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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Jacques & Raissa Maritain

Beggars for Heaven

by Jean-Luc Barré

Notre Dame, 528 pp., $50

Not long ago I met a young woman who is studying philosophy at Stanford, and when I told her I was reading a new biography of Jacques Maritain, she said she had never heard of him.

That the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 20th century should now be unknown on the very campuses where, just a generation ago, he was universally read and admired, is profoundly disheartening. The fact that he has been jettisoned from the curriculum to make room for the nominalism of Michel Foucault speaks volumes about the intellectual defeatism that holds sway over our academic elites. This biography, by the French journalist-historian Jean-Luc Barré, should help revive interest in the work of a man who still rewards study.

While not definitive, it provides a fascinating portrait of a special marriage, and shows how many disparate lives were enriched by the couple's passion for truth. Jean Cocteau, Allen Tate, Marc Chagall, Erik Satie, T.S. Eliot, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Georges Rouault, and Charles Péguy were just a few of the people in the Maritains' enchanted circle. If this is not the critical biography for which one might have hoped, it nonetheless shows the extent to which love (there is no other word for it) animated all of Maritain's work.

Barré is particularly good at showing how indispensable Raissa was to Maritain's moral and intellectual development. She introduced him to the work of Thomas Aquinas, helped him confront the anti-Semitism that still degrades French society, impressed upon him the need for a universalism that could combat communism without neglecting Christian charity, and led him steadily onward in the life of contemplation. Without her, Maritain would never have written such compelling philosophy.

The book has serious omissions. It does not provide sufficient background on the Dreyfus Affair or Action Française, nor does it do justice to the moral malaise that led to the fall of France in 1940, or the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and Vichy.

About the Maritain marriage, Barré says that it "proceeded less from pure chance than from a kind of inspired confluence, brought on by a similar intellectual precocity" and "a similar spiritual disquiet." Before converting to Catholicism, the two were so despondent that they seriously considered suicide. Two very different individuals, they were nonetheless "formed by the same desire for the absolute--an alliance against nothingness and the night, a fusion brought about by the most profound hope."

After converting, they vowed that their marriage would be celibate.The decision was not based on any disdain for nature. "In our journey toward the absolute," Maritain explained, "and in our desire to follow . . . at least one of the counsels of the life of perfection, we wanted to leave the field completely open to our quest for contemplation and union with God." Beaumarchais once said that of all serious things marriage is the most ludicrous. Maritain would have agreed. Yet the comedy he saw was divine comedy. As he observed in Reflections on America (1959), "Marriage is essentially spiritual in nature--a complete and irrevocable gift of one to another."

He continued:

In a free and unceasing ebb and flow of emotion, feeling and thought, each [spouse] really participates, by virtue of love, in that personal life of the other which is, by nature, the other's incommunicable possession. And then each one may become a sort of guardian Angel for the other--prepared as guardian Angels have to be, to forgive a great deal . . . Each one, in other words, may become really dedicated to the good and salvation of the other.

Born in Rostov in 1883, Raissa Oumancoff spent her first ten years in a Chagallian world of rabbis, beggars, fiddlers, and harlequins. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 led to reprisals against Russia's Jews that caused several hundred thousand of them to emigrate to America and Western Europe. What decided Raissa's father to emigrate was the czar's ukase stipulating that only a limited number of Jews would be considered for seats in the gymnasiums and universities. This solicitude for her education caused Raissa to remark that her parents "had understood, even before I could know it myself, that this was where I would find my life--the happiness of my life."