Maritain on Just About Everything

Jesus, by Harold Copping (1863-1932).

“God is an All-powerful Cause because He gives to all things their being and their very nature and acts in them, more intimate to them than they are to themselves, in the way that is proper to their essential being; thus assuring from within the free action of those creatures that are by nature free.”
—Jacques Maritain, Freedom in the Modern World1

“To wish paradise on earth is stark naïveté. But it is surely better than not to wish any paradise at all. To aspire to paradise is man’s grandeur; and how should I aspire to paradise except by beginning to realize paradise here below? The question is to know what paradise is. Paradise consists, as St. Augustine says, in the joy of the Truth. Contemplation is paradise on earth, a crucified paradise.”
—Jacques Maritain, Scholasticism and Politics2

“Friendship requires a great waste of time, and much idleness; creative thinking requires a great deal of idleness.”
—Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America3

D’Souza’s Being in the World

The occasion of this lecture is the publication by the University of Notre Dame Press of the book, Being in the World: A Quotable Maritain Reader, edited by the Basilian priest, Mario d’Souza, at the University of Toronto. The book is 314 pages, consisting of 40 chapters, each chapter from three to six pages of numbered citations from any of 56 of Maritain’s books. Each entry is cited by page number from an English edition of a Maritain book. No entry is more than a couple of paragraphs long.

The chapter titles cover most of the basic issues of philosophy from Being, Person, Science, and Truth to Christian Philosophy, Evil, Moral Philosophy, and Poetry, with everything in-between. About the only entries I did not see were one on “death” and another on “Jews,” though Jews are mentioned. Maritain’s essay “The Mystery of Israel” has always been a profound reading for me. But sports, politics, freedom, and faith are found. Perhaps the longest entry was on education—which amusingly made sense once you realized that Fr. d’Souza did his doctoral dissertation on “Maritain and Education.”

It took me a couple of weeks of steady reading just to get through this book. It is literally a concise review of, if not an introduction to, philosophy. Almost every entry deserves considerable reflection, even the ones that are only one sentence long, like the following, #12 in the chapter on “Ethics,” from his Notebooks: “Every human act is a judgment passed on the divine nature,” or #1 in the chapter on “Moral Philosophy”: “The art of morality is not the art of living morally with a view to attaining happiness; it is the art of being happy because one lives morally.” One could reflect for days and in different stages of his life on each of those sentences and the words in them—what is a human act? A judgment? A nature? The divine? Morality? And happiness? How can a human act “judge” the divine nature? Happiness, though it may include more, is not something different from living morally. That is the context and consolation of its experience.

D’Souza notes that each entry stands by itself. He is interested precisely in what Maritain said on a given point. I did one of the publicity blurbs for this book. In it, recalling that, during one semester, I usually had 40 class sessions, each 50 minutes in length, I suggested that it would be quite interesting to offer a course on this book. One could take roughly one chapter a class, seven pages a day, pages that would have to be read a couple of times. It would help, of course, if said students already had some idea of what systematic philosophy was. But this knowledge is hard to come by in most universities where issues of primary metaphysics are simply unheard of.

Nonetheless, I suspect, such truths are still longed for. In the chapter on being, from his Bergsonian Philosophy and Theology, Maritain put this awareness of mind this way: “The mind knows that its first duty is not to sin against the light. It must subject to the most careful verification its conceptual equipment, but it cannot prevent itself from rushing toward being. No matter what the price. It is required of the mind not to fall into error; it is required of the mind that it see.”4 I like those phrases—the mind “rushing toward being.” What is required of the mind is that it see, that is, that it know what is.

That being said, I do think such a reading would open many doors for students today who have never encountered these articulated truths that mind can know. I have long been interested in what I call “Another Sort of Learning”—the idea that many students seek the truth, but are confused by the lack of order in their education. As a result, it would be well for them to encounter a number of concise books that stand outside of what they are likely to be presented in their college courses—but which still tell the truth.

My many book lists in various Schall tomes attest to this endeavor. Along with books of Chesterton, Schumacher, Lewis, Kreeft, Bloom, Sokolowski, Bochenski, Pieper, Ratzinger, Wilhelmsen, Spitzer, and others, I would like to include this book, but not without a warning that it is, what Peter Redpath called “a difficult book,” as the others are not. Along with this book, in this latter category, I would also include Edward Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics and Redpath’s A Not So Elementary Christian Metaphysics. These latter books would be best read with a professor who understands Maritain’s observation: “Thus, philosophy, alone among the branches of human knowledge, has for its object everything which is.”5

Virtue vs. Success

As far as I know, Maritain never cited Charles Schulz. But Schall does. And there are not a few Maritain concepts in Peanuts. In order to win a school science fair competition, Lucy needed to come up with a unique exhibit that would beat the other students who displayed bugs, machines, plant life, or mouse mazes. So she exhibited her younger brother Linus with his security blanket as the most unique example of humanity’s unsolved problems. She won first prize.

Charlie Brown gets wind of this odd situation. Looking directly at her, he says: “You know, Lucy, you really puzzle me.” Lucy listens with an uncomprehending face, as he continues: “What sort of a person are you who would enter her own brother in a science fair?” In the next scene, Lucy whips out her blue ribbon with a smirk on her face to tell an unimpressed Charlie: “I won, didn’t I?” In the last scene, Charlie is alone pondering it all. He says to himself: “That’s always been the problem with me. I’ve never known how to argue with success.”6

We find two chapters on person and one on personality in Being in the World. We also find references to Machiavelli, to recall Maritain’s famous essay “The Ends of Machiavellianism,” which remains something of a classic. Though Thrasymachus in The Republic did it first, it was Machiavelli at the beginning of modern philosophy who shifted the criterion of action from good and bad to success—whether good or bad. Maritain long pondered the essential meaning of person from its initial formulation in Boethius, who said it was an “individual substance of a rational nature.”

Maritain understood that person in the Trinity and person in human life were analogously related. Indeed, person fell in the category of relation in the Trinity and retained its orientation to others in human life. In the meantime, the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul did not seem adequate, though it contained a basic truth. Person was, not soul alone or body alone, but the composite and more. Without his unique wholeness, he was not really this man, the completion of which ultimately required resurrection. At the same time, man properly belongs to this world as a part of a whole. Sometimes for the good of the whole, it was right to sacrifice one’s life, but only on the condition of the transcendence that each person had apart from any political order.

Thus, Maritain sought to distinguish individual and person in such a way as to keep the truth of both, but to render some intelligible order to their relation. He did this distinguishing by stating that, as a person, man transcended every created order. Thus, he wrote, in Peasant of the Garonne, that “The human person is ordained directly to God as to its absolute, ultimate end. Its direct ordination to God transcends every created common good—both the common good of the political society and the intrinsic common good of the universe.”7 The implications of that affirmation are staggering. This position, no doubt, is the foundation of much of our thought about human dignity. It is C. S. Lewis’s “You have never met a mere mortal,” combined with the realization that we do live mortal lives amidst mortal things as essential to the whole, being that each of us is a person, a whole, who transcends the created world. In this sense, Charlie Brown is quite right to be “puzzled” by Lucy or any other human person he happens to meet. Each one is inexplicable without this origin and destiny in transcendence.

Philosophy is a knowledge of the Whole. This phrase was one Leo Strauss often used, but its roots are in Aristotle and Aquinas. Since Maritain talked and wrote about almost everything, I think Maritain was a philosopher. He did not have time to be content with one branch of knowledge or experience. Philosophy is open to what is, whatever it is and from whatever source, even, as Pieper says, to revelation, contrary to the positivists and rationalists.

The object of the mind, as Aristotle put it, is all that is, Or we might phrase it in its Greek form, that philosophy is the love of, and quest for, wisdom. Gods do not philosophize. Men do. Philosophy is not merely asking questions. It is primarily getting answers to asked questions, then testing them again, and probably again. Why do we have questions to ask? Primarily, because we have brains, intelligence, minds, wit. The questions we ask result in an order of knowledge wherein the whole and its parts are seen to belong together.

When this brain of ours comes alive, it becomes conscious of itself. What does it do? It thinks. First, it knows something that is not itself. We only become conscious of ourselves when we know what is not ourselves. We do not first look at our mind with our mind, then start to think. As I like to put it, the awareness that we exist and know anything at all is a gift to us from what is not ourselves. Whom we should thank for this capacity constitutes, not only the enterprise of philosophy, but also the meaning of our lives. Chesterton, I believe, remarked that, if we are sane, we go about looking for someone to thank for what we are and that we are. We know that we are not our own origin, in spite of all contemporary philosophy that tells us that we are.

How do we know this? The question is already an answer. Our alternative to asking questions is, as I believe Zeno said, “silence,” a silence that also recalls Pilate. Thus, to have a question and not wait for an answer borders on silence, as does the refusal to accept an obvious, self-evident truth. A wrong answer, in this sense, is better than no answer at all. It, at least, reveals a liveliness of intellect.

Over recent years, I have been struck by the fact that education given to our youth mostly results in skepticism or relativism, accompanied by, or caused by, all the moral problems that go with it. I think this happens, not because relativism is particularly attractive or obviously valid, but because the young come across few things, books mainly, that concisely, even amusingly present the truth to them in a coherent manner. Christopher Derrick’s famous little book on Thomas Aquinas College, Escape from Skepticism: Liberal Education as if the Truth Really Mattered, pretty well sums up the problem. Truth does matter. Not everything is true. Diversity and multiculturalism are not, in their present forms, avenues to truth but, deliberately, to skepticism.

To be candid, I think that ecumenism, dialogue, liberalism, as they work themselves out, often contribute more to relativism than they do to truth. I tend to shudder when I hear the word “dialogue” because this noble Platonic word largely becomes a way to undermine, not discover truth. And I think that the Greek definition of democracy, namely a regime based on unlimited freedom is the kind of regime we actually have. It would not be so bad if relativism, diversity, and such things as hate-language laws were not themselves ideologies quite prepared to use the power of the state and the customs of academia to enforce, by law, a world without objective good.

Maritain, in Scholasticism and Politics, wrote: “The internal contradiction of the delusional democracies … is to want to build a work of justice and law, of respect for the human person, and of civic friendship; and, at the same time, refuse in this work all traces of transcendence of the supreme foundation of justice and personality; in short, to wish to be surpassingly human, and also practically atheist.”8 Maritain often said that modern democracy has roots in Christianity. That is why its “surpassingly human” tendencies parody the Christian notion of grace and the Kingdom of God that is not of this world.

Truth, Freedom, and the Common Good

Maritain spoke of the common good, though there is no separate chapter on it in this book. Maritain spoke of a common good of the multitude, the common good of the universe, or God as a common good, a good from whence all good originates and is kept in being. “The common good is an ethical good,” Maritain wrote. “And the common good itself includes, as an essential element, the greatest possible development of human personality, of these persons who form the multitude, united, in order to constitute a community; according to relations, not only of power, but also of justice.”9

That passage is very fertile. It suggests, if we look at it negatively, that if we do not manage to develop our persons to their differing potentials, according to virtue, we will lack the capacity to know what we are and ought to make available to one another. We do not become first virtuous, then happy. Our happiness consists in being virtuous, in the wide range of what that word means. The common good includes, not just ordinary virtue, but high virtue and nobility. It includes, as Maritain says elsewhere, superhuman virtue, grace.

But the common good also contains a clear understanding of vice and corruption, of sin and evil. Maritain understood that force was a necessary element of political society. Every life had to know how to deal with sin. The fact that we are born with free will does not mean that we are “free” in our lives. Maritain put it this way: “Man is not born free except in the basic potencies of his being; he becomes free by warring on himself and enduring many hardships. Through the work of spirit and virtue, by exercising, he wins his freedom, so that, at long last, a freedom better than expected is given to him. From the beginning to the end, it is truth that liberates him.”10

In conclusion, these reflections are entitled: “Maritain on Just About Everything.” Obviously, Maritain invented neither the wheel nor the nuclear reactor. He lived before the age of Wikipedia and the immediacy our internet gives us to almost any factual knowledge. Maritain did not anticipate the fall of communism or the rise of Islam. He did not examine ecology, or population growth, and now its decline. He was not totally happy about Vatican II or, especially, its immediate aftermath. He would have had no problem with John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Paul VI translated a couple of his books into Italian. The controversies around Integral Humanism seem more related to tendencies in Pope Francis.

In his chapter on “Theology and the Theologians,” Maritain has a passage from his Introduction to Philosophy, that echoes John Paul II in Fides et Ratio: “The theologian makes use of every turn of philosophic propositions to prove his own conclusions. Therefore, a system of theology could not possibly be true if the metaphysics which it employs is false. It is indeed an absolute necessity that the theologian should have at his disposal a true philosophy in conformity with the common sense of mankind.”11 The mind of Maritain ranged over all subjects in order to know any subject. This spirit is his legacy.

  1. Cited in Being in the World: A Quotable Maritain Reader, edited by Mario d’Souza (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014) #29, 134.
  2. Ibid. # 3, 253.
  3. Ibid. #6, 291.
  4. Ibid. #4, 33.
  5. Ibid. #1, 230.
  6. Charles Schulz, You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1971).
  7. Maritain, ibid. #14, 207.
  8. Ibid. #5, 70.
  9. Ibid. #18, 246.
  10. Ibid. #24, 168.
  11. Ibid, #2, 273.
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fear of dialogue returns us to the old ways, characterized by a indigenous American, “The black robes came told their story, but never listened to ours.” We can be so certain of our own truth that we become unable or more likely unwilling to find the truth of another.

    I often reflect on these words of Pope Benedict XVI:

  2. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Giving everyone’s ‘truth’ equal weight and validity sounds like the indictment of ‘multiculturalism and diversity’ of which Fr. Schall speaks. Any ‘truth’ is absolute and cannot countenance different versions of the same. Using Benedict’s comments in this way would seem to be taking them out of context.
    I am reminded of Christ’s instruction to his Apostles: “Go and teach all nations, Baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” and to ..shake the dust from your feat and move on… if they are not accepted. I don’t recall Him telling them to stay, listen to their versions of the truth and give them due consideration. Timidity or insecurity in accepting and teaching the truth leads to ‘Relativity’ which is fatal to the truth.