Commentary Magazine

The Peasant of the Garonne, by Jacques Maritain

The Last Word

The Peasant of the Garonne.
by Jacques Maritain.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 288 pp. $6.95.

It was, I think, during my freshman year in college that I decided to read every word that Jacques Maritain had written. I was in a Roman Catholic seminary then, on the campus of a small liberal arts college. My imagination and mind were supercharged in those days: I can remember walking through the fields on the way to class in love, under the screaming blue sky, with God and His world. My heart sang in the way Maritain's prose sang. The earth—and the October-red maple tree alone in the meadow, where someone had affixed a crucifix-pointed to God; the earth was alive with analogies. What Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote was true: a plough makes even earth shine: cleaving exposes beauty. It was easy, then, to say, as Ivan Karamazov could not, “Yes” both to God and to creation.

Maritain blew my mind. I had been brought up in a conventional Catholic household, not Irish, however, but Slovak. There was in our home an affective warmth, a non-defensiveness about the faith, that I was later to miss in Irish parochial schools and parishes and seminary. (On St. Patrick's day, in order to take the special celebrations in good grace, I became “O'Novak;” in the sixth grade I learned to dance the Irish jig for Father Brady's anniversary skit. I remember winning the hundred-yard dash on “Irish day” at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, my pockets full of free tickets for the amusement rides provided by Father Hannon. Entering the “House of Horrors” I put my arm around blonde Elizabeth Flynn, wondering what Father Hannon would think; someone saw me, so I later found out.) On the other hand, the Catholic reading matter that came into our house was awful: Our Sunday Visitor, full of articles about making converts and the horrors of Communism; the Register, with its cartoons of dragons labeled “secularism” and its aversion to whatever Eleanor Roosevelt stood for.

Somehow, nonetheless, I had always had the conviction that Catholicism was radically at one with the true and the good. A great deal was wrong with contemporary Catholicism; I knew that from the way my mother and father talked (my mother went to high school, my father to the sixth grade; he got his high school diploma through home courses ten years ago). When I left for the seminary my father said: “Don't let them put you on a pedestal. Always remember you're still a man. Watch out for what they'll try to do to you.” He also told me I'd never hear a lecture on the priest as servant to his people; he was right.

I entered the seminary, at the age of fourteen, with more than a touch of skepticism. I found many good things, and good people. I learned to pray, and learned a great deal, as well, about my own conceits and flights from truthfulness. But I also found a kind of death in the Church, a malaise, even a betrayal—now habitual rather than conscious—of basic Christian values. I made a distinction between true, real, lived Catholicism and typical Catholicism; people like Dorothy Day and Baronness von Hueck, whom I made a point of visiting when driving through New York on my way to college, represented the former and the vast majority the latter. I judged “the professionals,” clergy and religious, on an especially taxing scale.

Maritain broke in upon my world just when I required a theory of the fundamental obligation of Catholicism to a more general truth and beauty and goodness, needed a lever against falsity and distortion and mediocrity. Moreover, although I was prepared to hate scholasticism and its empty rigors, I had the good fortune right from the beginning of having a teacher (Father Richard H. Sullivan, C.S.C., one of my “real” Christians) who took me, not to textbooks, but to primary sources. I discovered a way of reading Aquinas which armed me against much that passed for scholasticism, Thomism, or even Catholicism in our intellectual universe. Maritain gave me a way of relating my discoveries in the medieval world to the contemporary world: a theory of art, of politics, of social reform. “It is vain,” he wrote, “to assert the dignity and vocation of human personality if we do not strive to transform the conditions that oppress man.” Moreover, Maritain sang the praises of the human body. (I remember reading, concomitantly, a book called My Friends, the Senses). He was, long before the hippies, a devotee of contemplation. “Before being exploited by our industry to our use,” Maritain had written in True Humanism (1936), the earth “demands . . . to be familiarized by our love.” Earth, cornstalks dying under a silver moon, the caw of a crow, sweat, and human seed: God speaks in everything.


Because of my promises of celibacy, I could not at that time seek the human love I very much desired for sharing these discoveries. My joy, however, was not diminished; it was heightened by the sense of doing what I wished to do, and at some cost, and by having to find other ways to express the affectivity I felt. Here, too, Maritain was of assistance. His poetic sensitivity, his own creative drive, but above all his renowned gentleness and openness to people served as a model at which, however remotely, one might aim. The experience of reading, at nineteen, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is one of the most intense and beautiful that I recall, even though now on perusing the book I am, disappointingly, unable to recapture the fervor of those days. Once and for all that book freed me from the tyranny of words; I recognized that there are many operations of intelligence besides those which are verbal, or as I was taught at Harvard, “cognitive.” And I learned to search in writers for precisely those apperceptions which cannot be said and (as Wittgenstein later put it for me) must be shown.

Maritain also provided for me an intellectual path for moving from the political conservatism of my home town to liberalism—not, to be sure, the usual American liberalism of, say, Adlai Stevenson. The tradition Maritain articulated made the liberalism of John F. Kennedy resonate for me as it could not, quite, for the editors of The New Republic: a liberalism not of the Enlightenment but of more tortured ages, tutored by a sense of evil, absurdity, and tragedy, and unafraid of the compromises and complexities of power.

In today's terms, Maritain was more “New Left” than “liberal”; questions of value were prior, in his mind, to questions of function. Justice, he wrote in The Range of Reason (1952), “is not simply a table of technical adjustment and material improvement. It requires an idea of the dignity of the human person, and of the spiritual value of justice, freedom, and neighborly love.” Moreover, Maritain had an attractive ability to assimilate: “I am glad to be Voltaire's debtor in the matter of civil tolerance, or Luther's in that of non-conformism, and for these things I honor them; they belong to my cultural universe.”

I learned soon enough that secular intellectuals did not find in Maritain the liberation that I did; on the contrary, he was for many proof of the irremediable medievalism of Catholicism. (One remembers Morton V. White's typically condescending and ill-tempered review of Maritain's recent Moral Philosophy.) Even, it turned out, Catholic intellectuals in Europe disdained Maritain and his neo-Thomism; lionized in America, he was considered second-rate in France. The new directions were biblical studies, phenomenology, anything but scholasticism. Still, Maritain was for me, as I believe he must have been for very many others, the means of liberation, the poet and philosopher who taught us that “the seven centuries of laziness” must be ended and fresh intellectual strides taken. The Church is not what it is today, it is what it must be tomorrow: our loyalty is to the Church reformed. And, on the other hand, we cannot pretend to belong to a different Church than the Church of today: God speaks in this very moment, in the gnarled hands of the peasant saying his beads, despised by liberals, in front of tiers of flaming candles.


Consequently, I find myself reading Maritain's latest book, The Peasant of the Garonne, with nostalgia, with affection, and with gratitude. In it I see the route that I have traveled and I see that Maritain, who pointed, has not himself traversed the entire way. The book, even in the controversy it has stirred, is a testament to the immense progress made by Catholics in these last ten years. Maritain, who was once a leader, has fallen back. He shows us with long-suppressed bluntness (the bluntness of his early books on Bergson and Three Reformers, softened in middle age, has returned) what he cannot understand. And what good are giants, if we do not mount their shoulders and see what they did not?

Maritain calls this his last book and asks frequent pardon for his advanced age, for the pose of the blunt peasant, and for a magisterial and at times insufferably pretentious tone. Reading this book is like returning to one's father's house to find him less than himself. Too frequently, Maritain quotes from previous works, for as much as a page at a time. The last sections of the book are woven around long passages quoted from books, manuscripts, and letters of his departed wife. One feels immeasurable sadness in seeing a man betray, in the end, the vision and the vigor that had characterized his life.

For it is not that the task Maritain has undertaken is unimportant. Possibly, those who are not Christian, nor even believers in God, are in a position to see that task more clearly. (Atheists are today the guardians of Christian orthodoxy.) How many have not wondered whether modern Christians, in their enthusiasm for “relevance,” are not simply evacuating traditional Christian themes of all significance? How many have not smelled the fishiness of many efforts to make Christianity conform to the standards, tastes, and needs of various influential sub-groups of the modern period, especially the intellectuals and the myth-makers? How many believe that behind the front of “reform and renewal” is hidden a profound loss of life, the advance of an unadmitted atheism, the larvae of mauvaise foi?

Maritain is offended by the “Christian tomfoolery” of the present day. He does not take back his past contributions to the effort at a genuine aggiornamento; again and again he notes the immensity of the task and the scarcity of laborers. Moreover, he gives brief, sharp analyses of what was ailing Roman Catholicism in the 19th and early 20th centuries: he still understands the laziness, the complacency, the hatred of the body, the error that this world is to be despised, the unsavory alliance of theological and socio-political conservatism, the immobility of imagination and conception, and, above all, the craving for security. His pages on integralism, on the failures of Thomism, on Jansenism, are as devastating as any he has ever written. He says plainly that his is still a heart which, by temper, “is of the Left,” and that in the social and political bearing of the Church he is much more often with the Left than with the Right. He dates (and applauds) the sundering of the confusion between the interests of religion and those of a certain privileged social class, in which there thrived despite its religiosity a “comfortable practical atheism,” with the founding of Esprit in Paris, in 1932, and of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker (in New York) at nearly the same time.

After his dissection of integralism, Maritain sees that, “with a crash, the pendulum is swinging to the opposite extreme.” Having suffered himself from integralist “methods, accusations, and denunciations,” he hopes not to lose his head over the change, and not to yield “to the delicious and so ‘consoling’ pendulum movement which is sweeping along so many of my dear contemporaries.”

Maritain has a passion for Truth (duly capitalized). In philosophy and in theology, he serves no other master. Moreover, he sees this Truth through a tradition of discourse that he discovered in Aquinas, not as though Aquinas had invented it alone, but as though it were a “living organism” built up by the labors during three thousand years of thousands of thinkers, known and unknown, which Aquinas “brought to a unity.” Aquinas, Maritain thinks, established the model for any future intellectual aggiornamento; he established, as his medieval biographer puts it, “a new method, new reasons, new points of doctrine, a new order of questions.” He saved the truths of the past; he entered into and wrested from controversy and confusion new truths from his erupting, creative environment.

Thomism is, in Maritain's view:

an intelligible organism meant to keep on growing always, and to extend across the centuries its insatiable thirst for new prey. It is a doctrine open and without frontiers; open to every reality wherever it is and every truth from wherever it comes. . . .

Maritain can imagine Thomism seeking out other matrixes of inquiry “in other universes of thought formed under other heavens.”

I like to imagine all that could be brought to us by a Hindu who had become a Christian and a disciple of St. Thomas, and who would thoroughly know, with a kind of piety and filial connaturality, the Vedantic schools of thought and their particular ways of intellectual approach.

He imagines Thomism free of St. Thomas, too, “as he was in himself, and ready, like him, for the changes and remodelings required by a better view of things, and for the enlargings and deepenings demanded by an inquiry that is always going forward.”

Maritain makes it abundantly plain that there are two unshakable experiences at the center of his moral life. One is his act of faith in the Church; the other is the ineffable experience, penetrating ever more deeply into his consciousness, and finally conceptualized as “the intuition of being.” Concerning the Church, Maritain has a simple, humble, obedient faith of which I do not know, among younger philosophers and theologians, the equal. With greater equanimity than they, Maritain seems able to note and to digest institutional sins and inadequacies, and to discern even in untoward and evil deeds some working of the Holy Spirit. When he says “Church,” he says something at once mystical and realistic. He pays the verbal formulae of the Church a great seriousness. Younger theologians, less certain of how precisely to discern the Spirit in the interplay of historical and institutional argument, approach more cautiously the language and symbols used by the Church during its various epochs. They do not have—they are certain it is not right to have—Maritain's literal certainty.

Concerning the intuition of being, Maritain tries once again to evoke for his readers what cannot be said. Twice in this volume he tries to clarify what he means and to block misunderstandings. Contemporary Anglo-American philosophers are not sympathetic to appeals to personal experience, even if Maritain is calling attention to their personal experience. Moreover, Maritain's basic metaphor for this intuition, “seeing,” and even the word “intuition,” are both misleading. His second treatment makes that plain. There he appeals also to “listening,” to “allowing to emerge,” and to many other metaphors. The fact is that there is nothing to “see” or even to “hear”; being is not an object which suddenly appears upon some screen of consciousness.


What is perhaps most disturbing in this book is Maritain's lack of serenity. To be sure, he is concerned lest other Christians, especially professors, kneel so devoutly before the spirit of the present age that they “leave three things behind”: the other world, the cross, and sanctity. I wish he were living now in America, and could feel the passionate quest of young people for holiness: reverence for themselves and others, joy, freedom, and a moral integrity strong enough to resist immense social pressures, middle-class conditioning, and prison itself. I wish he could taste the evil young people have encountered in our society, and share in their experience of redemptive suffering. I wish he could fast with them, wear sandals with them, embrace the poverty of resistance with them. I wish he could rejoice in their discovery of contemplation. I wish he could hear their biting rejection of “the spirit of the age.” I do not think our secular society yields to a Christian society in its sanctity. The young may not appeal to the symbol of the cross (in fact, many of them who are not Christians do), but they understand its meaning.

It is true that in attention to the “other world” the Christians of this age are deficient. But no one can do everything; Christians in every age have been deficient. Medieval Christians could do little to change the conditions of life in this world; their imaginations were excited by the next. Our case is different. We would consider ourselves deficient were we to do, in our situation, as little as medieval men did (Aquinas included) to alter life on earth. The favorite text of many of us has become: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive” what eternal life might be. We take the hint and leave that issue to God, and meanwhile concentrate upon those secular actions with which “eternal life” is consistently linked: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sorrowing, teaching the ignorant. This is, we believe, to seize the point.

Belief in an after life is waning; little emotional or imaginative emphasis supports it. Yet it still seems to many good to live as Jesus lived. If it turns out that death is not, as it appears to be, annihilation, that will be God's surprise; meanwhile it seems good to labor to diminish, as Camus said, “at least by a little the number of those who suffer.”

In his earlier days, Maritain would not have done quite so much mere preaching about the immense task of “discernment and integration” that needs to be done, nor quite so much carping at his fellow laborers, of whom there are so few. And he would not have rested so comfortably upon positions he had achieved two or three decades earlier. Many of us have had his warnings fixed in mind. Many do not like Teilhardianism any more than he does. But, then, an old peasant has a right to speak his mind, and it becomes the young to offer him an ear; mocking him occasionally as he mocks them.

The errors of the recent past, Maritain writes, are no excuse in the present for fatuity, mental weakness, or mental cowardice. “. . . The amount of foolishness and intolerance in human history remains relatively constant, merely passing from one camp to the other, changing styles, and having significance in terms of opposite algebraic signs.” The old peasant smiles.

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