Acting Reasonable: Democracy, Authority, and Natural Rights in the Thought of Jacques Maritain |
Brian Jones | Ignatius Insight | January 17, 2011
Acting Reasonable: Democracy, Authority, and Natural Rights in the Thought of Jacques Maritain | Brian Jones, M.A. | Ignatius Insight | January 17, 2011
After listening to one of Jacques Maritain's last public
lectures in 1958, the late Ralph McInerny pondered the greatness of the French
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
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. 
Maritain provides a rather straightforward definition of the
natural law, which is nothing other than the "normalcy of functioning." He
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. 
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"  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. 
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"?  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. 
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
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. 
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. 
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"  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."  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." 
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." 
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"  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.  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. 
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.
 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.)
Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1951), 87.
 Ibid., 86.
 James V Schall, S.J., Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998),
Man and the State, 83-4.
 Ibid., 86.
 Schall, Jacques Maritain: The Philosopher in Society, 85.
Maritain, "Democracy and Authority," Scholasticism and Politics, trans. Edited by Mortimer J. Adler (Garden City, N.Y.:
Doubleday, Image, 1960), 95.
 Maritain, Man and the State, 134.
 Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (New York: Routledge, 2003), 148-58.
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."
 I am
grateful to Professors Christopher Wolfe, Michael Pakaluk, and Dennis McInerny
for their insights and encouragement in regards to the substance of this
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.
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