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Benedictine monks preserve study of Thomism

Voices Apr 22, 2017

Man’s Approach to God was the lecture given by the brilliant Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain in 1951 at Saint Vincent Archabbey. The archabbey, located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, published Maritain’s three-part lecture in a little book, still in print.

This year the John Deely and Jacques Maritain Chair in Philosophy has been established at Saint Vincent College to serve the archabbey and the hundreds of monks studying there. This new academic post functions to commemorate the life and work of Maritain, but also that of the philosopher John Deely (1942–2017), who passed away this January, and for whom Maritain’s work was so important.

The great Benedictine monk Father Boniface Wimmer (1809–1887) arrived from Rotterdam to New York in 1846. Bishop Michael O’Connor, the first bishop of Pittsburgh, soon extended a fateful invitation to Father Wimmer.

About forty miles east of Pittsburgh, Father Wimmer was able to establish a college and monastery at Saint Vincent parish. The site became the first Benedictine foundation in North America.

Father Wimmer was the first Abbot of the community in 1855 after Pope Pius IX made it an abbey. It was growing rapidly and soon to be the font of many other parishes and abbeys. In 1883, Pope Leo XIII made Father Wimmer into archabbot of the archabbey.

Jacques Maritain delivered his three-part lecture on Man’s Approach to God as the fifth lecture in the Wimmer Memorial Lecture Series at Saint Vincent. The Wimmer Lecture by Maritain is even more economical than the presentation found in his little book Approaches to God, with which it should not be confused.

His lecture’s compact presentation distills key insights from his own magnum opus of philosophy, The Degrees of Knowledge. Maritain speaks in an illuminating fashion about the famous Five Ways of Saint Thomas Aquinas, by which we can come to know God. But he also discusses all the other possible ways human beings can encounter God, through faith and love especially.

With the John Deely and Jacques Maritain Chair in Philosophy, Saint Vincent College is remembering a connection that began back when John Deely was a student working on his doctoral dissertation, reading Maritain’s The Degrees of Knowledge.

Deely found his study of Maritain provided him with what he most needed in his research. Thanks to Maritain, he was able to figure out how to relate the Thomistic account of esse intentionale (“intentional being”) to the discussion of Sein (“Being”) in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.          

This doctoral study eventually became Deely’s first book, The Tradition via Heidegger. Right from the beginning, we see Deely’s fundamental approach to contemporary philosophy’s most interesting problems. That is, we see Deely bringing forth neglected resources from the Thomistic philosophical tradition, to shed light and craft solutions.

Deely dedicated his first book to Maritain. Soon he had the chance to meet his great intellectual mentor on July 20, 1972. The photograph from this visit became a cherished personal possession.

A youthful John Deely with long hair and sideburns smiles looking at the camera, while a beatific Maritain looks at John in a most wonderful way. The picture is printed on the cover of Realism for the 21st Century: A John Deely Reader, edited by Paul Cobley.

Maritain and Deely were both greatly influenced by the masterful commentaries on Aquinas written by the seventeenth century Dominican, John Poinsot. Poinsot is also known as “John of St. Thomas” because of his unparalleled comprehension of Aquinas and his exemplary scholastic treatment of Aquinas’ philosophy and theology.

Besides Maritain, it is hard to think of a greater promoter of the work of Poinsot in the twentieth century other than Deely himself. Thanks to Deely, Poinsot’s own originality can now be appreciated, alongside his fidelity to Aquinas.

Poinsot made original contributions to semiotics, an interdisciplinary field of incalculable importance, which studies the action of signs. For Poinsot, the preeminent examples of sign action would be explored in biblical and sacramental theology.

But Deely learned from his close reading of Maritain how Poinsot’s insights could be extended to all the arts and sciences. The result is nothing less than a revolution in distinguishing and unifying all “the degrees of knowledge,” to use Maritain’s famous phrase.

Saint Vincent College is now home to the over 12,000 volumes from John Deely’s personal library. Visitors to the library can consult a complete set of Maritain’s works, in French and in English, as well as many rare and important books on Maritain and Thomism.

A memorial Mass for Deely on May 8 in Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica will allow many to give thanks for one of John’s dreams come true: The John Deely and Jacques Maritain Chair in Philosophy at Saint Vincent College.