Maritain was one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. He not only helped to draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 but influenced the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the preamble to the Constitution of the Fourth French Republic (1946). But perhaps his greatest contribution was to adapt the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to the modern world.
Early Life, Education and Search for Truth
Jacques Maritain was born in Paris in November, 1882. His father was a lawyer who was neither hostile to religion nor attracted to it. His mother, Genevieve Favré, was brought up to believe that the supernatural had no right in the affairs of state. When Jacques was young his parents separated. He continued to have a great thirst for knowledge and read constantly.
While studying at the Sorbonne, Jacques met Raissa Oumansoff, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. They were both involved in protests against the treatment of Russian socialist students at the Sorbonne. As their friendship grew they found joy in their companionship but were plagued about the absurdity of existence and both had many religious doubts. They married in 1906 and shortly after made a pact to commit suicide if their questions about life were not answered within a year. Then they happened to read a book by Leon Bloy, an intellectual who was a Christian and a Catholic. Jacques and Raissa made an appointment to meet him and eventually they became lifelong friends. The Maritains began to study Catholicism and after much soul-searching they were baptized and received into the Catholic Church in June, 1906. One thing that had bothered them was that some people who called themselves Christian did not live up to the teaching of Jesus. Even with these doubts, after their baptism they both experienced peace and joy that they had never known before.
Not surprisingly, Raissa’s parents viewed her conversion as a betrayal to her heritage and Jacques’ mother was immensely disappointed that he had not followed in his socialist grandfather’s footsteps. The Maritains moved to Heidelberg, Germany where Jacques continued his studies. Although Raissa was unwell she continued to read and study at home.
Introduction to Thomas Aquinas
When they moved back to Paris, a Dominican priest and friend, Father Humbert, recommended St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologia to Raissa. She was enthralled by it and passed on her enthusiasm to her husband. They both found answers in Thomism’s rational logic and Jacques said that it was ‘common sense amongst the confusion that reigned in the world’. Both Jacques and Raissa strongly believed, as St. Thomas did, that faith and reason were compatible and not enemies. Scholars have said that Maritain’s most significant contribution in philosophy was to adapt Thomism to modern thought.
Post-War Life and Work
When the Nazis invaded France, Jacques was lecturing at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. He and Raissa decided not to return to Europe, especially since his wife’s Jewish background was well-known. After the war, Charles de Gaulle asked him to be France’s ambassador to the Holy See (1945-1948). He later taught at Princeton University in New Jersey (1941-1942) and Columbia (1942 -1944) and lectured at The University of Notre Dame and The University of Chicago.
Maritain wrote against anti-Semitism, describing it as a sin against God’s people and, because of these writings, had an influence on those who wrote Vatican II’s statement on the Jews.
Raissa died in 1960 and Jacques returned to France. He lived with a religious community, the Little Brothers of Jesus at Toulouse, until his death in 1973 at the age of ninety-one.
Some of Jacques Maritain’s Books
France, My Country through the Disaster. 1941
Art and Poetry. 1943
Education at the Crossroads. 1943
Christianity and Democracy. 1943
Reflections on America. 1958
Man and the State. 1952
Le paysan de la Garonne. 1967
Connor, Fr. Charles P. Classic Catholic Converts. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2001.
Myers, Rawley. Faith Experiences of Catholic Converts. Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday
Visitor, Inc. 1992.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website accessed May 20, 2011.