In order to illuminate the intellectual life and the sanctity of the Catholic philosopher and Thomist, Jacques Maritain (1881-1973), Ralph McInerny, the director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, creates his own genre, neither biography nor hagiography, by structuring his reflection on Maritain’s life and work around the hours of the monastic liturgy from Matins to Compline. “The premise of this little book is that we can find in the person of Jacques Maritain a model of the intellectual life in the pursuit of sanctity.”
As a junior in high school, I first encountered Maritain through the memoirs of his wife Raissa (née Oumansov, [1883-1960]), We Have Been Friends Together/Adventures in Grace (1943) in which she relates how their creative spiritual/philosophical encounters with Charles Peguy, Ernest Psichari, Leon Bloy, and Henri Bergson led to their conversions and baptism. [As an aside, and ironically given Maritain’s later lament about the influence of Teilhard de Chardin, I recall being puzzled by her use of the strange term “noosphere”. No one at the seminary I was attending could identify the meaning of the term.] From these encounters comes the religious, and at the same time philosophical, motif of their lives: “not to be a saint is the only sadness because failing to do so is to fail to achieve the very point of life.”
Maritain’s Lauds occurs in 1909 when he begins to read Thomas Aquinas whose thought shapes the rest of his life. He took as his motto, vae mihi si no thomistizavero, “woe is me if should I not think with Thomas.” A fascinating theme that McInerny threads thoughout his book concerns the Maritains’ establishment of Les Cercles d'études thomistes. In something akin to an intellectual third order, the Maritains for 19 years from 1921 to 190 conducted study and retreat sessions built on Aquinas with an incredible array of figures, Henri Massis, Saint Edith Stein, Gabriel Marcel, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Henri Massignon, Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Yves Simon, Emmanuel Mounier, Julien Green, Etienne Gilson, and Paul Claudel.
In McInerny’s view, Maritain’s masterwork is The Degrees of Knowledge. Degrees is not just a commentary or synthesis of Aquinas. It is an amplification and application of what Maritain has learned from Aquinas. He ascends through the degrees of rational knowledge, science with a treatment of relativity and quantum physics, the philosophy of nature, metaphysics, and beyond to the supranatural degrees of wisdom. In 1932, using Saint Thomas, Maritain attempted to do what Aquinas had attempted in the thirteenth century, to “distinguish in order to unite,” to understand the connected of all levels of reality. “No one has better expressed the fusion of the intellectual and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, the conceptual and the mystical, than Maritain did in The Degrees.”
McInerny spreads throughout his work some remarkable insights. Some are insouciant: “An argument for prayer in the schools is lurking here. No less an authority than Alfred E. Newman said it was the only way he could have graduated.” Some are profound: “How shallow by contrast seem the lives of the secular philosophers who were Maritain’s contemporaries. The lives of Russell and Wittgenstein and Heideggar make melancholy reading; whatever insights one finds here and there in their work, there is absent any sartisfying sense of the ultimate point of human life . . . How many modern or contemporary philosophers would one to be alone with in an elevator, let alone ”In conversation for half an hour?” Some are stark: “Even today it is shocking to read Maritain’s critique of humanism, so countercultural does it remain: a humanism based on man as autonomous, man equated with reason alone.”
In an especially poignant chapter in Maritain’s Compline, McInerny relates how as an old layman Maritain enters religious life in the Little Brothers of Jesus in his eighty-eighth year. As an old man he retakes a vow of chastity that he had taken with his wife in 1912. Earlier the Cercles too, although centered on the laity, had also been a bridge to the clergy and religious. Thus Maritain lived from youth to old age a very rich life with many hours of praise of God through conversation, reading, study, writing, and prayer.
In his conclusion, McInerny sums up Maritain, “Jacques Maritain continues to be the model of the Christian philosopher, of the Thomist, both by what he taught and what he was.”