Many Americans feel that our golden age has passed, and that our decline will come sooner or later. Or perhaps it’s already here? “We’ve had a good run, ” a friend of mine recently commented. I agree that we have our problems, but given that so much talk about America tends toward either pessimism or meaningless flag-waving, I found it fascinating to read the thoughts of a French scholastic philosopher (i.e. careful, methodical, sober) who loved America and was not ashamed to admit it.
Jacques Maritain came to the U.S. in the 1930’s and stayed for part of W.W. II. We made such a favorable impression on him that he returned several times and ultimately wrote “Reflections on America.” He defended us against various charges, and spent most of the book praising our virtues. Considering he wrote in 1953, we may ask whether or not his analysis still holds in what seems for many to be the winter of our discontent.
America often gets accused of materialism, but Maritain disagrees. Americans simply know what money is for, and neither mystify nor disdain it. Using money to better the condition of life should have no shame attached. What other purpose does money have?
I think that America has been more “materialistic” in general than our European counterparts. But this must be seen in context. In aristocratic societies the rich serve as patrons for the poor. One can think of the Jane Austen stories where Miss Bates gets invited to parties and will receive a basket every so often. In some ways, self interest made the aristocrat pay attention to the condition of the lower class tenants. Their poor condition might reflect poorly on him. With no aristocracy and a greater sense of individualism in America, people could not depend on their social circle to look after them. Money, not “society” might be their only refuge.
With the death of the aristocracy in Europe, I wonder if they will start to resemble our approach to money. As for today, I think many places in South-East Asia pursue materialism far more eagerly than most Americans. Thus, Europe’s 19th century critique of America may have had merit in its day. But if we were more materialistic 100 years ago, it may have been not an American fault, but a predictable fault that comes with certain stages of economic and political development. Maritain does have, however, a pertinent parting comment on this issue when he writes,
As a matter of fact, it is not money, it is work which holds sway over American civilization.
Spot on. I agree that Americans often don’t know what to do with leisure time, myself included.
Maritain agrees that Americans often seem a bit eager to have their country admired by others. Perhaps we are still adolescents at heart. But as C.S. Lewis and others have said, at least vanity has a kernel of humility to it. Perhaps we really are insecure. This sense of insecurity and earnestness leads to an unusual attitude towards criticism. He writes,
American people are anxious to have their country loved. (You will never find such need in an Englishman. As to Frenchmen, they are so sure in advance that everybody loves them that they don’t feel any particular anxiety about the matter). . . . The writer who criticizes America is listened to with special care and sorrowful appreciation. The writer who admires and praises this country is considered a nice friend . . . but softhearted. Americans love for their country is not indulgent, it is an exacting and chastising love.
In reading that quote I had to laugh, for after reading praise after praise, and defense after defense of America, I kept thinking, “C’mon Jacques, take the gloves off. We can handle it. You’re being too nice!” Maritain may not have spent a great of time in America, but he stayed long enough to nail his audience.
But even a great admirer of America knew our faults. Our troubled history with race is obvious, but his comments about sex and sex education struck me most forcefully. We have made great progress on racial issues in the last 60 years, but our sexual mores have plummeted since then, and our beliefs about sex have grown more distorted. Maritain dismisses “foolish sexual sentimentalism” in advertising as the root of the problem. The most significant thing, he writes,
is the impact, of the . . . idea that everything, and especially human relations, is on the one hand matter for teaching and on the other matter for shallow explanation . . . where all that counts is that which can be measured and figured out. Hence a general tendency to think of all human love in simple terms of sex, and the tendency to dismiss subjecting sexual life to supra-biological or supra-sociological standards. . . . an artlessly serious-minded quest for good.
Vices are never so potent as when they attach themselves to virtues. I wonder if it is our general earnestness to “do good,” and our practical and adaptable approach to problems that has led to such deep confusion regarding sex. Perhaps too our disdain for aristocracy meant that we would also disdain ideas, and turn to measurable sciences to deal with a powerful, yet mysterious area of our lives. Maritain accurately comments that people, “[exclusively] learn through biology and psychology how to be happy in the sexual life.”
Ironically, part of how we dealt with our crisis about race has led us down a path of deepening our crisis about sex. Equality among races has translated to equality of ideas, and equality in self-expression. Sex has been tied to the general focus on equality and self-expression over the last 50 years or so, and this has in part led to the current rise of homosexuality. But the “heterosexual issues” of divorce, the “hookup culture,” delayed marriage, etc. are fruit from the same poisonous tree. As long as we make moral decisions purely based on biological and psychological considerations, we will have problems.
Foreign observers of one’s own culture often see things that we cannot see. Maritain’s wise commentary on America has not dulled with age, and helped me see things about us freshly. His praise and admiration for America make his criticisms all the more valid. There I go again, typical American, focusing on our faults . . . Maritain would have something to say about that. . .