The case of Jacques Maritain

  1. The story we always hear about Maritain’s personal life (a story he himself promoted) is this:  Jacques started out as an atheist, was delivered from materialism by Bergson, then converted to the Catholic Church and Thomism.  Being young and naive, he accepted his priests’ word on everything, and they led him to join Action Francaise.  When he became mature and independent, he disassociated himself from those mean reactionaries and became a respectable democrat.  I don’t buy it.  Ralph McInerny provides reasons to doubt that Maritain was ever meek and submissive.  Infact, Maritain’s disassociating himself from Action Francaise would seem to be his most notable act of submission to ecclesiastical authority; he turned on the movement immediately after Pope Pius IX condemned it.  The most important reason to disbelieve the official story, though, comes from reading Maritain’s political writings like The Person and the Common Good.  Maritain was a convinced communitarian.  His opposition to liberalism wasn’t something tacked on; it was a logically inescapable consequence of his Thomist ideas of man as a social and political animal.  His connection to Maurras and the French Right was the logical consequence of his anthropology.
  2. The condemnation of Action Francaise was a disaster from which Maritain never intellectually recovered.  From here on out, he dedicates his professional life to proving that Catholicism and democratic pluralism are actually compatible.  It’s sad to see such a promising thinker throwing his life away trying to square that circle.  And so we get crap like Integral Humanism.  To accomodate liberal pluralism, Maritain must eviscerate his earlier belief in a spiritual common good.  Still, being an orthodox Catholic, he doesn’t want to accept all the evil consequences that necessarily come from pluralism–the growth of atheism, family breakdown, widespread immorality, etc.
  3. At this point, everybody assumed that Maritain was really a conventional liberal, and that he was just pretending to be a Thomist so he could more effectively work Leftist change from inside the enemy’s citadel.  Given that this turned out to be true for most celebrated mid-century theologians, it was a reasonable guess to make.  Then came Vatican II.  Convinced that the revolution had triumphed, the theologians threw off their masks and began to openly attack the basic dogmas of Christianity.  I suppose most people thought Maritain would join in.  Instead, they got The Peasant of Garonne.  Maritain was standing by Catholic orthodoxy and Aristotelian essentialism.  He actually believed all that stuff he’d been saying all these years!  The intellectuals recoiled in horror.  Maritain went instantly from celebrity to outcast.  The Peasant of Garonne was a courageous act.  For decades, Maritain’s greatest desire had been to be accepted as Leftist intellectual and respected by other Leftists.  Now his hour had come.  All he had to do was not speak up in defense of Christ and His Church.  Instead, he sacrificed everything except the one thing that matters most.
  4. Not that I feel too sorry for Jacques.  If he were alive today, he wouldn’t give me the time of day.  He would denounce me as a dirty “integralist” living in grave sin for my failure to promote “social justice”.  How sad he would be that the only people who respect him now are reactionaries like me, whom he despised.  Jerk.
  5. The man could not organize a book.  The Degrees of Knowledge is just a mess.  What the heck was it supposed to be about?  I see no overarching point.  A better name might be Jacques Maritain’s Random Thoughts on EverythingThe Peasant of Garonne is the same way.  A better name would be Jacques Maritain’s Random Complaints about Everything.  Like I said, it’s a courageous book, but hadn’t the guy ever heard of an outline?  You don’t have to just write things in the order they come into your head.
  6. In Existence and the Existent, Maritain decides to do the Church a service by taking down Sarte’s atheist existentialism.  Halfway through the book, he goes off into a discussion of free will, and he feels the need to explain how free will is consistent with divine omnipotence.  This argument, the largest single part of the book, culminates in an attack on Molina’s theory of middle knowledge.  Maritain has by this time forgotten that he was writing a book against atheist philosophers who have probably never heard the names “Molina” or “Banez”.  No matter, the committed Thomist warrior in his heart of hearts can’t really take all this atheist existentialism stuff seriously.  The real threat, he’s sure, comes from the Molinists and the Scotists and the Suarezians.  It’s kind of cute, actually.
  7. This post is turning into a Maritain-like jumble.  To make it perfect, I think I’ll just finish by mentioning the intuition of being, and leave you scratching your head.

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