will be something new, and for everyone. I love the art of the cathedrals, Giotto and Angelico. But I detest neo-Gothic and pre-Raphaelism. I know that the course of time is irreversible; much as I admire the era of Saint Louis, I do not therefore wish, according to the absurd desire that certain penetrating critics generously claim for me, to return to the Middle Ages. I hope to see re-

stored, in a new world, and for the informing of a new matter, the spiritual principles and the eternal norms of which medieval civilization, in its better periods, presents us with but a particular historic realization, superior in quality, despite its enormous deficiencies, but definitely past."

Thomism claims to use reason to distinguish the true from the false; it does not wish to destroy but to purify modern thought, and to integrate everything true that has been discovered since the time of Saint Thomas. It is an essentially assimilative and unifying philosophy, the only one which attempts, across the centuries and continents, a work of continuity and universality. It is also the only one which, while rising to knowledge of the supra-sensible, first demands of experience a full adherence to the sensible real. It is its task to draw forth from the immense contributions of the experimental sciences, accumulated after four centuries, an authentic philosophy of nature -- as, in quite another domain, to join the artistic treasure of modern times to a philosophy of art and beauty that is truly universal and at the same time comprehensive of the efforts of the present moment.3

Thomism is neither of the right nor of the left; it is not situated in space, but in the spirit.

Thomism is a wisdom. Between it and the particular forms of culture incessant vital exchanges ought to prevail, but it is in its essence rigorously independent of these particular forms. Thus Thomist philosophy possesses the most universal principles of esthetics, and yet one could not -- this is very clear -- speak of a specifically "Thomist" literary school, painting, novel,

or poem. Thomist theology, also, incorporates the great principles of Christian politics-and yet one could not speak of a "Thomist" political party. The wisdom of Saint Thomas transcends every particularization. And in this it shares something of Catholicism itself. Nolite tangere. Catholicism is a religion, both universal and universalist, the true religion. Thomism is a philosophy and a theology. "Catholic" applied to something other than this religion, "Thomist" to something other than this philosophy and this theology, are no more than material designations, referring not to what derives essentially from Catholicism or from Thomism, but to the activity actually exercised, in a particular domain, by some Catholic or Thomist "subject." There is nothing we ought to dread more than having the truth, divine or human, judged according to our limitations and our errors.

To imagine Thomism as a garment which was worn in the thirteenth century and is worn no longer, as though the value of a metaphysics were a matter of time, is simply an illiterate way of thinking. Intelligence demands that we hold one philosophic system out of all others -- if it is true -- as alone valid. This need not obscure one's awareness that philosophic research is indefinitely progressive. (This progress is brought about in a different way for the experimental sciences; for the sciences are constantly controlled and rectified by empirical verifications. The price of the superiority of philosophy over science is that it can be developed in error. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish two ledgers of its progress, according as it progresses of itself by virtue of the increases of truth due to the continuity of a constantly maintained effort in the line of the true, or according as it progresses accidentally by virtue of the increases of truth procured in fact by the endless multiplicity of devious attempts, which can advance in error only by draining from the true.)

It is no less childish to regard the value of a metaphysics as dependent on a social structure to be preserved or to be destroyed. Wisdom has other standards. The interpretations of history inspired by Marx or by Sorel, by the very fact that they consider material causality to be effectively at work in the human order, can indeed account for the success or failure of a philosophy in a certain social environment: they can say nothing of what is formal (genuinely distinctive and typical) in this philosophy. And when it is a question of a doctrine more or less outlined or prepared in the most ancient philosophic traditions of humanity, formed in the Hellenic society of the time of Aristotle, taken up and systematized in the feudal society of the days of Thomas Aquinas, and whose spirituality passes intact over the most divers ages, it is a particularly striking absurdity to see in it a "defense reaction" of the bourgeois society of our time, a society, moreover, based upon supreme principles which are the very opposite of the principles of Saint Thomas.

The philosophy of Saint Thomas is independent in itself of the data of faith: its principles and structure depend upon experience and reason alone.

While remaining, however, completely distinct from such data of faith, this philosophy is still in vital communication with the superior wisdoms of theology and contemplation. It is through its contact with these superior wisdoms, as with the intellectual life of the Church, that it receives the strength to maintain among men the purity and the universality which characterize it.

The truths which I have just recalled are, I admit, most elementary. Whatever use I may have made of italics, in lieu of billboard letters or illuminated signs, is, I think, insufficient to hold the attention of certain minds who are set against understanding. As for myself, when I explain to my contemporaries the necessity of enrolling in the school of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I know that I am there merely to say it to them, not to persuade them in spite of themselves. "He that beareth, let him hear: and he that forbeareth, let him forbear." 4

There is, in the depths of the opposition to the present renaissance of the philosophy of Saint Thomas, a unique prejudice: one of my critics ingenuously allowed it to appear, when he spoke of that "author of the thirteenth century" whom one "is pleased to raise above history." The question is to know whether or not one is right in admitting that there is something above history, and that there can be supra-historical values. No! reply my critics. They are quite prepared to recognize that Thomas Aquinas was a great luminary, as great as one wishes, sublime, immense: but on condition that his light was and no longer is; on condition that nothing of Saint Thomas remains but what of him was able to pass, from wave to wave, into the flux of what succeeded him. What offends them, shocks and scandalizes them, is that one thinks that he persists always, that he, Thomas Aquinas, dominates history, that his light because it is spiritual, that his thought because it is true, remain, with their essential grandeur and their essential efficacy, today as in the time of Saint Louis. Immersing every reality, even the spiritual, in the flux of time, regarding the very substance of wisdom as essentially temporal and historical, they think that to admit any immutability compelling recognition is to obstruct time, to halt history, to solidify the very flux of succession; they do not see that the immutability of what wisdom has once acquired is not in time, but above it, and far from stopping history, accelerates its course and the progress of knowledge. Their philosophy, beneath its lively manner, is poverty itself, devoid of intellectuality, a basic materialism. What I affirm against it is that truth does not pass, does not flow away with history; that the spirit does not run out, that there are stabilities not of inertia, but of spirituality and of life; non-temporal values; eternal acquisitions; that time is in the eternal as a piece of gold clasped in a hand; and that the intellect is above time.

January 1930

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