Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), French Catholic philosopher, composed numerous influential works on topics including epistemology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, sociopolitical philosophy, philosophy of art, and mysticism. In Maritain’s metaphysical philosophy he discussed the experience of the progression of time by finite beings in contrast to the divine, eternal perspective of time. In the latter, all moments of time are simultaneously known in a single instant, which has neither beginning nor end. Maritain also held that the human soul, which he associated primarily with intellectual activity, was eternal, existing always in the thoughts of the creator. Maritain’s Christian-humanist perspective has been called Thomist, owing to Maritain’s great affinity with the perspectives of 13th century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.
Born in Paris in 1882 and baptized into the French Reformed Church, Maritain studied philosophy and science from 1901 to 1906 at the Sorbonne, where he met Rai’ssa Oumansoff, a Jewish Russian student whom he would marry in 1904. Jacques and Raissa Maritain became disillusioned with the rationalist scientism at the Sorbonne, and they resolved together to end their lives in suicide if they could not find a satisfactory understanding of truth. In their subsequent quest the Maritains were influenced first by the metaphysical perspectives of Henri Bergson and then by the writings of Leon Bloy, which led them to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1906.
Maritain began to study Thomas Aquinas’s immense work, Summa Theologiae, in 1910. Aquinas’s perspective appealed to both the philosopher and the Christian in Maritain, and its impact on him was acute and enduring. Maritain soon began publishing, and he lectured in philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris from 1913 to 1933 and at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto from 1933 to 1945. During these years he wrote without ceasing, becoming the dominant philosophical voice for Catholics in France and the United States. After World War II Maritain served as the French ambassador to the Vatican from 1945 to 1948, personally befriended Pope Paul VI, and taught philosophy at Princeton until retiring in 1956. After Rai’ssa’s death in 1960, Maritain joined a Dominican order, The Little Brothers of Jesus, and lived with them in Toulouse as a hermit until his death in 1973.
In Existence and the Existent, Maritain discussed the relationship between time—the experience of finite beings—and eternity—the divine perspective of all existence. From the perspective of divine eternity, all moments of time—past, present, and future—are present and tangible in a single instant, Maritain reasoned. This eternal divine perspective does not imply absolute determinism, according to Maritain, but included acknowledgment of the free choices given to created beings, which rightly operate within the measurable succession of time. Along similar lines, Maritain viewed the human soul or intellect as eternal and timeless, presupposing that the intellectual activity observable in human beings must always have been and must always be existing, even before its creation in the thoughts of the creator.
In reflections and observations about history, Maritain—though highly modern in many ways— despaired of much of the course of the modern world. Maritain saw in history a pattern of contrasting progresses. He observed that while modern civilization had clearly achieved many advances in scientific knowledge and humanitarian causes, these gains were mirrored by moral and spiritual depravity, political totalitarianism, and wars with unprecedented cost of human life. The answer for Maritain lay in neither capitalism nor communism but in a renewed Christendom characterized by justice, truth, love, and tolerance. Seen in many ways as a liberalizing influence in Catholicism, in 1967 he shocked many by writing very critically of Vatican II in one of his last works, The Peasant of Garonne.
Adam L. Bean
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Bergson, Henri; Christianity; Eternity; Immortality, Personal; Metaphysics; Mysticism
Barre, J.-L. (2005). Jacques & Ra’tssa Maritain: Beggars for heaven (B. Doering, Trans.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Dunaway, J. (1978). Jacques Maritain. Boston: Twayne.
Kernan, J. (1975). Our friend, Jacques Maritain. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.