The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy, Part I


Two volumes of Jacques Maritain’s political philosophy are being re-issued by Ignatius Press. The books in question, Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law, are being released as a single volume. We spoke with Raymond Dennehy, professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco and author of the foreword to the re-issue. Below is the first part of that interview. Part two of the interview will appear shortly.

*** When were Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law originally published?

Dr. Dennehy: Both works were published in French in New York by Editions de la Maison Francaise, Les Droits de l’ Homme et la Loi Naturelle in 1942 and Christianisme et Democratie in 1943. Could you tell us something about the context of these books? Why did Maritain write them? How do they relate to his other work, including his other work in political theory?

Dr. Dennehy: When the outbreak of World War II made it impossible for Maritain and his wife to return to France from his lecture tour in Canada and the United States, he continued to support his countrymen by working with the Free French in New York City. Through radio addresses and publications, he called the attention of Americans to the condition of the French people, appealing for food and money for French relief. Throughout the war, Maritain also worked with the New School in New York City, producing works of a more philosophical and scholarly nature on the subjects of democracy, totalitarianism, and human rights, such as Les Droits de l ‘Homme et la Loi Naturelle; miniature editions of Christianisme et Democratie were dropped by British Royal Air Force planes over occupied France in 1944.

One way that these works relate to other of Maritain’s works is that the theme of the relation between philosophy and faith constitutes an idee fixe in his writings. Consider, for example, his Integral Humanism, the chapter in his Man and the State entitled “The Democratic Charter,” Scholasticism and Politics, and An Essay on Christian Philosophy. Maritain was convinced that the ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin and that the values of Christianity energize its institutions. (See my foreword in the Ignatius Press edition of Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law for an account of how Maritain sees the relation between faith and speculative philosophy and faith and practical philosophy and thus for what he understands the term “Christian philosophy” to mean.)

None of which diminishes Maritain’s personal drama in reconciling faith and reason. Despairing of ever finding truth (their teachers at the Sorbonne were skeptics and materialists), Maritain and his wife, Raissa, entered into a suicide pact: if they could not find meaning in materialism within one year, they would kill themselves. Fortunately, their discovery of the lectures of Henri Bergson at the College de France showed them that the human mind could transcend the physic-mathematical symbols of mechanistic science and know reality as it is in itself. Bergson’s doctrine, seemed to Maritain and his circle, to promise a new metaphysics: “…Bergson revived the worth and dignity of metaphysics in the minds of his listners, minds engaged in their sorrow by agnosticism or materialism, when he said, with an unforgettable emphasis, to those minds brought up in the most depressing pseudo-scientific relativism, ‘it is in the absolute that we live and move and have our being.’”

While strongly attracted to Bergson’s doctrine of intuition, Maritain eventually arrived at the point where he could no longer accept Bergson’s critique of the concept and his identification of the real with absolute becoming. It was, interestingly enough, Martain’s conversion to Catholicism that led him to this repudiation. The Maritains were baptized in the Catholic Church in 1906. Leon Bloy was their godfather. With his introduction to Catholic doctrine, Maritain found himself unable to square Bergson’s critique of the concept with the “conceptual pronouncements of the religious faith.” The precise difficulty was this: God presents the transcendent truths of revelation, truths that are “inaccessible to our reason,” in the form of conceptual propositions. Now if, as Bergson contends, the concept is incapable of grasping the real as it is and is only a practical instrument for symbolizing it, then Divine revelation is impossible. Maritain rejected this conclusion, concluding instead that the Bergsonian critique of the concept rests on an error.

This moment in Maritain’s life testifies to his personal integrity. Entering the Church with the conviction that philosophy contained inherent errors that made it incompatible with revealed truth, he was prepared to abandon the intellectual life altogether. What was at stake here was Maritain’s search for absolute truth, and, believing that this was found only in Christian doctrine and that philosophy was essentially incompatible with that doctrine, he would give up his philosophical interests. For two years after his conversion, Maritain gave himself over mainly to the study of theology and religion.

Although his initial reasons for repudiating Bergsonism were theological, there were also philosophical ones. Like Bergson, he wished to defend our direct and veridical knowledge of the real in all its dynamism and diversity; but, unlike him, he sought to defend the conditions of intelligibility, viz., conceptual knowledge, on the ground that otherwise we could have no knowledge at all. His introduction to the writings of Thomas Aquinas in 1908, thanks to Father Clerissac, provided him with metaphysical and epistemological principles that persuaded him that his position on the concept was philosophically defensible and reconcilable with divine revelation. What is Maritain’s thesis in Christianity and Democracy? What is his thesis in The Rights of Man and the Natural Law?

Dr. Dennehy: Maritain’s main thesis in Christianity and Democracy is, as I stated above, that the ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin and that the values of Christianity energize its institutions. However, as Donald Gallagher points out in his global introduction to the volume, besides offering support for the war effort against Nazi Germany, the two books contain a number of ideas central to Maritain’s philosophy; “ideas whose ramifications extend to every aspect of philosophy and which are inspired by theology.” Among them the reader will find ideas and themes that include “the dignity of the human person, the person and the common good, the rights of the person and natural law, organic and personalist democracy, equality and the free society, the ‘terminal freedom’ of autonomy and fulfillment, the inspiration of the Gospel in the socio-temporal order. All these are expressed trenchantly in Christianity and Democracy and Rights of Man and are developed fully in works published by Jacques Maritain in the 1940s and early 1950s.”