035 Jacques and Raissa Maritain

I earlier noted, when reviewing Jacques Maritain’s Moral Philosophy in my May 1992 newsletter, how significantly his thought had impacted mine. This semester I’m teaching a Contemporary Philosophy class and have been able to reread and deepen my appreciation for this French philosopher, one of the finest minds of our century.

To understand him, one best begins with a two volume memoir by his wife, Raissa, entitled We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace; both appear in a single volume (Garden City: Image Books, 1961), tr. Julie Kernan.

Raissa, a Russian Jewess, brought to her union with Jacques a poetic and deeply contemplative mind which he routinely credited for expanding and enriching his philosophical endeavors. Though reared without much religious instruction, as a teenager she sensed a deep spiritual hunger. Above all, she remembers, “I had to make sure of the essential thing: the possession of the truth about God, about myself, and about the world. It was, I knew, the necessary foundation for my life” (p. 34).

Raissa’s parents emigrated to Paris; there she finished her schooling, though her teachers, espousing a “rationalistic skepticism and pseudo-scientific positivism” (p. 119) which restricted itself to empirical data, failed to open for her the doors to truth. Then she met Jacques Maritain, who shared with her similar longings for intellectual nourishment unavailable in the schools.

They fortunately encountered, in Paris at the turn of the century, free spirits such as Henri Bergson (a world-acclaimed philosopher), Charles Peguy (a noted poet), and Leon Bloy (radically-committed Catholic writer). Such thinkers helped point them to the realm of truth and the riches of Christianity which neither young person had hitherto encountered. Ultimately they “were brought face to face with the question of God, both in all its power and in all its urgency” (p. 99).

Their spiritual quest led them to embrace the Christian Faith. Both were baptized and thenceforth sought to bring all of life into the love and service of Christ and His Church. For Jacques, sensing a call “philosophize truly” (p. 143), this meant, initially, a renunciation of professional ambition, for he feared (with good reason) that he could not freely teach as a professing Christian in the state-controlled universities of France.

So he began his career as an independent philosopher! In that process Jacques and Raissa discovered St Thomas Aquinas and found in him the intellectual foundations they needed. In Raissa’s experience, the “first reading of the Summa Theologica was as if I had been given a very pure gift.” Therein she encountered truly sanctified intelligence. “So great a light kept flowing into both my heart and mind that I was carried away as if by a joy of Paradise. To pray, to understand, was for me one and the same thing; the one made me thirst for the other, and that thirst in me I felt to be constantly, and yet never, quenched” (p. 183).

In one of his early lectures (1913) Jacques declared: “There is but one region where the soul and the intellect live in the peace of God and grow in grace and truth; it is in the light of Thomism” (p. 341). Given that confidence, Maritain devoted the rest of his life to spearheading a revival, a contemporary restatement, of the thought of St Thomas. In time he wrote some 50 books and held prestigious positions, including appointments to the University of Chicago and Princeton University. Though Raissa’s memoirs tell us far more about their friends than about themselves, they’re beautifully written and help us understand the formative years wherein the Maritains flourished and undertook to make relevant the timeless wisdom of St Thomas Aquinas.

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One of Jacques Maritain’s most significant philosophical treatises is entitled Distinguish to Unite, or The Degrees of Knowledge, tr. Gerald B. Phelan (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c. 1959). “We hope to show in this book,” Maritain says, that Thomistic realism, in preserving, according to a truly critical method, the value of the knowledge of things, opens the way to an exploration of the world of reflection in its very inwardness and to the establishment of its metaphysical topology, so to speak; thus, ‘philosophy of being’ is at once, and par excellence, ‘philosophy of mind” (p. ix).

The first section of the book deals with “the degrees of rational knowledge: philosophy and experimental science.” Here Maritain celebrates our mind’s ability to truly know, through sense experience, objective reality. When we have an idea which is true, it corresponds to the essential being of what we apprehend. Our ideas, of course, are abstract concepts; with such, natural science seeks to discern universal (frequently mathematical) “laws” which explain the physical world. Indeed: “there is scientific knowledge only of the universal” (p. 28).

On its own, however, natural science cannot discern the true essence of a particular, existing thing. Here philosophy, metaphysics, is needed, and Maritain asserts that the Thomistic tradition offers the key to unlock the riches of metaphysical knowledge which philosophers (especially in wake of Hume’s and Kant’s denials) have generally eschewed. St Thomas taught that the intellect has the natural ability to know, through an immediate intuition (adaequatio rei et intellectus–a bond between intellect and thing–the being of a being and thenceforth to know, by definition, its essence.

Reacting to the various idealisms, spawned by Descartes, which forever reduce reality to whatever is in one’s mind, Maritain espouses a “critical realism” which begins with this simple assertion: “I am aware of knowing–I am aware of knowing at least one thing, that what is, is; not: “I think” (p. 76). In knowing that what is, is, one grasps the fundamental reality of metaphysics and begins to think truly. Failing to begin rightly, we are afflicted by bad philosophies which, Maritain believes, must be ousted by a good philosophy. Unfortunately, “good philosophy is more difficult than bad” (p. 196).

A good philosophy enables one to think meta-physically, to know the being-of-a-thing, not simply the external appearance of the thing. Just as the intuitive certainty of the “law of non-contradiction” gives one the basis for logical thinking, so too the intuitive certainty of the “law of being” (p. 215) affords one the basis for metaphysical thinking. “From similar intuitions bearing on the primary aspects of being (and provoked in the mind by some sensible example) proceed the other metaphysical axioms, truths known of themselves by all or at least by the wise” (p. 215).

Thus metaphysical thinking allows one to know “transintelligible” realities, immaterial realities such as person, spirit, freedom, love, and God. Such are knowable through “ananoetic intellection” (analogical thinking) rather than “perinoetic intellection” (sense observation), but they are nevertheless knowable. However, “the analogous concepts it uses avow at the same time their impotence to enclose or delimit the reality they then designate.” For example, “They make God known only by kneeling before Him” (p. 225).

Having discussed the importance of scientific and metaphysical knowledge–different types of rational knowing– Maritain turns, in the second half of the book, to “the degrees of suprarational knowledge.” Here he treats the very special knowledge which comes through faith and love, the sanctifying grace which enables us to “share in the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1:4), and mystical experience, where one suffers rather than siezes “divine things” (p. 253). “Sanctifying grace and indwelling of God in the soul in the state of grace–these are the ontological foundations, the first principles of mystical experience” (p. 259). While Aristotle and St Thomas serve as a good guides to rational knowledge, St Thomas (on the speculative level) and St John of the Cross (on the practical level) open to us the ultimate realms of spiritual reality. “Seek Him in faith and love,” wrote St John, “and, like a blind man, these two guides will lead you along paths you know not, right into the very secret of God” (p. 262).

In sum, Maritain holds: “For St. John of the Cross, as for St. Thomas Aquinas and the whole Christian tradition, the final end of human life is transformation in God, ‘to become God by participation,’ which is fully achieved in heaven by the beatific vision and beatific love, and fulfilled here below, in faith, by love. The supernatural love of charity, by which we love God and creatures with a properly divine love, makes us one with God and causes us to be one same spirit with him” (pp. 320-321).

Such love comes through self-surrender, which St John says is a giving to God of everything one has. This death-to-self is absolutely necessary in order to be spiritually united winy. “The right road is the path of perfection” (p. 355).

I know of no more thoughtful discussion of mystical knowledge, the contemplative wisdom given only by God, than that Maritain provides in this volume. That a first-rate philosopher, who with ease addresses such a variety of important themes in his books, finds in St John of the Cross the route to ultimate Truth and Wisdom, leads us to both pray and give thanks for the illumination which awaits those who follow his instructions.

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Thomists like Maritain insist there are good, rational reasons for believing God exists. That view is most clearly stated in Approaches to God, tr. Peter O’Reilly (New York: Collier Books, 1962). This is Volume One in the World Perspectives Series, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen, which published a series of short treatises by the world’s most acclaimed scholars. (It’s also, as I recall, the first book of Maritain’s I encountered as a graduate student simply pursuing my own interests quite apart from class work).

Maritain first argues for “the primordial way,” the “natural or prephilosophic knowledge of God.” We just know, deep in our being, that there’s a God who sustains our being. I never ser-iously question my own existence. I also know I have only recently come into being. And I know that “There is another Whole–a separate, another Being, transcendent and self-sufficient and unknown in itself and activating all beings, which is Being-without-nothingness, that is, self-subsisting Being, Being existing through itself” (p. 20).

This immediate awareness serves as the foundation for St Thomas Aquinas’ famous “five ways” to “prove” God exists. If, like Aristotle and most common sense philosophers, you accept as self-evident the reality of causation, these five cosmological arguments enable you to persuasively demonstrate the necessity of “a cause which is pure Act or Being, itself subsistent in its own right” (p. 33), which indwells the various phenomena we encounter.

First, we see all around us things which move. Our world is continually becoming. No one doubts that electrons and planets continually move. And we also know that balls fly through the air when thrown or hit with a bat. So “if there were not a First Agent, the reason for the action of all the others would never be posited in existence; nothing would move anything. One cannot regress from agent to agent without end; it is necessary to stop at a First Agent” (p. 35).

Second, the world at hand contains efficient causes. Houses get built when builders (efficient causes) do their work. For the universe to be, and to be explainable, it needs, underlying all the efficient causes we discern, a First Cause which is “first” in sense of creating everything ex nihilo.

Third, there is the argument from the contingent and necessary. The world in flux demonstrates contingency. Things come and go; nothing on the material plane is demonstrably constant or eternal. Yet if, only for a moment, something truly is, it reveals a necessary being which allows contingent beings to be. Were all things truly contingent, obviously nothing could never be!

Fourth, there are evident degrees in things, qualitative levels of perfection in such things as goodness, love, life, truth, knowledge, and beauty. For us to have any reason to judge something better than something else, we must assume there is, “somewhere, a supreme degree or a maximum (a most)” (p. 51). Here, Maritain says, “the noble Augustinian approach, which rises to God through eternal truths, finds its normal place” (p. 56).

Fifth, one reasons to God by virtue of the governance of things. The cosmos seems, to all but dogmatic materialists, to have purpose. As our minds grasp its workings, we almost automatically know it’s guided by some supernatural Intelligence. If, as C.S. Lewis so persuasively suggested, we see a garden which seems continually weeded and tilled, full of ordered rows of nutritious plants, most of us assume there’s a gardener at work–even if we never physically see him.

As Maritain explains and defends St Thomas’ five “proofs,” he up-dates and effectively demonstrates their perennial validity as metaphysical stratagems. Then he adds a “sixth” possibility, one he found more and more attractive as he pondered it: an intuition regarding “the natural spirituality of intelligence” (p. 70). With my mind I easily transcend the limits of time and space; in my mind I am almost as infinite as the universe.

As an intellectual being, I am dramatically distinct from the material world I apprehend–if not, I could only, like a computer, process the flow of data which happens to enter my neurological system. Thus I know, while I think, that I am a spiritual being. But I also know that I have not always existed. So I must, as a spiritual being, be rooted “in a Being of transcendent personality” in Whom my personality has definition and reality. Having discussed some of the “approaches to God” of the speculative intellect, Maritain then turns to some of the ways of the practical intellect. Whenever we see beauty, we encounter “a transcendental, a perfection in things which transcends things and attests their kinship with the infinite, because it makes them fit, to give joy to the spirit” (p. 79). There is a certain eternality in great music and poetry which suggests its tie to some Ultimate Reality.

Our moral experience also, on a practical level, points us to God. For unless we are free, as moral beings, to choose what’s good, there’s no real morality. Yet as we reflect on the reality of personal freedom we find ourselves rooted in a transcendent realm which grants and guarantees it. “God is thus naturally known, without any conscious judgment, in and by the impulse of the will striving toward the Separate Good, whose existence is implicitly involved in the practical value acknowledged to the moral good” (p. 88).

Finally, Maritain argues, in accord with Aristotle’s dictum, that natural appetites have realizable ends. The fact that we’re thirsty proves, rather persuasively, that real liquids exist to slake that thirst. Similarly, since mankind has forever hungered and thirsted for God, there must be a Reality to which that appetite is directed.

Though it demands careful attention, Approaches to God is not overly difficult to read. It was written for the general reader and enables anyone who desires to master its basic arguments.

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Maritain’s final book, written in his 85th year, was The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, tr. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, c. 1968. Here he “calls a spade a spade” and expresses his concerns with developments within the Catholic Church (threatening to totally temporalize and secularize Christianity) as well as contemporary philosophy and culture.

The subjectivity and relativism which have flourished throughout our century pose significant threats to the Christian faith, which must always stay focused on external realities: God; Grace; Incarnation. Modern sophists, enamored with various “Versimilitudes” and self-fabricated “ideals,” need an up-to-date Socrates to save “reason, the future of culture and the rights of Truth” (p. 17) by establishing the mind’s ability to know “the extra-mental being of things” (p. 18).

Consequently, one cannot be both a relativist and a Christian! Nor can one be an idealist and a Christian! In Maritain’s judgment, philosophical idealists (better called “ideosophers”) aren’t even bona fide philosophers. Here he attacks the process thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, some-thing of a cult figure in the 1960’s, and urges fidelity to the Thomism he considers basic to authentic Christian theology. The Truth of the Gospel is at stake! Still more: “Unless one loves the truth, one is not a man” (p. 85).

Yet the lack of prayer distresses Maritain more than the lack of truthful philosophy. One must love as well as think, and loving God is more important than thinking about Him. Per amorem agnoscimus: we know through love. Thus much of this, Maritain’s final testament, contains a call for men and women to love God and devote their lives to the contemplative life. “I see one thing clearly: what matters in a very special way, and perhaps more than anything else, for our age, is the life of prayer and of union with God lived in the world” (pp. 196-197).

Here he underscores one of the dominant themes of Vatican II. That Council called Christians to seriously follow Christ’s call to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Such perfection is, of course, perfect love. Only as we love God and our neighbor do we find our divine design as human beings. The call to holiness is clear and must be followed. For, as Leon Bloy so clearly said: “There is only one sadness; it is not to be a saint” (p. 212).

To even write when one is 85 is quite an accomplishment! To write a book which summarizes much of a lifetime and also engages some of the critical concerns of the day makes this book a fitting finale for Jacques Maritain.


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