Jacques Maritain was born at Paris in 1882. He married a fellow Sorbonne student, Raissa Oumansoff, in 1904. They both converted to Catholicism in 1906. Maritain occupied several professorships during his academic career, including posts at Columbia, Notre Dame, and finally Princeton. Widely respected in both Catholic and non-Catholic circles, he helped to spur a revival of interest in Thomist philosophy. He served as the French ambassador to the Holy See from 1945 until 1948. When his wife died tragically in 1961, Maritain took residence with the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse and he joined the order in 1970.
An Essay on Christian Philosophy. Trans. Edward H. Flannery. New York: Philosophical
Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays. Trans. J. F. Scanlan. New York: Charles
Scribner’s Sons, 1930.
Christianity and Democracy. Trans. Doris C. Anson. San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
Originally published, 1943.
Man and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
The Person and the Common Good. Trans. John J. Fitzgerald. Notre Dame, Indiana:
Notre Dame University Press, 1968. Originally published in 1947.
Reflections on America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.
The Rights of Man and Natural Law. London: Geoffrey Bless, The Centenary Press,
Scholasticism and Politics. Edited translation by Mortimer J. Adler. London: Geoffrey
The Things That Are Not Caesar’s. Trans. J. F. Scanlan. New York: Charles Scribner’s
The philosophical movement most associated with Maritain is personalism. Rooted in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, personalism assumes that the human being is a participant in the ipsum esse subsistens (the subsistent being)—God. In Maritain's words, man is “a reality which, subsisting spiritually, constitutes a universe unto itself, relatively independent within the great whole of the universe and facing the transcendent Whole which is God.” If Aquinas and Maritain are correct, then the dignity of the person over and above the rest of creation is beyond question. The use of the word person is significant, for it entails a human being whose soulish, spiritual existence is brought to bear in his associations with other human beings. Without the expression and recognition of the personality, defined by Frederick Copleston as “the subsistence of the spiritual soul as communicated to the composite human being and as characterized by self-giving in freedom and love,” humankind becomes a disjointed race of ego-driven individuals incapable of supporting a free and virtuous society.
This view of the person informs the bulk of Maritain’s political philosophy as well. To Maritain, the State must primarily protect the rights of persons through the maintenance of social justice. Unless the State derives its authority from people, there is no guarantee that it will carry out its intended function. In a classic statement Maritain declares, “The people are the very substance, the living and free substance, of the body politic. The people are above the State, the people are not for the State, the State is for the people.” While the people are above the State, the Church is above both, for the order of eternal life is superior in itself to the order of temporal life. In spite of this hierarchy, the Church cannot involve itself in affairs reserved for the State. The Church expresses its supremacy in the following manner: “[T]he superior dignity and authority of the Church asserts itself, not by virtue of a coercion exercised on the civil power, but by virtue of the spiritual enlightenment conveyed to the souls of the citizens, who freely bear judgment, according to their own personal conscience, on every matter pertaining to the political common good.” Because both entities are concerned with the common good of human beings, the Church and the State must cooperate.
Maritain also defines criteria to ascertain whether a society is truly free, assuming that no discord exists between the Church, State, and body politic. The first characteristic of a society of free men is that it is personalist, meaning that it considers the dignity of persons prior to society. A free society must also be a communal one, recognizing the fact that the person tends naturally towards the political community and holds the common good above that of individuals. Maritain also believes that the free society is most often pluralist, because the growth of the person requires a myriad of self-ruling communities which have their own rights, liberties, and authority. To prevent friction between these communities, the final requirement is that its citizens be theists or Christians. Maritain uses these words to describe the free society “not in the sense that it would require every member of society to believe in God and to be Christian, but in the sense that it recognizes that in the reality of things, God, principle and end of the human person and prime source of natural law, is by the same token the prime source of political society and authority among men.” In Man and the State Maritain calls this general recognition of natural law and the like a civic or secular faith, one that embodies ideals renowned by persons of all backgrounds: truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good. Ideally, though, “Christian truths and incentives and the inspiration of the Gospel, awakening common consciousness and passing into the sphere of temporal existence, are the very soul, inner strength, and spiritual stronghold of democracy.”
The legacy of Jacques Maritain goes well beyond the boundaries of political philosophy. His writings on pluralism and personalism influenced the Second Vatican Council’s reversal of Catholic teaching on religious freedom. The reversal stemmed from Maritain’s abandonment of the classic Catholic position that distinguished the ideal situation from the actual situation. Thomas Bokenkotter articulates this distinction: “The ideal situation was supposed to be a society where the Catholic Church, with all the rights and prerogatives of an established church, would act as a limit on religious freedom; the actual situation was supposed to be a recognition on the part of the Church that seeking such establishment, at the present moment of history, would be conterproductive.” In short, Maritain dispensed with the ideal situation, believing that society must not be dominated by the Church as in medieval Christendom. The needs of man at the time of Maritain demanded a society guaranteeing a political and economic freedom not possible with a Church as pervasive as that during the Middle Ages. In spite of these views, deemed religiously liberal for the time, Maritain never ceased striving for a body politic that held dear the values of the Gospel.