Sometimes the perspective of an outsider can help a people to see things about themselves that they are unable to recognize on their own. During the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) helped Americans to understand themselves better through his seminal work, Democracy in America. Some one-hundred and twenty-five years later, the French Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) filled a similar role by offering his own reflections on the American democratic experience. Maritain and America, a recent collection of essays edited by Christopher Cullen and Joseph Allan Clair, provides a helpful introduction into this facet of Maritain’s thought through a critical engagement of his political philosophy. In my view, the most conspicuous strength of the collection has to do with the way in which it gently initiates the beginner into some of the central themes of Maritain’s thought, while at the same time providing enough substance to satisfy seasoned Maritain scholars.
In the way of complaint, some readers might find the process of working their way through the book an uneven experience. While most of the essays are of a high quality, a couple of them do not directly mention either Maritain or the American political context. In these instances, those who are less familiar with the major contours of Maritain’s political philosophy will have a difficult time discerning how the topic under discussion—for instance, “Thomas Aquinas on the Names of God in the Summa Theologiae (I, Q. 13, AA. 1-7)”—precisely relates to the broader subject matter of the book.
In this respect, the essays that stand out as the most engaging are those that strike up a lively conversation with specific elements of Maritain’s reflections on America and democracy. If only one piece from the collection could be salvaged, personally, I would opt for Joseph Allan Clair’s preliminary essay, which not only introduces readers to Maritain’s basic outlook, but also defends Maritain’s perspective against a possible critique that could be leveled via the “new traditionalism” advocated by the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In specific, Clair seeks to deal with the question of whether Maritain was overly optimistic in his evaluation of liberal democratic societies—a topic that remains mostly below the surface throughout the rest of the essays. Even if this particular question was not directly relevant to the subject matter of some of the other pieces, at the very least I would have liked more of the authors to deal with criticisms that are raised against Maritain’s thought, which could have gone a long ways toward giving the collection as a whole a sharper edge.
In spite of these shortcomings, overall these essays constitute an important contribution to the field of Maritain studies. University professors who are thinking about offering a seminar on Maritain’s philosophical project, or even a more general survey of Christianity and democracy, will want to think seriously about assigning this work as a textbook for the course. Meanwhile, scholars who regularly engage issues such as church-state relations should consider purchasing Maritain and America as a helpful reference work to keep on their bookshelf.