Speaking with the Barbarians: Maritain, MacIntyre, and Christendom

Contemporary Christians are called to infuse procedural liberalism with substantive language and concepts rooted in Christian tradition. We ought not spend our time despairing over supposed barbarians at the gate, or lurking within us—and not simply because it distracts us from our work, but also because it saps us of hope.

Are the dreaded barbarians coming? Are they already at the gate? Or are they already within and among us? In the concluding paragraph of his magnum opus, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre famously opines that, “The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.” In MacIntyre’s view, we are living in a new Dark Ages, one in which a shared conception of justice and the common good has been irrevocably lost. The best that we can do, as people ruled by barbarians, is to form local, self-sufficient communities oriented around a shared view of the world, and then hope that the barbarians will leave us in peace.

In the standard historical account, the “barbarian” for the ancient Greeks was anyone who did not speak the native tongue. In the Athenian conception of logos—as speech, thought, and the binding order of the rational and moral universe—the barbarian was necessarily outside the realm of reason and was therefore bestial. You cannot speak with barbarians; you cannot reason with them. You can only beat them (or enslave or kill them).

Drawing from the writings of the twentieth-century Catholic luminary Jacques Maritain, I argue that dividing the world between the civilized and the barbarous obscures both the universality of our sinfulness and our ability to reason together. Instead of dividing the world into an us–them binary, our true work is to model the best fruits of our tradition in the public square, as an invitation for others to encounter that tradition in its fullness. Indeed, I propose a deeply hopeful reading of MacIntyre’s argument that does just that.

Jacques Maritain and the Aftermath of World War II

I’ve been thinking lately of the legacy of Jacques Maritain. Alan Jacobs, in his masterful work The Year of Our Lord 1943, profiles Maritain alongside C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, and Auden. In Jacobs’s telling, all five thinkers sought to answer the fundamental question of how to reconstruct Europe’s culture in the aftermath of World War II. While the barbarians are at the gate, we are all united, but what unites us when the barbarians are gone? Of course, this is an even thornier question for Maritain and company, precisely because the category “barbarian” is so porous, what with Christians joining Hitler Youth. It is against this notable backdrop that Maritain writes his 1958 book Reflections on America, which details his political and social philosophy. Maritain is painfully aware that “to say that a nation is religiously inspired is in no way to assert that this inspiration is as deep and as decisive as it should be;” and further, that “there is a long way from the present state of affairs, anywhere in the world, to a civilization vitally Christian in the full sense of the word, and to the ideal, even relative to a given age in human history, of a genuinely Christian-inspired civilization.”

This staggering distance between ideal and reality is no less true in America than in Europe. Maritain, writing a book published in 1958, had plenty of contemporary injustice on our side of the ocean with which to concern himself. He writes specifically of America that, “Christian justice would make prejudice and inequity toward colored people definitely disappear.” And while I hesitate to compare the Holocaust and Jim Crow, the former being of far greater devastation, it is safe to say that both injustices, overlapping in time, derive from the same fundamental refusal to recognize, affirm, and safeguard human dignity in others who are deemed less than human. Put differently, Europe must grapple with what it means to be simultaneously Christian Europe and yet also Holocaust Europe, and likewise America must grapple with being Christian America and yet also Jim Crow America.

And yet, Maritain does not despair about the task of infusing Christian ideals into a decaying society while creating a new and better society. Maritain knows that his hope might strike his contemporaries as foolish optimism. He writes: “Now I seem to hear somebody ask me: how can you have the face to speak of a new Christendom to come, when you see the state of our present world, with all the threats of degradation and even destruction to which mankind is being subjected?” This is not a frivolous question, especially given the context. Maritain thus imagines his interlocutors, asking him in good faith, “Had you not better speak of new barbarism already come?” Maritain’s answer is that Christianity exists for the life of the world, and so, inasmuch as it continues to exist, it continues to feed the world.

Christianity for a Post-Christian World

I think that Maritain anticipates MacIntyre (but also John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and Martha Nussbaum) in suggesting that the role of Christianity (or of any comprehensive theoretical paradigm with explicit and contentious first principles), in an increasingly secular public square, is to propose language and concepts that are useful for living together, but that are metaphysically thin enough to be adopted by stunningly diverse groups that don’t share the same first principles. But of course, it isn’t just that Christianity offers concepts and language (and it is notable that Maritain worked on the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights), but also that Christianity offers its very self as a coherent tradition, and its goal is conversion. Behind deliberately “thin” language lies the tradition in all its fullness.

Maritain explains it this way: “So it is that a deep-rooted, sometimes hidden sometimes unconscious, but actual and alive religious inspiration is embodied in the temporal, secular, lay life of this country.” He elaborates:

The religious inspiration which is at work in the temporal consciousness of this country is rooted, of course, in the particular religious creeds to which such or such individuals or families subscribe, and which, so far as the life of souls is concerned, pertain to the spiritual order. But this same religious inspiration, so far as the collective behavior of the nation is concerned, appears rather as a projection of religious belief into the temporal order.

Most significantly, Maritain holds that this religious inspiration holds true even in an increasingly post-Christian context. He writes that this is “a temporal projection of religious belief which holds, in actual fact, for a number of individuals who have slipped away from religious faith, though it can obviously preserve its vitality only if in many others it is not cut off from living religious faith.” That latter point, about the potential loss of vitality, is made brilliantly by Joseph Ratzinger in his dialogue with Jürgen Habermas, and it is markedly congruent with the Founding Fathers’ awareness of the need for private virtue for the success of the American project. But this point about liberalism’s vulnerable insufficiency is not to discount the potential for people to flourish under procedural liberalism, but rather to make us aware of the limitations in Rawlsian thin speech (whether “human dignity” or “human rights”), in order to be that much more animated to fulfill our calling of infusing the public sphere with a Christian spirit.

It is when he discusses this calling that Maritain is most illuminating. He writes:

We do not believe that Paradise will be reached tomorrow. But the task to which we are summoned, the work we will have to pursue, with all the more courage and hope as it will be incessantly betrayed by human weakness, must have as its aim, if we want civilization to survive, a world of free men penetrated in its secular substance by a real and vital Christianity, a world in which the inspiration of the Gospel will direct the common life of man toward a heroic humanism.

Reasons to Hope

If this indeed is our calling, to infuse procedural liberalism with substantive language and concepts rooted in our tradition, we ought not spend our time despairing over supposed barbarians at the gate, or in the palace, or standing beside us, or lurking within us. We ought not do this not simply because it distracts us from our work, but also because it saps us of the hope we need to persist in our calling. Maritain is aware of how tempting it is to wring our hands, to adopt a narrative of decline. And even with the backdrop of Holocaust Europe and Jim Crow America, he won’t let us off that easily. He writes:

At the very same time that evil seems to grow triumphant, the ferment of justice and the energies of renewal are more or less secretly making headway and quickening the movement of mankind. At each epoch of history the world was in a hopeless state, and at each epoch of history the world muddled through; at each epoch the world was lost, and at each epoch it was saved.

Maritain ends his reflection sounding another MacIntyrean note. MacIntyre famously finishes After Virtue saying, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” And Maritain writes, “I expect Saints and Miracle-workers to arise in the midst of the labors of the world.” The barbarians are not at the gate; but perhaps even now, co-laboring beside us, are saints eager to invite us to embrace more fully our universal call to holiness. Perhaps even in this late hour, we will discover a St. Benedict for our age.

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