Jacques Maritain

This book brings the considerable talents of the Reverend James V. Schall, S.J., to bear on the writings of an important and influential figure in Roman Catholic political philosophy. It has all the indications of a promising and useful work, but impressed as I am with Maritain’s prodigious output and the high regard in which he is held by serious Catholic thinkers, I must confess I did not like the Maritain I found here.

Not having read Maritain since college, I now find him, in Schall’s treatment, overly abstract–too concerned with categories and definitions at the expense of actual political regimes, events, and statesman. Categories and definitions are, to be sure, fundamental, but they should clarify rather than obscure. Schall, for example, explains how “Maritain’s use of the word ‘value,’ a word often related to ‘rights,’ serves further to illustrate this problem [of how properly to understand rights]. By redefining the word ‘value,’ it can be made to have a legitimate meaning. Maritain so redefines it…. Thus, reading Maritain on rights and values requires a constant internal correction….” Conservatives today have enough trouble defending rights, equality, and liberty without trying to expropriate almost useless words like “values.”

This is not say the book is not worth reading, for it surely is. Maritain is a rich mine for interesting and unexpected perspectives, and Father Schall is an enthusiastic excavator. The chapter “Justice, Brains, and Strength,” for instance, reminds us that the Clinton administration is notable not merely for the current sex scandal but for its political and intellectual hubris (viz., the determination “to change what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century,” according Hillary Clinton, and to “redefine in practical terms the immutable ideals that have guided us,” according to her husband). Maritain illuminates such hubris under a withering light.

Attributing this to a sort of Machiavellianism in modern politics, Schall writes: “Maritain does not mean only that this system results in moral corruption for all who participate in it. He also understands that the Marchiavellian’s chosen means are justified by a purpose, a new ‘good,’ as it were, that replaces the hierarchy of political ends found in the classical writers and based on human happiness and nature. This new ‘good’ is success in remaining in power.” Such keen observations, however, are marred by serious drawbacks. The same chapter discusses Maritain’s distinction between “absolute” and “moderate” Machiavellianism, and the problem of making political choices that are not “in themselves, evil.” But there is little or no clarity about what this actually means, because there is no discussion by Maritain of actual statesmanship. Absent any such treatment, one wonders what is the point of inventing these “absolute” and “moderate” categories.

The most problematic and least satisfying chapter is “The Natural Law—Natural Right Dilemma.” To begin with, the chapter is mistitled; it is not about the tension between natural law (a term originating with Cicero and prevalent in medieval philosophy) and natural right (a Platonic and Aristotelian term). The discussion is, rather, about natural law and the modern view of rights. This discussion of modern rights philosophy, moreover, is limited almost exclusively to Thomas Hobbes and other radical moderns for whom, Schall properly notes, rights are mere whim and unlimited will.

That view is powerfully influential today, and Schall is correct in noting that this view of rights, in denying “any binding reason to natural law, [repudiates] the very validity of reason itself.” As presented by Schall, however, Maritain seems oddly unaware of the more classical and sensible understanding of rights articulated by the American Founders. That understanding, so far from standing in opposition to natural law, derived rights explicitly from the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” The Declaration of Independence itself, according to Jefferson, expressed the elementary principles of “public right [found in] Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney.” Further, nearly every sermon, speech, and essay by the Founders on this subject stressed the connection between morality and self-government, between the commandments of revelation and the precepts of natural reason.

Maritain nevertheless disavows the very possibility that there can be a civil order grounded on natural law principles as discerned by reason. “Nothing is more vain than to seek to unite men by a philosophic minimum.” Because there will always be philosophic disagreement about the most profound metaphysical questions, Maritain seems to say, there can be no strictly philosophic or rational agreement about political justice. Maritain instead “proposes a list of rights or principles according to which men could agree to live together politically in peace but without insisting on agreement about the principles that establish these norms or standards of living.” This “proposal” seems to me as weak and insubstantial as Richard Rorty’s defense of tolerance as his “personal preference.”

There is perhaps today no more urgent task than to clarify and defend the principles of natural law. Maritain’s view of natural law, however, seems as confused as it is respectful. Schall quotes Maritain’s assertion that “natural law is a historic, ongoing philosophic discussion;” that over the course of time we develop an “increasing knowledge of what is implied by it,” which takes “the same sort of time and effort as it has taken human beings to know about other forms of knowledge–how to build bridges, for instance.” If not explicitly historicist, this certainly intimates a progressive view of moral understanding. If progress allows us to make better bridges than Archimedes–as it surely has–are we by the same process morally wiser than the Angelic Doctor? This discomfiting suggestion is not lessened by Schall’s bold assertion that Maritain presents “perhaps for the first time in political philosophy, an account of the temporal order that is adequate to its own natural purpose.”

Father Schall could not, of course, treat every nuance in Maritain’s thought in this single volume, and some of the criticism made here might be qualified by a fuller treatment. I do wish, though, Schall had gone further in explicating his few and gently offered disagreements with Maritain. One can say this: The book goes far to illuminating, though not resolving, the tension between Thomism and neo-Thomism–still the central question of modern Catholic philosophy.