The Magazine

The Maritain Way

'Too liberal for conservatives, and too conservative for liberals.'

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Before settling in Paris, the family stayed for a while with Raissa's maternal grandfather in Mariupol on the Azov Sea. "Their hospitality was proverbial," Raissa recalled. One of the great themes of Barré's book is how Jacques and Raissa would offer similar hospitality in the households they set up in Versailles, Meudon, and Princeton, where their faith and their charity became "a little bridge thrown across the abyss." They formed a little community, a lay apostolate dedicated to bringing the life of faith to those whom priests could not reach.

Born in Paris in 1882, Maritain never got to know his father, a lawyer, whom Barré piquantly describes as part "skeptical aesthete" and part "sensual playboy." His only passion seems to have been shopping for antiques. The many spiritual mentors to whom Maritain would later apprentice himself, from St. Thomas to Léon Bloy, Father Clérissac to Dom Delatte, were, to some degree, substitutes for his absent father. After a brief, unhappy marriage, his parents divorced. Geneviève Favre was one of the first divorcées in France, which only legalized divorce in 1884. In 1904, Paul Maritain died. Jacques experienced a childhood full of abrupt moves from ramshackle households where the only stability came from his schooling, first at the Lycée Henry IV and then at the Sorbonne, where he read Bergson and Spinoza.

It is amusing that his fiercely anticlerical mother should have insisted on his being initially tutored by a liberal Protestant. Maritain would entirely repudiate this tuition in his first book, Trois Réformateurs (1925), in which he took Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau to task for alienating the modern self from God. Later, he would include Kant, Schop enhauer, and Bergson in his criticism of what he called "the abdication of the mind," and insist that it was the mission of Thomism "to reconnect with being, to make fruitful all our bonds with human experience." This confidence in the mind's ability to apprehend truth is what has made him a pariah in a postmodernist ethos where the very idea of truth is rejected out of hand.

The seminal event in Maritain's development was the Dreyfus Affair. In 1899, when Georges Clemenceau called for the complete vindication of Dreyfus, Maritain rallied to the cause. To a friend he wrote that he was "ready to suffer anything--even the rude slamming of doors in my face--for the noble cause of the innocent and tortured prisoner." Thus did Maritain become aware, as Barré writes, of "his particular responsibility to his century."

Yet the incoherence of French politics often involved Maritain in positions that he would later regret, so much so that in 1935, in his Lettre sur l'indépendance, he insisted that he was neither right nor left wing: "At the heart of the suffering that all the earth is experiencing today, there is doubtless a divine necessity for breaking, not with the world, but with the old servitudes of this world--these are the hard demands of engaged liberty."

It is precisely his "engaged liberty" that has made Maritain, in the words of the philosopher William Sweet, "too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals." This spirit of independence came partly from his mother, who, when warned by her concierge that she was borrowing trouble by entertaining Jewish women in her apartment at the height of the deportations, responded: "Not to worry. This is where the stars meet."

The man who converted the Maritains was Léon Bloy, a proudly penurious novelist, whose career Barré describes in suitably melodramatic terms: "This humiliated Christian, beat down by crushing poverty and handed over to the sneers of the multitude was a man at war. . . . Bloy held on by his faith and survived because of it." His impact on the Maritains was instantaneous. "Instead of being a whitened sepulcher like the Pharisees of any and every age," Maritain recalled, "he was more like a charred and blackened cathedral. The whiteness was within, in the hidden heart of the tabernacle."