J. Budziszewski's book on the Treatise on Law

A few months ago J. Budziszewski (University of Texas at Austin) published a line by line commentary on Summa theologiae, I-II, qq. 90-97 with Cambridge University Press entitled (aptly enough) Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Law. I am not aware of another such commentary in English. Here is CUP's description. 

Natural moral law stands at the center of Western ethics and jurisprudence and plays a leading role in interreligious dialogue. Although the greatest source of the classical natural law tradition is Thomas Aquinas' Treatise on Law, the Treatise is notoriously difficult, especially for nonspecialists. J. Budziszewski has made this formidable work luminous. This book - the first classically styled, line by line commentary on the Treatise in centuries - reaches out to philosophers, theologians, social scientists, students, and general readers alike. Budziszewski shows how the Treatise facilitates a dialogue between author and reader. Explaining and expanding upon the text in light of modern philosophical developments, he expounds this work of the great thinker not by diminishing his reasoning, but by amplifying it.

You can find additional material related to the book at  Budziszewski's website The Underground Thomist. Included in the material is a PDF file of a Companion to the Commentary, which features a line by line treatment of selections from qq. 98-108 along with further discussion of topics from various articles across the Treatise. The Companion itself is 239 pages! Budziszewski says that the material in the Companion was not added to the original book because then the entire text would have come out to 800 pages and "a book shouldn't be a concrete block." Well, I would have still bought it. Some of the best books I own are concrete blocks.

People familiar with Budziszewski's work know that he has been writing (and teaching) about natural law, especially Aquinas's version of it, for many years. So, he was well prepared to write this book. It is surprising that he did not write it sooner! At any rate, I think it will prove a valuable resource.

The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy, Part II

Here is the second part of our interview with Raymond Dennehy about two recently re-issued works of Jacques Maritain’s political philosophy, Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and Natural Law. You can read the first part of the interview here.


Thomistica.net: What is the relevance of these books to the political and cultural scene in the US and Europe and elsewhere in the world?

Dr. Dennehy: Again, permit me to recall what I wrote in the book’s foreword:

The decision to reissue the single-volume edition of Jacques Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and Natural Law could hardly have come at a more urgent time, a time when, perhaps as never before, the future of democracy hangs in the balance. That Maritain wrote them back in the 1940s, in answer to the Fascist and Communist attacks on democracy, human rights, and Christianity, does nothing to diminish their timeliness. Yes, Fascism and Communism have been defeated, but the secularization of the West that fuels the treats to Christianity and human freedom continue unabated. Consider, for example, the absence of any reference to God in the European Union’s constitution; the legal challenges to the phrases ‘under God’ in our Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on our currency; the British law that forbids teachers in Catholic schools from teaching that homosexuality is immoral; the astonishing success of the homosexual agenda in the United States, Europe, and Latin America in legalizing same-sex “marriage”; and (to borrow then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s characterization) the “atomic bomb” that was dropped on democracy in 1973 – the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and its logical consequences: laboratory reproduction and human embryo stem-cell research. The right to life is the most fundamental and important of all rights. The other rights of speech, worship, assembly, etc., are important because there can be no political society worthy of human beings without them; however, the primacy of the right to life comes down to this: if one does not have life, one does not have anything, let alone rights. A government that fails to respect the right to life can hardly be expected to respect any other rights and certainly cannot be accused of inconsistency for failing to do so.

In the long run, the most devastating of these assaults on human dignity and freedom is the movement now underway to relegate Christianity to a backwater subculture of crosses and candles. To be sure, these other assaults directly attack the pillars of democracy: freedom of religion and speech, the right to life, the meaning of marriage and family life. But, as Maritain argues in both Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and Natural Law the ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin and the values of Christianity energize its institutions. Thereby hangs a tale. Attempts to establish religion without God do not succeed. John Dewey’s A Common Faith is a case in point. If there can be no religion without God, it follows that there can be no Christianity without God; and if there can thus be no Christianity, can there be democracy?

Thomistica.net: Some Catholic thinkers have criticized the notion of human rights, Alasdair MacIntyre for instance. How do you think Maritain would respond to critiques like MacIntyre’s?

Dr. Dennehy: I have not read MacIntyre in some years, but my initial thought is that Maritain would respond to the communitarian argument in two ways. First, he would point out that the “society of free men” that he describes and defends is not individualist in the way that advocates of the laisssez faire conceived of society as a kind of heap of individuals struggling to ascend to the top and whose obligations to society were negatively conceived as not harming others by force, fraud, or intimidation. Maritain argues, on the contrary, that a society of free men has four characteristics; it is personalist, communal rather than individualistic, pluralist, and Christian or at least Theist. Thus for Maritain a society worthy of free persons must not only be just but also commit itself to “civic friendship.” The second way that Maritain would reply to the communitarians is to call attention to the rights of the person as ontologically grounded in human nature in virtue of what it means to be a human being. The exigencies of the human person arise from that ontological fact: each human being is not simply a part of society but a whole as well. Unlike animal groups, human society has a common good, which Maritain describes as a moral good that pertains to society as a whole and yet flows over each of its members. If I am qualified to teach philosophy, society can compel me to teach the subject, but it cannot compel me to teach a particular philosophy as true. The reason is that each of us is a whole in himself has been created by God to exist by his own free will. Maritain borrows here from Aquinas who argues that just as the runner strives to win the race but cannot put all that he is and has in the effort to win (he knowledge of astronomy and the Bible, e.g.), so the person cannot put all that he is and has into serving society (his knowledge of God, the desire to know the truth, and to increase his “freedom of personal expansion,” e.g.). Thus, for Maritain, the rights of the person follow from the nature of the person.

The second book in this volume, The Rights of Man and the Natural Law, contain seminal references to the human person that Maritain will develop more fully in his book, The Person and the Common Good, which appeared in print about 1948.

Thomistica.net When did you become interested in Maritain? What has been the focus of your research in Maritain?

Dr. Dennehy: I first read Maritain while an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, having been taught philosophy by a series of Thomists there. While in my doctoral studies at the University of Toronto, I read Jacques Maritain, mainly his Degrees of Knowledge. I was searching for a philosophical basis for human rights, which basis I stumbled upon on in The Person and the Common Good. That was his notion of subsistence, which served as the foundation of my doctoral dissertation, The Subject as the Metaphysical Ground of Maritain’s Personalism.

I am a founding member of the American Maritain Association and served as its president for seven years.

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.


Thomistica.net: 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.

Thomistica.net: 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.

Thomistica.net: 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.”