Maritain at the Cliff’s Edge

JACQUES MARITAIN: AN INTELLECTUAL PROFILE. By Jude Dougherty (The Catholic University of America Press, P.O. Box 50370, Baltimore, Md. 21211, 2003), 128 pp. PB $21.95.

The essays that comprise this volume reflect an understanding of Maritain’s life and thought that comes only from many years of reading and reflecting. If the essays were confined to Maritain’s thought, they would be interesting and informative on their own, but Dougherty has framed each one in an historical context that shows the reader Maritain’s relevance to doctrines and practices in today’s world. Philosophers nowadays confine their scrutiny to one or two fields of philosophy, unlike Maritain whose magistral philosophizing covered all the fields, and Dougherty provides the reader with a representative menu of the topics Maritain addressed: church and state, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, social justice, as well as Christ and his Church.

Because Maritain is best known for his writings in social and political philosophy, it is easy to overlook the fact that he was, first and foremost, a metaphysician for whom being is the beginning and end of all philosophical inquiry. Despite the varied facets of Maritain’s thought offered in the book, Dougherty is clear on this point: “The key to Maritain’s conception of philosophy, his love for St. Thomas, and his chagrin at contemporary drifts in theology is grounded. . . in his doctrine on being.” What the intellect seeks is actual being. As Dougherty points out, Maritain saw that the mistake of supposing that the object of knowledge is the idea of being leads inevitably to skepticism. Being, insisted Maritain, is the basis of all intelligibility and the source of wisdom.

Dougherty’s essay, “Maritain at the Cliff’s Edge,” is a sensitive and insightful account of Maritain’s lifetime struggle to retain his intellectual integrity against doctrines from both liberal and conservative quarters. The essay’s subtitle, “From Antimoderne to Le Paysan” are titles of two of his books that stand as the Prologue and Finale, respectively, of his defense of St. Thomas’s philosophy as the antidote for the modern world’s intellectual malaise. In Antimoderne the young Maritain threw down the gauntlet before the then dominant intellectual forces of scientific materialism (scientism), Cartesian philosophy, and skepticism. But he was not a reactionary or an enemy of progress. This comes through in Dougherty’s references to Maritain’s association with painters, Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault (If I’m not mistaken, he was the first one of any intellectual stature to defend Rouault’s new style of painting), and service on the committee that drafted what was to become the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. On the contrary, Maritain had no problem with modernity wherever it represented genuine progress. Did he not proclaim in Antimoderne, “I am not antimodern but ultramodern”? Still, it is one thing to challenge the academic establishment and quite another to be a “breaker of window panes,” to use Maritain’s own self characterization. Dougherty does not skip over the young philosopher’s acerbic manner, as he calls attention to the alienation between his former teacher, Bergson, and himself.

Dougherty captures the poignancy of the rejection Maritain experienced as a result of his critique of modern philosophy and public commitment to Catholicism. For example, the University of Chicago philosophy department twice rejected him for a position, despite having the school’s president, Robert Hutchins, for his mentor. The final example was the repudiation he suffered by liberal Catholic intellectuals with the publication of The Peasant of the Garonne for its scathing criticism of the heterodox theologies spawned by misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council’s pronouncements. As Dougherty points out, up until the publication of the book, liberal Catholic intellectuals lionized Maritain for his defense of liberal democracy and thus felt betrayed by his criticism of the “new theology.” What they failed to grasp was that Maritain was always, to use his own characterization, conservative in theory and liberal in social matters. Dougherty notes that the state of post Councilar theology and philosophy revealed Maritain’s prescience.

Raymond Dennehy
University of San Francisco

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