Lettre d’Etienne Gilson à Henri Gouhier, 2 mai 1973, (Revue thomiste)





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« Pilgrim of the Absolute », Time, 14 mai 1973. « I have given my life to St. Thomas, and labor to spread his doctrine. For I, too, want intelligence to be taken from the Devil and returned to God. So wrote Philosopher Jacques Maritain to Poet Jean Cocteau 47 years ago. And when Maritain died on April 28, at the age of 90, no modern Roman Catholic had done more than this French layman to make the mind a subtly flashing sword in the defense of faith. He called himself « a man God has turned inside out like a glove », and he had that infectious inner fire sometimes found in those who become adult converts to a great spiritual vision. He grew up in Paris, barely nourished spiritually on the lukewarm Protestantism of his mother. When he enrolled at the Sorbonne in 1901 during France's rich and corrupt Third Republic, rabid French anticlericalism had turned the church into an intellectual ghetto. At the school itself, a narrow-minded empiricism ruled out serious study of spiritual matters. One day, as Maritain walked hand in hand through a Paris park with his Jewish girl friend Raïssa, the two vowed that if they could find no meaning to life beyond the merely material, they would commit suicide within a year. Scorn. That despair suddenly dissolved when they heard lectures at the College de France by Philosopher Henri Bergson, whose theories of creative evolution exalted the spirit of man and his ability to find basic reality through intuition. Then, in 1905, Jacques and Raïssa, now newlyweds, happened into a life-changing friendship with Novelist Léon Bloy, a wild, irascible spirit and passionate Catholic who preached to his smug culture that faith and social conscience were inseparable. « Money », Bloy once wrote, « is the blood of the poor ». Both of the Maritains were baptized as Catholics. Soon thereafter Maritain began reading the massive works of St. Thomas Aquinas. As Thomas had found in Aristotle a philosophical basis for reconciling man's reason and Christian faith, so Maritain, in half a lifetime of philosophical study, brought a rejuvenated Thomism into a modern age of skepticism and science. As the most original philosopher in the Neo-Scholastic movement, he developed an abstruse new theory of human knowledge that sought to unify all the sciences and subdivisions of philosophy in the pursuit of reality. Thomism became a live intellectual option, not merely in France but for two generations of Catholic students all over the world. It also became fashionable with such secular thinkers as Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago, who helped spread Thomistic influences in America. Perhaps more important, certainly in Europe of the 1930s and '40s, was Maritain's struggle to make the Catholic Church politically respectable. Especially since Vatican II, notions of social responsibility have been so accepted that it is hard to realize just how dangerous a leftist Maritain seemed to many Catholics. Before World War II, the church had a largely individualized idea of good works, and was strongly influenced by right-wing elements—elitist, authoritarian, even monarchist. As the church's leading social philosopher, Maritain argued against totalitarianism in Integral Humanism and other books. He held that each person has an inherent dignity, based on God's own reality, that is expressed in democratic rights.

After the war, Maritain's enduring vision and philosophy helped lend strength to the whole Christian-democratic movement, which stood as a bulwark against Communism. More indirect results of Maritain's broad influences were the social statements of Vatican II and some humane and resounding experiments in practical Christianity, including the French worker-priest movement, which lasted from 1941 to 1954—when it was suppressed by the Vatican. One of Maritain's early polemics, a book called Three Reformers, is an assault on the woes of modern times, which he traced to the « misbegotten" » ideas of Rousseau (« a stupendous perverter »), Descartes (« an abyss of unrest »), and Luther (« anger, calumny, hatred and lying, obsession with filth »). In another work he called total atheists « heroic », though desperate, while dismissing the majority of churchgoers as « practical atheists » because they deny God's existence by their deeds. When Paris fell to the Nazis, Maritain was lecturing in the U.S. He stayed on, teaching at Columbia and Princeton, broadcasting weekly to his conquered countrymen. During a later sojourn in America, Maritain produced two of his most mature works on both politics and aesthetics, Man and the State and Creative Intuition In Art and Poetry. After World War II, he spent three years as France's Ambassador to the Vatican, where he befriended an early admirer, Giovanni Battista Montini, the Vatican's Deputy Secretary of State. When Montini became Pope Paul VI, he honored Maritain during Vatican II, and in 1967 gave him unprecedented credit for his part in inspiring the Pontiff's landmark encyclical on economic justice, Populorum Progressio. He also reportedly considered making Maritain a cardinal, but the philosopher rejected the suggestion. When Maritain's beloved wife and collaborator Raïssa died in 1960, he withdrew to a secluded life of silence and prayer, living in a hut among the Little Brothers of Jesus at Toulouse. Anticipating what seems to be a present trend in Western culture (TIME, April 9), the man who had best used human reason to justify faith turned more and more to mysticism. In his last years, too, Maritain wrote The Peasant of the Garonne, a discursive lament about the various Catholic modernisms that he saw displacing Thomism. If Thomism vanishes as a living philosophy, Maritain's work may also recede into history. Even so, he may be judged, as his friend Stanislas Fumet said, « the greatest good fortune Catholic thought has had in several centuries ».
Jean de Fabrègues, « Maritain », France Catholique n°1378, 11 Mai 1973. « J. M. a achevé le temps de son témoignage ; ce témoignage, pour qui essaie aujourd'hui d'en mesurer la portée, couvre l'histoire d'une époque... (.) Qui essaie d'unir en gerbe cette vie enserre alors un fleuve débordant de rayonnements, d'influences. L'homme qui signe ces lignes n'a pas toujours suivi l'auteur de l'Humanisme intégral. Il lui serait malhonnête de ne pas le dire. Mais ce qu'il lui doit est de tellement plus grand prix ! En deux ou trois tournants d'une existence, cela fut décisif. Combien d'autres pourraient apporter le même gage ! (.) Tout ce qui fut « Meudon » - cette maison où les Maritain reçurent pendant vingt ans chaque dimanche tous ceux qui pensaient ou souffraient avec une résonance spirituelle - tout ce qui fut “ Meudon ” s'explique par ces raisons essentielles. A Meudon tout passa : parfois le pire, parce que dans le pire il peut y avoir à la racine de l'âme un appel qui germera. Mais aussi que de vocations nées, déterminées ou ayant pris leur forme dans cette volière d'âmes ! De Maurice Sachs à Cocteau, les tragédies spirituelles furent là nombreuses. Mais précisément il y avait tragédie, et tragédie de l'âme. (.) Il faudrait le vocabulaire de Cocteau pour dire le rayonnement de Maritain, la rigueur de Valéry pour cerner ce qu'il a donné à l'intelligence de son temps. Il faudrait surtout quelque chose de Jean de la Croix pour évoquer un esprit qui était d'abord de l'âme. Comment y parvenir - surtout quant tant de souvenirs se pressent ? Quels champs immenses cette récolte que Maritain nous laisse ! Reste à la maintenir vivante - comme l'est celui qui l'a semée - le grand Jacques qui était devenu le Petit Frère de Jésus ».


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