Beginning in 1919, the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritian, along with his wife Raïssa, organized at their home in Versailles a kind of “book club” known as the cirque du études thomistes: the circle of Thomistic studies. That word “Thomistic” refers to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose work provided the intellectual inspiration for the Sunday afternoon discussions of the circle.
At the website of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, directed by my friend, John O’Callaghan, you will be able to find translations of Maritain’s notebooks. In one chapter, Maritain gives an account of the founding of the Thomistic circle, and in the following passages he engagingly describes the atmosphere of the meetings:
I would like to recall a few features of these study meetings…. First of all, those who attended them formed a most varied ensemble. There were young persons and old persons, male students and female students, and professors—laymen (in the majority), priests and religious—professional philosophers, doctors, poets, musicians, men engaged in practical life, those who were learned and those who were uneducated—Catholics (in the majority), but also unbelievers, Jews, Orthodox, Protestants. Some were already experts in St. Thomas, others were serving their apprenticeship with him, others knew nothing about him or almost nothing. They were all searching. The unity came either from a profound love, or from a more or less great interest in Thomist thought. It came also from the climate of friendship and of liberty in which all were received.
They did not go to class, they were not assembled in a classroom of a college or convent to listen to the teaching of a master or to have a seminar with him, nor were they the guests of a more or less stiff intellectual trying to offer them seats and passing out drinks and cigarettes before the exchange of ideas. They were received in the hearth of a family, they were the guests of Raïssa Maritain. Such meetings and such a work in common are inconceivable without a feminine atmosphere. There were three women in the house: there was Raïssa's mother—she attended the meetings more often than not, without understanding much of them, but too good a Jew, and of too serious a mind, not to take pleasure in intellectual debates. And she busied herself with the samovar, and with the dinner to be prepared for the evening. There was Vera, silent and diligent, who took care of everyone, and listened passionately to the discussions, not without secretly praying that everything would go well. And above all there was Raïssa, whose gaze and smile illuminated our humble drawing room, and who received everyone in her fraternal charity, and who did not cease for many days to carry all of this work in her prayers. She was the ardent flame of these meetings, in which she took an active part, always discreetly, but with the mad, boundless love of truth which burned in her. It is very evident that without her -- and without her little sister -- there would have been no Thomist circles…
The conversation continued after tea. The friends (after a session which lasted the whole afternoon) departed just before dinner. A few remained, more or less numerous, to dine with us. And these left by the last train. At midnight we were half-dead with fatigue, but generally very happy with the day.
Starting this week on High Concepts I am launching a virtual summer circle of Thomistic Studies. Though it will not be a circle enjoyed in the comfort of someone’s home, I hope nonetheless that it will encourage the same spirit of friendship and free intellectual inquiry that characterized the Maritain’s circle. The fact that the circle is virtual has the advantage of being able to include far more people than can fit into my family room, people in fact from every corner of the globe who can participate in it at their leisure.
Given the focus of High Concepts—the arts, the entertainment industry, culture—and in a spirit of gratitude to Maritain himself for originating the idea, I am going to take as the focus of our Thomistic studies circle Maritain’s own 1920 volume, Art and Scholasticism, a meditation on the meaning of art as understood by medieval theologians (“scholastics”), principally, St. Thomas Aquinas.
But this will be no mere historical exercise. Since its publication, Art and Scholasticism has exerted an enormous influence upon working artists and intellectuals. Flannery O'Connor, for instance, regarded Art and Scholasticism as the book that she “cut [her] aesthetic teeth on” (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 1979, p. 216).
Art and Scholasticism is an immensely important work that helps put the whole notion of art back into its proper relationship to truth, to morality, and to the supernatural life.
Here’s how the circle will work. I do not expect everyone to read the entirety of Art and Scholasticism, though for those who want to it does have the benefit of being a fairly short book. Once a week, and usually going into the weekend, I will post a reflection on one of the larger themes from the book, in such a way that makes it possible to follow the discussion even if one has not read the passage or chapter in question. The point is not to add a book to your summer list of things to do, but to encourage a deeper meditation on the nature of art and what it means for the formation of culture.
No previous study of Maritain or of St. Thomas Aquinas is necessary. Neither is it necessary to be Catholic or an academic. My hope is that participation in this circle will be as wide and various as that of the Maritain’s own in Versailles. Comments, questions and discussion, of course, are most welcome and highly encouraged. Alas, unlike the circle in Versailles, our circle will lack a woman’s touch—not to mention a samovar and all the ingredients for tea! But we will have to make up for it by feasting on juicy ideas and rich conversation.
For those uninterested in the circle, be assured that High Concepts will continue in its regular vein in other posts during the week.
But for those who are interested, the ultimate point of the circle, as Maritain wrote about the first Thomistic circle, is “to examine a little more closely, in free discussions, the doctrine of St. Thomas, and to bring it face to face with the problems of our time.”