About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Acting Reasonable: Democracy, Authority, and Natural Rights in the Thought of Jacques Maritain | Brian Jones, M.A. | Ignatius Insight | January 17, 2011

Print-friendly version

After listening to one of Jacques Maritain's last public lectures in 1958, the late Ralph McInerny pondered the greatness of the French philosopher:
He was a saintly man. That is what I sensed as I scuffled through the leaves on my way back from Maritain's last lecture. He loved the truth, but his purpose in life was not to win arguments. He wanted to be wise. Such an odd ambition for a philosopher! He succeeded because he prayed as well as he studied.
Whether examining Maritain's philosophic or political works, this reality must always be kept at the forefront. The scientific rationalism that bombarded Maritain and his wife at the Sorbonne led to a near suicide attempt. Yet, it was the pursuit of truth and wisdom that opened them to the discovery of life's greatest tragedy: not to become a saint.

In an age of moral, intellectual, and political disintegration, it is to one such as Maritain that we ought to turn to. Maritain, like the great English statesman St. Thomas More, expresses in thought and life the harmonious link between faith and reason. There comes a realization that Christianity does have legitimate answers to man's fundamental questions concerning his earthly existence. How we ought to act in a given and established political order is at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and one that Maritain frequently reflects upon with great clarity and substance.

In this essay, I want to show that Maritain's theoretical grounding of democracy and authority in an authentic anthropology of man is necessarily linked with an appropriate understanding of his work in the area of naturallLaw and natural rights. The Natural Law, according to Maritain, is an act of reasonableness that equips man to know the good that must be done and what evils must be avoided (apart from divine revelation). Specifically, I will examine Maritain's metaphysical understanding of "rights" (what type of being we are) and also its relation to ethics and politics (what we ought to do in a given body politic).

Secondly, I want to examine Maritain's distinction in Scholasticism and Politics between the democracy of the individual and the democracy of the person, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between authority and power.

While defending Maritain's desire to propose a legitimate theory of natural rights that is capable of synthesizing with a Thomistic understanding of natural law, I also recognize the problems and critiques that a view such as this can merit. Australian theologian Tracey Rowland and David Schindler provide ample critiques of Maritain's use of the so-called "rhetoric of rights." I will analyze a few of their arguments in light of Maritain's insights. In offering these brief and neophyte reflections, I hope to further reveal the dual monumental roles that Maritain personified as a Catholic philosopher: 1) articulating the Catholic faith, or Catholic wisdom in a comprehensive, systematic, and intellectually rigorous manner; and 2) Authentic intellectual engagement with nonbelieving philosophers. [1]

Maritain provides a rather straightforward definition of the natural law, which is nothing other than the "normalcy of functioning." He states that:
Any kind of existing thing in nature, a plant, a dog, a horse, has its own natural law, that is, the normality of its functioning, the proper way in which, by reason of its specific structure and specific ends, it "should" achieve fullness of being either in its growth or in its behavior. [2]
For a thing to function well, it must abide by the internal structures and laws that govern what it is. The judgment of a good car presupposes that we know what a car is in itself (we can call this "carness"). How strange it would be to call this or that car good when it ends up in the shop every two weeks, or refuses to start regularly when you turn the key in the ignition? A car that does not perform as it is supposed to ought to then be discarded or thrown out. It does not do what it should do. My stepfather loves to watch the show "Dog Whisperer" with Caesar Milan. Considering that the true role and enjoyment of animals in our lives has become rather distorted in society, I was very skeptical about the nature of his show. The premise of the series is to have Milan visit families who are concerned about the behavior of their dogs. They are frequently out of control and unable to be taken anywhere in public without fear of possible attacks. I recall one family, distressed by the frequent "misconduct" of their beloved pet, sought Milan's help. At the end of the episode, the family asked Milan how he could be so successful with such an obvious lost cause? His response was remarkable: "I treated him as he truly is, like a dog. You treated him as though he were your son, calling for him to come down to get breakfast in the morning and worried when you didn't hear "be down in a minute."

Maritain realizes that any accurate account of the natural law has two important presuppositions: 1) man has a unique and incommunicable human nature that is intelligible; and 2) that this nature is universal in all men. Man has a nature that is not of his own creation, but one that has been given to him without consultation or want of suggestions. This "ontological structure" [3] reveals the kind of being that we are: gifted with intelligence and capable of determining our own ends through deductive reasoning or connatural knowledge of what the ends of man are. Maritain highlights the unique interior quality of human nature in comparison to an object such as a piano:
All pianos, for instance, whatever their particular type and in whatever spot they may be, have as their end the production of certain attuned sounds. If they do not produce these sounds they must be tuned, or discarded as worthless. But since man is endowed with intelligence and determines his own ends, it is up to him to put himself in tune with the ends necessarily demanded by his nature. This means that there is, by the very virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the essential and necessary ends of the human being. [4]
Cars, dogs, and pianos are incapable of aligning themselves with the ends necessitated by their very structure and inner logic. Man is the only being who can choose to go against his own ends. It would be humorous to conceive the idea of a dog, or a plant refusing to be what it is.

Following St. Thomas (I-II. 94, 4), Maritain is careful to articulate that to "do good and avoid evil" is truly an act of reason. Man often seems to act without reason, or with reference to a reason that seems unintelligible. The famous Nuremberg Trials held from 1945-46 are a case in point. When asked why they were willing to participate in heinous acts such as transporting people to the death camps, many of the accusers responded that they were doing what they thought was good for the country. If the Nazi's had ordered them to take any of their own family members or loved ones to Auschwitz or Dachau, they willingly would have complied. Evils justified in the name of some supposed good cause consternation not just about man's capacity to reason, but his capacity to reason well. We can all give reasons for doing or not doing this or that particular action, but hopefully we can recognize that some higher standard besides the mere ability to reason guides our rationale. Many of my students, when asked why they cannot stop talking during class, retort that they should not be blamed but instead the person in the front of the room who is keeping them off-task is the true culprit. With a simple jest, I cannot help but reply: "It is open to further examination."

If, as Maritain claims, the natural law is an act of reason, then it would logically follow that how man acts must be his "normalcy of functioning." Yet, we must contend with the reality that man often cheats, lies, steals, and murders. Why then, we could contend, is "this natural law not determined by what man actually and consistently does in the historical circumstances of his life"? [5] Maritain states that man's actions are not counted by the mere fact that he is capable of acting, but how he acts. What man is in his essence precedes and answers how he ought to live and the good that he must pursue. How man acts in historical circumstances cannot be properly understood unless we know what kind of being man is. This is why Maritain's ethics and politics are grounded in the metaphysical realism of St. Thomas. The self-reflective man who acknowledges the evilness of his actions has revealed not his nature, but the erroneous and unreasonable use of what has been given to him.

Advocates of the modern philosophic, legal, and social conception of "rights" have taken as their primary guides Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Hobbes. The "rights" philosophy of Rousseau and Kant treated the individual as a god and gave him absolute rights whose limits were boundless:
Rights were to be deduced from the so-called autonomy of the Will. The rights of the human person were to be based on the claim that man is subject to no law other than that of his own will and freedom. 'A person,' Kant wrote, 'is subject to no other laws than those which he (either alone or jointly with others) gives to himself.' In other words, man must obey only himself because every measure or regulation springing from the world of nature would destroy at one and the same time his autonomy and his supreme dignity. [6]
This so-called philosophy of "rights" is often invoked to protect or legitimize particular actions, which are contrary to that very reasonableness of the natural law. This notion of "rights" has to lead to much confusion because:
It leads men to conceive them as rights in themselves divine, hence infinite, escaping every objective measure, denying every limitation imposed on the claims of the ego, and ultimately expressing the absolute independence of the human subject and a so-called absolute right-which supposedly pertains to everything in the human subject by the mere fact that it is in him-to unfold one's cherished possibilities at the expense of all other beings. [7]
In his political philosophy, Maritain seeks to establish rights as a valid expression of the natural law, (ST, I-II, 94,5) and in doing so rejects two fundamental errors that characterize much of modern "rights" theory: 1) "rights" are rooted not in a human nature, but in the human will; 2) centering "rights" on what is owed to the individual human subject. In regards to the former, much jurisprudential theory relies heavily on the self-sufficient human will. If a law is considered right merely because it has become a part of the legal order of society, then the majority will of any society takes precedence. At this point, it would become superfluous to speak of an unjust law, or inquire about the rightness of a given law because there is no standard by which to judge except the force and power of the human will. Fr. James Schall, S.J., puts it this way:
The will then has no limit ... if whatever is willed is right because it is willed, and only because it is willed then there arises a certain parallel between law and right. In a sense, there can be no conflict between law and right, for whatever is willed is right because it is willed. The strongest will, the public will, trumps. [8]
The natural law tradition however allows, or rather, requires, for a disagreement between the law and right. That which is right, just, and good takes primacy over merely what is willed.

The second error, that "rights" ought to be based on what is owed to the individual subject, over-emphasizes the subjective at the expense of objective reality. If I have the right not to be slandered in the local tabloids, then you also have the right not to be slandered by me. Stressing the former usually mitigates the latter. When asked what he thought of the Statue of Liberty, the famous psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl responded: "you should build a Statue of Responsibility." There is a recognition that rights, along with liberty and freedom, must be rooted in the natural law tradition which, unlike modern rights theory, is rooted in an "objective rightness towards others" [9] that is not dependent upon whether that reciprocity is, in actual fact, given unto me.

The erroneous equivocation of law and right inevitably brings us to a fundamental component of Maritain's political philosophy: the question of authority and democracy. Are there any two words (we can include "rights" in here as well) that are in greater need of clarity and intellectual charity (to borrow from Pope Benedict) than authority and democracy? Maritain rightly begins his discussion by distinguishing between authority (auctoritas) and power (potestas).

He frames these concepts in the context of two opposing philosophies about man. The first he calls an anthropocentric humanism. This philosophical worldview purports man to be the sole arbiter of reality that has no objective standard beyond himself. Man is self-sufficient in himself. Stemming from the philosophy of Rousseau, this man-centered paradigm is known as a democracy of the individual, "where authority is suppressed and power perseveres ... since each individual is born free, it is necessary that he obeys only himself." [10] Maritain rightly notes that this type of democracy will inevitably lead to a theory of law and justice rooted in legal positivism, where the majority will prevails. As stated earlier, what is willed becomes right merely because it has been willed and nothing more. What is most telling of this type of democracy is its recognizable and inevitable atheistic undertones. This ideology is the greatest threat to Maritain's democratic philosophy because it closes man off to reflection of the highest things that are beyond the nature of the political and temporal order. True democracy must give true justice to the political common good of a society, but it must recognize the limitations of this good, as well as man's need for more than a political theory (no matter how good it may be).

On the other hand, there is a philosophy, rather a true humanism, which recognizes God as the center of man. This democracy of the person is rooted in the natural law, in the intelligibility of an existing human nature that is knowable to reason. This type of democracy (which Maritain defines as any legitimate "form of government that is compatible with human dignity), however, is not limited to reason, but open to the fulfillment of man's latent spiritual energies whose locus in not rooted in the temporal order. For Maritain, authority is the right to direct and command, and with the equal right to be listened to and obeyed. Man's nature as a political and social agent requires the duality of "an appropriate authority to be listened to, as well as the need for listening." [11]

Teaching is a great example. If I create a school culture where I am constantly yelling, and ordering students what to do to ensure that they know who is in power, I have merely created tyranny. Getting students to listen and obey authority (a rather daunting task in the inner-city) because it is just and right helps them to internalize a profound truth: I have the right to be listened to because I have a greater knowledge of the subject matter, and can explicate these things better than they. In giving themselves to a legitimate teacher, they will become true participants of the science that is within me and internalize it themselves, while I, at the same time, lose nothing of that knowledge that is within me. "I can invest another man with a right of mine," Maritain says, "without myself loosing possession of it, if this man receives this right in a vicarious manner-as a vicar of myself." [12]

I would like to conclude by answering some critics of Maritain's political philosophy. While an in-depth explication is possible here, I do want to provide some foundational and brief responses.

In her book Culture and the Thomist Tradition: Thomism After Vatican II, Professor Tracey Rowland provides and establishes ample critique of the Church's engagement with modernity. Relying on the insights and arguments of MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and David Schindler, Rowland purports that the Thomist tradition and the Liberal tradition are dialectical, disallowing any type of synthesis.

She critiques the so-called "rhetoric of rights" [13] that is employed by the New Natural Law Theorists such as Finnis, Grisez, and Boyle. Included in this "rights" talk is Maritain.

It seems that the Rowland/Schindler argument against "rights talk" (as well as other aspects of current social and political thought) is rooted in a misunderstanding of St. Thomas's teaching on man's two ends. Maritain actually seems to be more faithful to the Thomistic understanding of man's natural end, along with providing legitimacy to the temporal order, which would have tremendous effects then in the realm of culture and social/political philosophy. Maritain's work is truly Thomistic because he makes distinctions in order to unite.

Rowland and Schindler follow the Balthasarian/De Lubacian misinterpretation of St. Thomas. This has two notable consequences. [14] First, this seems to run the risk of making Pope Leo XIII's thoughts in his encyclical Diuturnum, as well as the insight of Gaudium et Spes' concerning the "true authority of the secular order", unintelligible. Culture then appears to get merged into a Trinitarian social and political philosophy that would render engagement with the world much more problematic. Second, this argument can make Rowland and Schindler appear to be mere critics of the current order rather than true reformers of it. There can be a tendency to posit an either/or scenario which can, at times, seem to point to martyrdom as the viable solution in a utilitarian and increasingly atheistic society. I do believe that many of the arguments put forth by Rowland in her book are true, but I don't think that Maritain would disagree. [15]

Following the example of St. Thomas More, Maritain believes that "solutions proportionate to nature" can be found. May we continue to foster the optimism of Jacques Maritain.


[1] This dual role of the Catholic philosopher comes is masterfully articulated by Professor Alfred Freddoso in his essay titled "Two Roles for Catholic Philosophers," pp. 229-252 in John P. O'Callaghan and Thomas S. Hibbs, eds., Recovering Nature:Essays in Natural Philosophy, Ethics, and Metaphysics in Honor of Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.)
[2] Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 87.
[3] Ibid., 86.
[4] Ibid.
[5] James V Schall, S.J., Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998), 84.
[6] Maritain, Man and the State, 83-4.
[7] Ibid., 86.
[8] Schall, Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society, 85.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jacques Maritain, "Democracy and Authority," Scholasticism and Politics, trans. Edited by Mortimer J. Adler (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Image, 1960), 95.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Maritain, Man and the State, 134.
[13] Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (New York: Routledge, 2003), 148-58.
[14] There are other critiques that are worthy of further examination in another work. For example, Maritain uses St. Thomas' teaching from the Summa on the "changeableness" of the natural law (ST, I-II. 94,5), which does seem to allow for "rights", properly understood, to be an authentic expression of the natural law, although not equal to it. Maritain argues this point by distinguishing between the natural law as it is in itself (ontological element) and our changing and growing knowledge of the law (gnoseological element). Rowland also argues, using Fr. Schall's statement from his work on Maritain, that most people do not know the natural law tradition, and since modern rights talk has been usurped to fulfill utilitarian purposes, then therefore "rights" talk cannot be employed as part of our dialogue. Rowland and David Schindler seem to believe that from this evidence, we should then refrain from using the language of rights and discard it. It seems though that Fr. Schall's point, in the context of his entire work on Maritain, is not claiming de facto that "rights language ought to be discarded. Rather, he appears to be stressing society's disconnect from a classical liberal arts education. As C.S. Lewis noted, most people today, in regards politics, philosophy, and the "highest things," have come into the conversation late because of their disdain for that wisdom from the ancients. The magisterial teachings of all the Popes from John XXIII to Pope Benedict XVI in regards to the connection between "rights" and the natural law provides a substantial argument for a legitimate and good place for the language of "rights."
[15] I am grateful to Professors Christopher Wolfe, Michael Pakaluk, and Dennis McInerny for their insights and encouragement in regards to the substance of this argument.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Essays:

Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A.
The Scandal of Natural Law | An Interview with J. Budziszewski
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Why the Bewilderment? Benedict XVI on Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Truth About the Pope--and Why It Matters | An Interview with Dr. Tracey Rowland
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• The Religion of Liberalism, Or Why Freedom and Equality Aren't Ultimate Goals | An Interview with James Kalb
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

A deeply saddened Cleveland sports fan, Brian Jones graduated in May 2009 with an M.A. in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Currently teaching 7th grade science at a charter school in Cleveland, Ohio, he hopes to pursue a doctorate in philosophy within the next few years.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius