Jacques Maritain on the Left/Right Spectrum

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was a French Catholic philosopher and a close friend of St. Pope Paul VI who had an enormous influence on the Second Vatican Council. He is known as a political theorist of Christian Democracy, “Thomistic personalism,” and “Integral Humanism,” especially in the Catholic Worker Movement. The following excerpt is from his 1966 book The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, written in response to the chaos in the Church which followed the Council.

Contemporary Trends, Especially the Trends of “Left” and “Right” 

At the Time of the “Letter on Independence”

[pg. 21] Ecumenism, it appears, asks us not only to be “open” to our fellow men, to their anguish, their problems, their need for recognition, but also to all contemporary trends. That is more difficult, for there is a little of everything in these trends, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “currents of thought.” For example, the neo-modernism which I have already spoken about is one of our most active contemporary currents. Besides, these trends are sometimes—what a pity!—directly opposed to one another (nature and history want it that way), like the so-called “left” and “right” trends which I particularly wish to consider in this second note. 

Long ago, I wrote a short book [A Letter on Independence] in which I spoke of the mysterious cleavage indicated by these terms, which refer not only to parliamentary benches, but to all the citizens. I drew there a distinction between two senses of the words “right” and “left,” a physiological sense and a political sense. In the first sense one is of the “right” or of the “left” by a disposition of temperament, just as the human being is born bilious or sanguine. It is useless, in that meaning of the term, to pretend to be neither right nor left. All one can do is to correct one’s temperament and bring it to an equilibrium which more or less approaches the point where the two tendencies converge. For at the extreme lower limit of these tendencies, a kind of monstrosity unfolds before the mind— on the right a pure cynicism, on the left a pure unrealism (or idealism, in the metaphysical sense of this word). The pure man of the left detests being, always preferring, in principle, in the words of Rousseau, what is not to what is. [1] The pure man of the right detests justice and charity, always preferring, in principle, in the words of Goethe (himself an enigma who masked his right with [pg. 22] his left), injustice to disorder. Nietzsche is a noble and a beautiful example of the man of the right, and Tolstoy, of the man of the left. 

In the second sense, the political sense, left and right designate ideals, energies, and historic formations into which the men of these two opposing temperaments are normally drawn to group themselves. Here again, considering the circumstances in which a given country finds itself at a given moment, it is impossible for anyone who takes political realities seriously not to orient himself either to the right or to the left. Yet things get so confused in this matter that men of the right sometimes practice a politics of the left, and vice versa. I think Lenin is a good example of the first case. There are no more dreadful revolutions than revolutions of the left carried out by men of rightist temperament. There are no weaker governments than governments of the right run by leftist temperaments (Louis XVI).

But things look completely spoiled when, at certain moments of deep trouble, the political formations of right and left, instead of being each a more or less high-spirited team held in check by a more or less firm political reason, have become nothing more than exasperated affective complexes carried away by their myth-ideal; from that point on, political intelligence can do nothing but practice ruses in the service of passion. Under those conditions, to be neither right nor left means simply that one intends to keep his sanity.

This is what I tried my best to do, at a time when things were already quite spoiled (“I am neither left nor right,” [A Letter on Indepence, page 9] even though by temperament I am what people call a man of the left). By keeping one’s sanity I did not mean taking refuge in some kind of neutrality, but preparing the way for a political activity that would be “authentically and vitally Christian.” In other words I had in mind a politics which, while drawing its inspiration from the Christian spirit and Christian principles, would involve only the initiative and responsibility of the citizens who conduct it, without being in the slightest degree a politics dictated by the Church or committing her to responsibility. May I add that until today—and despite (or because of) the entry on the scene, in different countries, of political parties labeled “Christian” (most of which are primarily combinations of electoral interests)—the hope for the advent of a Christian politics (corresponding [pg. 23] in the practical order to what a Christian philosophy is in the speculative order) has been completely frustrated. I know only one example of an authentic “Christian revolution” and that is what President Eduardo Frei is attempting at this very moment in Chile [2], and it is not sure that he will succeed. (It is also true that among those of my contemporaries still living as I write these lines, I see in the Western world no more than three revolutionaries worthy of the name—Eduardo Frei in Chile, Saul Alinsky in America [3],… and myself in France, who am not worth beans, since my call as a philosopher has obliterated my possibilities as an agitator…) 

But let us leave this digression. Possibly it will be of some use to repeat here what I said in that distant epoch: 

The whole question here comes down to knowing if one believes that an authentically and vitally Christian politics can arise in history and is now invisibly being prepared. It comes down to knowing if Christianity should incarnate itself to that extent, if the temporal mission of the Christian should go that far, if the witness of love should descend that far; or whether we must abandon the world to the devil in that which is most natural to it—civic or political life. If we believe in the possibility of an authentically and vitally Christian politics, then our most urgent temporal duty is to work for its establishment. 

…A healthy Christian politics (that is a politics of Christian inspiration, but one which calls to itself all non-Christians who find it just and humane) would undoubtedly seem to go pretty far to the left as regards certain technical solutions, in its appreciation of the concrete movement of history, and in its demands for the transformation of the present economic regime. In reality, however, it would have absolutely original positions, proceeding, in the spiritual and moral order, from very different principles than the conceptions of the world, life, the family, and the city, which prevail in the various parties of the left. 

…Just as, in the spiritual order, which is supra-political, the liberty of the Christian requires that he be all things to all men, and [pg. 24] carry his testimony to all corners, fostering everywhere those bonds of friendship, fraternal kindness, natural virtues of fidelity, devotion, and gentleness, without which we cannot really help each other, and without which supernatural charity, or what we take for it, is in danger of freezing, or of turning into clannish proselytism—to that same extent, in the political order itself, our chief concern in the absence of an appropriate vehicle for a vitally Christian politics, should be to protect the inner germ of such a politics against everything that would risk altering it. 

The more this germ remains fragile, hidden, and contested, the more intransigence and firmness are required to keep it pure… From now on, in the most barren conditions, and with the awkwardness of first beginnings, the signal has been given. Even though the invisible flame of the temporal mission of the Christian, of that Christian politics which the world has not yet known, should burn in some few hearts only, because the wood outside is too green, still the witness borne in this way would at least be maintained, the flame handed on. And amid the increasing horror of a world where justice, force, liberty, order, revolution, war, peace, work, and poverty have all been dishonored, where politics does its job only by corrupting the souls of the multitude with lies and by making them accomplices in the crimes of history, where the dignity of the human person is endlessly flouted, the defense of this dignity and of justice, and the political primacy of those human and moral values which make up the core of our earthly common good, would continue to be affirmed, and a small ray of hope would continue to glimmer for mankind in a rehabilitation of love in the temporal order. The principle of the lesser evil is often, and rightly, invoked in politics. There is no greater evil in this field than to leave justice and charity without witness within the temporal order itself, and in regard to the temporal good. [A Letter on Independence, pgs. 45-53]


It has been thirty years since this [Letter on Independence] was written. Since then our confusion of mind, when it comes to “right” [pg. 25] and “left,” has only increased. In France, rightist extremism has been invaded by cruel frustrations and bitter resentments, owing as much to a nostalgic memory of the old Marshal [Pétain] as to the disappointments of the Algerian War, not to mention the unhealthy feeling of belonging to the vanquished who are seeking some kind of revenge. Leftist extremism has been invaded by a fever of demagogic excess and aggressive conformism, which protect themselves poorly against the great amount of illusion and the bit of meanness that gregarian Idealism carries inevitably with it—not to mention the unhealthy feeling that one belongs to the victors and everyone should be made to know it.

None of this is very encouraging or enlightening. But the most serious thing is that the words “right” and “left” no longer have merely a political and social meaning; they have taken on above all—at least in the Christian world—a religious sense, resulting in the worst kind of jumble. How do we even find names for sociological formations which catch our attention first of all because of a certain religious attitude, but whose staunch background is a certain politico-social attitude, as if, by declaring a given religious position, one was necessarily announcing in the same breath a particular political position, and vice versa? Words such as “integralist” and “modernist” could not be employed, for they refer to religious behavior only. Nor could “conservative” and “progressive,” since they refer only to politico-social behavior. We can get out of such a fix, if we try to designate these two vast trends, whose intelligibility is so feebly established and includes such a confusion of aspects, only be constructing a kind of Archtype to which we will give an allegorical or mythical name (here is a good case for this word). This will have the advantage of offending nobody: consequently, as the prudent authors of certain mystery stories warn us, any resemblance to any person living or dead should be considered purely coincidental, and no one should feel he has been alluded to. To designate the Archtype of leftist extremism, then I will speak of the Sheep of Panurge; and for the Archtype of rightist extremism, I will say the Ruminators of the Holy Alliance. [4]

Of course when it comes to real persons who seem to enter in any degree (there are an infinite number of degrees) into more or less close participation with either of these Archtypes, I hope I have for [pg. 26] them the feelings that are appropriate between Christians (and even between simple human persons) and not merely the kind of charity one would have for a criminal or a dunce. I am quite ready to evince my esteem and brotherly respect for them, and I would be sincerely happy to unite my prayers to theirs, and to go with them to receive the Body of the Lord. All the same, if I happen to find myself in agreement on some point, either philosophical-theological, or politico-social, with either the Sheep of Panurge or the Ruminators of the Holy Alliance, I feel a serious uneasiness. And I don’t know which I detest more: to see a truth that is dear to me disregarded and abused by one party or the other, or to see it invoked and betrayed, by the one or the other. 

Such accidents are nevertheless inevitable. And we should note here the unhappy interlacing of values which causes the Sheep to cut such a wretched figure in philosophical or theological matters (in order to be “with it” they are fideists, modernists, or anything you please), while in political and social questions their instinct prompts them to sound doctrine which they will more or less mess up. [5] The opposite is true of the big Ruminators. I keep myself as far as I can from both camps, but it is quite natural (if hardly pleasing) that I feel myself less distant from the first when it is a question of things that are Caesar’s, and less distant from the second (alas!) when it is a question of the things that are God’s. 

We should recognize, moreover, that in its zeal neither camp gives first place to the service of pure truth. It is, above all, the alarms of Prudence that stir the Ruminators of the Holy Alliance: to bar the way to threatening dangers, to lock the doors, to build dikes. What stirs the Sheep of Panurge more than anything else is Deference to public opinion: to do as everyone does, at least as all those who are not fossils. 

By and large, the two extremisms whose Archtypes have just furnished me an excuse for some bad jokes, characterize but two minorities, although for the moment the Sheep are clearly more numerous than the big Ruminators, and can boast of a much vaster influence, especially among clerical professors. The great bulk of the [pg. 27] Christian people seem indifferent to the efforts of both these minorities. The people are troubled and unhappy because they feel that something great is in the offing and they do not know how to participate. They are groping, and submissively lend themselves to attempts of groupings which are often disappointing. They conform willingly (not without nostalgia among some elderly lovers of beauty in the Church) to the use of the vernacular in religious ceremonies, but complain of the miserable translations which they are forced to recite, as well as of the disorder (temporary, no doubt) which accompanies liturgical innovations. They ask themselves at times whether their religion has been changed, and they will not easily be satisfied for long with vigil services, recordings, and cheap songs with which the initiatives of certain curates have adorned the “community celebrations.” Above all, they suffer from a great and genuine thirst to which no one seems to pay any heed, and their good will in accepting the substitutes makes one foresee serious disillusionment. 

It is the truth they are seeking (indeed, yes), and the living sources. There is no shortage of guides, judging from the noise they make, and surely all of them have the best intentions. No doubt a few of them know the way. Let us hope that those who do can give us some inkling of what it is “to accept as a child the kingdom of God,” without which, Jesus said, no one can enter it (Luke 18:17) [6]—and it is certainly not a question of closing our eyes, for a child looks. We must at all costs know a little what it means to look at divine things with the eyes of a child, and in what school this is taught—and that God alone can teach us this. 

January 18 , 1966 

[1] “What is not is the only thing that is beautiful,” said Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And Jean-Paul Sartre: “The real is never beautiful.” 

[2] Editor’s note: Eduardo Frei was a complicated figure. As a Christian Democrat, he defeated Salvador Allende in the election for president of Chile in 1964. (Declassified documents have revealed that the CIA supported his campaign.) Nonetheless, his administration accomplished many widespread reforms in Chile, which included building public housing, hospitals, and schools, promoting neighborhood cooperatives and rural unions, and beginning an aggressive land reform policy (which would be continued by the socialist Allende government). In 1970, he lost the presidential election to Allende, the socialist candidate. Soon afterward, he denounced Allende’s government and publicly supported the U.S.-backed coup which installed Pinochet’s military government. Eventually, he spoke out against the brutal right-wing dictatorship in the context of the 1980 constitutional referendum. He died two years later, likely by poison. It is important to recall that Jacques Maritain, who died a few months before the 1973 coup, wrote this reference to Frei during the latter’s presidency in 1966.

[3] Saul Alinsky, who is a great friend of mine, is a courageous and admirably staunch organizer of “people’s communities” and an anti-racist leader whose methods are is effective as they are unorthodox. Cf. “The Professional Radical, Conversations with Saul Alinsky,” Harper’s Magazine, June/July, 1965. 

[4] Sheep also ruminate, I know, but over dreams of the future.

[5] “The Christian left in France has evangelical entrails, but the brain is weak in theology.” Claude Tresmontant, “Tâches de la pensée chrétienne,” Esprit , July/August 1965, pg. 120. 

[6] Editor’s note: Maritain gives the Latin in the original footnote: “Quicumque non acceperit regnum Dei sicut puer, non intrabit in illud.”

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