Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Born in Paris, November 18, 1882, to Paul and Geneviève (Favre) Maritain, Jacques Maritain was to become well educated and familiar with liberal protestantism. While his father’s religious influence was negligible, his mother’s was positively negative. Her vision of French future was to be led by the intellectual elite, and this meant that there would be little place for religion, if any. Jacques was raised in a socialist environment and very early on determined that he would give his life for the cause of the proletariat.

Jacques’ education at Lycèe Henri IV, beginning in 1898, continued the narrow empiricist and socialist reinforcement. As his education at Lycèe came to a close, however, Jacques’ experienced an intellectual and spiritual crisis. He longed for something more than he had heard from the positivists. In 1901 he studied at the Sorbonne and met Raïssa Oumansoff, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. Both shared similar dispositions and interests in things moral, social, artistic and religious. However, both, having been brought to despair by a lack of meaning in life, agreed to commit suicide together if their search for meaning failed. Fortunately, the pact was never carried out, for a chance meeting with Henri Bergson and an acquaintance with his philosophy led to a rediscovery of the "sense of the absolute" for Raïssa and Jacques. Not only did Bergson give them hope, but his theory of intuition paved the way for many intellectuals to find renewed interest in things metaphysical.

After being married in 1904, Raïssa and Jacques met Léon Bloy, who was to them a living example of a person who found God and abandoned himself in utter devotion of God. Due to Bloy’s influence Raïssa and Jacques were baptized in the Roman Catholic faith (with Bloy as godfather) on June 11, 1906. (Jacques’ mother took his religious interests very hard, and hoped that he might be influenced away from it. She, herself, was an avowed atheist.)

In 1906 Jacques and Raïssa spent some time in Heidelberg, where Jacques studied with biologist Hans Driesch. Away from France they were to find the much needed rest and quiet reflection needed to make the adjustment to this new way of life. Around this time Maritain was given the assignment of compiling a dictionary, and continued working for the publisher after his return to Paris in 1908. In intellectual transition, Maritain, at this time was ready to give up much of his previous philosophical views and began to turn to theology. He began reading Thomas Aquinas and found there a deeply satisfying system. He committed to injecting Thomism into the "existential reality of the movement of culture and philosophy" (Dunaway, 18).

In 1912 Maritain began to teach philosophy at the Collège Stanislas in Paris, and felt the freedom to teach his own view of philosophy. In 1913 he published La Philosophie bergsonienne in which he distanced himself from Bergson’s philosophy. During WWI he taught at the Institut Catholique. He had tried to get into the armed services but was rejected for health reasons. He contributed to the war effort against Germany by teaching on German philosophy and demonstrating why it reflected tendencies toward totalitarianism. The war brought many sad tidings for the Maritains. Several of their closest friends died during this time: Psichari, Pèguy (in battle), Bloy, and Father Clèrissac, a close spiritual advisor. During the war Jacques corresponded with a soldier named Pierre Villard. He was an officer in the French Army and was going through a difficult spiritual crisis. He was helped by the Maritains and, having died in the war, was discovered to have left the Maritains a great deal of money. This gave Maritain the financial independence he needed to devote his tome to promoting Thomism and he used some of the money to buy a house in Meudon, near Paris, as a center to promote Thomist studies.

During the 1920’s Maritain was almost exclusively interested in speculative philosophy. Maritain had some association with a Charles Maurras (who also had been left money by Villard). Maurras, an ultraconservative nationalist, had gotten into some difficulty with the Catholic authorities and was condemned (along with his periodical L’Action Française) in August 1926. Somehow, Maritain had become associated with the name of Maurras and was forced to publicly disavow any association with him. As a result of this (near) crisis Maritain began to take more of an interest in politics, especially elaborating the Christian’s responsibility in the secular arena. In 1927 he wrote The Things That Are Not Caesar’s in which he refuted Maurras. He published further political works in Letter on Independence (1935) and Integral Humanism (1936).

When the Germans invaded France in 1940 Maritain had already been invited to deliver lectures in Toronto at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies due to the influence of Etienne Gilson. While in the United States he made every effort to support the cause of France. He also wrote much on his humanist views. These are expressed in Education at the Crossroads (1943) and Christianity and Democracy (1943).

In 1945 Maritain was asked to serve as the French Ambassador to the Vatican. He lived in Rome from 1945 to 1948. He continued to write on social and political philosophy.

In 1948 he accepted a call to teach at Princeton as professor of philosophy. During this time Maritain’s interest in art and history deepened and he wrote Man and the State (1951), Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, The Responsibility of the Artist, and On the Philosophy of History (1957). Maritain retired from his teaching post in 1952. He remained professor emeritus at Princeton until he returned to France in 1961.

At the age of 79 he went to live among the Little Brothers of Jesus, a Dominican monastic order. There he published his memoirs, Carnet de Notes (1965); The Peasant of the Garonne (1966); and On the Church of Christ (1970).

It was The Peasant of the Garonne that was to get him involved in another controversy. Many who had followed Maritain’s thought saw it as a complete reversal of his earlier positions. Yet, for him it was a culmination of years of reflection on Thomism and social and political issues. In 1969 Maritain became a member of the monastic order Little Brothers of Jesus. He died of a heart attack on April 28, 1973.

2. Works (Selected List)

True Humanism (1936, ET 1938); The Range of Reason (1952); Approaches to God (1954); Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of a New Christendom (1936, ET 1968); Untrammeled Approaches (1973, ET 1997).

3. Themes

Maritain's Philosophical Views

It is no easy task to summarize the thought of such a prolific and complex thinker as Jacques Maritain. I have, it will be noticed, relied significantly on the work of John Dunaway for much of the summary of this section.

While Jacques Maritain was influenced primarily by the thought of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, he was able to incorporate many of the great insights into his system from many other areas of philosophy as well as the sciences: anthropology, sociology, and psychology. It is his ability to draw from so many areas that makes Maritain’s thought so beautifully rich and complex. The essential program of Maritain is to apply the system of Thomas Aquinas to the issues, problems and themes of the 20th century. His thought extends into such areas as: Thomistic metaphysics and epistemology, existentialism, humanism, social and political philosophy, philosophy of history, art theory and criticism, and the study of literature.

We shall begin with Maritains’s commitment to Thomistic metaphysics. In 1934 he wrote A Preface to Metaphysics, which is, essentially, an outline of Thomistic ontology. Maritain saw in philosophy a growing antagonism toward metaphysics and a move toward the phenomenological sciences. Probably influenced by Bergson, Maritain wanted to describe the awareness, the perception of metaphysical being. This intuitive experience cannot be produced by a method or technique. It is rather a move of the intellect that is taken by faith that grasps the intuition of metaphysical being. For Bergson, though, the intuition is not intellectual, as it is for Maritain. All things are permeated with being. This metaphysical reality is multiple and varied and can only be expressed by means of many terms or transcendentals: unity, truth, goodness etc. Things participate in the polarity of essence-existence, what one is and what one does. Where being is, there is nature or essence, and existence.

While the intuition of being cannot be produced by a method or a technique, as we have said earlier, there are "concrete approaches" which prepare for it. Each, though, is limited in itself. One may use the approach, but one finds a way to being only if the approach is transcended. The first is the Bergsonian experience of duration. It focuses on movement and reflects on it. It is a psychological experience of advancing in time. This intuition of change may lead to an intuition of metaphysical being only if one sees that behind change is existence (esse). The second approach is seen in Heidegger, who focuses on "anguish." It is the feeling (awareness) of all that is precarious and threatened in our existence, and that awareness is "valued." It is valued as that which is saved from nothingness. For Maritain this confrontation of nothingness may also be a path to what is truly the focus of metaphysics, being. The third way is found in Gabriel Marcel. He notes the fact of moral realities. The path of Marcel moves beyond morality and ethics to that which lies behind them, the metaphysical content and value as foundation.

It would seem that the notion of being that Maritain is suggesting is an awareness of an abstraction from objects or things. And, to a certain extent that is true. However, the term Maritain prefers to use is "eidetic." The intuition of being is not a concrete intuition like that of the senses, or of introspection, but, rather, as the mind proportions its objects to itself (being is analogous), reality is laid bare and reveals to the mind its ideational existence. What is learned about being, then, is learned by means of "intensive visualization." This is not a negative abstraction, but rather is the most universal and the most common. It is intuition of metaphysical being that is essential for the philosopher. For Maritain, the philosopher who does not deal with metaphysics is no philosopher.

There are four principles of speculative reason: identity, sufficient reason, finality, and causality. These, among others, are self-evident. Identity refers to the fact that existence (of something) does not depend on the thought process, but is what it is. Sufficient reason refers to the fact that everything that exists is intelligible to the intellect, and accounts for itself. Finality refers to the fact that every act has an end in view, and in order to be act must be preceded by knowledge. Thus, knowledge and love are immanent actions within the person. They presuppose act, or dynamism. Causality refers to the fact that every contingent being has a cause. Only the last two, finality and causality refer only to contingent being.

Associated with the intuition of metaphysical being is the focus on being as such as the basis of philosophy. Being is both multiple and one. Being is both multiple and one. It is multiple because it is manifest in diverse matter, yet it is also undivided and, therefore, it is one. This focus on being allows Maritain to discuss the essence-existence polarity in being. He also affirms the primacy of esse (existing).

For Maritain there are different ways of knowing being. As a universe of "mobile" being, or nature, the world lends itself to empirical analysis, which is science. From the ontological analysis of the structure of things comes the philosophy of nature. Mathematics focuses on being as quantity. The study of being as being constitutes metaphysics.

Critical Realism

While epistemology is not the beginning point for Maritain, he does see it as an important topic. He attempts to make more explicit the implicit knowledge theory (noetic) found within the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. The theory of epistemology developed by Maritain is called critical realism. Essentially he moves away from the indirect or consequent realism of Descartes, Locke or Kant. In fact, he is quite disparaging of the Cartesian limitations of knowledge. He sees the development of formal epistemology as preoccupation with less significant matters. Maritain attempts to demonstrate, and to take his point of departure from, an emphasis on the priority and the transcendence of the real, distinct from the knowing process. An emphasis on the real allows him to deal with the problem of being as well, without getting tangled in epistemological problems to the exclusion of metaphysics. Also, it is his (derived from Thomas) emphasis on the "real" that allows Maritain to delve into the areas of existential analysis and accounts for his emphasis on humanism.

Maritain emphasizes common sense knowledge, which is the culmination of the evidence of internal and external experience. This knowledge includes experience of one’s self and the world, but knowledge that is mediated through language within a culture that is always changing and itself has predispositions.

Human knowledge presents itself to the sensing knower as a mysterious presence of a reality that is sensed. The presence of reality is not doubted. The knowing process sensing act) begins and ends within the subject, yet there is a sort of completion, or, in other words, an orientation of the sensing act with the sensing subject in the presence of a sensed object. It is in the orientation of the sensing subject and the sensing act that the object is discovered as an actually existing thing, which exists within a spatio-temporal world and distinct from the consciousness on which it has an impact.

The sensing subject expresses real knowledge of the object by means of predicate terms. The predicates express something of the object and relate the object to other sensed objects. At the same time, the same object may be both concrete, singular and actually existing, as sensed, and as conceived, is abstract, universal and possibly existent.

These sensed and related objects which are immediately conscious presence’s are re-examined in Maritain’s critical realism. There is a distinction to be made between something which is a thing, and something as an object. A thing comes to be an object as it is sensed, that is, it is present to and affirmed by a sensing subject.


One may be surprised that Maritain attempts to revive a kind of Christian humanism, yet it follows from his affirmation of being as real. Modern humanism, inspired by the Renaissance, is unreligious. Only a religious humanism can express what is truly human, because there is an element in humanity that is profoundly religious. Maritain recaptures a humanism that is "theocentric." Ultimately human nature receives its ultimate meaning in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, thus revealing the ultimate goal of humanity. Maritain called it an "integral" humanism, which expressed a scale of values "that moved in a logical ascending scale from the things of earth to the things of God" (Fecher, 231). It is this scale of values that allows Maritain to reemphasize important truths: the dignity of the human person, human freedom, human rights, and the primacy of natural over human law. This is radically different from the "anthropocentric" humanism that developed in the Renaissance.

Philosophy of Nature

We have already seen that philosophy of nature takes its point of departure from an ontological analysis of the structure of things. It can be defined as a knowledge that takes as its object being that is manifest in sensed things, and finds its form displayed in various ways. It also includes the ontological principles that account for the fact that it changes and varies. It is, then, related to the study of the natural sciences (the study of mobile being). Yet, since it deals with being it belongs properly to speculative philosophy. It does so because it depends on sense perception for verification.

Social and Political Philosophy

Maritain saw it as his task to apply the principles of the Aristotelian-Thomistic world view to contemporary problems. He thus attempts to apply the insights to social and political problems. We have already made mention of his humanist foundations which he applied to the social and political issues. His essential vision is of a new Christendom that manifests the implications of his "integral" humanism. This would in part reverse the polarization of sacred and profane. Society would be characterized as communal and personalist and orientated to a common good. It is also pluralistic, allowing for a variety of views, yet it would consist of a minimal unity. It would maintain a Christian orientation within the political order, yet assure justice and freedom for non-Christian groups within society. The economy would be a dynamic mix of collectivism of ownership in industry, and family ownership in the rural sphere.

Philosophy of History

For Maritain history cannot be rationally explained or reconstructed by virtue of necessary laws, because nature is contingent. Historical events take place in existential, concrete, individual reality open to interfering lines of causation. This is true for nature and history. While in nature one deals with contingency, in history one deals with the free will of the human being. Thus no philosophy of history is valid if it uses as its general philosophy a view that diminishes the notion of free will or even the existence of God. Philosophy of history, then, correctly sees two types of contingency: the transcendent freedom of God, and human free will tied up with natural accidents and vicissitudes.

The subject matter of history is the succession of time. While singular, it consists of a mass of particular events. Each event is singular and non-repeatable. The formal object of the philosophy of history is the intelligible meaning derived from the unrolling of history. Time, itself, has an inner structure. Each successive period of history has an intelligible structure. Maritain calls them "historical climates or constellations" in human history. The structures include moral and ideological characteristics, social, political and juridical characteristics in the temporal life of human community.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Maritain, Jacques. 1938. [1936] True Humanism. Translated by M. R. Adamson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. [Note that Maritain himself felt that this translation was problematic in that it failed to correctly represent his thought in many instances.]

Maritain, Jacques. 1952. The Range of Reason. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Maritain, Jacques. 1954. Approaches To God. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Maritain, Jacques. 1968. [1936] Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of a New Christendom. Translated by Joseph W. Evans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Maritain, Jacques. 1997. [1973] Untrammeled Approaches. Translated by Bernard Doering. Notre Dame: University Of Notre Dame Press.

Dunaway, John M. 1978. Jacques Maritain. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Evans, Joseph W., ed. 1963. Jacques Maritain: The Man and His Achievement. New York: Sheed and Ward.

Evans, Joseph W. and Leo R. Ward, eds. 1966. Challenges and Renewals. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Fecher, Charles A. 1953. The Philosophy of Jacques Maritain. Maryland: The Newman Press.

7. Internet Resources

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article

The Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame

American Maritain Association website

8. Related Topics



Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material submitted by Phil LaFountain (1999).


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