In 1945 the philosopher Jacques Maritain, pondering pluralism and democracy, acknowledged that men having diverse metaphysical or religious convictions – or even opposing ones – can come together in the practical recognition of certain common principles, but he also argued that no society can live without a fundamental shared inspiration.

This article was published in Oasis 16. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:05

1. In the ‘sacral’ era of the Middle Ages a great attempt was made to build the life of the earthly community and civilization on the foundation of the unity of theological faith and religious creed. This attempt succeeded for a certain number of centuries but failed in the course of time, after the Reformation and the Renaissance; and a return to the medieval ‘sacral’ pattern is in no way conceivable. In proportion as the civil community has become more perfectly distinguished from the spiritual realm of the Church – a process which was in itself but a development of the Gospel distinction between the things that are Caesar's and the things that are God’s – civil society has come to be based on a common good and a common task which are of an earthly, ‘temporal’, or ‘secular’ order, and in which citizens belonging to diverse spiritual groups or ‘families’ equally share. Religious division among men is in itself a misfortune. But it is a fact that we must recognize, whether we wish to or not. 2. In modern times an attempt was made to base the life of civilization and the earthly community on the foundation of mere reason – reason separated from religion and from the Gospel. This attempt fostered immense hopes in the last two centuries, and rapidly failed. Pure reason appeared more incapable than faith of insuring the spiritual unity of mankind, and the dream of a ‘scientific’ creed uniting men in peace, and in common convictions about the aims and basic principles of human life and society, vanished in contemporary catastrophes. In proportion as the tragic events of the last decades have given the lie to the optimistic rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we have been confronted with the fact that religion and metaphysics are an essential part of human culture, primary and indispensable incentives in the very life of society. 3. As concerns, therefore, the revitalized democracy we are hoping for, the only solution is of the pluralistic type. Men belonging to very different philosophical or religious creeds and lineages could and should co-operate in the common task and for the common welfare of the earthly community, provided they similarly assent to the charter and basic tenets of a society of free men. For a society of free men implies an essential charter and basic tenets which are at the core of its very existence, and which it has the duty of defending and promoting. One of the errors of individualist optimism was to believe that in a free society ‘truth’, as to the foundations of civil life, as well as the decisions and modes of behavior befitting human dignity and freedom, would automatically emerge from the conflicts of individual forces and opinions supposedly immune from any irrational trends and disintegrating pressures; the error lay in conceiving of free society as a perfectly neutral boxing-ring in which all possible ideas about society and the bases of social life meet and battle it out, without the Body Politic’s being concerned with the maintenance of any common conditions and inspiration. Thus democratic society, in its concrete behavior, bad no concept of itself, and freedom, disarmed and paralyzed, lay exposed to the undertakings of those who hated it, and who tried by all means to foster in men a vicious desire to become free from freedom. If it is to conquer totalitarian trends and to be true to its own mission, a renewed democracy will have its own concept of man and society, and its own philosophy, its own faith, enabling it to educate people for freedom and to defend itself against those who would use democratic liberties to destroy freedom and human rights. No society can live without a basic common inspiration and a basic common faith. But the all-important point to be noted here is that this faith and inspiration, this philosophy and the concept of itself which democracy needs, all these do not belong in themselves to the order of religious creed and eternal life but to the temporal or secular order of earthly life, of culture and civilization. Even more, they are matters of practical rather than theoretical or dogmatic agreement: I mean that they deal with practical convictions which the human mind can try to justify – rightly or wrongly – from quite different, even conflicting philosophical outlooks; probably because they depend basically on simple, ‘natural’ apperceptions, of which the human heart becomes capable with the progress of moral conscience. Thus it is that men possessing quite different, even opposite, metaphysical or religious outlooks, can converge, not by virtue of any identity of doctrine, but by virtue of an analogical similitude in practical principles, toward the same practical conclusions, and can share in the same practical democratic faith, provided that they similarly revere, perhaps for quite diverse reasons, truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good. […] Here, if we want to be thorough in our thought and do not fear words, we should point out that where faith is – divine or human – there are also heretics who threaten the unity of the community, either religious or civil. In the ‘sacral’ society the heretic was the breaker of religious unity. In a lay society of free men the heretic is the breaker of ‘the common democratic beliefs and practices’ the totalitarian, the one who denies freedom – his neighbor’s freedom – and the dignity of the human person, and the moral power of law. We do not wish him to be burned, or expelled from the city, or outlawed, or put in a concentration camp. But the democratic community should defend itself against him, by keeping him out of its leadership, through the power of a strong and informed public opinion, and even by handing him over to justice when his activity endangers the security of the state – and over and above all by strengthening everywhere a philosophy of life, intellectual convictions, and constructive work which would make his influence powerless. […] 4. Now what about certain statements offered to us by Sidney Hook in connection with the preceding considerations, and which he seems to regard as self-evident? Are we ready to believe that in the type of society which we are discussing, the ‘world-wide common faith’ implied would find in scientific method its highest source of authority? That an ‘intelligent social planning’ would be sufficient to insure the ‘integration’ of culture? And that, in the democratic culture of the future – if it has a future – it will be ‘the teacher dedicated to the scientific spirit’, ‘and not the priest’, ‘who will bear the chief responsibility for nurturing, strengthening, and enriching a common faith’? […] The very expression ‘common faith’ which Mr. Hook uses should make us realize that democratic inspiration cannot find in ‘scientific method’ its highest source of authority. This ‘faith’ is ‘of a secular not supernatural character’; yet even a secular faith implies the commitment of the whole man and his innermost spiritual energies, and draws its strength, therefore, from beliefs which go far beyond scientific method, being rooted in the depths of each one’s individual options and personality. In other words, the justification of the practical conclusions which make such a ‘common faith, common to all, is in each one, and in the perspective peculiar to each one, an integral part of this very faith. As for social planning, even supposedly intelligent, it is hard to imagine a culture organized and unified by social planning alone. Planned and plain as it might be, such a cultural paradise would offer, I am afraid, little chance for the creative powers of human personality as well as for the enthusiasm and happiness of the people. The scientific spirit is of invaluable help for culture in so far as it develops in human minds, in a general way, respect and love for truth and the habits of intellectual accuracy. (This is why, let us observe parenthetically, the scientific spirit of the thirteenth-century Schoolmen played so basic a part in the rise of Western culture.) Yet neither culture nor democracy lives on science alone. Science, especially modern science, deals with the means, especially with the material means, of human life. Wisdom, which deals with the ends, is also – and above all – necessary. And the fact remains that democratic faith – implying as it does faith in justice, in freedom, in brotherly love, in the dignity of the human person, in his rights as well as in his responsibilities, in that power of binding men in conscience which appertains to just laws, in the deep-rooted aspirations which call for political and social coming of age of the people – cannot be justified, nurtured, strengthened, and enriched without philosophical or religious convictions – ‘whether theological, metaphysical, or naturalistic’ – which deal with the very substance and meaning of human life. […] As a result, it is but normal that in a democratic culture and society the diverse philosophical or religious schools of thought which in their practical conclusions agree with regard to democratic tenets, and which claim to justify them, come into free competition. Let each school freely and fully assert its belief! But let no one try to impose it by force upon the others! The mutual tension which ensues will enrich rather than harm the common task. […] [Excerpts taken from The Pluralist Principle in Democracy, available at]