Is Man or the State supreme? Jacques Maritain vs. Karl Marx

 Is man or the state supreme?


Jacques Maritain (Man and the State) vs. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels


So what is the state of the question? Is man or the state supreme? We could look at this question in several ways, and in fact we will, for many have viewed this question from not only varied but conflicting points of view. In this short essay, we will primarily look at the arguments of Karl Marx and of Jacques Maritain, as well as those who highly influenced them, such as Hegel for the former and Aristotle and Aquinas for the latter. We will also review a little background on each of these primary authors, but only so much as will help us understand their positions.

The first thing we must ask, however, is “what is the state of the question”. What do we mean by the question “who is supreme”? We seem to assume here that someone thing exists for the perfection of another, implying a hierarchy where one thing serves another. One thing then is a tool for the end of the other. One thing is a means and the other is in end.

In reality the question is ultimately defined by our understanding of the human person. If the person is mere matter or if the person is somehow ultimate (which it would be hard to see how a person can be both the same time) will be the fulcrum on which we base our hierarchy.  If merely material being, it would be hard to justify “less material” being primary over “more matter.” Quantity would rightly be seen as the primary determinant; more in the material sense would be more in every sense. But if man is somehow ultimate than the mere idea of grouping man together, although important, would not thereby be superior to him. Jacques Maritain’s view of man as ultimate places the state at the service of man. The view of Karl Marx, rather, understands man as merely a part of the bigger political picture.

The Communist manifesto was written in 1848 and is arguably the most influential short political document ever produced. Although Marx would argue that it is a popular pamphlet and not his philosophical and historical proof of his position, a careful reading along with the many prefaces to the different editions of the manifesto provide us with most of the information we will need to get a picture of Karl Marx understanding of the human person and of the role of the state and society.

Karl Marx was of the school of dialectical materialism. He was therefore a determinist, both in individual persons and in society as a whole. People are merely a product of the society from which they come, and further, as a result of the matter they are composed of. Marx was certainly an empiricist and an atheist. Therefore, there was no such thing as man created in the image of God, but he is merely a product of the passing of time; society and the individuals it creates are merely that a thesis, antithesis, and emerging synthesis, a process that continues in a materially determined way.

One wonders, of course, how such a man justifies the preaching of his doctrine. It is much the same as the Calvinist who, believing all is completely predetermined by God, nevertheless preaches to his fellow man to choose to believe or not believe what he teaches. If Karl Marx determinism and historical dialectic are indeed true to his program for the reform of society would come about or not come about regardless of his teaching it. One might argue that it’s coming about is because of his teaching and that he is merely a tool determined himself, but this simply extends the question, for he believes he is teaching this to some purpose.

What that purpose may truly be, however, is to be questioned as well.  In a world with no god, a world that is merely coming-to-be but with no real objective point where it is going, what is “purpose” anyway? Marx materialism gives no final cause, no real direction, but it does call for action on his part.  And so, Marx is active, and his political thought, put into action, has probably had a greater effect on more human lives than almost any other in history.  Ideas have consequences, and sometimes, consequences to millions of lives.

Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher who lived from 1882-1973.  He was very much a Thomist and wrote extensively on the human person and society, as he played a major role in the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights and spent a great deal of time in America and Canada, which influenced his view of these types of democracy.

Maritain was certainly of the school of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, although his early formative years were anything but.  The two primary sources we will look at here are his The Person and the Common Good and Man and the State. Certainly, Maritain’s many works contain gems that pertain to this topic, but here we see enough to gain clear insight into his picture of man and of the role of the political society.

For Maritain, man is central.  Created in the image of God and for God, having his eternal destiny in the beatific vision, man is primary.  There is no question, therefore, that the role of politics is one subservient to the eternal end of each person as a person.  Society and the common good are in no way neglected as true goods and even true ends, but only as a temporal end, which could never stand above the eternal.

This, we see, is the key difference between the positions of Marx and Maritain.  If our 80 or 90 years on earth is all we have, then perhaps, like the beasts, the continuation of the species becomes primary.  For a beast or a plant, it goes beyond itself by the succession of its kind, but in no other way.

Indeed, for a herd of cattle, the continuation of the species of cattle is primary, as each head of cattle is merely a part of the big picture, spread out over time. It may be expedient for some cattle to be put down, so that the others may thrive, lest the whole group starve, for example.  This would be necessary for the preservation of the whole, which is superior.

But what if man is different?  What if each man is something (or rather someone) that persists and has an utmost importance in his own right (even though this “right” is a gift)?  Viewed in this way, could we really treat the community of men as the herd of cattle?  No, because each man is not for the sake of the community, but rather, the community serves the ends of man. Or rather, the community serves the ends of “men,” each as unique person, rather than “man” in the abstract.

Maritain thus tells us that:

The human person, as a spiritual totality referred to the transcendent whole, surpasses and is superior to all temporal societies…society itself and its common good are indirectly subordinated to the perfect accomplishment of the person and it’s supra-temporal aspirations as to an end of another order – an end which transcends them… With respect to the eternal destiny of the soul, society exists for each person and subordinated to it. (The Person and the Common Good, pg.61)

Nevertheless, in the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Maritain sees the body politic as a perfect or self-sufficient society. This is to be understood, however, in the temporal sense. As stated above the eternal will always supersede and transcend the temporal.

Man is supreme therefore only because he is made in the image of God. God alone is truly sovereign. Maritain argues that the state has often been perceived as being sovereign, and this has led to much misunderstanding on the role of both man and the state.

No human agency has by virtue of its own nature a right to govern men. Any right to power, and political society, is possessed by a man or a human agency insofar as he or it is in the body politic a part at the service of the common good… It would be simply nonsensical to conceive of the people as governing themselves separately from themselves and from above themselves. (Man and the State, pg.44)

The state, then, is not sovereign, but it has its rights from the body politic which means from the people and toward their common good. The state has neither natural and inalienable right to power or an absolute and transcendent character. Man, however, has natural and inalienable rights and does have a transcendent character. In no way, then, could man be inferior to the state.

We have spoken of rights, and have said that man has these, but the state, as such, does not have them (inalienable rights as a person).  What, then, is the role of the state?  Is the state to be equated with the body politic?  Is the state a personification of the people?

The historical difference between Maritain and Marx, like most modern versus ancient political differences, has its origin in the difference between Aristotle and Machiavelli (as exemplars of their respective “schools”). While the classical understanding of politics and the role of the state was to make good citizens, through virtue, the modern political school basically contends that politics is the “art of the possible.”  In other words, while the “old way” tried to make good people, the new way simply is to “give the people goods.”

In Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that:

“…the legislator makes the citizens good by habituating them, and this is the wish of every legislator; if he fails to do it well, he misses his goal. The right habituation is what makes the difference between a good political system and a bad one.”

The first thing we should emphasis is that this statement is not from the Politics, but from a treatise on ethics.  Two things, therefore, stand out.  Aristotle does not seek to prove the point just made, but states it matter-of-factly.  It was simply a given.  Tied to this is the fact that ethics and politics did, however, have a clear relation, which was one of forming good habits in people so that they may be virtuous. Aristotle would therefore build his good political body out of good people.

If we move forward to contemporary politics, we see an oft quoted passage saying “you can’t legislate morality.” But this seems to be the contrary of the ancient classical position.  Aristotle or St. Thomas may indeed ask, “If you can’t legislate morality, what are you legislating?” Granted they understood and taught that you cannot legislate heroic virtue and punish every little defect, the classical political theorists say politics more in the light of an extension of ethics than of economics (or rather, they didn’t view the relationship of ethics and economics in the distorted way we often do today: a topic for another essay.)

When we get to a political philosopher such as Locke, who would never say he was a Machiavellian, we see that the most important (or at least most emphasized) right is that of property.  While most would not necessarily say that Locke was a Machiavellian and Marxist, I do not think it too hard a stretch to see the link between the state no longer having a priority towards having “good men” but rather “the goods of men.”

Granted, we need property to survive, and Aristotle, St. Thomas, and the current papacy in social encyclicals all recognize and teach this.  But these material goods are temporal, while “who we are” is eternal.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So while it cannot be said that Aristotle was looking forward to man’s life eternal (it is debatable whether he believed in an individual immortality of the soul), the underlying metaphysical and anthropological views of Aquinas and thus Maritain are clearly different than that of Machiavelli (an unannounced atheist) and Marx.

Locke, here, seems to merely fall into the path where the connection between faith and reason had become a wreck, and we need not say that Locke was agnostic or an atheist in the way he emphasized property as the most important right when it came to politics.  This seems to simply be the result of a loss of the synthesis in medieval thought and the separation of the various fields of philosophy.  The point is that, by his time, the coherence of metaphysical, anthropological, and ethical (to include political) thought was not what it was in the great syntheses of the thinkers of the high middle ages.

We return, then, to our two primary thinkers of Marx and Maritain.  It is obvious that the difference is not one of republican and democrat, or democracy versus aristocracy or kingdom, but rather one with basic metaphysical presuppositions that are simply irreconcilable. Even those that reject metaphysical thought have a metaphysics.  Even those that think in nominalist ways take action according to the “nature” of things.

We all have a world-view, and how we think about these things can change the world itself, for better or worse.


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