De Koninck and the modern age

At Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has a very interesting comment by Jacques Maritain about Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good (1943). Most followers of De Koninck know that Fr. I. Thomas Eschmann, O.P., wrote a scathing critique of The Primacy of the Common Good, called In Defense of Jacques Maritain. Eschmann’s defense was published in 1945. De Koninck responded in 1945, with a very lengthy tract, In Defense of St. Thomas. Pater Waldstein notes that, in a 1945 letter to Étienne Gilson, another eminent Thomist, Maritain largely approved Eschmann’s critique. It is not clear whether Maritain had seen In Defense of St. Thomas when he wrote to Gilson. This may clarify somewhat Maritain’s position in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann, which remains a little shadowy.

Then again, it might not. Another sharp friend of ours pointed us to a chapter from Ralph McInerny’s 1988 collection of essays on Maritain, Art and Prudence, in which Maritain, writing in 1947, thanks Eschmann for his defense, but ultimately claims not to hold the positions criticized in The Primacy of the Common Good. McInerny also discusses a list of theses set forth by Yves Simon that purports to mark out the common ground between De Koninck, Maritain, and Simon. The letter Pater Waldstein cites helps form an interesting perspective on Maritain’s response to De Koninck. On the one hand, Maritain rejected the suggestion that he actually held the positions at issue in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann. On the other hand, Maritain certainly approved on Eschmann’s response to De Koninck and thought it wrought by the master hand, so to speak.

At any rate, we encourage you, dear reader, to read The Primacy of the Common Good, if you have not, and, if you have an appetite for controversy, In Defense of Jacques Maritain and In Defense of St. Thomas. Volume two of McInerny’s edition of The Writings of Charles De Koninck contains not only The Primacy of the Common Good, but also Eschmann’s response and De Koninck’s reply. (It also has De Koninck’s fascinating Ego Sapientia, which discusses the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as applied to Our Lady, and his brief Notes on Marxism.) Pater Waldstein admirably summarizes the importance of De Koninck’s work, especially as conceived in opposition to “Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and . . . Neo-Pelagianism,” as Maritain puts it.


For a Catholic—indeed, for anyone operating in the western tradition—man is a political animal (Politics I.2, 1253a2–3; ST I-II q.72 a.4 co.). And, from this fact, as McInerny argues, man belongs to his community. To say otherwise is strange and results in strange, usually bad, consequences (Politics I.2, 1253a19–39.) Concern for the common good is, therefore, both inescapable and necessary. Yet much of the modern project—we would say “political project,” but to do so would be to equivocate on the nature of politics—is an attempt to escape concern for the common good. De Koninck discusses any number of errors about the common good—the most pernicious of which is, of course, totalitarianism—and you can, dear reader, see these errors propounded in any number of venues.

As Pater Waldstein observes, De Koninck’s critique of personalism has the note of prophecy about it. It is essential, therefore, to return to authors like De Koninck when contemplating the state of things and the possibility of a way forward. But, as we have said before, the state of theological and philosophical education among Catholics is shocking. Not only have we lost the recent social magisterium of popes like Leo XIII but we have also lost the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. The reaction of the Council and the post-conciliar Church against neo-Scholasticism and “manualism” has gone beyond blotting out the baroque neo-Thomism that so terrorized the Council fathers when they were in seminary to blotting out Thomism itself. And it shows: Catholics are entirely unprepared to grapple with the problems of modernity, including neoliberalism and neo-individualism. They fall into various errors, as a result, some of which are, to our mind, much worse than the problems confronted.

We observe, perhaps idly, that most of these errors seem to find their roots in imperfect understandings of the common good. Funny how that works.