Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jacques Maritain and the Natural Law

JACQUES MARITAIN IS, IN ANYONE'S BOOK, one of the more important 20th century advocates of Thomism and the natural law. This French philosopher and political thinker was born in 1882 in Paris, France. He studied at the Lycée Henri IV (1898-99) and then at the Sorbonne, where he worked towards a licenciate in philosophy and the natural sciences. He was steered from his initial interest in the thought of Spinoza by his friend, the French essayist and poet, Charles Péguy, to attend the lectures of Henri Bergson. In 1901, Maritain met a fellow student at the Sorbonne, Raïssa Oumansoff, who was the daughter or Russian Jewish immigrants, and later was to marry her. Together they contemplated the meaninglessness of life, and vowed to commit suicide within a year if they were unable to discover a path out of life's vanity. Through Bergsonian philosophy, and then later through the influence of the Catholic author Léon Bloy, the Maritains found that life had meaning and ultimately sought baptism in the Roman Catholic Church in 1906. Eventually, Maritain was to exchange Bergson and his bergsonisme for St. Thomas Aquinas and his thomisme, a very fine trade. He became, along with his fellow Frenchman Etienne Gilson, one of the foremost advocates of neo-Thomism in the 20th century. In 1912, Maritain became professor of philosophy at Lycée Stanislaus, but also lectured at the Institut Catholique de Paris, where he later became an assistant professor in 1914. In 1921 he was appointed full Professor, and later became chair of the department of Logic and Cosmology, a position he held until 1939 when World War II broke out while he was giving series of lectures at the Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. He decided not to return to France, and instead moved to the United States where taught at Princeton (1941-42), and then Columbia (1941-44). Returning to Princeton as Professor Emeritus in 1948, Maritain lectured at a number of American universities including Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. In 1960, the Maritains returned to France. After his wife Raïssa's death that year, he lived with the Little Brothers of Jesus and published his popular A Peasant of the Garonne (Le paysan de la Garonne), a work critical of some of the post-Vatican II reforms. In 1970, he joined the order, and died in Toulouse in 1973.

An Elderly Jacques Maritain

His output was prolific and broad, publishing works on religion and culture, philosophy, including epistemology, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of religion, logic, art and aesthetics, political philosophy, moral philosophy and the philosophy of law, and the philosophy of history. The French edition of his works (which include the works of his wife) is composed of 16 volumes (Oeuvres complètes de Jacques et Raïssa Maritain). His works are being published in English under the editorship at one time of Ralph McInerny (R.I.P.), and is anticipated to be 20 volumes in expanse (The Collected Works of Jacques Maritain).

A number of his works are particularly relevant to the issue of natural law, and eventually, we hope to review them all in this blog. Most notably, one can cite the following: The Natural Law (La loi naturelle), Man and the State (L'Homme et L’État), The Rights of Man and the Natural Law (Les droits de l'homme et la loi naturelle), Christianity and Democracy (Christianisme et Démocratie), Lectures on Natural Law (La loi naturelle ou loi non écrite).

In the next series of blog entries, we shall review the book entitled Natural Law: Reflections on Theory and Practice,* which is a compilation of Maritain's writings from his The Range of Reason, his lectures La loi naturelle out loi non écrite, and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law. It presents an overview of important concepts in the Maritainian presentation of Thomistic natural law.

*Jacques Maritain, Natural Law: Reflections on Theory and Practice (William Sweet, ed.) (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2001)


  1. I was impressed with his Introduction to Philosophy. It helped me a lot. I use and reference this book a lot.

    His one flaw is his overwhelming support for democracy. To support democracy shows an incomplete grasp of the Laws of Nature. This error affected his overall grasp of philosophy. He was also a universalist, cosmopolitianist, that is part and parcel of Roman Catholic teaching.

  2. Maritain's leanings which you identify, what you describe as "flaws," are, as you say "overwhelming support for democracy" and a "universalist, cosmpolitanist" view of mankind. The latter is clearly within the Stoic/Catholic tradition. To some extent, we are our brother's keeper, though we have a greater responsibility to "our own" than "other's own." The former inclination of Maritain, is traditionally less-entrenched in Catholic thought, but, for all its flaws, and for all its proneness to abuse, it is hard to envision a better system than republican democracy. What other form of government do you suggest?