Early Maritain on solitude

Professor of philosophy in the early 1920s, the 20th-century French Catholic apologist Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was an adherent of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (i.e., Thomism). He also edited the journal Revue universelle representing the anti-modern authoritarian Action francaise, a far-right-wing party led by monarchist Charles Marraus, with whom he worked closely.

Under the influence of Action francaise, Maritain wrote Antimoderne in 1922 and Trois reformatuers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau in 1925, the latter a vituperative attack laced with ad hominem arguments. Maritain was probably blindsided when Pope Pius XI condemned Action francaise in 1926. Chastened, Maritain shifted his attention to more humanistic approaches to political and social issues.

But Catholic readership did not dismiss Three Reformers or, presumably, the philosophy or influence under which it was composed, since the book was translated into English and published in 1928 and reprinted in France in 1930. The book has been reprinted regularly. A compressed version of the section on Rousseau appears in a 1955 anthology titled The Political and Social Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, edited by Joseph W. Evans and Leo Ward (reprinted in 1965 and 1976) where Maritain's thoughts on Rousseau comprise chapter 10: "Solitude and the Community." Thus, Maritain's remarks here are still c considered representative.

Of Rousseau, Maritain quotes a popular contemporary French novelist Ramuz: "I have a deep affection for 'the lonely walker' in him; I hate the theorist." Here the distinction is made between Rousseau's last book (Reveries of a Solitary Walker) and all that preceded. Maritain argues that Rousseau extrapolated his personal misfortunes into an unnatural social theory, deliberately -- and erroneously -- blurring the important distinction between a physical and psychological solitude on the one hand and a social structure on the other.

Men naturally respect anchorites. They instinctively understand that the solitary life is of itself the most exempt from diminution and the nearest to divine things. ... In differing degrees, philosophers, poets, or contemplatives, those whose chief work is intellectual, know, too well that in man, social life is not the heroic life of the spirit, but the realm of mediocrity, and most often falsehood, There is the burden of the contingent and the sham, from which poets and artists, being free from the sensible, suffer the most sensitively, but not perhaps the most cruelly. Yet all need to live the social life, so far as the very life of the spirit must emerge from a human life, a rational life in the strict sense of the word.

The solitary life is not human; it is above or below man. [Quoting Thomas Aquinas:]" There is for men a double manner of being solitary. Either he is so because he cannot endure human society by reason of his temperament, propter animi saevitam, and that belongs to beasts. Or else it is because he cleaves wholly to divine things, and that is on the superhuman order. He who has no dealings with others, said Aristotle, is either a beast or a god."

Maritain notes, as so many others have, that Aristotle's aphorism applies to the solitary in both ways: the hermit is as a god (or close to the divine), or the solitary is bestial, savage, dumb. Typical human beings, nearly everyone else, are between the two extremes. To this point, Maritain's view is not controversial.

Maritain's first objection to Rousseau is ad hominem, a disparaging dismissal:

As for Rousseau, paranoiac and genius, poet and madman, he leads at the same time and confuses voluptuously the life of bestiality and the life of intelligence. In this man, forced into solitary life by his physical blemishes, the unadaptability which rebels and complains, apes the inadaptability which dominates, i.e., that of the spirit, set apart to govern, as Anaxagoras said of the nous. He gives us in his very savagery, in his sickly isolation, a lyrical image, as dazzling as it is deceptive, of the secret demands of the spirit in us. [emphasis original]

Conforming to Maritain's black-or-white, good-or-evil paradigm, solitude must be spiritual, for the spirit must govern, and is ordained by natural law (i.e., "set apart") to govern self. Anything else is bestial. Thus Maritain sustains the practice of the Catholic Church over the centuries that maintains a subordinate role for hermits versus monks or clergy, and a deep suspicion of independent hermits and hermit movements, however religious or spiritual their motive. Not surprisingly, then, that a secular philosopher like Rousseau, an established iconoclast, would be dismissed as a moral savage regardless of his psychology of solitude and merely for the fact of defending solitude for the non-religious.

Rousseau's description of human nature is centered on original nature before society, abstract but reconstructed in order to define essentials without social accretions. But Maritain , extending Aquinas, argues that the proper aim of solitude is superhuman and can only be nurtured in a "human environment." Again returning to Aquinas:

Solitude ... only befits the contemplative who has already come to perfection either by the divine bounty alone ... or by the exercise of the virtues. And man cannot be exercised in the virtues without the help of the society of his fellow beings. ... Social life is necessary to the exercise of perfection, and that solitude befits souls already perfect.

Aquinas clearly wrote in an era dominated by religious unanimity and of religious orders and organizations uniformly dominating culture and society. In the Middle Ages, the rate of religious vocation was high and the integration of social order depended upon this cultural dominance. Such circumstances did not exist in the time of Rousseau, let alone Maritain, so the assumed social role of "fellow beings" argued by Maritain was not only anachronistic but quarrelsome. That perfection was a prerequisite to the pursuit of solitude in the era of Aquinas or earlier was reasonable, but the Church, much circumscribed and hemmed in by secular society during the Enlightenment, could only expect this standard for itself and its closest adherents. Further, "Solitude is the flower of life in community," says Maritain, " ... a social life which leads to the life of the spirit." The context is strictly monastic and historical, without even acknowledging what Rousseau is trying to say.

Having reconstructed the monastic ideals, Maritain inevitably finds Rousseau's idea of human nature to treat humans "as if they were perfect," with that perfection "a constituent of nature itself." But, on the contrary, Rousseau identifies modern society as irredeemably corrupt, which observation leads to considering socialization's flaws and their effects on the child and eventual adult. Bad psychology and values are imparted on a societal level to the individual, says Rousseau. Humans are not perfect in the state of nature, anymore than Adam and Eve were perfect in Paradise. They are simply not corrupted. They are not yet impacted by the social compromises and accommodations, and the psychological and moral pressures that inevitably emerge in incessant contact with other people.

Further, Maritain takes the two definitions of nature in Aquinas (accidental and essential) and argues that Rousseau confuses the two.

Because he [Rousseau] is of a religious temperament, and also because what good sense he has is solidly traditionalist, he returns to the notion of a nature ordered to an end by the wisdom of a good God. But because he is powerless to realize this notion intellectually, and to restore to it its metaphysical value and import, he insinuates it into the picture of a certain primitive, and, I may say, pre-cultural state, which exactly corresponds to the second sense of the word nature.

Maritain does not notice the error he commits regarding the nuances of Rousseau, who does not conflate the ideas of nature as Maritain accuses him of doing. Popular Christianity speaks loosely of "fallen man" as the essential character of the human being, not remembering that the Fall was an accidental event, not essential to human nature, at least according to the narrative of held belief. In short, it did not have to happen. Rousseau argues this true distinction: society (like the serpent in Genesis) prompts the Fall, but left to its own devices, human nature is benign and positive (though not perfect). Nature here is nether essentialist or metaphysical, representing Rousseau's firm understanding and underpinning, which Maritain fails to notice.

In a similar vein, Maritain quotes Aquinas on what the former calls Rousseau's "myth of Liberty." According to Maritain, Rousseau tolerates "no kind of submission to a master or rule over a subject." In contrast, argues Maritain, Aquinas does not address someone in charge to equate to mere subjugation. Of course, the notion of governance is far more complex. Rousseau's tenet of equality is similarly reduced to confusion with justice, where Aquinas would propose just recompense, but thereby preserving the very abuses of societal class and power that Rousseau opposes.

Rousseau's politics are dismissed as "absurdly utopia," attempting to "make a society with individuals all perfectly free and equal." Maritain does not directly sustain his contemporary social order, nor did Rousseau, who was at least entirely conscious of the hypothetical nature of his observations and ideals. Rousseau key ideas of the social contract and general will are likewise readily dismissed, reflecting Maritain's thoroughly anti-democratic point of view at the time of writing.

Ultimately, Maritain does not here tolerate secular government, nor the idea that sovereignty rests in the populace rather than in God (or his representatives, the Church). This is the true source of his arguments. Thus, Rousseau proposes, according to Maritain,

the peculiar myth, the spiritual principle, of modern Democracy, absolutely opposed to Christian law which would have sovereignty derive from God as its first origin and only pass through the people in order to reside in the man or men charged with the care of the common good.

Rousseau calls his form of government a republic, a notion not palatable with Maritain's monarchist circle, a familiar advocacy of monarchism originating in Catholic traditionalist thinkers:  Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortes, and Jaime Balmes. To Maritain, a republic obviously eliminates the options for an aristocratic or monarchical regime. Options such as "modern Democracy" were intolerable.

Rousseau anticipates within his ideal republic the rise of "legislators" naturally emerging as popular representatives. But that Rousseau had such ambitions for himself, according to Maritain, seems today ridiculous, especially in light of Rousseau's latent desire for a life of solitude. The unmollified Maritain further argues, also ridiculously, that Rousseau inspired Germany to wage World War I, a statement that would have pleased Action francaise but removes Maritain's essay from the hope of a clear scholarly or even popularized treatment of the historical Rousseau and of historical solitude.


Jacques Maritain: Trois réformateurs: Luther--Descartes--Rousseau. Paris: Plon, 1925; Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau. London: Sheed & Ward and New York: Scribner's, 1928; successive reprints, including online http://www.archive.org/details/threereformerslu001518mbp and selection in The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain; selected readings by Joseph W. Evans and Leo R. Ward. New York: Scribner's, 1955.