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In the course of his long life, French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) adopted a series of different political positions while remaining consistent in his philosophical theology. What is one to do with an intellectual whose political engagement ranged from an early flirtation with the authoritarian Action Française to a leading role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and who both helped to inspire the Second Vatican Council and caustically catalogued its allegedly pernicious cultural side effects? Ralph McInerny offers an image of a saintly savant almost bereft of practical wisdom: “He careened from right to left and back again; his gyroscope only worked when he was in his study or on his knees.” I would like to provide another interpretation.

Maritain’s conception of history demands our attention now more than ever, anticipating by a half century Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of why the Enlightenment project had to fail, and suggesting the possibility of a Christian renewal of civilization. In Maritain’s major writings from the 1920s through the 1960s, from Antimoderne (1922) to The Peasant of the Garonne (1966), he continually confronts the atomized individualism of modernity with its attendant neglect or outright denial of claims of truth. And against a prevailing tendency to envision human progress without God, he emphasizes both the philosophical heritage of natural law—drawing above all on the thought of Thomas Aquinas—and the theological centrality of the incarnation, describing the nature and destiny of the human person as “the conquest of a freedom consonant with the vocation of our nature.”

However nuanced and tempered with optimism his critique of modernity would later be, Maritain began his literary career as a fervent antimodernist. His 1906 conversion to Catholicism had signaled the culmination of a search for meaning in part provoked by the scientism and agnosticism of Sorbonne lecturers who, in the words of his wife Raïssa, “despaired of truth, whose very name was unlovely to them and could be used only between the quotation marks of a disillusioned smile.” The young professor at Paris’ Institut Catholique was by the 1920s the philosophy editor of La Revue Universelle, a periodical linked to (though not officially affiliated with) Charles Maurras’ reactionary, anti-Semitic Action Française movement and newspaper. Maritain, who was called (perhaps wrongly) the “philosopher of Action Française” during this period, embraced a strident antimodernism that carried with it, in the wake of World War I, an unmistakable anti-Germanism. His 1922 book Antimoderne also excoriated “liberalism, Americanism, modernism . . . [and] Masonic dogmas of necessary Progress and humanitarian Optimism.” Maritain was ready for intellectual confrontation. The “modern schism inaugurated in fact, though not in intent, by the antiquarians of the Renaissance and Reformation, and more consciously by Descartes” had amounted to nothing less than a descent into “barbarism pure and simple.”

In Three Reformers (1925), Maritain chronicled the roots of this “modern schism” by tracing the breakdown of the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. He treated the three subjects of this intellectual anti-biography—Martin Luther, René Descartes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—as architects of the errors of modern culture. Luther stands accused of having banished reason “to the foulest place in the house.” The break with Rome also sets the tone for subsequent German history. “In Luther,” Maritain writes, “the swollen consciousness of the self is essentially a consciousness of will.” For his part, Descartes creates an intellectual system that repudiates reason’s reliance on the past, beating the “retreat of the human mind on itself” and irremediably rupturing the link between “intelligence and Being.” Lastly, Rousseau merits scorn mixed with pity for his detachment from everything except his “exorbitant Individuality.” “A stupendous perverter, Rousseau aims not at our heads but a little below our hearts.” Preaching the perfectibility of human nature divorced from the action of grace or participation in the divine, Rousseau offers a “myth of political pantheism” destined to corrupt and destroy the human person in the name of an exalted—but for Maritain, heartbreakingly hopeless—individualism.

Not long after Three Reformers was published, a papal condemnation of Maurras led to Maritain’s definitive break with the Action Française coterie, a rupture that has been portrayed ever since as both traumatic and liberating. The bitterness of the Action Française controversy helped to make Maritain more open to the virtues of parliamentary democracy; it moved him away from the extreme rancor of some of his earlier antibourgeois and antiliberal diatribes. Maritain’s advocacy of a personalist democracy dedicated to “a social and temporal realization of the truths of Christianity,” heightened by his association in the early ’30s with Esprit founder Emmanuel Mounier, also took shape as a response to the bitter polarization of French domestic politics, a sometimes violent pitting of left against right.

Integral Humanism, published in 1936, the year that civil war broke out in Spain, traces three movements or stages in what Maritain calls “the dialectic of anthropocentric humanism.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a classical “Christian naturalism” fostered an incipient separation of Western culture from “supreme supernatural standards” that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would usher in a second movement of bourgeois “rational optimism.” This second movement, incorporating and building upon the first, placed increasing faith in the exclusive aim of material progress and a concomitant drive to “free man from the superstition of revealed religion.” The third movement is the twentieth century’s reaping of a revolutionary harvest, “when man, placing his ultimate end decisively in himself and no longer able to endure the machine of this world, engages in a war of desperation to make a wholly new humanity rise out of a radical atheism.” The human person has come to think of himself as purely material, and “materialized man thinks he can be man or superman only if God is not God.”

Maritain’s antimodernism is certainly still present in this new analysis; but now, even on the brink of a worldwide nihilistic crisis, he makes room for hope in the form of a new Christendom:

There is but one solution for the history of the world, I mean in a Christian regime, however it may be otherwise. It is that the creature be truly respected in its connection with God and because receiving everything from Him: humanism but theocentric humanism, rooted where man has his roots, integral humanism, humanism of the incarnation.

Maritain’s personalism, seen as the imperative of the incarnation, was forged in the controversies, crises, and manifestos of the ’30s, and centered on a politics of the human person as imago Dei. His consequent emphasis on social justice, in Integral Humanism and elsewhere, coupled with his condemnation of Franco’s “crusade” in Spain, led him to be branded a “Red Christian” by some critics. In fact, Maritain’s fixation on what he called the “primacy of the spiritual” precluded any ideological or even party allegiance. But this indifference to most partisan disputes did not prevent him from responding quickly and decisively when the Nazi order began to envelope Europe.

Maritain saw World War II as nothing less than an apocalyptic passage through unprecedented destruction. Civilization had entered the “end of an age”:

If we want to take the measure of the horrible war that the Pagan Empire has unleashed on the world and which kills not only men but consciences as well and wears nations threadbare, starves the children and destroys throughout Europe and the world the vital resources of the generations to come, we must understand that it is a moment of paroxysm in the liquidation of a world. The end of the Roman Empire was a minor event compared with what we behold.

Such assessments pervade Maritain’s wartime writings, which portray the high tide of totalitarianism as something of an overdue historical disfiguration, after four centuries of anthropocentric humanism undertaken apart from God.

Viewed in this light, the passing of modernity may seem to be no cause for mourning. Yet France’s fall to Germany in 1940, viewed from America, where a lecture tour became a long exile for Maritain, was emotionally devastating. Maritain confided to his friend and former student Yves Simon that he could only “cry out of sorrow and cry out of shame.” Maritain continued to experience the temptation of despair throughout the war—especially in reference to the emerging reality of the Shoah—but he sought to counteract it with active engagement in the war effort, both by speaking every week on the radio to his fellow Frenchmen and by writing books destined to be read both in America and in France. The U.S. Army Air Force would assist in this latter mission by airdropping his books over occupied France. (To Mortimer Adler he wrote, “You can imagine my philosophy falling thus from heaven!”)

Maritain’s involvement with the Resistance began long before America entered the conflict; he wrote France My Country, Through the Disaster in autumn 1940 to counteract the collaborationist propaganda of Vichy France. This slim volume would be distributed throughout the occupied and unoccupied zones, with one historian calling it the first “breviary” of the Resistance. Here, as in so many of his works, Maritain’s political engagement and his sense of history were inseparable. The late Third Republic’s stalemated multiparty system, the failures of appeasement and the Maginot Line, and the abdication of French democracy after the June 1940 capitulation all stemmed from what he described as the deep-rooted philosophical error of

those genteel Machiavellians among the French bourgeoisie, those unfortunates who toyed with Machiavellian thought but lacked Machiavellianism in their blood. They missed the rise of total Machiavellianism, triumphant over their reasonable Machiavellianism, and, for the advantage of the most inhuman and pitiless of revolutions, making game of their worship of an order without justice. 

For Maritain, France would only receive justice and true order after an overdue “spiritual overhauling” that would follow an Allied victory and the upholding of a French spirit of resistance in the interim.

The January 1942 article “The End of Machiavellianism” forecasts the imminent end of his own era’s worship of power for power’s sake. In the essay, Maritain explains that the Florentine had based his precepts on the false assumption that the human creature is by nature completely bad”—to which Maritain responds that “human nature remains good in its very essence and root tendencies, and that such a basic goodness joined to a swarming multiplication of particular evils is the very mystery and the very motive power of struggle and progression in mankind.” Challenging the Machiavellian premise by tying incarnation and natural law to historical progress, Maritain proceeds to distinguish between traditional Realpolitik and a more recently developed “absolute” strain of “impetuous, irrational, revolutionary, wild, and demoniacal Machiavellianism . . . which draws from this very boundlessness of evil an abominable strength.”

In early 1942 this abominable strength still translated into widespread success, but Maritain confidently pointed to its ultimate destruction, since as a force of destruction, activated evil can create nothing lasting. Even if we can never hope to see the fullness of providence in the history of our times, some axiomatic truths nonetheless reveal themselves, such as the idea that “justice and righteousness tend by themselves to the preservation of states . . . injustice and evil tend by themselves to the destruction of states. . . . Such is the law of the fructification of human actions which is inscribed in the nature of things and which is but the natural justice of God in history.” History, in the light of the incarnation, transcends the historical.

Maritain explored this theme in greater detail in the 1942 book The Rights of Man and Natural Law, which starts from the premise that the “root error of Machiavellianism,” and the key to its political demise, is its disregard for the human person and the common good. Maritain envisions the war’s end as bringing about a personalist, communalist, pluralist, and theist society. This last consideration does not bespeak a theocratic impulse on Maritain’s part, but rather a conviction that human history has entered a moment when “states will be obliged to choose for or against the gospel.” The very idea that man has a “historic vocation . . . is of Christian origin and derives from Christian inspiration.” That this vocation can and must be pursued even through the unprecedented destruction of a global war points to what Maritain calls the “double law of the degradation and revitalization of the energy of history.”

Even if the fight against the Axis did not promise in and of itself to bring about a full realization of human potential, it did serve the indispensable purpose of vanquishing the Nazi myth of racist dictatorship with incarnational truth, “the truth of God’s image naturally imprinted on us.” Accordingly, millions of combatants were involved in a struggle hardly perceived in their time:

In the terrible confusion of our day, it is for those truths which are inseparable from the authentic principle of human emancipation that the free peoples are willy-nilly engaged in a merciless struggle. And it is still through the distorting lens of the false philosophy of Emancipation that they often perceive these truths of the real philosophy of Emancipation for which they are shedding their blood; and it is only by dint of suffering that their eyes are little by little being opened. 

In short, Maritain saw in World War II a critical step toward mankind’s realization of the suprahistorical state, “when the gospel has penetrated to the very depth of human substance,” and “natural law [will] appear in its flower and in its perfection.” Such a prise de conscience corresponds not only with a temporal quest for freedom, but with the theological virtue of love, defined essentially as the human longing for oneness with God.

Maritain’s view of democracy as a “temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the gospel,” already emergent in the political crisis of the ’30s, reached full fruition in Christianity and Democracy, published in 1943. Looking forward to the world that would follow Allied victory, Maritain argued that the peace would be won only “on condition that the Christian inspiration and the democratic inspiration recognize each other and become reconciled.” While only a “democratic philosophy of man and society has faith in the resources and the vocation of human nature,” the postwar era would present new challenges of recovery and self-mastery. Whereas his previous book focused almost exclusively on the Nazi threat, Maritain’s 1943 work anticipated with a mixture of optimism and foreboding the postwar confrontation between democracy and communism. Nothing less than a renewal of heroic humanism would be called for.

Maritain’s optimism at the end of World War II was also tempered by his sorrow over the terrible slaughter of the war, epitomized in its senselessness by the Holocaust. His own wife was of Russian-Jewish origin, and Maritain looked on in horror and helplessness at the emerging magnitude of the Shoah, his anguish increased by the memories of his early association with Maurras and Action Française, whose ideas played a part in shaping the authoritarian and racist politics of Vichy. However, his reaction to the Holocaust, expressed here in a radio address to occupied France, went beyond bemoaning his own youthful errors to contemplating the place of an event such as the Shoah in a providential schema of history:

What the world gives us to contemplate in the great racist persecutions is that Israel is itself engaged on the way of Calvary, because it activates and stimulates earthly history, and because the slave masters do not pardon it for the demands it and its Christ have introduced into the heart of the temporal life of the world, for they will always say No to tyranny and the triumph of injustice.

Maritain’s account of the Jewish people’s historical vocation inverts the traditional anti-Judaic prejudice by offering an unsettling vision of a people punished not for its sins but for its sacred role in history. One is accordingly reminded of Maritain’s overall vision of history as myriad mysteries, including those of evil, pointing to a resolution possible only in the light of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

In the wake of the Allied victory, Maritain outlined a progressive, providential plan of history by expounding on his philosophy of the human person. The Person and the Common Good, which he completed in early 1946, built upon his wartime experiences as he reiterated themes already apparent in his work of the ’20s. For Maritain, the Nazi terror demonstrated above all that a “purely biological conception of society” leads inevitably to the cheapening of human life, in which the termination of the undesirables becomes not only tolerated but also desired. Indeed, all three principal forms of materialist philosophy of society—bourgeois individualism, collectivist communism, and racialist dictatorship—can be said to rest on the same tendency to “disregard the human person in one way or another and in its place, to consider, willingly or not, the material individual alone.”

Even in bourgeois liberalism, he insists, “the state takes the place of the genuine community” of human persons. For Maritain, all three of these materialist philosophies are disastrous substitutes for the Christian vision. At the same time, he retains the conviction that the “drama of the modern democracies has consisted in the unwitting quest for something good.” This conviction entails a belief that the unfolding of human history, even and perhaps especially in times of crisis, and heightens “the awareness of the dignity of the human person and the eternal vocation of every man, which the gospel has imprinted on the heart of humanity.” History’s “double movement” involves humanity grasping for false lures of emancipation while slowly moving toward true freedom in God, a “paradox of social life” that Maritain insists “will never be terminated here below.”

Maritain helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during his tenure as France’s envoy to the Holy See between 1945 and 1948. Speaking to an audience in Rome on Bastille Day 1947, the ambassador recalled that, for the Christian, hope “is itself a force and an agent in history.” Speaking the following January on the “ambivalence of history,” Maritain specified the impact of World War II on the future: “By a phenomenon that responds to profound laws, the degradation of human conduct is accompanied by a progress in human consciousness and in moral knowledge, which illuminates more vividly than ever the idea of the human person and of human rights.”

Maritain more fully elucidated this perspective in Man and the State, which was published in 1951 while he was on the philosophy faculty at Princeton University. Perhaps his best-known work, Man and the State is usually read for its rejection of the post-Bodin absolute sovereignty of the state in favor of a personalist democracy, and for its call for world government. Here the possibility of a new Christendom, first broached in Integral Humanism, is filtered through the wartime pluralism that culminated in the 1948 Universal Declaration. Maritain envisions Christians and non-Christians finding at least a bare minimum of moral agreement:

If a new civilization is to be Christianly inspired, if the body politic is to be quickened by the leaven of the gospel in temporal existence itself, it will be because Christians will have been able, as free men speaking to free men, to revive in the people the often unconscious Christian feelings and moral structures embodied in the history of the nations born out of the old Christendom, and to persuade the people, or the majority of the people, of the truth of the Christian faith, or at least of the validity of Christian social and political philosophy.

Here again we see how Maritain’s incarnational faith informs his sense of history.

Maritain’s 1957 book On the Philosophy of History further developed the themes of providence and progress, with specific emphasis on the ways in which the philosophy of history—dealing as it does with “the final application of philosophical truths . . . to the entire movement of humanity”—mirrors moral philosophy. What he terms the “law of the two-fold contrasting progress” testifies to the simultaneous growth of good and evil in history. Drawing on biblical metaphor, he looks to Jesus’ parable about the wheat field sowed with tares, not to be separated until the final harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). For Maritain, the mission of today’s Christians is not to resolve this tension, but to contribute to it by taking up the cross in the historical events of their time.

Maritain’s emphasis on the tension between good and evil in history was accompanied by a greater softening of his antimodernism. His discussion of ambivalence in history emphasized both “great spiritual errors in modern times” and “great truths . . . discovered.” For example, despite Rousseauian excess, the Enlightenment offered the first modern rationale for a democratic philosophy already anticipated by the gospel. According to Maritain, “no human event is absolutely pure, no human event is absolutely evil.” Historically speaking, the good can be found in unexpected places.

The “law of the progress of moral conscience,” referring to humanity’s ability to grasp natural law, also figures prominently in Maritain’s mature philosophy of history. Coming just a decade after the end of World War II, this affirmation of progress might sound rather odd if not for Maritain’s previous remarks about persons and groups unwittingly pursuing a good not readily discernible in any given era. Humanity achieves understanding much the same way that the individual person does—through the habits of living virtuously and participating in truth. This progressive education of the species is historically driven and depends on changing social conditions more than any intellectual achievement, for “in general, the work of theoretical reflection cannot replace in moral matters the slow advance of consciousness, conscience, and experience in mankind.” Maritain does not take a sanguine view of the human cost of this collective experience: “The devil hangs like a vampire on the side of history. History goes on, nonetheless, and goes on with the vampire.” If the world can receive the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, then history, despite its ambiguity, cannot be left to the devil.

The dialectical relation between God and history is a major theme in Maritain’s later work, as he repeatedly stresses that “according to the gospel, the world will never be fully reconciled with Christ within the course of human history,” while also maintaining that the impossibility of attaining the kingdom of God within human history “is all the more reason why we should strive toward it.” What is unattainable for humans alone is not unattainable for grace. The restless, temporally engaged Christian must wrestle with a world that ceaselessly denies or misunderstands the role of the divine in history. Maritain lists three corresponding “illusions”: the “anthropocratic,” which posits the “self-movement of human history” through economic forces; the “satanocratic,” resigned to a fallen world ruled by the Devil and bereft of possibilities of progress until the Parousia; and the “theocratic,” which oppressively overemphasizes the prospects of establishing the kingdom of God within history. A truly Christian philosophy must reject these philosophies of “pure immanentist or atheistic evolution” on the grounds that they all assume an endless process of change while also insisting that their own pronouncements somehow stand outside of history. The Christian must yield authorship to Another.

In 1960 Maritain’s wife Raïssa died and he returned to France. He lived the remainder of his life among the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse. His 1962 lectures to the monks on the problem of evil were published in a book titled God and the Permission of Evil, in which he distinguishes between the causative good of God’s creation and the permissive evil that stems from human freedom. Establishing evil’s place in history in the face of God’s innocence, Maritain proceeds to reaffirm the commingling of grace and nature in history, again citing the gospel example of the wheat and the tares. Pondering the unfolding of grace and nature in his own life, he concludes the lectures with the following self-appraisal: “You know that in my youth I spent some years breaking windows, and afterwards I tried as best I could to open doors, and to open paths. That is my calling.”

Maritain was honored as the doyen of Catholic intellectuals by Pope Paul VI—the Italian translator of Three Reformers who called Maritain “my teacher”—at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Many were therefore shocked the following year when Maritain published The Peasant of the Garonne, which included a bitter polemic against what he called the “frenzied modernism” that followed in the wake of Vatican II. The Church, he claimed, had belatedly curbed its almost Manichaean contempt for the world only to unwittingly encourage an erosion of doctrine and an all-too-eager desire among the clergy and laity for headlong accommodation with contemporary society. Maritain received encouragement from his friend Thomas Merton, who wrote to him from his monastery in Kentucky, lamenting “all the incredible nonsense that is being preached and said about a religionless religion, about total commitment to the secular world.” Merton wondered if some of these “poor idiots” could remember Auschwitz or Dachau, let alone Calvary.

Despite its caustic criticism of the Council, the book provided further evidence that Maritain now viewed history as an ever-opening vision of the kingdom of grace. He saw in Vatican II a potential to inspire Christians to pursue the temporal common good without losing sight of their spiritual vocation: “Woe to the world if the Christian were to isolate and separate his temporal mission (then it would be wind only) from his spiritual vocation! The fact remains that this temporal mission requires him to enter as deeply as possible into the agonies, the conflicts, and the earthly problems, social or political, of his age, and not hesitate ‘to get his feet wet.’” Seeing the “natural end of the world” as the progressive realization of a human potential that includes greater knowledge of natural law, Maritain looked toward the future with more hope than optimism. As he explained to the Little Brothers in Toulouse, “We have the duty to hope for the temporal history of men, but without any certitude that the progress of evil will not there accompany, with too much power and too much glitter, the progress of good.” Throughout earthly history, evil will always accompany, but will never overwhelm, the good. That is the Christian assurance unwaveringly upheld by Maritain until his death in 1973.

Jacques Maritain’s sense of history was based on the idea that the collective experience of humanity can be understood analogically in the same way that, from the Thomistic perspective, one understands the individual human telos. Mankind is created in the image of God and its unfolding history illustrates a longing (at most times hardly conscious) for oneness with the Creator. Emphasizing that the “paradox of social life” was essentially unresolvable short of the Second Coming, Maritain nonetheless continually asserted that Christians have a duty, based on the virtue of hope, to engage in a temporal struggle to realize the kingdom that is the promise of the gospel.

Critics have been wrong to claim that Maritain was excessively or unrealistically optimistic. He was, rather, a man of abundant Christian hope living in an age that seemed designed to shatter such hope. While Maritain would agree with MacIntyre that the “Enlightenment project” has proven to be a dismal failure, the kind of incarnational faith from which he drew strength (during World War II, for example) can still bring the light of the gospel to bear on the confusions and derelictions of our own time.

History, for Maritain, was both a challenge and a mystery, to be understood only “at the end of time.” It is in this dual sense that history gives a glimmer of truth to those still willing to entertain the concept of truth. Josef Pieper relates this notion of truth to the virtue of prudence—the virtue without which all other virtues are more or less inoperative. To write, teach, or learn history, one must comprehend that truth is primarily sought, not constructed. Maritain maintained that this appreciation of truth in history requires modern men and women to confront the full implications of the Cartesian legacy.

By contrast with Maritain’s approach, modern and postmodern thinking recoils in horror at the idea of truth-through-participation and dismisses the always unfulfilled striving for truth, arguing that all “metahistorical” thinking and all “master narratives” testify to nothing other than discursive fancies, power relationships, and, worst of all, subjective beliefs. Yet what do we have to put in the place of historical understanding? For Jacques Maritain, the modern era has culminated in a shattering of the claims of disbelief, a paradoxical confirmation of natural law and natural rights through the horrific experience of their denial, and the possibility of a true humanism based on an incarnational hope for a broken world. Such is for Maritain, and for us, the very promise of history.

Richard Francis Crane is Professor of History at Greensboro College.

Photo by Ralph Hammann and licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped from original.