Sunday the 21st I was off to my Communio group to discuss an article by Maurice Blondel. When the assignment first came up, I confess I knew little about this Catholic philosopher, save that he is part of an almost celestial group of intellectuals who populated the early 20th century and into the 1960s – names that I group with Maritain, Dawson, Lewis, Gilson and others. You can find their writings and articles about them on PayingAttentiontotheSky. I thought before I added Maurice Blondel I would attempt to perform an introduction of sorts. The background information comes from Oliva Blanchette’s Why We Need Maurice Blondel which was part of Communio’s tribute issue to Blondel, the 150th anniversary of his birth, in the Spring issue of 2011. I was so taken with the subject I immediately got Blanchette’s biography, Maurice Blondel A Philosophical Life.
Two things stand out for me about Blondel. The first is how his life so neatly folded about his vocation. He came to it early on, hitting upon the issues that would concern him as a Catholic philosopher and scholar for the rest of his life. (This is stupid, I know, but) I couldn’t help but think of the young Derek Jeter who in his childhood conceived of playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. Some people get such an early start on life, scholars or ball players and they pursue their vocations or dreams with an intensity that brings them great achievements. Their greatness is derived from their excellence, something the disciples in Mark left out of their discussions of who was the greatest amongst them and never quite got.
What were the issues that so consumed the young Blondel with his vocation as philosopher and identity as a member of the Catholic faith?
Maurice Blondel can best be understood as a philosopher, but as a philosopher who sought to expand the scope of philosophy, so that it would include the most authentic religious spirit as it is lived in human thought and action. He was a religious man who had to think his religious life philosophically. But at the same time he was a philosopher for whom religion, even in its supernatural aspect, had to be seen as a necessary part, not only of human life itself, but also of philosophical reflection on that life.
In this resolve Blondel found himself at odds with both sides of the anti-religious atmosphere that ruled in French intellectual life at the end of the century, those who attacked religion or relegated it to something insignificant in rational life, and those who defended religion and asserted its right to propagate in secular society. At first he was seen as a defender of religion in defender of religion in philosophy in a University that was resolutely secular, and as a threat to the autonomy of reason.
As the defenders of reason feared for their conception of philosophy, the defenders of religion, who were mostly Catholic in France at the time, as was Blondel, rejoiced in having a champion of religion at the University. But this joy soon turned to suspicion on the part of some, when it became clear how Blondel proposed to “defend” religion, not by cutting reason short as even many philosophers were quite willing to do in the spirit of neo Kantianism, but by extending its power of inquiry into the very idea of supernatural religion, thus apparently bringing the very content of such religion, supposedly the exclusive domain of a theology based on revelation, under the domain of critical philosophy.
This was not what the established theologians of the time had had in mind as a proper defense of religion, and while philosophers found some reassurance in Blondel’s protestations concerning the philosophical nature of his method, theologians began to fear for the autonomy of their own method in discoursing about religion.
Blondel left neither side complacent about its method in trying to bring them together into the unity of a single method which was essentially philosophical, but which was also no less essentially open to the transcendence of the supernatural in religion. This was clear from the two important publications that appeared under his name in the 1890s, the Thesis on Action of 1893 and the so-called Letter on Apologetics of 1896. In the first he took issue with the attitude of the University and philosophy regarding religion.
In the second he took issue with certain interpretations of his “defense” of religion and certain ways of dealing with questions of religion that were not in keeping with the exigencies of modern philosophy, as he claimed his was. In short, it could be said that in breaking into the intellectual scene of his day Blondel was breaking it up as it was established on either side of the controversy over religion, by beginning a new journey inward to the human spirit that was at once philosophical and religious.
Oliva Blanchette, Maurice Blondel A Philosophical Life
The second thing I noted about Blondel’s life was the terrible physical crosses he bore. What could be a greater cross to bear to a scholar than to lose both his sight and his hearing? One recalls Beethoven and his hearing loss. Here in the 21st century, technology allows a minimal loss in productivity but in the 20thso little was in place to help someone like Blondel. All this appears to have happened to Blondel following the death of this wife Rose in 1919. In 1927, his vision combined with deafness had degenerated so that it necessitated his retirement, and required his being able to work only by dictation. From 1934 to 1937, however, he published the five volumes, La Pensée (2 vol.), L’être et les êtres, and L’action (2 vol.) of the metaphysical trilogy, followed by L’Esprit chrétien, only two volumes of which were completely finished at his death in 1949.
I couldn’t understand how Blondel could have ever accomplished the work he did, struggling with blindness and deafness, until I read the following marvelous story in Blanchette’s definitive biography. The problem it refers to in the beginning was with a friend, Jean Wehrlé, who attempted to fill the workload for companion and collaborator and nearly had a breakdown doing it. It turns out that perfect combination was found, in turn shaped by circumstances and evolved into the perfect situation for Blondel. All of that was accomplished in the person of Mlle Nathalie Panis.
The problem was not solved for him until a few months later when, out of the blue, or providentially, as he more likely would have said, a certain Mlle. Nathalie Panis, having heard of his plight, wrote to him from Paris to offer her services as secretary on a long-term basis. She had been a graduate student of Blondel in Aix during the First World War and, after getting her Licentiate in Philosophy, had gone on to teach at a French Lycee in Athens, Greece, for years.
In 1931 she was back in Paris, relatively unattached, but still very much interested in the thought of her former teacher and perhaps even more devoted to him than his friend Wehrlé. Blondel had no problem remembering her and began to think that perhaps she could do on a long-term basis what others could not do on a short-term basis. Seeing that she was eager and that she was ready to make a long-term commitment to the task, he invited her down to the house a Aix.
She came in December 1931, and, as she was fond of saying, she never left its side after that. This became for her a second career in which she would look after the intellectual affairs of the one she would call Maitre, not in the sense of Master, but in the sense of Magister, Teacher. She moved into the large house on rue Roux-Alphéran with Blondel, to be at his side, just the two of them for the most part, except when family and friends came to visit, and worked with him or the rest of his life and beyond, taking care of the Blondel Archives after his death for as long as they were in that house.
The arrangement was as simple as could be. There was not even any question of a salary. Blondel assured her that she would be taken care of as a member of the family in exchange for dedicating herself totally to the support of Blondel in his work, becoming his eyes and his hands, as it were, by reading to him and taking down dictation, and most importantly by being there consistently at his side day in and day out with her enthusiasm and her interest in seeing that Blondel’s work be brought to completion and broadcast as widely as possible, including through translation into different languages, which she was always eager to urge on those who came to visit the Blondel Archives from abroad.
This proved to be the answer to Blondel’s problem, short of restoring his sight. It enabled him to start a second career of writing from his solitude in Aix, not unlike the first one, when he first conceived his original dissertation on Action in the solitude of Saint-Seine. It was what he had been dreaming of being able to do for a long time in order to give a more complete expression to his philosophy in terms of Thought and Being as well as Action.
Together, he and Mlle. Panis developed a daily routine of work that would take them through the five volumes of the Trilogy and way beyond. Each morning they would attend the early mass at the nearby parish church of Saint Jean de Malte and come back to the second floor study to prepare for the morning’s work. While Mlle. Panis prepared the coffee and bread for their petit dejeuner, before the arrival of the housekeeper who took care of the other meals, Blondel would sit by himself scribbling notes and preparing in his mind what he wanted to get into for that day.
Morning sessions, which lasted three or four hours, were reserved exclusively for work on the books that Blondel wanted to compose. Afternoon sessions, after dejeuner and a siesta, were devoted to other business, such as the ample flow of correspondence that never slowed down, keeping up with the literature on philosophy and education that always interested Blondel, and responding to proposals of others in discussions that went on in the Societe de Philosophie Francaise in connection with Lalande’s Vocabulaire or in Les Etudes Philosophiques, a journal edited by Gaston Berger, a former student of Blondel. Also included was a certain amount of political commentary as a regular contributor to the review Politique, which his son-in-law, Charles Flory, had founded in 1926. With the collaboration of Mlle. Panis, Blondel was able to get back into the swing of things almost as well as when he had been able to see for himself, in what has been called his second career as a publicist.
Isn’t that just amazing? Another illustration of how “Give us this day, our daily bread,” is all we need to pray for, it seems.