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  • Maritain in Context:A Selection from Man and the State
  • Jude P. Dougherty (bio)

It is commonly acknowledged that Jacques Maritain's lasting work in the area of social and political philosophy was accomplished in the years immediately preceding World War II and during the years he spent in exile in North America. He was in his late sixties when, for the Walgreen Lectures he was to give in 1950 at the University of Chicago, he revisited themes that he had previously addressed in Humanisme Intergral (1938), le Crepuscule de la Civilization (1939), and de la Justice Politique (1940). Two small works also date from this period, Christianisme et democratie (1943) and la Personne et le bien commun (1947), but it is Man and the State (1951) that is the best known of the works Maritain produced while in exile from his beloved France.1 Surprisingly, the text is relevant to discussions on [End Page 158] both sides of the Atlantic as both Europe and North America are facing the disturbing effects of uncontrolled immigration.

To fully master Maritain's thought, one would have to begin with an early work, his Introduction to Philosophy, and follow that by a study of his Preface to Metaphysics (1939) and his Existence and the Existent (1957), for his social and political philosophy is grounded in the philosophical outlook that he defends in these metaphysical works. His is a natural law philosophy that assumes the intelligibility of nature and the ability of the human intellect to uncover the secrets of nature. The basic principles at play include the principle of substance and the principle of finality. Convinced that not only being but being in act is intelligible, Maritain can proceed from a consideration of what a thing is in its tendencies to a determination of what is suitable for it, that is, its good. The principle of substance, as he understands it, affirms that there is such a thing as human nature, a time-transcending constant that enables the ancients, no less intelligent or observant than we, to speak to us across the ages concerning not only the perfection and the ends of life but the nature and purpose of the polis itself. Although the modern democratic state has little in common with the ancient polis, the function of the state remains the same, that is, to bring about the conditions favorable to human fulfillment. Aristotle's Politics and his Nicomachean Ethics retain their tutorial power. But Maritain goes beyond that, quoting Henri Bergson in support of his position that "the democratic feeling and philosophy has its roots in the Gospel."2 "To try to reduce democracy to technocracy, and to expel from it the Gospel inspiration together with all faith in the supramaterial, the supramathematical, and the supra-sensible qualities, would be to try to deprive it of its very blood. Democracy can only live on Gospel inspiration" (61). This theme pervades Maritain's entire work. He will eventually say, "Willingly or unwillingly States will be obliged to make a choice for or against the Gospel. They will be shaped either by a totalitarian spirit or by the Christian spirit" (159). [End Page 159]

A key set of distinctions that permeates Man and the State are those he makes among the "nation," the "body politic," and the "state." The nation, Maritain holds, is more deeply rooted in nature than class or even ethnic identity: "It is not something biological like Race. It is something ethico-social: a human community based on the fact of birth and lineage, yet with all the moral connotations of those terms: birth to the life of reason and the activities of civilization, lineage in familial traditions, social and juridical formation, cultural heritage, common conceptions and manners, historical recollections, sufferings, claims, hopes, prejudices and resentments." His contemporary, the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry, reminds us that it is not easy to define clearly what a nation is. A line drawn on a map and on the ground, constituting a frontier, is the result of a series of historical accidents, sanctioned by treaties. It may separate countries that are alike and join others that are very different. Still...


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