Celebrating Marriage, Friendship and Love from Jacques Maritain

Philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa
Philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa

It would seem that not everyone understands the meaning of marriage.  Given this situation, it would seem that now would be a good time to consider the philosophy of one of the primary authors of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Jacques Maritain.  In his little known work, Notebooks, (Translated by Joseph W. Evans. AGI Books: Albany, NY.1984) Maritain reminisces about the wisdom he gained from his life with his wife.

Maritain describes two reasons for the uniqueness of the relationship between the husband and wife, as persons, in marriage.   He says, “The love of which I am speaking here is above all a disinterested love.  It is not necessarily mad, boundless love; but it is necessarily and primordially a love of devotion and of friendship–that entirely unique friendship between spouses one of whose essential ends is the spiritual companionship between the man and the woman in order to help each other accomplish their destiny here on earth, and it is thus a love …which is truly in the measure of man, and in which the soul as well as the senses are involved, so that in this love, in which desire is there with all its power, disinterestedness really takes precedence over covetousness.”(p.243) At first, Maritain’s idea of “disinterested love” sounds uninteresting, a sort of cold Kantian altruistic duty to any person, not the profound warmth of spousal love of a married couple.  However, with a second look, with a more complete common sense view of what he is saying, we can see that it is entirely natural for spouses to be truly devoted friends in love even to the point of disinterested loyalty (perhaps an example may be, how a wife may watch a ball game with her husband, or how a husband may go shopping with his wife).  And for what purpose are they so devoted to each other?  He says, spouses are “spiritual companions” who willingly sacrifice themselves for the sake of their “spouse-friend” and his or her achievement of his or her vocation in life.

Maritain says the second purpose of marriage is procreation, to bring life into the world with children.  He continues saying that “… the other essential end of marriage is the perpetuation of the human species; this is why each spouse has a right over the body of the other.”(p.244)  This is an important point which is very different from other philosophers, such as Karl Marx’s degrading utilitarian view of marriage or Simone de Beauvoir’s conception of marriage as male enslavement of the female.  Here we see a truly equal view of the Other gender in marriage between a man and a woman as each having a “right” over the body of the other.  Maritain dispels the confusion about inequality by stating “each spouse has a right over the body of the other” because in married conjugal love they become “a single spirit with her or him, [which] is the summit and the perfection of love between Man and Woman…[that] is the glory and the heaven of the here-below, in which a dream from the depths of the ages consubstantial with human nature assumes reality…”(p.245)  In this way, each person in marriage, the wife and the husband, individually and each gender of the human species, male and female, is at the loving service of the Other as Self, equally, in and through love for the entirety of their lives together, in everything as publicly promised and promulgated on their wedding day.

Marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of all social life.  Maritain says that, “It is through it [conjugal love] that marriage can be between man and woman a true community of love, built not on sand, but on rock, because it is built on genuinely human, not animal, and genuinely spiritual, genuinely personal love-through the hard discipline of self-sacrifice and by dint of renouncements and purifications.  Then in a free and unceasing ebb and flow of emotion, feeling and thought, each one really participates, by virtue of love, in that personal life of the other which is, by nature, the other’s incommunicable possession.”(p.244)  Husband and wife share everything together, body, mind and soul.  Each spouse’s mindfulness of the needs and desires of the other in everything, gives rise to a spirit of willful mortification for the good of the other, and as Aquinas says in his Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, that true friends improve the other person.

Finally, in this way, Maritain shares a most beautiful insight of this mutual self-giving in marriage, saying, “And then each one may become a sort of guardian Angel for the other–prepared, as guardian angels have to be, to forgive the other a great deal, in short, a being really dedicated to the good and salvation of the other, and consenting to be entrusted with the revelation of, and the care for, all that the other is in his or her deepest human depths.”(p.244) There is no more profound human community than that of the reality of the sacred union of a husband and wife, and when virtuously lived, marriage is the basis for peace in the family, in the world and in eternity, as Jacques and Raissa so thoughtfully understood.

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