Scholasticism Confronts Illiberalism

What does scholasticism have to say about politics today, especially the politics of Catholics who have followed the likes of Patrick Deneen to reject liberalism, or those, like Adrian Vermeule, who look to integralism as the way to restore the common good? What contributions can medieval philosophy offer to our understanding of democracy, constitutionalism, and individual freedom? And what political insights does scholasticism render for non-Catholics in the modern world?

Originally published by Macmillan in 1940 and later reissued by Liberty Fund in 2011, Jacques Maritain’s Scholasticism and Politics addresses these and other questions. From the perspective of Thomistic philosophy, Maritain explores the “idea of the human person, considered in his spiritual dignity, and the concrete conditions of his existence” culturally, philosophically, and politically. Instead of criticizing and repudiating liberalism, Maritain seeks to separate the political ideals and values of liberalism from its defective theological and philosophical systems. He shows how these ideals and values are compatible with Thomistic philosophy and provides a path that rejuvenates liberalism —what Maritain calls integral humanism—with a commitment to democracy, limited government, and personal liberty.

Drawing on the principles of Thomistic anthropology, Maritain develops a coherent account of integral humanism from the disparate elements in Aquinas’ thought. For Maritain, integral humanism considers the human being in both its material and spiritual dimensions as a unified whole who partakes in the common good of society. This differs from truncated accounts of the person, whether it is a “rationalist” humanism that ignores nonrational knowledge and only seeks bourgeoise material comfort or “anthropocentric” humanism which rejects eternity and thereby makes salvation exclusively temporal. According to Maritain, by only considering the whole human being in both its vertical (human and divine) and horizontal dimensions (the self, society, and history) can “authentic social regeneration” transpire in a civilization marked by the “paganization” of racism, scientism, and Marxism.

Contrary to these “paganizations,” Maritain prioritized metaphysics over epistemology. Despite the differences among them, Kantianism, idealism, positivism, scientism, and dialectical materialism, for Maritain, were all forms of nominalism: universal notions created in the human mind but with no foundation in reality. By contrast, Maritain believed that what the mind knows is identical to what exists in the world. Because knowledge (metaphysics) is broader than any certain type of inquiry (epistemology), Maritain includes religious faith and mysticism as types of knowledge. And while there are different forms of knowledge (e.g. scientific, theological, political), they are all related to one another as a unified whole.         

Undergirding Maritain’s integral humanism is his philosophy of personalism. Personalism holds that the person possesses a unique reality and value, has inviolable dignity, and merits unconditional respect. Inspired by Aquinas’ teaching that the individual person is unique among beings because of reason and self-mastery, Maritain argues the person has material, moral, and spiritual dimensions that can only be realized in society as a common good. Maritain defines the common good as:

The good human life of the multitude, of a multitude of persons; it is their communion in the good life; it is therefore common to the whole and to the parts, on whom it flows back and who must all benefit from it. Under pain of being itself denatured, such a good implies and demands the recognition of the fundamental rights of the person (and of the rights of the family, in which the persons are engaged in a more primitive mode of communal living than in political society). It involves, as its chief value, the highest possible accession (an accession compatible with the good of the whole) of persons to their life as persons, and to their freedom of expansion, as well as to the communication of goodness which in turns proceeds from it.

Furthermore, Maritain argues that the common good is not only “a collection of advantages and utilities” but goods that are intrinsically worthy. Hence, unjust war or perjury may be politically advantageous at certain times but they debase and destroy the common good of a people. For Maritain, the common good is primarily an ethical one.

The hope of Maritain is to have democracies reject “their materialist philosophies” and instead look to a “personalist conception of life and of society” to sustain and revitalize their regimes.

Totalitarian societies, like the Soviet Union, err in their materialist conception of the person which denies the moral and spiritual goods of justice and civic freedom, goods which are only possible if people are free to organize among themselves. However, democratic societies can also err if they conceive of the person only as an individual apart from society. This mistake is compounded by accounts of human nature as naturally good as one finds in Rousseau. Maritain calls this form of democracy a false democracy in contrast to what he supports, genuine democracy, an organic society ordered to “the human expansion of concrete and open persons.” This vision of democracy springs forth from a theocentric inspiration where the person is understood as a reflection of God and therefore afforded dignity, autonomy, and liberty.

According to Maritain, democracies have found something good “without knowing it”: “the democracy of the person, disguised in an error, viz. the democracy of the individual” (i.e., the materialist view of human nature). Anticipating Deneen’s criticism, Maritain fears that modern democracies “suffer from a philosophy of life which undermines and annihilates their vital principle from within.” The hope of Maritain is to have democracies reject “their materialist philosophies” and instead look to a “personalist conception of life and of society” to sustain and revitalize their regimes.

To accomplish this, democracies must accept that authority is derived from God and that citizens realize that obedience to democratic political authority is an act of reason and freedom fulfilling one’s duty towards the common good. While for Maritain hierarchic differentiations in society are inevitable, the person is fundamentally equal in essence. Thus, the authority of democratic rulers—and their accountability by elections—is derived from the people, who, as spiritual equals, make consensus the fundamental rule (constitution) of the regime. The rulers in turn govern for “the people,” the common good that respects the pluralist and personalist structures of society in which the person can act freely.

Freedom is a key notion in Maritain’s philosophy defined as the absence of constraint, when a being is able to realize its teleological end, and the absence of necessity which is free will. With regard to the second account, Maritain does not mean license or rational autonomy but the achievement of moral and spiritual perfection. Both definitions of freedom are necessary for Maritain because human beings are both “individuals” and “persons.” The individual is a material being that seeks to realize its pregiven end (e.g., inorganic, vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual) while the person has a transcendent destiny and therefore is treated as a whole and as an object of dignity. It is by virtue of one’s individuality that human beings have an obligation to the social and political order; but it is by virtue of one’s personhood that he or she is not ultimately subordinate to that order. Genuine democracy consequently occupies a middle place between the individualism of materialism and the false personhood of totalitarian ideologies.

Because of a person’s transcendent destiny, Maritain held that natural rights are fundamental, inalienable, and superior to society. Following Aquinas, Maritain argues that rights are grounded in natural law and in relation to the common good. These rights include liberal ideals such as freedom of conscience and the right of workers and minorities. This synthesis of liberal freedom and the scholastic common good differs from someone like Deneen who rejects liberalism in favor of Benedictine localism or Vermeule who seeks to replace liberalism with Catholic integralism. Maritain does not require one to choose between liberalism and Christianity: the state is democratic, liberal, pluralist and transcendent, personalist, and Christianity-inspired. To say politics has to be one or the other is a false choice.

Maritain’s scholasticism, therefore, provides a path for people of all Christian faiths to participate in politics, infusing an “evangelical vitality into the temporal life,” while, at the same time, recognize that city of God and the city of man are intertwined but ultimately separate. Although Maritain supports Catholic unity in social and civic action (e.g., religious worship and education), he calls for a diversity of actions in politics, where Catholics can cooperate with non-Catholics for the sake of the common good and civil peace. Because the Catholic holds that every person is spiritually equal and therefore everyone’s dignity is inviolable, it would be spiritually and politically wrong not to cooperate with non-Catholics or seek to impose Catholic-inspired political views onto their unwilling fellow citizens.

For the past thirty years, conservative Catholics have tried to reconcile free market principles and individual rights with traditional Catholic social teaching. This truce with liberalism was broken during the Obama administration with liberal victories in the cultural wars, such as Obergefell v. Hodges, and prompted some, like Deneen and Vermeule, to denounce liberalism en total. However, this Catholic rejection of liberalism appears unnecessarily one-sided: it is certainly an intellectual, albeit not practical, option. But an equally compelling philosophical possibility, and a more practical route, is Maritain’s personalist democracy that conserves the best of liberalism and fuses it to Christian teachings. Like Maritain, we should look at recovering the achievements of the medieval world without succumbing to it, even as we forge a way forward in a liberalism that aims for the common good that is pluralist and protects personal liberty.