In Defense of Jacques Maritain Against His Neo-Integralist Critics

Why must Jacques Maritain be defended again? The reputation of the late French convert to the Catholic Church, and representative neo-scholastic philosopher, was fading even before his death. His work, intellectually stimulating and valuable though it is, has become, in our day, largely the preserve of some few Aquinas scholars—and even they honor him more in the spirit than in the letter. For some reason, however, he once again has come in for opprobrium, and along lines deceptively similar to those used to attack his thought during his lifetime.

The visible Church is in disarray, seemingly collapsing, divided within by a disheartening partisanship, and weakened in its relation to the society it is called to evangelize. The secularization of morality and politics have continued apace since Maritain’s own youth and place us in circumstances very distant from any Maritain experienced.

Maritain, from the 1930s onward, sought a path by which the Church could flourish and serve as a leaven to society even amid the encroaching secularism of the modern state. His political thought inspired different forms of Christian democracy in postwar Latin America and Europe, and his personal affection for American society led him to become a friendly and influential critic of its ways. To an age increasingly drawn to liberal democracy but worried about its low moral horizons and traditional hostility towards the Church, Maritain offered counsel and hope.

Christians now, however, generally sense that such a spirit of reconciliation as Maritain represented has failed. In consequence, we see a rise among Catholic and non-Catholic intellectuals alike of a “post-liberal” political vision, and within Catholicism specifically, a renewed affirmation of an old word to describe this rejection of liberal regimes, “integralism.”

Some, in their effort to account for the failed promise of liberalism have turned their eyes on Maritain’s thought as its cause. Alas, the history of Catholicism in the twentieth century, and Maritain’s role within it, is a subtly threaded filigree. It does not lend itself to broad-stroke critiques, as if all Catholics must do to reclaim a proper social philosophy is to extricate what appears to be the insidious modernism of Maritain and all shall be well.

I propose that most of these critics are insufficiently familiar with the full scope of Maritain’s philosophical career to judge it, much less condemn it. And, further, even within those specific aspects of his work where they claim to find dynamite planted at the base of the Church’s now shattered edifice, they patently mispresent his work. I say all this even though I myself am critical of some of Maritain’s work in metaphysics, the philosophy of art, and politics. I do not question that there are weaknesses in his writings, and great ones at that, but only that the public attacks on his work misfire and do so to our cost, because Maritain still has invaluable lessons to teach us, despite his occasional lapses.

Because one specific reason for the renewed attacks on Maritain seems to be the revival of “integralism” among certain Catholic intellectuals I want to consider his thought in relation to that word. “Integralism” will be almost a foreign word to many contemporary Catholics, but to those who have begun using it again, it is taken to have a single meaning: the renewal of what Maritain called the “sacral society” of medieval Christendom, aided by the centralized power of the modern state.

Maritain is thought to be an opponent of such a project. In fact, he merely thought it unlikely and more progenetive of dreamy hypotheses and claptrap—of mere ideology, that is—than of plausible vision. It was impotent to grapple with the urgent circumstances in which Christians actually found themselves. But we should also recognize that this unified acceptation of “integralism” is of recent vintage. And so, to say Maritain dissented from integralism requires asking, “Which integralism do we mean?”

The primary use of “integralism,” at the turn of the twentieth century, was to refer to those in the Church committed to combating theological modernism among the clergy, a campaign waged under the banner of Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). Maritain, who had converted to Catholicism only the year before the promulgation of the encyclical, was so far from being an opponent of its contents that we can say his career was made by it.

His first book, Bergsonian Philosophy (1913) dealt harshly with the French-Jewish philosopher who had, in fact, prepared Maritain’s intellect for the reception of Catholic truth. He did so, because Henri Bergson’s intuitionist philosophy was suspected of contributing to modernist tendencies in Catholic thought. After the book appeared, Pius X facilitated Maritain’s appointment as a professor of the Catholic University of Paris.

Nothing in Maritain’s work compromises his bona fides as an “integralist” or anti-modernist thinker in this sense. The two great questions modernism raised for Catholic philosophers and theologians were the relationship, if any, of man’s supposed “natural end” to the supernatural end made possible for him by God’s sanctifying grace, and, within that, the relationship of eros, man’s natural desire for his end, and agape, the particular Greek word for love found in the New Testament.

Both these questions Maritain answered in conventionally integralist, or anti-modernist, terms. In a hypothetical condition of “pure nature,” man may have a natural end of roughly the sort described by Aristotle, Maritain affirms. Yes, it is true, that end is moot because of the fall, and, further, because God’s grace makes possible a supernatural end, eternal life in communion with God.

Nonetheless, Maritain affirms the textbook scholasticism of the day in affirming that the human being is naturally ordered to the knowledge of God as the cause of being, but only by supernatural grace does he come to have as his end the actual sharing in the divine life of God himself. So also, in The Degrees of Knowledge (1932), Maritain insists that the “profane love” of eros is not merely “sublimated,” when uplifted by the gift of faith, but essentially transformed into agape, the true Christian love of God.

For my part, I think Maritain was mistaken on both points. The work of the theologian Henri de Lubac convinces me that Augustine was correct, when he prayed to Christ, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” We have no separate “natural” end, no true end whatsoever but Christ, even though we categorically cannot attain it except by the saving power of his grace.

And, again with Augustine, not to mention Dionysius the Aeropagite, Joseph Pieper, and Pope Benedict XVI, I believe eros is super-elevated and transformed by sanctifying grace, and so may be re-christened agape if you like, but nonetheless we truly have a natural yearning for God. Human beings naturally seek the salvation they cannot attain by nature alone. Our natures and natural desires would be frustrated and futile if not for the grace that assists them on the way toward fulfillment.

Although Maritain would resist the way I have formulated these claims, both he and his integralist mentor in metaphysics, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, place these essential findings at the heart of their work. Following an interpretation of Aquinas informed by his renaissance commentators, they do affirm that man naturally desires to know God insofar as he is Being Itself, but that the desire to know God by his “true name” comes only through supernatural grace.

Further, they convincingly show that the love of every Christian finds its true end in a mystical contemplative union with God. They differ from de Lubac mostly in their emphases on these matters. De Lubac wants to show above all how much we need God; the earlier anti-modernist view focuses on affirming (and rightly so) God’s free initiative.

The anti-modernists argued as they did for at least four reasons. They were trying to maintain a clear distinction between what Aristotle’s philosophy had shown human beings could know by nature and what God must reveal. Further, they wanted to affirm Aristotle’s account of natural being as intelligible in terms of its end: if a kind of being could not by nature attain its natural end, would that not render the universe absurd? On a related note, they also wanted to vouchsafe that revelation, as God’s free initiative, was in no sense “demanded” by human nature.

And, finally (and I suspect most importantly), they were wary of the way a “natural desire for God” was itself susceptible to being naturalized in an age of Darwinian materialism and positivism. If religion is a “natural urge,” could it not simply be dismissed as a subjective fluke of evolution, to be explained away authoritatively by the natural historian rather than fulfilled by the theologian?

A century on, it seems clear that we need not avoid speaking the truth for fear of playing into the hands of evolutionary materialism, whose philosophical incoherence is self-evident to everyone besides its zealous flacks. The Christian must affirm that every life not redeemed by Christ is a failed and lost one. The innermost desire of our being is to be saved. Christ is the answer to the question posed by our lives. Nonetheless, if you prefer the “integralist” form of the answer to such questions, Maritain fits the bill.

Maritain’s work largely consists of prooftexts from Aristotle and Aquinas that toe the anti-modernist line. When it innovates at all, it seems to do so primarily around the margins, where Maritain somewhat clumsily tries to draw out the implications of the data he has reported. As T.S. Eliot remarked in the 1920’s, Maritain was more a popularizer of the neo-Thomist movement than an original thinker.

Maritain was also, for a long time, an integralist in another sense. In inter-war Europe, “integralism” was a boilerplate term for many schools of thought that sought an alternative to secular liberalism, some Catholic, some not. In France, Charles Maurras, an agonistic positivist, lead L’Action française, France’s monarchist movement of “integral nationalism.”

Maurras’s program was integralist in several respects; it wished to reintegrate Church and State in keeping with French tradition. Like other integralist movements of the time, it also sought to overcome the tensions of class divisions and warfare as described by Karl Marx. Marxism denies the reality of a common good of society as a whole and says history is but the record of class struggle. Integralism viewed such warfare as contingent and to be overcome, and sought by various means to unite all members of a polity in a shared common good.

French Liberalism was vehemently secularist, and so Catholics sided with the political movement that promised monarchy and a restoration of the Church’s prerogatives, even though it explicitly was a political rather than an ecclesiastic program of “integration.” Maritain was perhaps the most prominent among Maurras’s supporters, until Pope Pius XI condemned the movement. That condemnation forced Maritain to do some serious reflection about the prospects of Christianity in the age of the modern state.

Maritain’s reflections were extensive and far-flung. They responded to myriad movements and controversies of the day that will remain unintelligible to anyone not willing to read the history of the period. To offer just one central instance, in the 1930s, the French intellectual Emmanuel Mounier led a Catholic “personalist” movement in France. Maritain sought to support and chasten that movement by offering a “Thomistic personalism,” a political vision that directly critiqued Maurras’s movement’s placing of “politics first,” that is, ahead of the spiritual life of man.

Here is where Maritain’s career got into trouble. His mentor, Garrigou-Lagrange remained sympathetic to Maurras, and undermined Maritain’s reputation in the Vatican. Further, personalism was a loose and very various philosophical disposition, not a defined school of thought. If Maritain’s Thomist personalism sought to ground the movement in good scholastic metaphysics, it nonetheless also associated Maritain with the viewpoints of other personalists who were apparently less orthodox in their thinking.

When Charles De Koninck published On the Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, in 1943, many took it as a direct attack on Maritain, including Maritain himself, who insisted that the book was “criticizing ideas which are not mine.” De Koninck argued that personalists subordinated the common good to the private, individual good and so fell prey to individualism, that worst of features of modern secular liberalism, against which every Catholic—and every Thomist—must stand opposed.

That Maritain’s political writings of the 1930s should have elicited such a hostile response from De Koninck may surprise the Catholic reader. For, Maritain’s central arguments in his major books of the period counter individualism at every turn and seek to chart a course for Christianity that defends its witness at the heart of an already secularized society. Liberal individualism comes in for harsh criticism more frequently than any other kind of political thought.

Despite the diffusiveness of Maritain’s books, his two most important arguments can be easily set forth. Modern individualism makes an idol of free will. Because the individual’s will is free, he may do whatever he wants and becomes whatever he desires, independent of all limits. The individual is in that sense self-creating.

Maritain argues otherwise. “Metaphysics is a necessary prerequisite of ethics,” he states, meaning that we must know what man essentially is before we can know what man is permitted to do with freedom. To know man’s essence, one must first know what man is for, what is his good or end. The end of the human person is God, argues Maritain. Our end is one, our natures are fixed, and so it would be mere folly to propose that human freedom somehow existed independent from God and his divine government.

This metaphysical claim necessarily will shape our ethics and politics. The modern age, with its idol of the human will, had formed itself on the model of an “anthropocentric humanism.” The individual is valuable, because the individual will’s free exercise is the good of man. The individual is a good in itself that exists for itself alone. These are perverse and untenable claims, Maritain shows.

Such humanism in itself becomes unlivable; it leaves no place for properly human fulfillment. And yet, this form of humanism is like a shadow that hints of a substantial truth standing nearby. The true modern politics must be a “theocentric humanism,” one that recognizes the individual as valuable and to be treated as intrinsically good in political life, precisely because it, like all things, finds its end in the supernatural life of the divine. We are good, because we are ordered to God who is the Good Itself.

Modern states had secularized themselves, and so, the modern world no longer held together in a single order as medieval Christendom had. But all states still had a moral obligation to recognize the destiny of the person in God and to work for that end. Thus, Maritain was himself an advocate of still another sort of integralism, what he would call Integral Humanism (1936).

The modern state’s purpose was to play a secondary role in building up the human person, to humanize him, so that he may attain his transcendent end in God. The state juridically respects human freedom and its own subordinate role in aiding the achievement of the properly human good, but it nonetheless has a role to play. Maritain’s argument would be foundational for Catholic social teaching in later decades, with its emphasis on “integral human development.” The modern welfare state may care for the life of the body, but too often it does so to the willful exclusion or neglect of man’s transcendent destiny. What we call “philanthropy” and “altruism” risk becoming evils insofar as they pretend to be independent or ignorant of where caritas, Christian charity, finally leads the human person. (This Maritainian theme found new expression in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est.)

De Koninck seems to have believed Maritain was merely giving a pious gloss to secular individualism rather than what he was actually doing, which was critiquing and correcting it. In his book, De Koninck argues that human beings are rational animals who are parts within the whole that is society and are ordered to the common good of society. Because they are rational, they have the capacity to participate in God, who is Himself the supernatural common good. Because reason is a spiritual faculty, each part finds its end not by pursuing its private or proper good, but only by participating in common in the goodness of God.

The totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism treated the individual rational animal as a part to be sacrificed for this or that immanent common good of the social whole. But, to the contrary, as parts, we are all destined to share ultimately in the bliss that is the City of God. De Koninck argues that the individual’s proper good is never violated, but rather is fulfilled, when it comes to participate in the common good of the heavenly City.

In what way is all this a critique of what Maritain argues in his writings? Substantially not at all. In Maritain’s briefest and clearest statement on the matter—some of which was written in response to De Koninck’s broadside—he shows himself to be in perfect agreement with it.

In The Person and the Common Good, Maritain argues that every human person is immediately ordered to the supernatural common good of the universe, which is the Beatific Vision, life in God. As rational animals we are intrinsically political, and for three reasons. First, in view of our bodily natures, we cannot help but be dependent on the social whole for our nourishment, but also for our education and cultivation. Second, as rational persons, we naturally enter into communication with other beings, as it is the specific function of the intellect to know being. Third, the fulfillment of reason lies in the knowledge of Being Itself, which is God.

As individuals, we are parts of the whole that is society and ordered to its end. But the common good, the purpose, of society is the cultivation of individuals so that they come to live more fully and properly as persons. Ethics and politics serve to make the human more fully human—or, properly speaking, “super-human” (not in the Nietzschean sense!), since our final end is the life of grace in God. If, as parts, we serve the common good of society, society’s good is specifically the making-possible of our own cultivation and salvation.

This leads Maritain to identify two principles that are the test of any political regime’s legitimacy: redistribution and transcendence. Individuals are not to be sacrificed to the social common good, for their cultivation and perfection is precisely society’s aim. Totalitarians, in Maritain’s day, and utilitarians, in ours, think differently. I recall the infamous confrontation of candidate Barrack Obama with “Joe the Plumber,” in which Obama said he wished to raise taxes on certain individuals for the sake of the “common good.”

What he meant there was the penalizing of the few for the good of the many. But the genuinely common good must be shared in by all—or it is not truly common. Whatever acts we, as parts, may perform for society must be “redistributed” to all our good as persons. He shows that even self-sacrifice in war, in defense of one’s country, which ends the individual life, still redounds to the fulfillment of the person as person.

Maritain’s differentiation here of the “individual” and the “person” is, on balance, unfortunate and unnecessary to his argument. But De Koninck’s differentiation of the “proper” and the “common” good of the individual is hardly any better. In both cases, they recognize what Aristotle had recognized. Society and the state are not goods in themselves, independent of their members; they are good specifically because they make possible the life of human beings in accord with our nature.

That nature, as we saw above, is destined for transcendence, Maritain’s second principle. Aquinas writes, “the good of grace of one [human person] is greater than the good of nature of the whole universe.” If we are parts of the social whole, as De Koninck writes, we are not wholly subordinate parts, because our lives are finally ordered to communion with God, in the Beatific Vision. This destiny transcends every created order.

Maritain and De Koninck alike draw on the classical definition of person as a “rational substance” to explain this. Persons, by the faculty of reason, have the capacity to know all being. Our nature, in that sense, comprehends all being and so we are not a part but a whole. The same faculty that allows us to know all things, the intelligence, allows us finally to participate in the life of God. As such, Maritain argues, in a phrase De Koninck could not have liked, though he could hardly dispute its meaning, “society is a whole composed of wholes.”

Any political regime that does not recognize that special dignity fulfilled only in our transcendence is an unjust one. Bourgeois individualism, because it roots freedom in the will rather than the reason and in “doing as one likes,” rather than in the yearning of our nature for life in God, is just one possible instance of an unjust regime. Every rigid secularism, insofar as it denies or frustrates our transcendent end, is unjust.

In most respects, Maritain’s account is identical with De Koninck’s in substance, but superior in explaining how the person can be a “part” that transcends the political whole to which it belongs. Mary M. Keys has argued that De Koninck emphasizes our rational nature, while Maritain emphasizes personal freedom, but this cannot be so; Maritain follows Aquinas in affirming reason is itself the basis of freedom.

Maritain’s book does have two weaknesses, however. The gratuitous account of man as at once “person” and “individual,” for one, and, second, Maritain’s way of describing the immediacy of the “beatific vision.” If nothing comes between the soul and God, as indeed Aquinas tells us, then heaven is a kind of solitude. But others will be there with us, Maritain acknowledges, so it is an “inhabited solitude.”

Just as I find de Lubac’s account of the supernatural destiny of man superior in expression to Maritain’s, I find the account de Lubac gives of our common destiny, in Catholicism (1938), superior. For, there, he clarifies that we are saved and brought into the real presence of Christ precisely insofar as we are incorporated into His mystical body, which is the Church. Christians are called to live within the Kingdom of God and not any “solitude,” inhabited or otherwise. The Church does not “mediate” communion with God, because it is itself that communion. I would add that De Koninck’s language in some ways captures this social aspect of our end more clearly than does Maritain’s, but they are both, as it were, bested by de Lubac.

Maritain thought most Catholic ideas in his day on the relation of Church and State were ideological rather than an earnest grappling with the increasing secularity of modern society. He sought to describe a relatively “secular” regime that would nonetheless recognize the principles of redistribution and transcendence and conform itself to them. For several decades, his idea seemed likely to succeed, and Christian democracy, to become the postwar alternative to totalitarianism and secular liberalism.

By now, however, that hope can be said largely to have failed. It makes no sense to fault Maritain for that failure or to make him the bête noir by contrast with which a new form of integralism seeks to define itself. For, the moral failings of modern states, and of contemporary culture more generally, can best be understood precisely in a failure to respect the principles of redistribution and transcendence that Maritain articulated so well.

Our age tends to think of economics in terms of winners and losers, as Marx encourages, rather than in terms of a shared good. We make a utilitarian calculus of “greatest good for the greatest number” our standard, rather than the fulfillment of personhood. We have no means to account for the honor involved in sacrificing one’s life for one’s country or faith. We make a little pointless “god” of the individual’s will, rather than respecting the destiny inscribed in each person by the essence of the rational soul. We are “anthropocentric” rather than “theocentric” in our humanism to the extent that we have not merely become anti-human altogether. Our age requires not another integralism, but a renewed integral humanism. Whatever his limitations, Maritain should be the thinker with whom we begin that work.

Featured Image: Jacques Maritain c. 1930; Source Wikimedia Commons, PD.


James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair of English and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. He has published eleven books, including The Strangeness of the Good and Praying the Nicene Creed: I believe in One God.

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