Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNWhile working on an essay several weeks ago, I chanced to recall a book that Jacques Maritain authored at age 85; the French original was published in 1966; namely, The Peasant of the Garonne.

Maritain ranks among the most brilliant and influential philosophers of the 20th century. Born in Paris, he entered the Catholic Church with his famous wife Raïssa in 1906; both were profoundly influenced by the prophetic French writer, Léon Bloy.

After serving as a Professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris, Maritain accepted a position at Princeton University in 1948, and eventually also taught at the Institute for Medieval Studies in Toronto, the University of Chicago and Notre Dame. Following World War II, he became France’s Ambassador to the Vatican. (I have a framed photograph of his presenting his credentials to Pope Pius XII; Bishop Vincent J. Hines of Norwich, who did graduate work in Paris, gave it to me as a gift many years ago.)

The phrase, Peasant of the Garonne, refers to Maritain’s residence late in life, after Raïssa had departed this world to be with Christ forever. The town was Toulouse, on the river; the Little Brothers of Jesus were his hosts. A "peasant of the Garonne" means someone who (in Maritain’s explanation) "puts his foot in his mouth, or who calls a spade a spade." (from the Preface)

What does this mean, specifically, for a world-class philosopher like Maritain? Consider some examples.

"When one becomes aware of it," he wrote, "then one is forced to admit that there is a ‘Christian philosophy.’ It is a philosophy, and its work is a work of reason; but it is in a better position to perform its work of reason." Here Maritain noted that, fortunately, faith does place in our paths certain signals, like "Danger: Winding Roads"; hence, faith lessens risks. But, he added, faith can also help us "overcome allurements and irrational dreams." (Like falling under the spell of Hegel, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Nietzsche?)

St. Thomas Aquinas, Maritain argued, "transfigured the metaphysics of Aristotle – with no intention of curbing reason before faith, but in order to goad reason into a better control of its own realm, and a decisive awareness of the absolutely basic principle of the Opus philosophicum…"

One especially repugnant aspect of religious crisis today, Maritain suggested, is the absurd temptation to kneel before the world.

For Maritain, Christians who do not hesitate to bend their knees before the secular world can hardly claim to have done much serious thinking. Those who are overly fascinated by the temporal world, he maintained, are often comparable to pilgrims of a "national Evolution" toward "some glorious parousia of the collective Man." Such a goal is, of course, mythical. It is a charade. Did not Saint Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, warn us that this world is even now passing away (1 Cor. 7, 31)?

Every Christian, Maritain wrote, because he or she is not of the world, will always be an alien in this world. The greatest of human beings, the saints, have always been incomprehensible to the world. Indeed, the saint rarely draws applause from the world, but triggers uneasiness or suspicion, or ridicule, or even contempt. Mother Teresa of Kolkata, whose charisms Malcolm Muggeridge demonstrated to the world, drew disdain and rejection from so many. (I recall an op-ed piece in a New York newspaper suggesting that Mother Teresa actually injured the overall character of India before the world.)

Maritain added that authentic theological virtues are despised by many segments of the world. Faith, he observed, is viewed as a challenge, or a threat – even an insult. Hope is confused by the world with "any kind of quixotic devotion to whatever human cause it may profit by." And charity is seen by the world as something other than love of God in others.

Notwithstanding all of the above, the Christian can – indeed, must – petition and work for the coming of the Kingdom of God in glory. But the Christian knows and believes that temporal fulfillment in this life is – in Maritain’s words – "not capable of any final form." Besides, wrote Maritain, "without the strengthening assistance of Christ’s grace, our nature is too weak… Justice without love is inhuman, and love for men and for peoples ‘which goes well beyond that which justice can accomplish,’ is itself fragile without theological charity." Hence, "without the love of charity, work as we might, we will work for nothing."


Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of

The Catholic Transcript

and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.