Scholasticism and Political Freedom

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In this edition of Liberty Law Talk, we discuss with Russell Hittinger, the William K. Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, Jacques Maritain’s Scholasticism and Politics, recently republished by Liberty Fund. The text is

 a collection of nine lectures Maritain delivered at the University of Chicago in 1938. While the lectures address a variety of diverse topics, they explore three broad topics: 1) the nature of modern culture, its relationship to Christianity, and the origins of the crisis which has engulfed it; 2) the true nature and authentic foundations of human freedom and dignity and the threats posed to them by the various materialist and naturalistic philosophies that dominate the modern cultural scene; and 3) the principles that provide the authentic foundation of a social order in accord with human dignity. 

Born in 1882 in Paris, Jacques  Maritain studied at the Lycée Henri IV and at the Sorbonne. In 1901, Maritain met Raïssa Oumansoff, a fellow student at the Sorbonne. Both were struck by the spiritual aridity of French intellectual life and made a vow to commit suicide within a year should they not find some answer to the apparent meaninglessness of life. Bergson’s challenges to the then-dominant positivism sufficed to lead them to give up their thoughts of suicide, and Jacques and Raïssa married in 1904.

Maritain’s philosophical work was eclectic, with the publication of books on Thomas Aquinas, metaphysics, religion and culture, Christian philosophy, Descartes, and the philosophy of science and epistemology. However, he also contributed mightily to a defense of the integrity of the human person in the face of twentieth century statism, in both its totalitarian and soft-despotic forms. Maritain’s political philosophy is in the Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law tradition. Maritain, however, pushed further and held that Aristotelian ethics was inadequate for a sufficient defense of human flourishing.

Maritain’s political philosophy limns the conditions necessary to make the individual more fully human in all respects. His integral humanism is twofold: The person’s private good is subordinate to the (temporal) common good of the community; however, as a person with a supernatural end, one’s ‘spiritual good’ is superior to society — and this is something that all political communities should recognize.