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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One of the great puzzles of Maritain's career is why he associated himself with Action Française. Although supportive of the Church as an agent of order, this right-wing royalist movement was also determined to root out what it perceived to be the enemy from within, including Jews, Freemasons, Protestants, and métèques, or resident aliens. It was Maritain's spiritual director, Father Clérissac, who recommended that he join the movement, which Clérissac saw as a bulwark against the depredations of liberal democracy. In a letter of 1910 to another spiritual director, Dom Delatte, Maritain showed how much his Catholic mentors had soured him on the republican ideas that had inspired his youth: "We thank you for having pointed out so clearly to us the venom of liberalism and for having provided an irrefutable historical justification for [the] disdain that every Catholic should feel instinctively . . . for all the diminutions, concessions and vilenesses of modern times."

Maritain only repudiated the movement after Pius XI condemned it in 1926. Why he continued marching under the Action Française banner for 17 years remains a mystery. Barré suggests that one reason might have been Maritain's desire to convert Charles Maurras, the movement's leader, who, by all accounts, was a brilliant, confused, unsavory man. (To judge from the amount of time and effort that Maritain spent trying to convert Gide and Cocteau, this might well have been the case.) In all events, it is not as though he did not recognize or, indeed, understand anti-Semitism. In "The Mystery of Israel" (1939), a pivotal essay, he wrote: "It is difficult not to be struck by the extraordinary baseness . . . of anti-Semitic propaganda. . . . To a mind sufficiently alert, this baseness itself seems disquieting: it must have a mystical meaning."

Despite his interest in the world around him, Maritain always recognized that his real role must be played out in his work. In 1925, he published his brilliantly provocative Art et Scholastique, which summoned artists to find "once more the spiritual conditions of honest work"--a revolutionary summons at a time when Tristan Tzara was launching the Dada movement. In 1927, he published his groundbreaking Primauté du spirituel, which gave eloquent expression to his vision of a renewed Thomistic universalism. "It is to a universal expansion of the intelligence that we are called by love," he wrote. "The time is now. The soul demands pure adherence to the absolutism of truth and charity."

In 1936, he published Humanisme integrale, which, taking stock of "the liquidation of four centuries of classical culture," exhorted Christians to undertake "the most true and perfect heroism, the heroism of love," to "work toward the establishment of a new temporal order of the world." Here was a true Christian humanism. In 1932, he published what many consider his masterpiece, Distinguer pour unir: ou Les Degrès du savoir, which rejected the nominalism of Kantianism, idealism, pragmatism, and positivism and asserted, instead, that the mind can know what really exists.

Barré is good on how the fall of France affected Maritain. No sooner had the Germans taken possession than the Gestapo went looking for him. They requisitioned his Meudon villa, removed his books from the bookstores, and suspended his classes. Addressing Maritain as "My dear Teacher," Charles de Gaulle urged him repeatedly to join his exiled government in London. Maritain wisely stayed in New York. Most French intellectuals chose to collaborate. The French episcopate embraced Vichy wholeheartedly. Maritain spent much of his time in New York helping Jewish professors who had fled the Nazis find teaching positions with American colleges.

In A travers le désastre, one of the first great works of the Resistance, secretly distributed throughout France in 1942, Maritain boosted morale by instilling solidarity. He called a spade a spade. "The Vichy government is in fact prisoner of the enemy in a trap where it threw itself and all of France along with it." Some historians continue to see nuances in the occupation; Maritain saw only "abominable betrayals everywhere." He was particularly savage about how Pierre Laval and Marshal Pétain had dishonored their country: "To betray her traditional laws of political hospitality, to accept for herself and for her own laws the bestial ignominy of Nazi racism, to hand over foreign Jews welcomed by her since 1935 as into a human and faithful land, to hand over even those who fought for her and in her army in the course of the present war, never in all history has such an infamy been imposed on France."

After the war, Maritain served as de Gaulle's ambassador to the Vatican. Ronald Knox, the English Catholic convert, once advised that "He who travels in the barque of St. Peter had better not look too closely into the engine room." Maritain saw altogether too much of the engine room and concluded that "Catholics are not Catholicism. The mistakes, the clumsiness, the inefficiencies, the lack of concern of Catholics do not involve Catholicism itself. It is not the responsibility of Catholicism to furnish an alibi for the shortcomings of Catholics."

When Maritain returned to Paris after the Second World War and found that he was practically forgotten, he received a letter from his fellow Thomist, Etienne Gilson, who took the liberty of advising his old friend on what Samuel Johnson once referred to as "the justice of posterity."

"Whether you realize it or not, you are great," Gilson told him, "and this is something for which you will never be forgiven." Gilson continued: "Go on with your work, which is irreplaceable, and don't worry about anything; the rest is of no account."
Judging from what Maritain once said about his own mission, it is probable that Gilson's advice did not go unheeded. "I feel like a man walking on a slippery slope," he said, "carrying a very heavy weight in his arms. He must beware of the slightest misstep. What can one do? When it is a question of God's grace, one can only close one's eyes and let it work."

Edward Short is at work on a study of John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.