J. Maritain and N. Berdyaev on the Meaning of History


Boris. L. Goubman

Head of the Department of the History and Theory of Culture

Tver State University


Historical Understanding and its Philosophical Foundations


Engaged in a prolific philosophical dialogue, both Jacques Maritain and Nicolas Berdyaev made a significant contribution to the formation of the twentieth century religious vision of history. Despite differences in the philosophical background of their doctrines and differences regarding various metaphysical issues, there is a striking similarity in their understanding of the meaning of history. No less interesting is the coincidence of their interpretation of particular phenomena of modernity and contemporary world. A nonbiased analyst of their doctrines may find an evidence of mutual influence in their treatment of different stages of history as well as in their analysis of the significance of contemporary political and cultural events. The affinity between their visions of history should be considered not only as a result of their mutual involvement in a common cultural and political situation, but also of their desire to find a new philosophical approach to the meaning of history without leaving the platform of religious belief.


Raised in a non-similar cultural and social milieu, Berdyaev and Maritain met at ecumenical discussions in Paris in 1925. After his expulsion from Russia, Berdyaev became quite popular in Europe and had a growing influence in the circles of Christian intellectuals permitting him to create contacts with a number of important Catholic and Protestant thinkers. Berdyaev thought that the inter-confessional discussions in the Boulevard Montparnasse organized by the Russian diaspora provided an opportunity for both Catholics and Protestants to get together and debate significant philosophical issues, creating the climate of mutual respect and recognition. This was a step forward, he believed, to the formation of a Christian philosophical milieu in the “non-religious desert” of early twentieth century Europe (Berdyaev 1991:  232). Despite confessional and philosophical discord regarding some issues, Berdyaev and Maritain felt certain sympathy to each other and found common approaches to some problems of mutual concern.


At the time they met, Maritain was an evident leader in the neo-Thomist movement. Although he pretended to be an orthodox follower of Aquinas, “a paleo-Thomist”, Berdyaev suspected him to be “a modernist under the guise of Thomism”. The Russian philosopher rightly remarked that Maritain was deeply interested in Aristotle and Aquinas, but at the same time his understanding of the world was deeply colored by a mystical gift. This mystical feeling was in reality at the origin of Maritain’s existential interpretation of Thomism and his decision to carry over from Bergson an emphasis on the role of intuition in human knowledge which was otherwise foreign to the Thomist project. It finally made possible a rapprochement between Berdyaev and Maritain.  Their contacts were also facilitated by the mutual interest in the current cultural and social situation demanding new philosophical approaches to a variety of issues. Berdyaev thought that Maritain was very sensitive to “the new trends” in the area of cultural and social change. Among his main achievements was an ability to “adjust new problems to Thomism and Thomism to new problems” (Berdyaev 1991:237).  Among the philosophical issues that attracted attention of both thinkers was the problem of man’s cultural creativity in history. This common ground was, of course, an essential premise of their prolific cooperation and philosophical dialogue paving the way to a certain common vision of a number of cultural, social, and political problems. Their collaboration in L’Esprit published by Emmanuel Mounier looks symptomatic in this respect.


Despite his positive evaluation of Maritain’s personality and his ability to grasp the meaning and value of historical, cultural, and political phenomena, Berdyaev considered it necessary to give a critical appraisal of his Catholic colleague’s understanding of modern philosophical thought and --sometimes unjustifiably-- accused him of completely misunderstanding of Immanuel Kant and German philosophy. He believed that the message of modernity and of contemporary philosophy was totally alien to the spirit of Maritain’s doctrine. On the contrary, the origin of his own world outlook, as Berdyaev confessed, should be traced back to the tradition of German philosophy and, in particular, Kant’s doctrine. His conclusion was: “Maritain is a scholastic philosopher, I’m an existential philosopher” (Berdyaev 1991:236). In this case, the label “scholastic” meant something totally opposed to the existential pattern of philosophizing. Berdyaev’s understanding of the nature of Maritain’s philosophy looks incomplete, sketchy, and sometimes even superficial. He never tried to seriously cope with the problem of the existential interpretation of Aquinas offered by the Catholic author. Trying to philosophize in the spirit of Thomism, Maritain did not deny “true intuitions” present in modern philosophy and, in particular, German classical idealism. His existential reading of Aquinas was provoked to a great extent by contemporary versions of existentialism. Therefore, even in terms of general philosophical views, despite their evident differences, there is a certain common existential ground creating a resemblance of thought of both philosophers.


Berdyaev’s own existential philosophy was born within the tradition of Russian religious and secular thought. Describing the factors of his philosophical formation, he wrote: “I’m inheriting the tradition of Slavonophiles and Westernizers, Chaadaev and Khomyakov, Hertzen and Belinsky, even Bakunin and Chernishevsky (irrespective of the differences in their world outlooks), and first and foremost Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, V. Soloviev and N. Fedorov. I am a Russian thinker and writer” (Berdyaev 1991:7). At the same time, Berdyaev’s philosophy of freedom was nourished by J. Bohme, German classical philosophy, Romanticism, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and other Western trends of thought.


The existential nucleus inherent in Maritain’s and Berdyaev’s metaphysical views reveals itself profoundly in their understanding of history and politics. In their search for the meaning of history, both philosophers were trying to understand it in its significance for the destiny of man. History is understood not only in the eschatological, but also in its human dimension, and the flux of its events becomes a unified whole having significance for horizons of man’s personal development. Sharing this approach to history, Maritain and Berdyaev expressed it theoretically in a different way.


Philosophy of history attracted Maritain’s attention when he tried to justify his vision of mankind’s future in Integral Humanism (1936). The panoramic view of history was for him a necessary prerequisite for developing his ideal of integral humanism that was gradually completed and remodeled in accord with the change of cultural and political situation in the world. However, when he wrote this book, Maritain was not too much concerned with the problem of epistemological foundations of history and the place of the philosophy of history in the totality of man’s knowledge. The significance of this task became apparent only later when he was working on another book On the Philosophy of History (1957), which shows the influence of hermeneutical interpretations of the nature of historical knowledge. Dealing with unique events, Maritain claimed, history should never pretend to uncover the universal dimension of social reality. A historian should understand that his job is quite different from that of a scientist, and at the same time he should keep in mind the special role played in his art by the richness of human experience, as well as by questions of principles and values and philosophical issues. Maritain’s own vision of the historian’s art was thus very close to that of H.-I. Marrou. In this respect, like Berdyaev, he openly confirmed that historical knowledge can be understood only with reference to the engagement of the historian in the flux of time (Maritain 1957: 6-7). At the same time, unlike Berdyaev, he tried in the spirit of Aquinas thought to include history in the totality of degrees of knowledge and to subordinate it to a philosophy of history nourished by moral philosophy and metaphysics.


Berdyaev’s treatment of the nature of historical knowledge was evidently inspired by life philosophy and resulted in his own non-systematic version of hermeneutics that was nourished by his mystical understanding of the destiny of man in the universe. “By his inner nature each man is something like a great world - microcosm that reflects and contains in itself all real world and all great historical epochs...” (Berdyaev 1990: 19). Philosophical and historical knowledge of the past are alike subjected to this condition. Berdyaev developed this epistemological strategy throughout his philosophical career in such major works as Philosophy of Freedom (1911), The Meaning of Creativity (1916), The Meaning of History (1922), Existential Dialectics of the Divine and the Human (1947) etc.


The Meaning of History and the Destiny of Man


The traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of history is based on the ideas of creation, personalism, divine providence, the tense coexistence of “the city of God” and “the city of man”, eschatology etc. These ideas found their expression in the Old and the New Testament and were differently interpreted in the past by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas who coined two most important paradigms of the Christian vision of history. These traditional foundations of the Christian vision of history continue to nourish contemporary a religious thought which has been confronted with new challenges. Facing the tragic problems of the twentieth century, Christian thinkers developed new approaches to understanding world history and tried to introduce an approach to its interpretation which emphasizes the human significance of recent events. Thus, the destiny of man in the universe of history becomes their central preoccupation.


Both Maritain and Berdyaev were very sensitive to the crisis of humanistic culture and got into a fruitful dialogue with contemporary thought trying to prove the significance of the Christian approach to the analysis of currently existing situation and its roots. Their vision of history was colored by the experience of two world wars, the coming into being of mass culture, the bloody Bolshevik revolution, the totalitarian practice of communist and fascist regimes etc. The humanistic culture born in the Renaissance produced many fruitful results, they believed, but at the same time it brought with itself a loss of the sense of eternal values that appeared to be fatal for the European tradition. The “death of God” proclaimed by F. Nietzsche, the “decline of the West” and the coming “revolt of the masses” predicted by O. Spengler and J. Ortega y Gasset, as well as many other gloomy visions of the future of humanity demanded a sound response on the part of Christian philosophy. Taking into account problems raised by the secular and religious philosophy of their time, Maritain and Berdyaev tried to develop their versions of Christian philosophy of history based on the assumption of the necessity of a synthesis of humanism and Christianity. Introducing new theoretical approaches to the understanding of human significance of history, both thinkers were striving to readjust Christian philosophy to the spirit of the time.


Like Berdyaev, Maritain believed that the sacred and profane dimensions of history were bound together, and their close ties were revealed in the cooperative and sometimes controversial relations of the “city of God” and the “secular city”. However, in opposition to modernist views, he spoke of the separate existence of the sacred and profane dimensions of history and the two cities. In this respect, his philosophy of history is different from that of Berdyaev or Mounier.


Maritain is in complete agreement with Berdyaev that man’s creative ability constitutes the origin of the human meaning of history. In his understanding of man’s cultural creativity, Maritain is, of course, making an important contribution to the body of ideas that constitute traditional Thomism. Culture is understood by Maritain as an area of man’s self-development. As a spirit animating body, man is endowed with “progressive nature”. Human nature in Maritain’s interpretation is constantly perfected by the efforts of man’s will and reason, resulting in the cultivation virtue (Maritain 1975:555).


Culture and civilization, Maritain believes, should be treated as equal categories describing man’s desire to have as a basis of his earthly existence eternal definitions of God - transcendentals of Good, Truth, and Beauty. “Culture or civilization is the enrichment of the human life itself that envisages not only material development, which is necessary and sufficient for adequate existence in the world, but above all moral perfection and the development of speculative and practical (artistic and ethical) capacities” (Maritain 1975:558-559). In history, one can see the evolution of the “objective spirit” embodied in a number of cultural forms. Every individual may find spiritual nutrition in the realm of these cultural forms.


Human society, according to Maritain, should be understood as composed of a multiplicity of persons, and simultaneously it should be conceived as a person itself. “Society in the proper sense of the word, he concluded, is a unity of personalities; since a social unity deserves this name, it is a city of human personalities. A social unity is a person” (Maritain 1979:296-297). Seeking Good, a human person makes his or her life meaningful, and following this line of argument, Maritain believes, one should conclude that Common Good is the final end that human society must reach.


Following the line of this providential and eschatological vision of history, Maritain, some commentators of his ideas believe, introduced a new understanding of the relations between the “city of God” and the “secular city”, between sacred and profane history. Specifically, according to J.- H. Nicolas, Maritain highlighted in a fundamentally new way the relationship between human activity and the immanent goals existing in the history of mankind. “If man is willing to comprehend and possess the world,” he agrees with Maritain, “he needs it for his self-realization. Through the variety of civilizations he creates, the destruction of which he allows or stimulates himself, through his never-ending activity and struggle he makes and expresses himself. If there is a unifying goal of history, it is nothing other as man himself, man on the way of his self-realization (Nicolas 1981: 373).” Nicolas thinks that Maritain’s main achievement lies in the ability to create a vision of the unity of sacred and profane history with the central emphasis on the mission of Christ as its center and final.


Maritain spoke about three major components of the profane meaning of history, “natural goals” that exist in the cultural activity of man. The first major goal is “the conquest of nature and gaining the autonomy for mankind” (Maritain 1966:65-66). The second goal is revealed through the progress of knowledge, art, and primarily morality. Finally, the third goal is “the manifestation of all possibilities of human nature” (Maritain 1966: 67). The profane meaning of history in Maritain’s interpretation coexists with the transhistorical one that is incommensurable with it and never completely comprehended by man. The coming of Christ constitutes the center and final of history, and the task of grasping its total meaning is superhuman.


Maritain’s vision of history is based on a certain balance between the poles of its providential and eschatological interpretation and its inner human meaning. World history is evaluated by him in the perspective of the significance of its events for the destiny of man. In this respect, he is close to Berdyaev. Like Berdyaev, Maritain focuses on the unity of the Christian and humanistic foundations of history.


The history of European culture, Maritain believed, should be subdivided into certain periods according to the evolution of humanistic consciousness. He is convinced that already Antiquity revealed “the transcendental foundations” of the European humanism, the relations of man to the divine Being, but only the Christian humanism of the mediaeval period created the basis for the self-development of man and cultivation of his multiple capacities. In full accord with Berdyaev’s theoretical interpretation, he claims that at the origin of the post-Renaissance crisis of humanism was a tragic discord between the human creative ability and Christian values.


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries became, according to Maritain, the first stage of the crisis of humanistic culture characterized by a rivalry between science and religion and the growth of influence of atheism. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in his interpretation, represent the second stage of this crisis, characterized by a dangerous alliance between science and technology on the one hand and the race for profit on the other hand, on the part of a society which had become oblivious to Christian values. The culmination of this crisis came in the twentieth century, which was marked by the triumph of a civilization devoid of spiritual roots, “the death of God” phenomenon (Maritain 1968: 42-43). Maritain’s analysis of the contemporary political situation and his ideal of integral humanism were entirely based on this vision of history.


In his book On the Philosophy of History, Maritain tried to summarize this vision of universal history working on the assumption that the course of events is rooted in human activity and thus unexplainable and rationally non-deducible on the basis of necessary laws. Any sort of determinism was unacceptable for him, and this platform served as a basis of sharp criticism of Hegel, Marx, and Toynbee. However, he believed that it is possible to work out a set of ideal types that should be used in the interpretation of history, something which will lead to the discovery of regularities and even “laws,” without appealing to the category of necessity (Maritain 1957:32). Maritain is trying to balance theoretically between the poles of a speculative and a critical philosophy of history.


One such set of regularities he called axiomatic formulas, or functional laws, should interpreted as an attempt to apply moral philosophy to the understanding of history. As a result, Maritain coined a number of general statements: the Good in history is always related to God and contradicts evil that is related to matter; the activity of the Catholic Church in history is aimed at promoting Good; in the long run, the Good always triumphs over evil; there are events that create history, global changes in mankind’s life; there is a certain progress in public consciousness related to the understanding of Good; non-violent actions in the realization of the ideal of Good are preferable and more effective than violent ones.  


Another set of typological formulas, which he called vector laws, was aimed at describing general tendencies in the course of the universal history. These included the law of the transition from magic to the reason, something which he believed pointed to the necessity of the peaceful coexistence of religion, science, and art in the context of contemporary culture. The development of an ever more adequate understanding of natural law was also among the major trends in human history. Maritain believed that the transition from the sacral to the lay civilization should be also listed among the main vector laws. This “law of the coming of age of the people” pointed to the necessity of a new type of Christianity of the sort he put forward in Integral Humanism. In the final instance, his attempt to reformulate previously reached theoretical conclusions in terms of a systematically developed philosophy of history sounds like a strategy for justifying of his ideal of integral humanism.


Like Maritain, Berdyaev was also trying to understand the meaning of history in a humanistic perspective. At the same time, his philosophical approach to history was based on a conviction that sacred and profane history, the “city of God” and the “secular city” were interpenetrating realities. This idea had already found expression in his works written in Russia. The problem of the Holy Trinity problem and the task of overcoming evil within the framework of world history were the focus of Berdyaev’s attention when he tried to develop his own understanding of the meaning of history. He believed that with the coming of the era of the Holy Spirit, or the Third Testament, the profound sense of the unity of God and mankind in the course of universal history revealed by the coming of Christ should find its utmost expression in the idea of Godmanhood. “Mankind, according to Vladimir. Soloviev’s expression, is an absolute in the process of evolution, and this is the religious meaning of history and the religious task of culture” (Berdyaev 1989: 180). The truth of religion and humanism should come together in the Third Testament period. This idea was the driving force behind his philosophical reflection when he wrote “The Meaning of History”.


Antiquity, Berdyaev believed, brought with itself an understanding of the cosmic whole as eternal and uncreated. Ancient China and India cultivated the idea of the eternity and divine presence in the spiritual world of man, and they were, like Antiquity, insensitive to the temporal flux of history. With the Bible and the consciousness of messianic mission of the Jewish people to follow and disseminate the word of God in the world, history was brought into the forefront of metaphysical debate. However, Berdyaev thought that its central metaphysical significance was fully comprehended only in the light of Christian message. God revealed himself in time, and the coming of Christ should be understood as giving meaning to the totality of world history.


“The exclusive historicity and dynamic character” of Christianity, Berdyaev thought, are related to its ability to reveal to the world the foundations of man’s spiritual freedom in a way that was unknown to Antiquity and even to Judaism (Berdyaev 1990: 85).  The European culture of the Middle Ages, according to this interpretation, was inspired by the idea of creating the Kingdom of God on earth, but finally failed, despite the evident cultural achievements of Mediaeval Europe, to bring about its triumph. This failure provoked an outburst of the suppressed human creative subjectivity, a rebellion against all forms of accepted life regulation that resulted in the Renaissance and humanism (Berdyaev 1990: 98-99).


Humanism, Berdyaev believed, was a legitimate reaction against the culture of the Middle Ages gravitating around the orbit of religious values. However, becoming free from the mediaeval cultural bonds, man was seduced into relying only on his own creative forces and forgetting eternal values. Secular humanism was, in Berdyaev’s interpretation, self-destructive and drained man’s inner resources, leading him into the void of a spiritual desert. He came to the conclusion that “the self-affirmation of man is leading to man’s self-annihilation, the uncovering of the free play of man’s forces unanchored to the highest goal, is going to exhaust the creative forces” (Berdyaev 1990: 110). With the disappearance of the spiritual center of culture, its spheres became divorced and lost the driving impulse leading them to a certain unity. “This process of differentiation and acquiring autonomy is something that is called the secularization of human culture” (Berdyaev 1990: 102).  Like many leading thinkers of the last century, Berdyaev tried to analyze the consequences of this process and interpreted it in the religious key.


The Protestant Reformation, according to Berdyaev, affirmed and at the same time denied human freedom with the doctrine of predestination revealing not only its humanistic, but also its anti-humanistic aspects. He also criticized Protestantism for its desire to combat the spirit of Antiquity that was assimilated by mediaeval Christianity. The Enlightenment, Berdyaev thought, brought with it a cult of reason devoid of any impulse to comprehend the supernatural. This stage of history prepared the French Revolution and paved the way for the nineteenth century when mechanistic principles were established as prevailing not only in the sphere of technology, but also in social life and culture. Berdyaev deeply felt the inner contradictions of mass society and culture and described them in terms of Spengler’s philosophy. Unlike Maritain, he spoke of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a time of the triumph of civilization over culture. Anti-humanism as ideology and practice became the final fruit of humanism. Frederick Nietzsche and Karl Marx, Berdyaev claimed, were the two thinkers who expressed “the death of man” and the coming of the era of the masses in the profoundest way. Like Maritain, Berdyaev understood communism and fascism as the main anti-humanist forces of his time. His analysis of Russian communism was important for Maritain’s interpretation of the main dangers and tendencies of twentieth century history. On the whole, despite theoretical differences, the affinity between Maritain’s and Berdyaev’s understandings of the humanistic meaning of history testifies in favor of the existence of their mutual influence. Paradoxically enough, the divergence in their metaphysical views became very important when they tried to create the ideals of the future on the basis of their vision of the humanistic meaning of history.


History and Ideals of the Future


Maritain’s ideal of integral humanism was based on his vision of humanistic meaning of history and certain ontological principles of Aquinas’s doctrine. The Catholic thinker always openly expressed his criticism of the liberal capitalism, and at the same time was in opposition to fascist and communist ideology and practice. He called his vision of the future a “concrete historical ideal” which attempted to find a solution for contemporary problems on the basis of the principles of personalism, pluralism, communitarianism, and a theistic orientation. On the whole, his ideal may be characterized as “liberal Christian” taking into account the combination of religious and secular principles that were supposed to provide its foundation (Amato 1975: 158). Maritain thought that it should be based on the acceptance of the value of the human persona, with his or her liberties and rights, of the Common Good as the goal of society, pluralism in economics, politics, spiritual life, and the final religious orientation of the social body.


Regarding the economic sphere, Maritain spoke of the necessity of its corporal reordering, envisaging the transference of enterprises and the means of production to associations of workers, intellectuals, and shareholders. This kind of capitalism for the people should make milder, he believed, the inner contradictions of society, diminishing the level of class confrontation and the revolutionary violent actions against the existing political and social order. Maritain approved Proudhon’s understanding of the value of small property (Maritain 1968: 191). He accentuated the role of small and middle size property for the change envisaged by his ideal.


This kind of economic change should become the preliminary condition for the creation of a pluralist system of social organizations unifying people of different social status and confession. On this very social basis, Maritain believed, a personalist democracy providing for the full development of the personal, civil, and political rights of people should appear.


In the final instance, the ideal of integral humanism was aimed at the global change in the spiritual life of contemporary world, its value foundations. The necessity of return to the absolute values of Good, Truth, and Beauty was understood as the basic condition of cultural and social renewal of society on the platform of a unity of humanism and religion.


Maritain’s ideal of integral humanism became widely accepted in the period of Catholic aggiornamento, but despite its influence in Europe and Latin America, it was never fully implemented in real life. Its popularity gradually diminished with the rise of K. Rahner’s existential theology and some other doctrines that were opposed to the idea of creating concrete historical ideals.


In a way, Berdyaev’s views sound more in accord with this tendency to avoid putting forward concrete global ideals for the future. His commitment to the idea of the absolute value of man’s existentially grounded freedom motivated his rejection of the concrete historical ideals. As a result, he thought that the synthesis of humanism and Christianity should never be reduced to a rigidly defined doctrine or system. The very idea of an ideal vision of the future seemed to him to fraught with danger. The “fanatic follower” is always “an idealist”, and this means that for him that “the idea” is higher than man, than any living creature, and he is ready to engage in violence, to harass, to torture, and kill in the name of the “idea”, no matter whether it should be the “idea” of God and theocracy or the idea justice and communist rule. Fanaticism is a kind of madness born by the inability to see the fullness of truth (Berdyaev 1993).


Existential freedom and creativity, Berdyaev believed, were the eternal goals man should pursue in his social and cultural life without making absolute any concrete form of their realization.


Combating fanatic consciousness, Berdyaev was quite critical of both capitalism and communism. “Capitalism” and “communism”, he wrote, taken as symbols, because in the concrete reality of society life they are never given in a refined form, equally deny the value of the human person (Berdyaev 1993: 187). Thus, “social individualism” and “social communism” are equally unacceptable for Berdyaev due to their instrumental vision of personality. In this respect, he shares the platform of personalist movement. In opposition to communist dictatorship, Berdyaev thought that democracy with all its possible demerits was, perhaps, a social form “most suitable to man’s sinful nature” (Berdyaev 1993: 195). At the same time, he believed, like Maritain, who possibly followed his line of argument, in the “certain truth of communism” regarding the nature of unrestricted love of profit of the big capitalist industry leaders and spoke in favor of a certain socialist policy limiting their economic ambitions. He argued that small and middle size property may serve as a condition of spiritual renewal of contemporary world (Berdyaev 1993: 201). Establishing strong ties between humanism and Christianity is a permanent task of all those who really care about the sane social order permitting man’s creativity to flourish.


Both Maritain and Berdyaev contributed to building of a new Christian vision of history adequate to the spirit of the twentieth century. Despite their philosophical differences, they were engaged in a prolific dialogue that permitted them to create an understanding of the meaning of history in the perspective of Christian humanism. Their approaches to philosophy of history and reflections on the contemporary social, political, and cultural situation considerably influenced the mainstream of twentieth century Christian thought thus leading to the formation of the currently dominant religious interpretation of the meaning of history and mankind’s future.




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