Maritain, Descartes, and Nihilism
As I write this, Solomon’s Corner has launched its podcast! Our first series will discuss famed Christian philosopher, Jacques Maritain, and his writings, Christianity & Democracy and The Rights of Man and The Natural Law. This post aims to provide the spiritual background for Maritain’s political philosophy. For the encyclopedic version of Maritain’s life, there is a link at the bottom of the post.
"Even showers of blood would not raise a crop of noteworthy individuals from such a soil.” – (Bloy, 3)
These are the words of Jacques Maritain’s godfather, Léon Bloy. Interestingly, Bloy was not a fan of philosophy; he detested it. Despite this disdain for the philosophy, Bloy was a faithful Christian who would lead one of the greatest Catholic philosophers out of nihilism and into the Christian faith.
But before Maritain met Bloy, Maritain and his wife, Raïssa, were committed nihilists; they believed that life was absurd. Raïssa described it this way: “I would have accepted a sad life, but not one that was absurd.” (McInerny, 14). This nihilism and its cause parallel our present culture's nihilism and cause.
Jacques and Raïssa were products of the philosophy that had festered in the corners of academia for years. A wicked cocktail of modern philosophy and materialism had taken the French professors and by extension their students. At bottom, you were nothing more than a bag of spontaneous material processes, purposeless and absurd. If you were more than this, how could you be sure? Jacques and Raïssa set out to discover life’s meaning, but they set the stakes high. If they were unsuccessful, they committed themselves to suicide. Where did they seek life’s meaning? The Bible, the Church, the Christian community? No, at least not at first.
Consider the formula for nihilism in late 1800s France. It is a rise of Cartesian methods combined with a corresponding disdain for the supernatural, and all truth claims being deflected with the Pontius-like question, “What is truth?”. What if the same formula had been taking place in America? What if modernistic philosophies, specifically Cartesian thought, were the foundation of many American Christians’ theology and practice? What would the impact be?
Cartesian thought was observed by Alexis De Tocqueville, “America’s Philosopher”, in the mid1800s, “America is thus one of the countries in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and most widely applied” (Tocqueville, 494).
In the forward to Christianity and Democracy, Dr. Dennehy writes, “Réne Descartes inadvertently bequeathed to modern culture the philosophical rationale for discarding faith as a valid source of knowledge.” (Dennehy, Forward to Christianity in Democracy, viii)
Finally, we see Ralph McInerny describe the unintended destructive power of this philosophy:
“Descartes had concluded that what was needed was a method that would turn opinion and falsehood into certainty and truth. But the intellectual morass in which Raïssa and Jacques found themselves was, in many ways, a logical development from what Descartes had set in train.” --- (McInerny, 16)
Is there a difference between spiritual and philosophical darkness? The Maritains found themselves in a philosophical depression. They agreed that if meaning could not be found then,
“…The solution would be suicide; suicide before the years had accumulated their dust, before our youthful strength was spent. We wanted to die by a free act if it were impossible to live according to the truth.” – (Raïssa, quoted by McInerny, Ibid.).
Reading this quote, you can almost hear the Devil licking his lips in the metaphysical shadows and whispering “but what is truth?” to his victims.
The initial antidote to their metaphysical plight would not be more Bible, at least not initially. The first light would not be shined by a priest or a small group leader, but by professor Henri Bergson:
“Bergson proceeded on the assumption that the truth could be known, that the human mind was capable of knowing reality…Reading Plotinus with Bergson had played a role in opening up the minds of Raïssa and Jacques to the Christian mystics.” --- (McInerny, 17).
Much like our own time, young people and adults alike do not believe that truth can be known. They believe that ignorance parading as skepticism is a virtue, or as Orwell put it, “ignorance is strength”. After all, if you don’t know the truth, how could you be culpable for it? Is it any wonder, with the foundation of modern philosophy being doubt, that one of the major questions people ask in the church is “How can I know that I’m saved?” For these Christians, it’s a 50/50 chance that God has elected them, or that God is actually the Devil tricking them in a divine comedy that will end with an extinguished conscience (for more on this, check out Hannah Arendt’s chapter “The Rise of Cartesian Doubt” in The Human Condition).
This is not to say that Descartes is an evil philosopher who set his eyes on corrupting the world. Far from it. It is merely to point out that many atrocities occur not because someone rejected all truth, but that they willingly emphasized one truth at the expense of all others. Descartes developed a method that was logically powerful, but taken to its extreme would have unintended consequences on human progress. When the church decides they will only specialize in the study of God’s special revelation at the exclusion of God’s natural revelation, they remove their philosophical foundation that makes scripture and its universal truths intelligible.
Man's Word or God's Word?
“’There is only one misery,’ she said, the last time she saw him, ‘and that is --- NOT TO BE SAINTS’” --- (Bloy, 356).
With this line, Bergson contributed to the spiritual awakening that would ultimately lead to Maritain giving his life over to Christ and the Catholic church. It is the final statement in Bloy’s The Woman Who was Poor. Philosophy tilled the soil of Jacques's mind, but it still needed the mystery of salvation to be redeemed; a mind solely bent on philosophy is nothing more than dirt.
It is not philosophy, or as you will see in Christianity and Democracy, “unaided reason”, that leads to salvation. It is the mystery of Christ and the life of discipleship to which he calls us that complete our philosophy; it does not expel it.
Maritain’s salvation story is one in which the spiritual and the natural come together to produce a man who kneels before the God of both. McInerny tells us that Jacques was ready to give up his philosophical career if it meant that he could have a meaningful life. Given his prestige at the time, this was no small sacrifice; God does not desire sacrifice, but obedience; those who will lose their life will find it.
Will to Hope
Maritain’s conversion was not founded on a naive view that the Catholic church was perfect. Jacques discovered a prophecy about the Catholic church known as the Apparition of LaSalette. In short, the apparition was validated by the Catholic church and prophesied that "The priests have become cesspools of impurity...Rome will lose the faith and become the seat of the Antichrist." (McInerny, 37. cites www.lasalettemissionaries.org but the site no longer contains the quotes).
Jacque’s grandfather was intimately connected with a court case surrounding the event. Jacques, being the truth seeker that he was, began an investigation. But after two years of writing and research, the Vatican issued a halt on all writings on LaSalette. This led Maritain to arrange a meeting with the pope:
“The Pope was quick to reveal his sentiments toward LaSalette. ‘The apparition [appearance of Mary] itself is beyond doubt, but the words of the Blessed Virgin to Melanie, especially the severe judgment of the clergy, can they be certain?’” --- (McInerny, 41).
The church agreed with the “substance” but not with the “particular words” of the prophecy. According to McInerny, the Holy Office was attempting to avoid a “scandal”. McInerny provides a quote Maritain recorded in his journal about the encounter:
"What to do? Contradict the pope? All I could see is that in any case I was going to displease someone, either the pope or the Blessed Virgin. So, without hesitation, it would be better to displease the pope. So I answered like a great nincompoop---but it is one of the rare moments in my life that I had the impression of performing an act with which I could be truly satisfied.” --- (Jacques as quoted by McInerny, 41).
Now, who says Catholics can’t protest the pope? On a serious note, regardless of whether one believes the claims of LaSalette, Christians of all denominations can learn something from Maritain in his devotion to the Catholic church.
Modern Christians have a bad habit of jumping from church to church. When the pastor says something they don’t like, they will get up and walk out of the church. Find another one that suits them; just need a better “environment”. What if your denomination received a prophecy --- that you believed was true --- that declared that it would become the seat for the Antichrist? Would you still go? Why would you, when you could go somewhere that didn’t have such a depressing future? The only reason to commit to that church is if you believed that they had the truth and that the truth received would overwhelm the darkness to come – regardless of who operated it. How different would we be, not our denominations, but you and me, if we decided to invest in the denomination that impacted our discipleship the most?
Maritain’s life does not demonstrate that philosophy is better than the Bible, or that the Bible is better than philosophy. They come from the same God and their purposes have been ordained by Him. Maritain’s story, regardless of your denomination, demonstrates the intersection between philosophy and theology, as well as the importance of being committed to a church even when it wavers. As we will see in the coming days, the philosophy he espoused was a philosophy that required the light of the Gospel. Maritain is a prime example of how God’s law and His word come together to redeem man from his nihilism and expel theological apathy in politics. Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, I hope you will find Maritain a worthy stepping stone in your spiritual growth.