Jacques Maritain Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Perhaps the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century, Maritain spearheaded a Catholic revival in France and, more broadly, the revival of philosophical Thomism in Europe and the United States. Although a traditionalist, philosophically speaking, he was one of the century’s foremost proponents of Christian democracy, and his work helped pave the way for the reforms of Vatican II in the early 1960’s.

Early Life

The story of Jacques Maritain’s formative years is one of the oft-told legends of Catholic rebirth in the twentieth century. Born in Paris on November 18, 1882, Maritain was the son of Paul Maritain, a prosperous lawyer, and Geneviève Favre, granddaughter of a founder of France’s Third Republic. Reared in an atmosphere of liberal Protestantism, he entered the Sorbonne in 1901, by which time he considered himself an unbeliever and a revolutionary socialist; he was, in short, the very embodiment of French secularism at the turn of the century.

At the Sorbonne, however, Maritain encountered Charles-Pierre Péguy, who, having been a dedicated defender of left-republican ideals during the infamous Dreyfus affair of the 1890’s, was in the process of severing his ties with the victorious Dreyfusards. The ideals of the affair, in Péguy’s view, had degenerated into cynical parliamentary alliances and assaults on the Church. Péguy also attacked the Sorbonne—a “positivist Church” as he called it—for its new scientific curriculum, which he deemed barren and amoral. Under Péguy’s influence, Maritain and Raissa Oumansoff, a Russian Jewess whom the latter had met at the Sorbonne, underwent a profound spiritual crisis. Unwilling to live with the determinism and moral relativism imparted to them by their scientific training, the two formed a suicide pact in 1902.

Yet Péguy had also introduced his young followers to the views of Henri Bergson, then the most celebrated lecturer at the Collège de France and the perfect philosophical antidote for the Sorbonne’s materialism. Bergson’s message was clear and therapeutic: Neither scientific method nor rational analysis, he asserted, is appropriate to the study of man; authentic human experience can be grasped not through the intellect’s spatial categories, but rather through an intuitive union with life’s natural flow, la durée. Thus freed from positivism by Bergson, Maritain married Raissa in 1904, and shortly thereafter fell under the spell of Léon Bloy, a Catholic poet and self-proclaimed “pilgrim of the absolute.” A paradoxical figure, Bloy combined a socialist’s egalitarianism with the intransigent faith of a convert, which he was. Attracted by Bloy’s certainty and fervor, the Maritains both converted in 1906. Péguy followed suit shortly thereafter, as did quite a number of elite young Frenchmen before the war. Thus, Maritain is often said to have paved the way for a generation’s conversion from secular and even anticlerical republicanism to the Catholic church.

Life’s Work

As important as Maritain’s conversion was the broad historical context within which it took place. Far from signaling the end of clerical influence in France, the separation of church and state in 1905 created a powerful Catholic backlash, which was enhanced after 1907 by the so-called modernist crisis within the Church. Responding to the ongoing attempt of reforming clergymen to reconcile Catholicism with the modern world, Pope Pius X issued a series of condemnations reaffirming the Church’s opposition to secular science and liberalism. The pope’s “integral Catholicism” repudiated individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and socialism, embracing instead the vision of a universal Christian community publicly regulated by the Church under a Thomist orthodoxy.

It is no surprise, then, that Maritain’s budding Catholicism was nurtured by an integral Catholic, the Père Humbert Clérissac, whom he encountered in 1908. Clerissac was an admirer of the neo-royalist Charles Maurras, a pro-Catholic agnostic who in 1899 had formed the reactionary, anti-Semitic league Action Française, in response to Dreyfusard liberalism. The young Maritain, who disdained politics and would later claim never to have read Maurras’ works, nevertheless mirrored the belief of his spiritual mentor that only the Action Française could prepare France for the reestablishment of an integral Christian order.

More important to Maritain than Clérissac’s politics were the priest’s philosophical views: He was a Thomist. It was under Clérissac’s guidance that Maritain fashioned his first philosophical works. In 1914, he published La Philosophie bergsonienne (Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism, 1955), a comprehensive assault on the reigning monarch of French philosophy from the vantage point of Thomism. This work not only made a name for the young philosopher and set him on an intellectual path for life but also marked the beginning of the Thomist revival in the twentieth century.

Maritain’s argument was twofold. First, while lauding Bergson for the “genuinely liberating effect” of his philosophical assault on positivism, Maritain faulted him for his repudiation of those basic Aristotelian categories of subject and object, cause and effect, mover and moved, without which...

(The entire section is 2210 words.)