Maritain, Jacques

Maritain, Jacques (1882-1973), French philosopher and man of letters, was a professor of philosophy in the University from 1948 to 1952 and continued to make his home in Princeton until 1960. The author of more than fifty books, he was a preeminent interpreter of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and a creative thinker in his own right in metaphysics, moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, the philosophy of art, and the theory of knowledge.

Maritain, brought up in liberal Protestantism, and his wife, Raissa, a Russian Jew whom he met when they were students at the Sorbonne, were converted to the Roman Catholic faith two years after their marriage in 1904. For many years Maritain was professor of philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris. He was in the United States on a lecture tour in 1940 when the Germans overran France, and he remained here in exile throughout the war. He became a visiting professor at Columbia University; during 1941-1942 he came to Princeton three days a week to give a graduate course in medieval philosophy.

After the war Maritain was French Ambassador to the Vatican from 1945 to 1948. He came back to Princeton in 1946 to take part in a conference, ``The Humanistic Tradition in the Century Ahead,'' and to accept an honorary degree at the University's Bicentennial Celebration. The following year he was tendered an invitation to join the Princeton faculty, under unusual circumstances that he later recalled in his book Refections on America (1958). ``In December, 1947, returning to Rome from Mexico City,'' he wrote, ``I stopped in New York for a few hours to change planes. President Dodds was there; he had been so kind as to come to New York to offer me -- if I should resign my diplomatic post at the Vatican -- a professorship at Princeton University, precisely in my capacity as a philosopher dedicated to the spirit and principles of Thomas Aquinas. The fact that Princeton is a secular university of Presbyterian origin made him only more interested in such a teaching appointment.'' Maritain accepted and came to Princeton as professor of philosophy in 1948. His years at Princeton were felicitous ones. ``In no European university,'' he wrote, ``would I have found the spirit of liberty and congeniality I found at Princeton in teaching moral philosophy in the light of Thomas Aquinas.''

In addition to a graduate course in moral philosophy he also contributed to the undergraduate Special Program in the Humanities. He retired in 1952 at age seventy and began to enjoy, in his words, ``the Elysian status of an Emeritus.'' He continued to live in Princeton and to contribute to its intellectual life until the death of his wife in 1960, when he retired to a monastery in Toulouse. There he died on April 28, 1973, at the age of ninety.

Maritain was a warm, gentle man. He was admired, one of his colleagues said, even by those of different philosophical convictions, ``for his lifelong zeal for truth and impassioned commitment to freedom . . . his humility, his charity, his fraternal attitude toward all that is.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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