In the nineteenth century, the West took great pride in its independence from the Church, an independence based on a new public authority rooted in the language of the natural sciences. Liberals and socialists disagreed on the nature of the economy, but both appealed to science to justify their positions. In France, this general faith in science came to be celebrated and advanced under the banner of “positivism,” an ideology that reduced the criteria of truth to empirically verifiable facts and the mechanistic, deterministic laws discernable from those facts. This ideal of scientific truth stood as the shining glory of nineteenth-century Western civilization, but it drove one sensitive, agnostic student at the Sorbonne, France’s premier university, to the brink of suicide.
That man was Jacques Maritain. Born in 1882 and raised in a Protestant, free-thinking family milieu, Maritain would convert to Catholicism in 1906 and go on to be the most influential Catholic public philosopher of the twentieth century. Maritain is best known today for his role in guiding Catholic thought toward its rapprochement with modern political democracy. But these achievements in the field of political philosophy have unfortunately hindered appreciation for those aspects of his life and thought that transcend the contingencies of modern politics. Maritain came to the Catholic Church as a man searching for a truth beyond positivistic materialism, yet also searching for an authentic way of living beyond the material prosperity and technological wizardry the West still holds up to the world as the highest goal of human aspiration.
Like many sensitive young intellectuals of his day, Maritain’s dissatisfaction with the dominant bourgeois materialism originally led him to pursue the cause of socialist materialism. He imbibed socialist politics at an early age from his mother, Geneviève Favre, who reclaimed her maiden name after divorcing Jacques’ father. Still, the dream of a more equitably distributed material bounty could not quell Maritain’s doubts about the desirability of living in a world that could offer no more than material comfort. Moving in the socialist circles of the Sorbonne, he met a young Russian Jewish emigrée, Raïssa Oumançoff. The two shared both a commitment to the social justice principles of socialist politics and a growing despair concerning the positivist philosophy that shaped their education at the Sorbonne. Reflecting on a situation that sounds distressingly contemporary to our own time, Jacques and Raïssa saw the Sorbonne dominated by a smug “relativism of the wise,” preached by professors “clinging to skepticism and exhaling their ‘que sais-je’ like cigarette smoke, finding life otherwise quite excellent.” In 1901, driven to despair by their supposed intellectual mentors’ refusal to address deeper issues concerning the meaning of life, Jacques and Raïssa vowed that they would commit suicide if they could not find any purpose to life beyond the sterile materialism preached at the Sorbonne.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
They were not alone in their despair. Early twentieth-century France saw a veritable generational revolt against positivism, with Catholicism one among several alternatives. Maritain’s path to the Church began with his encounter with Henri Bergson, the most influential anti-positivist philosopher of his day. Much like his counterparts among American pragmatists such as William James, Bergson affirmed the freedom of the will and the intellectual authority of subjective, psychological experience against the iron laws of mechanistic determinism. Bergson taught at the Collège de France rather than the Sorbonne, and Maritain first heard of him from a socialist friend Charles Péguy (who would himself later convert to Catholicism). Bergson’s concept of an élan vital was in many ways a kinder, gentler version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power, and as such had a tremendous appeal to those seeking an alternative to positivism that stopped short of irrationalism. For Maritain, however—and for Péguy, and eventually even Bergson himself—it also stopped short of the kind of truth that could satisfy his longing for transcendence. Bergson’s philosophical naturalism also appeared too accommodating to bourgeois respectability, which the still left-leaning Maritain found almost as repulsive as positivism.
Jacques and Raïssa married in 1904. Maritain received his degree in philosophy in 1905, and pursued post-graduate study in the natural sciences. His quest for a way to wed Bergsonian vitalism to a nobler social ideal led them to the writings of Lèon Bloy, the most significant French Catholic novelist of the time. In his writings, most notably The Woman Who Was Poor (1897), Bloy upheld the traditional Catholic virtues of holy poverty and the redemptive value of suffering, virtues completely at odds with the social ideals of the French middle class. Reading Bloy’s work led Maritain to seek out the man; meeting Bloy, he found a man who lived out the very ideals he extolled in his work. It was Bloy’s example of holy poverty—not Thomistic philosophy—that in 1906 led to Maritain’s entry (along with Raïssa’s) into the Church, with Bloy as his godfather.
Still, Maritain was a philosopher by training and his mind could not be content with piety alone. In 1907, Pius X’s condemnation of modernism severely limited Maritain’s philosophical options. Modernism encompasses a wide range of philosophical and theological errors. Pius directed his condemnation most explicitly at the use of the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis developed in Protestant theology during the nineteenth century; yet his concern to combat relativism also struck at a variety of subject-centered philosophies, including that of Bergson. In the decades following Pascendi, the Church would promote Thomism as its official philosophy and antidote to all the errors grouped under the term “modernism.” Maritain would go on to become one of twentieth-century Thomism’s finest practitioners, and without a doubt the most significant ambassador of Thomism to the non-Catholic world.
Without minimizing the importance of his writings, Maritain initially exerted his most powerful influence at a personal level through his Thomistic Study Circle, which he founded in 1914. Although placed under the spiritual direction of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., renowned as the leading guardian of Thomistic orthodoxy, the Circle nonetheless attracted a broad range of avante-garde, modernist intellectuals in various degrees of association with the Church. The appeal of the meetings was as much spiritual as intellectual, for Maritain intended his circle to pursue both sanctity and study. He understood the work of the Circle as in part making reparation for the sins against the intellect committed in the modern period. This aspect of the Thomistic revival was often lost on those who knew Maritain only through his writings, and continues to elude many. For Maritain, as for Thomas and the best of the Thomistic tradition, the truths of philosophy and theology were guides for a spiritual journey toward a deeper personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Bloy had directed Maritain toward the lives of the saints and the writings of Catholic mystics well before he began his study of St. Thomas. Maritain’s turn to scholastic rationality in no way entailed an abandonment of the more experiential and existential approaches that first drew him to the Church.
It was Maritain more than anyone else who made Catholicism an accepted and normal part of the literary and intellectual life of France in the interwar years. In the golden age of artistic modernism, Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism sought to wed certain technical innovations of modern art to aesthetic principles derived from scholastic philosophy in order to create an art both Catholic and modern. This work challenged Catholics to abandon their often slavish imitation of earlier artistic forms, most especially the Gothic, yet also challenged modern artists to abandon their amoral aestheticism and direct their skills toward the expression of timeless truth. Even here, Maritain’s achievement was as much personal and spiritual as intellectual. He served as a stabilizing influence on many of the drug-addled and homosexual artists who moved in and out of his Thomistic Study Circle. His famous published correspondence with Jean Cocteau reflected both his commitment to developing the ideas he first advanced in Art and Scholasticism and to saving Cocteau’s soul by guiding him away from his homosexuality and drug addiction. Maritain’s results were mixed. Cocteau eventually left the Church, while the composer Erik Satie converted on his deathbed. Faithful even when not successful, Maritain remained a loving personal presence to a generation of artists who shared his longing for a fulfillment beyond the comforts of bourgeois respectability. Catholic intellectuals of today would do well to follow Maritain’s example in responding to the call of this longing that remains very powerful in the artistic movements of our own time.
Maritain’s political alliances during this period were perhaps an even greater challenge to his Catholic principles. Soon after his conversion, his spiritual director Humbert Clérissac, O.P., encouraged his involvement in the right-wing Action Français. Headed by Charles Maurras, Action Français promoted a royalism that made it a natural home for conservative Catholics. Still, Maurras was himself an agnostic (if not an atheist) and a devoted follower of the positivism of Auguste Comte. Catholics and positivists shared a common enemy in the anarchic individualism that seemed to undermine all social order in the modern world, yet differed dramatically in their vision of a proper ordering of society in relation to God. Like Comte before him, Maurras admired the Catholic Church as a principle of order. Many Catholic leaders, including Maritain’s spiritual advisors, in turn appreciated Maurras’s respect for the social role of the Church at a time when the liberal, anti-clerical politicians of the Third Republic were waging war on that social role. Thus, for a time, Maritain found himself in a political alliance with those who promoted the very philosophy that once nearly drove him to suicide. This contradictory condition came to an end in 1926, when Pius XI condemned Catholic participation in Action Français. Many high-profile Catholic intellectuals, such as the novelist George Bernanos, refused to accept the condemnation and fell out of communion with the Church. Maritain not only personally accepted the condemnation, but publicly defended it against its detractors. This defense was personally traumatic, as it cost Maritain many of the friendships that he had developed over his many years of association with the movement.
In many ways, one could say that Maritain spent much of the rest of his career making reparation for his involvement in Action Français. If Maurras sought to use the Church as a means for advancing his own agenda, Maritain insisted on “the primacy of the spiritual,” to quote the title of the book he wrote in 1927 following his break with Maurras. Maritain came to reject both the modern subordination of religion to politics and the reactionary imposition of Catholicism on the political order. Refusing to accept the privatization of the faith, he upheld the idea of the Church exercising indirect influence on the public sphere through the shaping of thought and culture. With the rise of fascist and communist totalitarianism in the late 1930s, Maritain saw in the liberal democratic regimes of Western Europe and the United States the institutional arrangements with the greatest promise for realizing the exercise of this indirect influence. Maritain’s enthusiasm for democracy during the 1950s at times led him to imprudently naïve praise for the virtues of the anti-communist West; in his Reflections on America (1958), he came close to arguing that America had achieved the closest approximation of a Catholic social order short of a confessional state. This conflation of Catholicism and America would bear bitter fruit in the next decade. American Catholics interpreted the Second Vatican Council’s call for dialogue with modernity as an imprimatur on reshaping the institutional and doctrinal life of the Church in conformity with secular modern culture. By 1968, the Church in America, indeed in the wider Western world, appeared to be coming apart.
For ultra-traditionalist Catholics, the chaos of the late 1960s proves the futility of the type of engagement and dialogue Maritain called for through most of his life. Maritain rejected most of the post-Conciliar changes in the Church, but insisted that they did not reflect the true spirit of the Council. His last work, The Peasant of the Garonne (1967), found Maritain looking back to the traditional Catholic culture of rural France as an antidote to modern confusion. Far from any simplistic call to revive the confessional state, Maritain’s appeal to premodern culture was consistent with his longstanding commitment to the primacy of the spiritual against those who would use the Church to advance a political agenda. In many ways, it reflected the persistence of the ideals of holy poverty and redemptive suffering that first drew Maritain to Catholicism following his encounter with Leon Bloy. At the end of his life, Maritain could say with Bloy, “There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint.” Few who knew Maritain would judge his life a tragedy.
Author’s note: Sources used for this column include Bernard E. Doering, Jacques Maritain and the French Catholic Intellectuals (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) and Stephen Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).