Meditating With Maritain

I’m a book meditator and always will be; one of those undisciplined minds that needs to be firmly tethered while it does its grazing.—Leo Trese, Vessel of Clay

One of my favorite books for meditation is deceptively small, but packed with good thoughts—Jacques Maritain’s Approaches to God (1954). In addition to the traditional Thomistic five proofs of God, what is especially striking in this study is the discovery of the supreme divinity from an intuitive and experiential level: “the existence of God, which is not immediately evident for us, is immediately evident in itself. . . . [W]hat our arguments render evident for us is not God Himself, but the testimony of Him contained in His vestiges.”

That testimony can be found not only in the marvels of physical creation, but also in our earliest choices to do good for its own sake, rather than out of some utilitarian need (like to avoid getting into trouble with our parents). It can be found in the moral actions of others. Their deeds are edifying proof that good exists and that, by inference, some higher Good makes these individual virtues possible and recognizable. One chapter discusses religious experience in terms of art. “The poet completes the work of creation, he cooperates in divine balancings, he moves mysteries about.” Maritain also says: “Knowledge, not rational and conceptual, but affective and nostalgic, the knowledge through connaturality which the artist has of beauty in his creative experience is in itself. . . an advance toward God, a spiritual inclination in the direction of God. . . .” Of course, these pre-philosophical considerations aren’t without their pitfalls. Such an approach remains vulnerable, says Maritain, because it is not “disengaged” from subjective moods and ideas. Still when we consider basic intentions, our movement toward God starts in a manner something like this.

Another excellent meditation is “The Philosopher in Society” (On the Uses of Philosophy, 1961). Maritain notes, with quiet humor, that once philosophers start to philosophize they seem to be in “disagreement on everything, even on the first principles” of their trade. So what then can be expected from them? We cannot dispense with these denizens of the intellectual life. The fact that they give voice to all sorts of ideas is inevitable. Even when they are wrong, notes Maritain, “philosophers are a kind of mirror, on the heights of intelligence, of the deepest trends which are obscurely at play in the human mind at each epoch of history.” Perhaps nowhere was this more obvious than in the high scholastic period of the thirteenth century when Thomas Aquinas was battling it out with the Averroists for the intellectual life of Europe. The importance of philosophical realities is no less important today, though curiously our awareness of it seems less acute than it was for people in the Middle Ages.

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