The unity of a human life is a perennial and naturally attractive theme explored by philosophers and ethicists, playwrights and novelists, teachers and religious leaders alike. While what constitutes the essence of the unity of a human life, and consequently of human living, may not enjoy universal agreement, there is a unanimity that one can recognize and identify such unity almost intuitively and instinctively. One of the many pleasures in reading this book is to recall that both Jacques Maritain and Ralph McInerny lived unified lives; their unity shines through their very humanity, through their very living, choosing, and being in the world, which is the foundation of their impressive intellectual corpora.
Ralph McInerny was a celebrated University professor, philosopher, and novelist; indeed he has rightly and perceptively been referred to as a Renaissance man. His connection with Maritain goes back to a meeting with that philosopher at Notre Dame when McInerny was still a new and junior member of the faculty. He went on to many significant achievements, including succeeding Professor Joseph Evans as the Director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame; McInerny held that position from 1967 until 2005, when the title of director emeritus of the Centre was bestowed upon him. His knowledge of Maritain was both personal and scholarly. He is also the author of another work: Art and Prudence: Studies in the Thought of Jacques Maritain (1988). The scholarship in this previous work is of particular interest for this review given the prominence of the theme of art in The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain.
By reading Jacques Maritain’s life—and to a lesser extent that of his wife Raïssa, and her sister Vera—through the larger lens of the hours of the daily monastic liturgical office gives this work a structure of unity: the unity of holiness, gentleness, and mystery that students of Jacques Maritain know to be the hall marks of his thought. What is remarkable about this book is how Maritain’s thinking, scholarship, and learning are presented in the most spiritual of senses, that is as essential means of revealing who one is as a Christian person. McInerny describes this conviction beautifully: “The intellectual life is in any case a mysterious thing. Describing it after the fact is one thing—formalizing it into arguments and setting forth presuppositions, premises, relevant supports is another. How does it actually evolve? Where do ideas come from? What is the source of the insight that comes seemingly without prelude? The life of reason can seem to ride upon a sea of mystery.” (pp.74-75) The prominence of thought and the intellectual life of a committed Christian is the premise of this book, and Maritain is presented as such a model. (See, p.3)
This work is secured upon the conviction that the Maritains lived their lives in response to the question: Why am I alive? Their answer, to become a saint, was then devotedly, complexly, and intellectually interwoven through their choices, actions, and writings. These characteristics, including faithfulness to the Church, structure Maritain’s thought, succinctly summed up by McInerny: “But whatever wisdom can be gained from philosophy, it is as nothing compared to a life lived in union with Jesus Christ.” (p.57)
The scaffolding of the liturgical hours leads the reader to ponder why McInerny choose some of Maritain’s works for fairly detailed attention and not others. There would be universal agreement that The Degrees of Knowledge is Maritain’s greatest work, but McInerny also focus on works such as: Art and Scholasticism, Man and the State, Moral Philosophy, Liturgy and Contemplation,(coauthored with Raïssa Maritain), and The Peasant of the Garonne; there is also detailed attention paid to the theme of Christian philosophy. Certainly these works are evidence of the diversity of Maritain’s scholarship, and they portray the unity of thought and life alluded to earlier. However, they are powerful testimonies how Maritain moved beyond Aristotle, but particularly Aquinas. As McInerny reminds the reader, for example in the field of aesthetics, that Maritain was not simply “reconstructing” a mediaeval theory. Rather, he was examining prudence and moral wisdom in relation to the perfection of the agent and in the search for the good, and “the analogy between the moral and/ or mystical life and the work of the artist.” (p.94) This, in itself, goes well beyond Aquinas.
McInerny’s admiration of Maritain is not blinkered. At regular intervals he raises criticism that were made of this philosopher and his thought or involvement with, for example, the Action Française, the Spanish Civil War, or the possibility of a Christian philosophy. All this goes to paint a life of one engaged intellectually and culturally with the pressing and demanding issues of his age. In all things, however, Maritain’s source of strength and conviction was rooted in his spiritual and mystical life, as well as the liturgical life of the Church, all of which contributed in forming Jacques Maritain as the Catholic philosopher of his age.