This work is a collection of sixteen essays arranged in three parts. The first part, Civilization and the Common Good, is by far the most substantial in terms of the number of essays, that being eight. The second part, Civilization and the Arts, consists of three essays and the third part, Civilization, Christian Morality and Christian Culture, five essays. As the titles of the book and the parts suggest, each of the essays addresses some aspect of the renewal of civilization as hoped for by Jacques Maritain.
Part one concerns the significance of the human person and the common good and the relationship between them, especially, though not solely, as it concerns rights and obligations, limits and expectations, the value of community and the role of government. The American political context serves as a backdrop for some essayists who consider the above matters in the light of traditional teaching about first principles. Part two explores the role that language and art play, or do not play, in building a well-ordered civilization where true human good is allowed to flourish. According to the editor, it is “the most complicated topic in the volume’s reflection” because of the multidimensional nature of art. While there is certainly a moral dimension to art, and hence a relationship exists between art and morality, between art and civilization, and between art and the human good, art cannot be reduced to the moral realm. It retains its own aesthetic value and integrity all the while. In this same vein, while the artist and his or her creative activities cannot be viewed solely in terms of moral agency, the artist’s moral responsibility is more than relevant to the subject at hand. Finally, in part three, the essayists entertain the question of certain first principles necessary to do justice to the reality of the created order as established by God, first principles that would lend support to a Christian anthropology, morality and culture worthy of the name Christian and that respected the “integral humanism” Maritain sought.
Together the essays touch on a myriad of fundamental issues of a political, theological, ethical, personal and aesthetic nature. The essayists draw on a number of traditional and contemporary philosophical and theological works to make their cases, including those of Maritain, Aquinas, Aristotle, John Paul II, and John Courtney Murray. While indebted to these scholars, the essayists do not hesitate to name those areas they believe may not be well served by earlier thoughts on the subjects.
The sixteen essays are preceded by an introduction by the editor who not only does a very fine job summarizing the essays and tying them together in a coherent way that does justice to the overarching theme of the book, the renewal of civilization, but who adds much to the discussion. Colvert reminds his readers that while Maritain wanted to engage modernity in the hope of renewal, he did not expect a “kneeling before the world.” Nor did Maritain, a man of tradition, want unreflective traditional stances that failed to take seriously the ecclesial hopes echoed in Gaudium et Spes and the need for the Church to dialogue with the world. Rather than the assumed postures of either mastery or agnosticism often associated with modernity, Colvert reminds us of Maritain’s hope there be “contemplation in the world,” a wisdom and acknowledgement of an order of truth and goodness not of humanity’s making. In general terms, this is the overarching concern of each the essayists who challenge Christian philosophers, theologians and artists to ground their work on metaphysical and epistemological premises that acknowledge an objective reality and a transcendent truth.
In a rather creative way, the editor illustrates many of these points in the structure of his introduction. He actually discusses part three first in his introduction because of the teleological principle in Maritain’s Aristotelianism-Thomism and the significance of the material contained therein. From there he proceeds to part one and the discussion of the relationship between the one person and the many and what a “natural sociality” suggests about the common good, an appropriate discussion and application of the metaphysical and anthropological first principles associated with humanity’s telos discussed in part three. He then closes with a review of the material in part two, “the most complicated topic in the reflection,” which speaks volumes to this reader of life itself as a complex web of many facets, deeply grasped and keenly portrayed in and through art; likewise, of Maritain’s hope there be “contemplation in the world.” Ideally, from this reader’s perspective, and without prejudice toward artistic freedom and integrity or the value of a healthy dialogue with odernity, the portrait of life reflected in art would represent the created order well. It would be capable of leading men and women to “see” and contemplate the very meaning and ultimate purpose of their personal and communal lives in the light of the first principles discussed in the book.