Jacques Maritain: Flannery’s Go-To Thomist

“The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it. I didn’t make this up. I got it from St. Thomas (via Maritain) who allows that art is wholly concerned with the good of that which it is made; it has no utilitarian end.” [ Flannery O’Connor from her letter to Fr. J.H. McCown of 9 MAY ’56, one of fourteen letters mentioning Jacques Maritain in The Habit of Being)

One of Flannery O’Connor’s favorite philosopher-theologians might have preferred to shun that hyphenation. Jacques Maritain was one of two thinkers along with Etienne Gilson, who was most important in resurrecting Thomas Aquinas from obscurity after the turn of the Twentieth Century. [If you are interested in Gilson, you might look at https://jamesjoycereadingcircle.com/2021/08/26/aquinas-gilson-and-the-hillbilly-bulldog-of-milledgeville/    ]. 

The turn of Thomist fortunes began in 1879 with Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris when Pope Leo found it necessary to defend the Church against new secular philosophies and emerging science. The metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, foundations of Catholic metaphysics, with their esteem of absolutes, became untenable under assault by new scientific discoveries. Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859. By the mid-1870s, Frederick Nietzsche was already writing commentary that would become his secular philosophy, an alternative to nihilism which concluded that life had no meaning. 

Aquinas had combined Ethics, Logic, and Philosophy among his theological writings, as was common in Europe during the Middle Ages. All Metaphysics, all Philosophy, even all Astronomy were inextricable from Theology in the age of credulity (Herr 199-201). Then after the Reformation, the Church allowed itself to retreat from Logic (not a retreat from being logical) to focus on the fundamental tenets of faith. By the first two decades of the twentieth century, Aquinas’ philosophical writings were labeled “safe norms” that might be taught but not to exclude other teachings. This accommodation was necessary because the core tenets of Aquinas were incongruent with Jesuit thinking. By 1914, the Summa Theologiae became a text required when institutions awarded pontifical academic degrees. By 1917, Thomas was required-content for courses taught in philosophy and theology at Catholic institutions.

I’ve strayed from Maritain, not more than necessary, I hope. Protestant by birth, Jacques Maritain studied at the Sorbonne. As a student, Maritain entered into a suicide pact prompted by the apparent futility of life, but after attending the lectures of Henrí Bergson, Maritain found hope. Bergson’s philosophy opposed the current theory that modern science can and would solve all society’s ills. Jacques, influenced by his wife’s family and his friend Léon Bloy, converted to Catholicism in 1906. After that, he abandoned Bergson’s school of thought, dedicating himself to understanding Thomas Aquinas.

Maritain, like Aquinas, believes that metaphysics should investigate ‘the first principles of things and their highest causes.” He also held with Thomists that there are fundamental metaphysical questions to which Aquinas’s responses are largely correct, although more recent science may change our presentation of the core principles. One of Maritain’s treatments of Aquinas was particularly important in light of Leo XIII’s objectives. This was the distinction between the individual as a unique identity versus the individual’s membership among a class. Marxist teachings, for example, were to emphasize class membership at the expense of uniqueness. 

During the mid-twenties, he had been writing about and active in social movements but changed course when Pius XI censored Action Francaise for anti-democratic demagoguery. By the 1930s, it was clear that Maritain’s mission would be to secure The Aquino’s place in modernity. Maritain’s form of liberal humanism was most popular in Latin America. He attempted to reconcile the cause of the worker with property rights but found himself under attack from The Right. This topic extended the Thomist balance of class and individual.

In Maritain’s view, a social philosophy “centered in the dignity of the human person” had to be distinguished from “every social philosophy centered in the primacy of the individual and the private good.” Here we must note that Maritain did not regard the words individual and personas synonyms. Where “individuality” signifies “the material pole,” where “the individual become[s] the center of all,” “personality” signifies “the spiritual pole, the person, source of liberty and bountifulness” (Salver).

After retiring from teaching, he remained in Princeton until the death of his sister-in-law in 1959. He then returned to France, living among The Little Brothers of Jesus. He continued to write. Maritain found himself out of step both with French secular thinking about the role of the Church in society and with religious Modernism. He spoke out against Goblot’s materialism, Bergson’s intuitionism, and Cartesian and post-Cartesian thought—for what he saw as its de-emphasis of metaphysics (Sweet). You might think of this as a defense of the philosophies of Aquinas and Aristotle against Descartes and Positivism (“seeing is believing”), in general.

For Maritain, metaphysics “is always in need of renewal and defense.” He saw his task as “to renovate” Aquinas’s thought– “a task whose novelty may well be greater than [Thomists] themselves realise (sic).” He also sought to ensure that these metaphysics dealt with “the first principles of things and their highest causes” (from Metaphysics quoted in Sweet). Metaphysics is essential to any philosophy, according to Maritain. It is the study of the “essence of being” while remaining an insoluble mystery. In this, he relies on intuition rather than solely on the observable, something he would have warmed to under Bergeson’s tutelage. Above all, Maritain’s goal was to expand the foundations of the Summa Theologicae in modern science while separating Aquinas’ theology from his secular philosophy.


Works Cited

Herr, William A. Catholic Thinkers in the Clear: Giants of Catholic Thought from Augustine To Rahner. The Thomas More Press, 1985, pp. 195–206. 

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being, Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999, 137.

Salver, Jerry. “Jacques Maritain: Visionary or Leftist Ideaologue?” 23 MAR 2020. https://onepeterfive.com/jacques-maritain-visionary-leftist/ 

Sweet, William. “Jacques Maritain.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Spring 2019 Edition), 8 July 2008, https://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/archives/spr2019/entries/maritain/. 

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