Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Although the twentieth century was often proclaimed by the church to be the “Age of the Laity,” it remains true that most Catholic discourse is still taken up with the words of popes, bishops, priests, and sisters. Nonetheless, as in the nineteenth century so in the twentieth, a number of lay men and women have made intellectual contributions to religious discourse of such magnitude as to place not just Roman Catholics but the entire body of Christians in their debt. Of these, no one has been so influential in so many different spheres as Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), a man who, in addition to his intellectual stature, was widely esteemed for his holiness of life.

His range was truly catholic. Perhaps no one in any tradition has written more beautifully of the subject he addressed in his book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. (So lovely is that book that often, while reading it as an undergraduate, I had to put it down and go for a long walk, my heart burning with more than it could bear.) In political and social thought, no Christian has ever written a more profound defense of the democratic idea and its component parts, such as the dignity of the person, the sharp distinction between society and the state, the role of practical wisdom, the common good, the transcendent anchoring of human rights, transcendent judgment upon societies, and the interplay of goodness and evil in human individuals and institutions. Indeed, in the thrust that this body of thought gave to Christian Democratic parties after World War II, Maritain gained the right to be thought of as one of the architects of Christian Democratic politics both in Europe and Latin America.

Nonetheless, it is perhaps in his profound grasp of the metaphysics of the philosophia perennis that one must seek the essence of Maritain’s achievement. More clearly and subtly than anyone else in modern times, and over a larger body of materials, Maritain grasped the “intuition of being” that animates the deepest stratum of Catholic intellectual life. For him, this was at once an intuition of charity as well as of being. He chose most often to express this intuition philosophically—philosophy, not theology, was his vocation—but his vision of caritas, “the Love that moves the sun and all the stars,” broke through over and over again.

A number of critics have pointed out that of all Maritain’s books no doubt the most seminal, like a pebble plunked in a quiet pool and rippling outwards in ever-expanding circles, is his tiny Existence and the Existent. This “Essay on Christian Existentialism,” a difficult and dense but immensely pregnant book, lies at the heart of his work. Its brief 142 pages were penned in Rome from January through April of 1947, as much of Europe still lay in the ruins of war and as the terribly disappointing Cold War of the subsequent era was just beginning. Its five compact chapters, it is safe to predict, will echo in the world’s thinking for generations to come. Indeed, their full meaning is likely to become more apparent in the future than at the time of the book’s first appearance, as thinkers from other world traditions engage its arguments.

I would not suggest that there are no faults or limits in Maritain’s achievement. Concerned as much as he was for the poor (or, as he usually expressed it in the vulgar Marxism current at the time, the “workers”), it is surprising how little sustained attention Maritain gave to the most significant new discipline of post-medieval times, political economy, with the accent on economy. Maritain came to the problems of politics and society rather late in his reflections and then, having achieved much, never took up a study of the great economic classics, especially those of the Austrian and Anglo-American worlds. Further, much as he admired the United States—a civilization, he felt, full of reverberations of the realities to which he was trying to point in Integral Humanism—Maritain never fully grappled with such classics of American political economy as The Federalist, his fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or the writings of Abraham Lincoln.

On the whole, Maritain wrote a beautiful prose, a prose that reaches the heart and the imagination more than that of most philosophers, even while manifesting a Thomist love of exquisite clarity, particularly in the making of distinctions. To read him on any subject is to be forced to look, through such distinctions, from many angles of vision at once. And all for the sake of unity: “To distinguish in order to unite” was a most suitable motto for his life’s work. He had a passion for clear and precise ideas, distinguished sharply from their nearest neighbors, as well as for the relations that tie each idea to every other. Sometimes, indeed, he tried to capture too much at once, piling up within a single sentence distinctions within distinctions or introducing an analogous aside, all the while trying to encapsulate an entire argument. Many of his sentences require rereading. But the effort is almost always worthwhile, for Maritain’s true conversation partners were less his contemporary critics than the classics, whose intricate treasures he did not wish to muffle, encrust, or belittle by oversimplification.


In the autumn of 1960, in one of my first conversations with a full professor in Harvard’s philosophy department, a teacher of metaphysics and ethics who confessed cheerily that he deeply admired Hume’s happy atheism mentioned how nonetheless deeply impressed he had been with Jacques Maritain during the latter’s presence on campus. “He was perhaps the most saintly philosopher I have ever known,” he said, “gentle, kind, honest, almost childlike. Of course, I didn’t agree with a single position he took. But I did come to admire him a great deal.” This was meant to be a warning to me, of course; I, also a Catholic, should not expect an easy time at Harvard. Yet it was also meant as a token of esteem for a significant tradition and a remarkable thinker: no small tribute considering its source.

That professor’s tribute to Maritain’s saintliness, his gentleness, his childlike manner has remained with me, especially the unusual word (for Harvard), “childlike.” This is, I think, the key to Maritain’s intuition of being, a way of seeing in which so many other philosophers simply could not follow him. Maritain approached each day with a certain wonder—at the color of the sky, the scent of the grass, the feel of the breeze. He marveled that such a world could have come to be. There was, he understood, no necessity in its coming to be. It had happened. Here it was. He could sense it, his every sensible organ alive to its active solicitations of color, sound, scent, taste, and feel. More than that, his intellect would wonder at it, knowing that it did not have to be as it was on that particular day, or on any other day. And it could also cease to be.

Well before the cloudburst of the first atomic bomb, long before a perceived “ecological crisis,” Maritain perceived the fragility of life on earth—not only in his personal mortality, nor even in the fragility of planet earth. Rather, Maritain sensed, in the obscure way of the human intellect at its most childlike and most profound, that all changeable created things—all things short of an Existent necessarily and fully existing in Itself—are fragile and dependent.

My professors at Harvard found this intuition difficult to grasp or, rather, even at the edge of comprehension, profoundly resisted it. I remember a seminar on the Existence of God taught by Professor Rogers Albritton, a student of Wittgenstein who imported many of Wittgenstein’s legendary mannerisms into our classroom. Professor Albritton was diagramming on the blackboard Aquinas’ Way to the Existence of God from Contingency and Necessity. The good professor, an honest man as far as he could go, kept pointing to the major and minor premises, one after the other, and then confessed that he could find no notion of “necessity” that made the argument flow into Aquinas’ conclusion. He tried to supply all the definitions of “necessity” known to him. None would work. I remember summoning up my courage and raising my hand. It was about twenty minutes before class was to adjourn.

Nervously, I reminded him (Professor Albritton also taught Aristotle) that, based upon a rudimentary (and now recognized to be false) empirical observation, Aristotle and Aquinas thought that the stars in the firmament were unchangeable, permanent, and, thus in a special sense, “necessary beings,” different from all other changeable substances they had observed. Suppose, I hesitantly said, this gave them a warrant for speaking empirically of “necessary beings.” And suppose, further, that they postulated still other necessary beings, in a different class, not composed of material properties at all, yet nonetheless not contingent, not changeable, but beings-in-themselves, which, once existing, never ceased to exist. Suppose, further, that such necessary beings could cause the coming into existence of the contingent beings of whose existence we had no doubt. All these suppositions might be false, I remember saying. Still, if Aristotle and Aquinas held them (and clearly the texts make plain that they did), then, looking again at the premises on the board, doesn’t the conclusion suddenly flow? Professor Albritton rubbed his chin Wittgenstein-style and looked again at the board. “Hmmm,” he said. “Good point.” He looked at his watch. “Well, let’s think about that until next time.” The class adjourned early. We never went back to the Argument from Contingency.

Young as I was, I had no illusions that suddenly Harvard would reach the conclusion that, indeed, mysterious and terrifying as it may be, there is (or even could be) a necessary Existent that explains how this fragile world of change and contingency could come to be and, perhaps, to perish. No one had any problem contemplating some Big Bang of “happening to come to be” nor, at least in later years, does anyone have severe doubts that, whether with Bang or Whimper, this fragile world of ours could cease to be. The hard thing to accept, it seems, is that there is an Existent not doomed to our changeability, on whom our existence depends. (Why should that be so hard, I wondered, since so many millions of human beings have always believed it? Life for Harvard philosophers, it seems, is more difficult than for others.)

A childlike adult, however, aware of no special need to see the world as a Harvard philosopher does, could not help being struck by the marvel that no one denies: that things marvelously are and then are not. The fragility of all beings that we encounter is all too obvious to the sensitive intellect. This sharp taste of fragile existence is “the intuition of being”—or, to be more precise, since the one word being is sometimes used of more than one aspect of reality, “the intuition of existing.”

Let us consider for a moment the difference between the existing of things and their essential characteristics. The air outside as I write is a cool, fresh October air, blown in from Canada, whereas yesterday’s air, blown in from the Caribbean, was muggy and moist. It is at moments not their coolness and their mugginess that so much attract my attention as the fact that one is and the other was but is not; and the sure knowledge that the one that today is will also pass away. So it is also with the pen so comfortable now in my fingers; and with this narrow-lined paper on which I write and soon (once the typescript is prepared) to be thrown away; and with my very fingers themselves. All will return to dust. Yet today they gloriously are, and the taste of that existing is so keen that it sometimes makes one wish to exult and to break into glories.

I do not wish to confuse this insight into existing with the further inference (although it seems to me almost instantaneous) that I should thank Someone, Something, Some Glory for the good fortune of existing. These are two separate movements of the soul. Yet the most salient one, surely, if only because for us it is the first, is the intuition of the sheer existing of fragile, unnecessary things. (Had I died on the numerous occasions when I am aware of almost having done so, the particular existents mentioned above would never have been; had my parents never given me birth, or their parents them . . . so easily would the world never have experienced these fragile existents.)

Nonetheless, I am emboldened by the recent testimony of my second-favorite atheist humanist, Sidney Hook—Albert Camus still being my first—who just before his death confided to the American Jewish Committee Archives that there were many times in his life, at the height of his powers, that he often felt well up within him the desire to say thanks that things, which might have gone badly, worked out in existence as they had. This barely conscious, intuitive inference seems to me wholly natural. It seems to me also a bit of data about the human intellect that ought never to be lost to the attention of philosophers. Sidney Hook was a supremely honest man, willing to put on the record evidence that went against his own philosophy. True, Hook never understood that bit of data as Maritain did, or accepted the interpretation of human life that went with it, but his experience of the movement of human intellect to utter thanks remains a phenomenon to be explained.


It is not my intention, however, to spell out the implications that Maritain derived from his intuition of the existent, not at least in the direction of metaphysics, the philosophy of God, or even Jewish and Christian faith. (Maritain was deeply involved through his wife Raissa in questions of Jewish as well as Christian faith; in fact, he may have done as much as any Christian in our time to lay the intellectual groundwork for a special instinct of fraternity among Christians and Jews.) I would prefer here to carry the intuition of the existent into Maritain’s further reflections on politics and society.

For if all of human existence is fragile, even more fragile is human action, above all in the political sphere. Maritain writes in Existence and the Existent that the end of practical wisdom is “not to know that which exists but to cause to exist what is not yet.” Between the cup and the lip, many a slip. It is easier to intend results in ethical or in political action than to achieve those results. Politics, in a language more favored by Reinhold Niebuhr than by Maritain but by no means in conflict with the latter’s, is the realm of the contingent, the ironic, and the tragic.

We might pause here to observe the sharp difference between a Thomist view of politics, such as that of Maritain, and that of classical conservatives such as Russell Kirk. Struck by the contingency and organic relatedness of social institutions, practices, and actions, and dismayed by the Utopian ideologies to which so many modern minds are prone, paleoconservatives (as they now style themselves) such as Kirk are opposed to “ideological infatuation” or even to imagining social projects for the future at all. Considering the projection of social notions into the future to be signs of the disease of “ideology,” such conservatives prefer to let things continue, to move along “organically,” to be. They resist “thinking for the future,” for fear of contamination by ideology. Maritain had a significantly different view. For him (as for Thomas Aquinas), practical intellect is aimed by its very nature not at knowing that which already exists, but at causing to exist what is not yet. Practical intellect is oriented toward the future, more precisely, to changing the future, to making the future different, “to cause to exist what does not yet exist.” For this reason, Maritain did not hesitate in Integral Humanism (1936) to imagine possible futures or to suggest new courses of action that would alter the awful European present in the direction of a better—a more humane, more Christian—proximate future.

Maritain took considerable care not to think in a merely Utopian fashion. But he did not hesitate to try to imagine proximate, achievable next steps, which might in turn lead to yet further achievable steps, toward building up a more humane and more Christian civilization than the world had yet known. In brief, Maritain shared with those who are currently known as neoconservatives a willingness to project a future at once more attractive and more plausible than socialists or others could imagine, a future thoroughly realizable within the bounds of proximate probable developments. Unlike Kirk, Maritain was not willing to embrace social laissez-faire in the political realm, and he was resolutely opposed to mere nostalgia about some supposedly more humane premodern era. Maritain claimed the future. Indeed, insofar as the Christian Democratic parties of Sturzo, de Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer drew crucial inspiration from his work, Maritain may be said to have in fact caused to exist much that had not existed before him.

In this sense, Aquinas is properly called the “first Whig” because his ethics and his politics did lay claims upon the future, did inspire, down the ages, a search for political institutions worthy of the rational, consensual dignity of humans. This is the sense in which Maritain was able in Christianity and Democracy, Man and the State, and other works to claim for a specific idea of democracy the support of the main spine of the Christian intellectual tradition. For this tradition nourished over the centuries the slow emergence of the ideal of a civilized politics, a politics of civil conversation, of noncoercion, of the consent of the governed, of pluralism, of religious liberty, of respect for the inalienable dignity of every human person, of voluntary cooperation in pursuit of the common good, and of checks and balances against the wayward tendencies of sinful men and women. As we shall see presently, Maritain did not claim too much for the historical efficacy of the Christian intellectual tradition; he chastised its failures severely and gave credit to nonbelievers for crucial advances. But neither did he wish to claim too little.

Here it is necessary to see how profound was Maritain’s understanding of the hold that the ideal of caritas had upon the political thinking of Thomas Aquinas. Maritain held that action in the world—whether ethical action among individuals or political action among systems, institutions, and groups—is always action among existents,among real sinners and saints and all those in between, not among purely “rational agents.” For him, realistic thinking about ethics and politics could not be conducted wholly within the boundaries of philosophy; theology was necessarily required.

Why? Because ethics and politics are about the real, existing world, and in this existing world humans are not purely rational agents but, rather, fallen creatures redeemed by grace on the condition that they are willing to accept God’s action within them. To proceed in purely philosophical categories about ethics and politics would be Utopian; one must deal with real, existing creatures locked in the actual historical drama of sin and grace.

That is why, in explicating “the fundamentally existential character of Thomist ethics,” Maritain stresses two points, one regarding charity, the other regarding practical wisdom or prudence. Concerning the first, he writes:

St. Thomas teaches that perfection consists in charity, and that each of us is bound to tend towards the perfection of love according to his condition and in so far as it is in his power. All morality thus hangs upon that which is most existential in the world. For love (this is another Thomist theme) does not deal with possibles or pure essences, it deals with existents. We do not love possibles, we love that which exists or is destined to exist.

Regarding practical wisdom, Maritain makes two extremely subtle points whose fullness I will not be able to reproduce. The first is that, at the heart of concrete existence, when an actual person is confronted with a set of particulars among which to decide to act, that person’s appetite—that person’s will or secret and deepest loves—enters into the quality of his or her perception of alternatives. More than that, for Aquinas, the rectitude of an existing person’s intellect depends upon the rectitude of his existing loves. This is a powerfully realistic doctrine. Intellect follows love, and if the love is errant so also will be the judgment of practical intellect or “conscience.” Although, for Maritain as for Aquinas, practical intellect still exerts a major discipline over the soul (over its loves, for example), nonetheless, here and now, under the immediate pressures of choice, the predispositions of one’s loves are highly likely to bend the intellect to their purposes. (Were not David Hume and Adam Smith, under different background assumptions but with the same Augustinian sense for real experience, to make an analogous point?)

Hence, for Aquinas, there is necessary in one’s ethical formation in advance of such choices a deep and profound habit of disciplining and directing one’s loves, seducing them so to speak, so that in every case they will love the good, the true, and the just, and be habituated to being restless with anything less. Absent a right will, a right practical intelligence will also be absent. In doing what they think is best, those whose loves are disordered will distort even their own intellects. As they love, so will they perceive. “Love is blind,” we say, meaning that, disordered, it is more powerful than light, obscures the light, and darkens the eye of intelligence itself.

The second subtle point that Maritain makes about practical intellect begins again with the fact that ethical and political action are always about existents. This time he points out that such action always faces two wholly singular, unrepeatable realities: first, the singular character, here and now, of this particular agent; and, second, the singular, never-to-be-repeated circumstances of the here and now. For these reasons, practical wisdom is utterly different from science. Whereas scientific judgment depends upon regularities, moral judgment must cope with singulars. “The same moral case never appears twice in the world. To speak absolutely strictly, precedent does not exist.” Practical wisdom concerns unprecedented singulars (“Useless to thumb through the dictionary of cases of conscience!”). At the same time, however, its point is “not to know that which exists, but to cause that to exist which is not yet,” and so it is moved by the appetite of will or love that thrusts us toward creating something new, whether of evil or of good.


From this discussion of the sheer existing of ethical and political action—here and now, singular, unprecedented, unrepeatable—it follows that building a humane, Christian society is an uncertain business. It cannot be built upon any institutional framework at all; it has preconditions; many things can go wrong. Thus, to be faithful to the full measure of Christian intellectual conviction about the dignity (and fallibility) of the human person, about civilization as a state of society characterized by uncoerced decisions arrived at through civil discourse, and about the pull upon human love of God’s own command of love, new forms of social institutions will have to be labored towards in history, and not without setbacks. For reasons Maritain articulates at some length, a certain kind of democracy, guarded against the diseases to which “pure” democracies are prey, best represents the full flowering of human practical wisdom about the sorts of institutions worthy of Jewish and Christian thought. This particular kind of democratic reality gives the broken world some hope for a better future.

Maritain is not unsophisticated about democracy. He knows, writing in 1944 in the depths of destruction, that “the very name democracy has a different ring in America and in Europe.” And before proceeding very far on this subject in Christianity and Democracy, Maritain makes three important distinctions, each of which he discusses at more length than we can here duplicate. “First, the word democracy, as used by modern peoples, has a wider meaning than in the classical treatises on the science of government. It designates first and foremost a general philosophy of human and political life.” Its inner dynamism, although consistent with a monarchic regime and even other classic “regimes” or “forms of government,” leads “in the words of Abraham Lincoln,” to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democratic regimes are not the only good regimes, but all good regimes will have to embody the dynamism of respect for free persons and their consent.

Second, Maritain argues that democracy after the war will certainly have to be ordered democracy, based on constitutions that have at least three characteristics: formation through the consent of the governed; protection of “the essential bases of common life, respect for human dignity and the rights of the person”; and grounding in a “long process of education.” This long process of education will be necessary to lead peoples away from habits of dictatorship, nationalistic impulses, and the mental sloth of unfree and coercively minded peoples. It will have to lead them towards the “slow and difficult construction” of new habits in the temporal life of nations, supportive of “the soul of democracy,” that is, “the law of brotherly love and the spiritual dignity of the person.”

By these first two distinctions, Maritain shows that he intends what in the United States we mean by a democratic republic, protective of the rights of the person. He means no totalitarian or merely majoritarian democracy, but limited government, grounded in a tradition of sound habits, associations, and institutions. Moreover, he means a set of principles not exhausted by any one form of regime, and yet capable of distinguishing false from true ideas of democracy.

Then, by his third distinction, Maritain makes clear both that Christian faith cannot be made subservient to democracy as a philosophy of life and that democracy cannot claim to be the only form of regime demanded by Christian belief. He intends “by no means to pretend that Christianity is linked to democracy and that a Christian faith compels every Christian to be a democrat.” To so argue would be to mix the things of Caesar and the things of God. Nonetheless, Maritain does affirm “that democracy is linked to Christianity and that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.”

Maritain does not believe that Christianity exists in the world solely as the Church or the body of believers. Rather, he sees Christianity “as historical energy at work in the world. It is not in the heights of theology, it is in the depths of the secular conscience and secular existence that Christianity works in this fashion.” Maritain is equally far from asserting that Christians brought modern democratic institutions into existence: “It was not given to believers in Catholic dogma but to rationalists to proclaim in France the rights of man and of the citizen, to Puritans to strike the last blow at slavery in America.” He knows full well the many non-Christian sources of the democratic impulse: “Neither Locke nor Jean-Jacques Rousseau nor the Encyclopedists can pass as thinkers faithful to the integrity of the Christian trust.”

Once again, Maritain is interested in existents, not essences. In the existing world of 1944, “The chances of religion, conscience, and civilization coincide with those of freedom; freedom’s chances coincide with those of the evangelical message.” The terrors of war have obliged the democracies to rethink their spiritual foundations so as to recover their spiritual energies and humanizing mission. They dare not go back to what they were before. The demands of ‘the human spirit for the time include authentic understandings, many of them rooted in the Gospels and in the deepest Christian intellectual traditions, about the nature of human existents. But these have not always been best expressed, or best developed in practical life, by believers.

It is clear that Maritain considers the Christian message about the cry of the poor for justice to be a motor of human temporal improvement. He holds simultaneously that existing democratic ideas, traditions, and institutions were often championed in actual history by those who were non-Christians or even anti-Christian; and yet that, in building better than they knew, such persons were often generating in human temporal life constructs whose foundations were not only consistent with Jewish and Christian convictions about the realities of ethical and political life, but in a sense dependent on them. Pull out from under democratic principles the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity about the transcendent dignity of the person and the human propensity to sin, and the existing edifice of democratic thought is exposed to radical doubt.

Thus, Maritain argued, existing democratic institutions need to be grounded on a deeper, sounder foundation of intellectual conviction and moral habits than had been achieved in previous history. He urged Christians to take up this work both in intellect and in active practice. He saw a great deal to be done, both intellectually and morally, in the “slow and difficult construction” of a more humane world, whether considered from a Christian or a humanistic viewpoint.


I have said enough, I hope, to show why so many of us feel so immensely indebted to this layman, perhaps the greatest exemplar of the Catholic laity in the last two centuries—a master of many wisdoms, a metaphysician, a philosopher at once humane and Christian, an ethicist and philosopher of history, a political philosopher, a saintly and childlike man.

Jacques Maritain, we salute you. And with the thanks that Sidney Hook often felt the impulse to utter, we thank the Creator of all existents for your brief presence among us. May you and Sidney, and all the just and righteous philosophers, enjoy that endless pursuit of Truth, face to face, that you conducted so lovingly on this fragile earth.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift