Some thirty-nine years ago, as a senior in high school, I first encountered Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) through his book, Scholasticism and Politics, and then two years later in The Degrees of Knowledge. These two works shaped my own intellectual development and are the reason I still look to Thomas Aquinas and Maritain for guidance. As Maritain said, he was not a neo-Thomist, but a Thomist, not an exegete, but a philosopher ad mentem divi Thomae. The Degrees of Knowledge is one of the most important works of epistemology of the twentieth century; Scholasticism and Politics, written in America in 1940 while Maritain was in exile from France, is a reconciliation of the temporal and eternal orders that recognizes the primacy of the spiritual. Even though a Frenchman, he did much of his most creative work in the context of the United States. Although Maritain's reputation has receded, as has the Thomistic revival of which he was perhaps the best known leader in America, the significance of his philosophical work is abiding significance since he stands out as one of the great Catholic minds of the century. Maritain's influence, particularly through his work in underpinning contemporary Catholic theory of Church and State, as well as through his influence on John Courtney Murray, is often unacknowledged, but helped produce a seismic shift in Catholic thinking in Italy, North America, and Latin America, especially Argentina, perhaps his most lasting legacy.
Jude Dougherty, Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy at Catholic University, captures concisely in Jacques Maritain: An Intellectual Profile the depth of Maritain's philosophy in a series of eight essays. An important feature of the essays is Dougherty's comparison and contrast of Maritain with other modern thinkers: Mill, Comte, Royce, Bergson, Ortega y Gasset, Rawls, and Soloviev. In Dougherty's view, "Maritain in confronting the inadequacy of much twentieth-century empiricism was in many ways prescient.... Through him Aquinas becomes very much a contemporary philosopher."
In "From Antimoderne to Le Paysan," Maritain is described as an intellect "engaged" with the leading ideas and thinkers of his day. As such his intellect is critical of modernity and its dominant philosophies. His intellect, at the service of the Church, was anti-modern: "If I am anti-modern, it is certainly not out of personal inclinition, but because the spirit of all modern things that have proceeded from the anti-Christian revolution compels me to be so, because it itself makes opposition to the human inheritance its own distinctive characteristic, because it hates and despises the past and worships itself...." Dougherty emphasizes Maritain's philosophy of being as an antidote to the modern turn to the subject and away from epistemological realism. Instead of the turn to the subject, he proposed in defense of the intellect a confident philosophy of "common sense" which can reach being in knowledge and speech, and thus to the existence of God. "Maritain, the inveterate foe of anti-intellectualism, could be called the "Pilgrim of the Transcedent."
In his "Maritain on Church and State," Dougherty describes Maritain as a speculative, but practical, social and political philosopher: "Maritain's genius lies in his appropriation of a tradition that has its roots in the Gospels but one which had developed through twenty centuries in the West. It is a tradition which recognizes two orders, a natural hierarchy between them, and the need for the common good of society to prevail when inevitable tensions arise."
In "Maritain on the Limits of the Empiriometric," Dougherty addresses Maritain's lifelong engagement with modern science. In The Degrees of Knowledge, Maritain developed an epistemology of critical realism that not only explicated mystical knowledge but wrestled with the physics of Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg. In Dougherty's words, "Maritain's life work can be read as a rebuttal of contemporary claims that complex organic forms and the spiritual component of human nature are the result of material forces combining with randam mutations, the result of necessity and chance, with no creative intelligence behind them."
Although the extent of Maritain's achievement is immense, this series of essays by Dougherty serves as a fine introduction to his most salient themes, and may serve to introduce them to a new readership.