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Jacques Maritain: modern philosophy in the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas
Standing squarely in the tradition of his master, St Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) designated himself a Christian philosopher with the watchwords, "I must Thomistise" as his life's work and vocation. A philosopher of being, he sought to penetrate and deepen our understanding of the inexhaustable mystery of reality.
Maritain's major work, The Degrees of Knowledge (1937), is a classic analysis of the different forms of knowing, from scientific knowledge to mystical experience. A profound believer, he was possessed like Thomas of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in abundance, his reason strengthened in its order by the light of a deep faith.
Having a great sense of the importance of speculative truth, he saw beyond the material sciences as a form of knowledge - a knowledge which could be turned to evil as well as good. Metaphysics to him was a natural wisdom, the summit of natural understanding.
To Maritain, the cardinal sin of modern man was that he did not realise that in the order of good, God had the first initiative and man the second initiative. In Maritain's own words, "The Divine Plentitude in us is primary in relation to our movement of ascent." The tragedy is, as he says in Science and Wisdom, "An age of anthropocentric humanism cut off from the Incarnation, an age in which science finally carried the day against wisdom, and the effort of progress turned to the destruction of human values."
His book Science and Wisdom is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1940. To an age that is essentially practical, where praxis is the ultimate truth, he preached the primacy of the spiritual, for wisdom is desirable for its own sake and in the word of God absolutely fulfilling. It penetrates to the very marrow of the self, and leads to a knowledge that casts its light over the whole of reality and impregnates and rules, with its superior vision, the practical life of man in the world.
Maritain, however, did not philosophise in an ivory tower, for he carried the principles of Thomas into the very depths of human life. As he saw it, moral progress was the greatest sign of human progress and in the public realm untruth, injustice and all forms of immorality were treason to the life of ordinary men. As a political philosopher, he penetrated in great depth the nature of the human person, the reality of the common good and the desire for freedom and liberation by modern man.
He recognised the coming of age of the worker in modern life, that a worker should no longer be condemned to inferiority and servitude, but enjoy the full fruits of economic justice, culture and human status. A great advocate of democracy, he saw its dependence on Gospel values and in this he prefigured Vatican II's The Church in the Modern World. He was at once a personalist and a communitarian and went to the roots of the weakness of liberal individualistic democracy, with its rejection of objective truth, its moral relativism and the resultant danger of moral nihilism.
Maritain understood that democracy, divorced from the Gospel, and a child of Rousseau, could deteriorate into decadence. In this regard, he was no different from John Paul II. He was a progressive, open to development and growth in human history, but, tied to the faith and living tradition of the Church, he never veered in his Christian humanism into unreality.
Maritain had a certain sympathy for the radicals, their thirst for justice and human progress, but realised that they lacked understanding of the fallen nature of man and the need for redemption, which led to naivety, historically, and a superficiality that denied the tragic. The contemporary relativism and blindness by many Catholic intellectuals he would see as "kneeling before the feet of the world". He considered the spontaneous flowering of human nature divorced from the need of a Redeemer the worst folly. Like St Paul, he sought to bring all reality captive in Christ, and not reject any truth in the progress of man to his eternal destiny. His Thomism, therefore, was capable of indefinite development.
In the field of ethics, poetry and aesthesics, Maritain philosophied with distinction. His work Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953) showed the growth of self-awareness of art and poetry in modern times. His work on the relationship between art and morality, between transcendent and aesthetic beauty, show the penetration of a philosopher of genius.
A philosopher who recognised the ultimate importance of love and above all of divine love, he knew that only on the level of divine and human love can the personal endowments and the deepest secrets of the human person be revealed. Only through the spur of love can we come to a deeper knowledge and greatest knowledge of all, the triune God, our supreme good and final end. The beatific vision alone gives ultimate and saturating happiness.
Jacques Maritain entered into all the realms of life. As a philosopher of culture, the triumphs, tragedies and alienations of the human spirit were not foreign to him. His work breathed in the atmosphere of the charity of Christ, of an immeasureable love, and so was open to the whole of reality - natural and supernatural. A great genius and sage, his written legacy is, as Etienne Gilson says, "a treasure trove to be mined, intensely original." He stands with Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas as a universal thinker and great lover of truth.
E.J. Borich is a Catholic writer from Wellington, New Zealand.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 12 No 6 (July 1999), p. 13
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