Oct. 8, 2010, at 11:43am
An article in the latest American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (sorry, no link) reminds me of the inspiring story of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s encounter with Henri Bergson.
The Maritains, though earnestly looking for ultimate truth and meaning in their lives, had been deeply discouraged by their teachers at the Sorbonne in Paris, all of whom were enthralled by the scientific and atheistic materialism in vogue at the time. These teachers taught them that the truth they were looking for—i.e. absolute truth, truth that goes beyond natural science, truth that is worth living (and dying) for—that such truth did not exist, or, at any rate, was impossible to find.
Raïssa describes the crushing effect on Jacques and herself:
Already I had come to believe myself an atheist; I no longer put up any defence against atheism, in the end persuaded, or rather devastated, as I was by so many arguments given out as ‘scientific.’ And the absence of God unpeopled the universe. If we must also give up the hope of finding any meaning whatever for the word truth, for the distinction of good from evil, of just from unjust, it is no longer possible to live humanly. I wanted no part in such a comedy. I would have accepted a sad life, but not one that was absurd. Jacques had for a long time thought that it was still worthwhile to fight for the poor, against the slavery of the ‘proletariat.’ And his own natural generosity had given him strength. But now his despair was as great as my own.
And so the Maritains came to a decision: if the world was truly meaningless and absurd, the only rational response would be to commit suicide. They would leave the world together, “by a free act,” and at a time of their choosing.
Thank God, it never came to this. Before the time they had given themselves ran out, they met Henri Bergson. Again Raïssa recounts their experience:
there was always present within us this invincible idea of truth, this door ajar on the road of life; but until the unforgettable day when we heard Bergson, this idea of truth, this hope of unsuspected discoveries had been implicitly and explicitly frustrated by all those from whom we hoped to gain some light. … [Then] by means of a wonderfully penetrating critique … [Bergson] dispelled the anti-metaphysical prejudices of pseudo-scientific positivism and recalled to the spirit its real functions and essential liberty.
What is inspiring about this story is how serious the Maritain’s were about truth. They realized much more deeply than most of us ever do how crucial it is for living a truly human and dignified life. In contrast, what is so depressing about much of today’s culture is the fact that the impossibility of reaching absolute truth is accepted as a matter of course; as if it isn’t really a big deal. “Truth? No truth? Who really cares? It’s for the academics to fight about.”