A Maritain Glossary

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good--" At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905).

The following glossary represents a layman's attempt to heed the monk rather than knock him down. It catalogues some of the key words in Maritain's Neo-Thomistic philosophy, with an emphasis on aesthetics. My sources include several of Maritain's early books and essays. Two of these were written for the general public: Art & Scholasticism (henceforth A&S) (1920), and Art and Poetry (A&P) (trans. 1943). Two more were originally intended as college textbooks, but gained a wider readership: An Introduction to Philosophy (IP) (1920) and its sequel Formal Logic (FL) (1923).

The list is organized logically rather than alphabetically. It is divided into three categories: Fundamentals; Mind, Virtue & Aesthetics; and The Novel & Criticism.


Substance: “A thing or a nature whose property is to exist by itself, or in virtue of itself (per se) and not in another thing” (IP 224). With what marvelous economy – two words in both the English translation and the original French, does Maritain explain how, for Aristotle and St Thomas, both species (dogs) and individuals (Fido) can be called substance. Substances can be material or immaterial.

Examples: A rock, a tree, a dog, a human, an angel, an idea. Also as categories: rock, tree, dog, human, angel, idea.

Accident: “A nature or essence whose property is to exist in something else” (IP 227). Changes in accident need not indicate substantial change.

Examples: The shape of a rock. The position of a tree in a yard. The red color of a rubber dodge ball. The red hair of Mr Slope (Barchester Towers, Chapter 4). The sensibles (see entry below) of a consecrated communion wafer.

Form: This difficult word can mean two very different things.

1. Form is frequently used as shorthand for substantial form, an immaterial principle of order. Maritain is eloquent: substantial form is “the principle which constitutes the proper perfection of all that is, which constitutes and achieves things in their essences and qualities, which is, finally…the ontological secret that they bear within them, their spiritual being, their operating mystery” (A&S 24). As “operating” indicates, substantial form is “active,” “the living idea or soul of the thing” (IP 167), and “actual” (IP 247). It is also “the proper principle of intelligibility, the proper clarity of every thing” (A&S 24-5), the element of a thing that fits it for intellectual knowledge. Hence a good definition must look to substantial form.

Example: Scholastics speak of the soul as ‘the form of the body,’ and together soul and body form a composite, the human person. Death, which separates soul and body, means the dissolution of the person. Only resurrection can restore the human person to existence, though it is possible for the soul to live on, in an unnatural or incomplete fashion.

2. The second meaning is more familiar. By analogy with the first definition, form can also mean external shape, or the arrangement of matter in space (IP 167). This is accidental form, and is possessed by every corporeal substance.

Example: Anthony Trollope writes that his heroine Mary Thorne is “very beautiful; but, in truth, her mind and inner qualities are more clearly distinct to my brain than her outward form and features” (Doctor Thorne, Chapter 3).

Even with the definitions of substance and accident above, the two kinds of form may not seem sufficiently distinct. Consider their similarity. In a material thing (a corporeal substance, a thing with a body, a thing extended in space), the substantial form makes the thing what it is, or “determines” it, by ordering and animating undetermined matter. The accidental form represents a kind of order, too, in that it modifies a substance (or, as in the entry on accident, “exists in something else”). But then, the accidental form of red hair does not make a human. If Mr Slope’s pate were hairless instead of being greasily and reddishly hirsute, he would remain a (very unpleasant) human being. Mr Slope’s all too keen faculty of reason, on the other hand, belongs to the substantial form of his nature, the human being’s spiritual soul. Maritain uses a spatial metaphor to clarify the difference. Substantial form, being immaterial and invisible, is an “internal” regulation of matter; accidental form, being visible to the eye, is “external” (IP 166).

These two usages have fascinating (metaphorical) implications for a definition of literary "form."

Matter: Again we must distinguish between two senses of the word.

1. Matter can abbreviate first matter (materia prima). Like substantial form, materia prima is a “substantial principle” (IP 166, 247), but unlike substantial form, it is wholly passive (IP 244). In fact, apart from form, matter does not actually exist. It is not 'actual,' but purely 'potential.' Materia prima does have a kind of existence, called potential existence, which is neither absolute existence nor absolute non-existence (IP 243). Obviously this is problematic, but it is necessary to account for the reality of being and the reality of change (‘motion’) (IP 239-40).

Example: We can give no example of materia prima, “which can be any and every body and by itself is none” (IP 247), but Maritain offers the analogy of an untouched mound of clay in a sculptor’s workshop (IP 167). Until the artist imposes an accidental form on the clay, the sculpture does not exist.

2. When conjoined with a substantial form, matter is actual: it exists in reality. Though I have not encountered it in Maritain, the common name for actual matter is secondary matter (Aveling). Secondary matter remains passive (determined) relative to its substantial and accidental forms (determining).

Examples: The clay of a clay sculpture. The hair (and skin, bones, etc.) of Mr Slope. In a water molecule, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

Immaterial (adj.): Denotes the quality of being entirely free of matter. The immaterial thing exists, but takes up no space.

Example: God, the angels, an idea or concept. The idea 'human' is identical neither to its external source (the thing presented as an object to the senses, such as Mr Slope walking down a Barchester street) nor to its material expressions, whether these be oral-temporal (a word spoken or imagined*) or graphic-spatial (a written sign or symbol) (FL 6-7).

Note. The first few items in the glossary imply some startling propositions. For instance, a rock, the earthiest of earthy things, has an immaterial element, is ‘in part’ immaterial. Like every other real corporeal substance, a rock is composed of two substantial principles: an immaterial substantial form, and materia prima, which when joined to the former becomes the rock’s actual matter.

* Imagining is a mental activity distinct from thinking (IP 156).

Intelligible (n.): Denotes a thing that is knowable or accessible to the mind (A&S 26). The mind can grasp it. Intelligibles are the proper objects of the human mind, and are not directly open to the animal senses. Some intelligibles have nothing to do with matter (for instance, perfect geometric shapes or pure spirits). But other intelligibles – probably most of them in our daily experience – can only be considered when abstracted by the mind from the matter in which they are ‘embedded,’ or as it were bound up or tangled. Cf. connaturality below. Can also be used as an adjective.

Examples: triangles, beauty, essences. The fact that all three of these can be more or less adequately represented by signs does not imply that they are sensible (see below) in themselves.

Sensible (n.): Denotes a thing that can be sensed, grasped by the senses (A&S 25). Sensibles are the proper objects of the senses, and thus are not directly open to the rational intellect, but they can be known with “sense-knowledge” (IP 171).

Examples: Moss, dog bones, the sun, licorice, Madonna of the Rocks.

Being (or existence) (n.): A complex word of enormous importance. Being is the proper object of philosophy and the sciences. Existence is a synonym. It refers to all things that exist (“existents”), though as we will see, one kind of existent (potentiality; cf. materia prima above) is very nearly non-existent. Being is divisible into two categories, potentiality and act (see below; IP 239ff). These categories are not ranged side by side. Think instead of a ladder with pure potentiality as the floor beneath the bottommost rung, and pure act as the ceiling above the topmost rung. Non-existents have no place on, below, or above this ladder, but they can, mysteriously, be signified (see possible and actual below). Maritain usually uses it as a gerund rather than a verb (“This dog has being”; cf. “This dog has existence”). It can refer to individual things or all things as a whole.

Examples: Each thing, all things. Below the ‘ladder’ is materia prima (pure potentiality, waiting to be made into something), and above it is God (pure Act, the Maker). Both exist, though in radically different ways. Also existent are the practically infinite number of intervening ‘rungs’ of the ladder, with potentiality decreasing and act increasing as we ascend: electrons, the planet Saturn, the Milky Way, microbes, pecans, tall grass, Pixar’s Cars franchise (unfortunately), Tristram Shandy (blessedly), an ant colony, a murder of crows, a university, Tucson Arizona, the United States of America, a daughter, principalities and powers, and so on.

Potentiality (or potency) and act:

1. What kind of existence is potentiality? With its synonym potency, it refers to existence or being “in a secondary and improper sense”: a real power to be or do something (to change or ‘move’) (IP 242-4). ‘Power’ here must not be understood in the usual sense. It indicates nothing of regnant law, or an active force (natural or cultural), or an authority figure, or ‘powerful’ persons, institutions, or societies. “Wax is in potency to receive the impress of the seal, water is in potency to become ice or vapour” (IP 244). It is in this sense that materia prima is pure potentiality: it is "in potency" to become any material thing.

Example: A sleeping man whose mouth and vocal cords work properly is silent. But unlike a sleeping infant, an expressive aphasic, a dead person, or an oak tree, he is potentially (or “in potency”) a speaker. Unlike materia prima, our sleeper is not potentially any corporeal substance; for instance, he is not potentially an island.

2. In contrast to potentiality, act refers to “being in the strict sense of the term,” unequivocal being, existence in reality (IP 244-5). Each rung of the ladder above materia prima is “in act” to an ever-increasing degree.

Example: Since 1776, or at least 1783, the United States of America has been in existence.

Possible and actual: Alongside potentiality and act we should mention a similar, but not identical pair: the possible and the actual (see FL 21). All four terms refer to all real being (ens reale), as opposed to conceptual being (ens rationis), things which cannot exist in reality but can exist in the mind. As examples of conceptual beings, Maritain names negations (“blindness, nothingness”), logical beings (“affirmation, the species man”), and mathematical beings (“an irrational number”) (FL 20-21). The possible is ‘larger’ than the actual, for in addition to the “merely possible” (things which may exist in reality), it includes the actual (things which do exist in reality).

Why do these terms exist? What is their use? Maritain typically (though not always) restricts them to logical contexts, reserving potentiality and act for ontological contexts. This would accord with the Catholic Encyclopedia on New Advent (Dubray).

“Possibles” is also used as a collective name for essences which “of their nature connote only a possible existence.” Maritain’s examples are triangles, even numbers, and humanity (IP 194). Only God’s actuality is logically necessary. For more, see FL 111-114.

Mind, virtue, & aesthetics

Human intellect: “The formal object of the intellect is being” (IP 187), but as we have already seen, the mind’s proper object is not sensible being but intelligible being. The intellect cannot grasp sensibles as do the senses; instead it grasps the “essences” of sensibles, which are intelligible (IP 203). It also grasps those intelligibles that are purely immaterial. But in both cases this is difficult to do. Rational intellect must labor to grasp essences: in the case of intelligibles wrapped up in sensibles, it labors in abstraction (moving from Tom, Dick, or Harry to human being or humankind). The intelligible is ‘mediated.’ Logical inference is another labor of the human intellect, one that is able to handle pure intelligibles themselves. These labors explains why the human intellect (syn. understanding) is called rational, abstractive, and discursive (IP 1) rather than intuitive, as in the intellect of the angels (A&S 23-4). Intuitive intellect grasps sensible and intelligible essences ‘immediately’ or without mediation.

Two “orders” of the human intellect: Speculative and practical (A&S 5-6, IP 271). The end of the speculative order of the intellect is knowledge, while the end of the practical order of the intellect is action. (This ‘action’ is “secondary act,” actus operationis. The Act that was opposed to Potentiality is “primary act,” actus existentiae [IP 244]. Action in the secondary sense requires Act in the primary sense, for only existents can perform actions. Both primary and secondary act pertain to ontology. The Actual that was opposed to the Possible pertains to logic, which studies not being, but “the reason itself as an instrument of knowledge, or a means of acquiring and possessing the true” [FL 1].)

Metaphysics (First Philosophy) is speculative; the goal is to know and enjoy the truth, as the etymology of ‘philosophy’ suggests. Metaphysics studies being as being, rather than being “resolved in quantity as such” (mathematics) or being “resolved in sensible being” (e.g., empirical science)..

Ethics and Art are practical, in that their goals are (respectively) to do and to make.

In a way, Logic belongs to both orders, for it builds an (immanent) artwork that regulates speculation (A&S 6). In Maritain’s writings, “science” usually refers to speculative inquiry, which is in marked contrast to contemporary discourse, in which practical inquiry along the lines of S.T.E.M. is usually intended. Maritain would call such sciences “experimental” or “empirical,” rather than strictly philosophical (IP 204).

Two “spheres” of the practical order: Action (secondary act) is divided into the spheres of Doing and Making (A&S 7-9, IP 271). Doing is ruled by the virtue of Prudence, and making is ruled by the virtue of Art.

Doing and the virtue of Prudence: Moral philosophy is not our study, but a word on the subject will help explain the next entry by contrast. The sphere of Doing is concerned with the quality of the use of human will. It is interested only in “the use which we make of our freedom,” not the things actually made or works actually accomplished (A&S 7). (Intentions are under our control, but consequences are not.) The use of the will is good, bad, or somewhere between the two, depending on its “conformity with the law of human acts, and with the true end of the whole of human life,” God (A&S 8). Prudence, as “queen of the moral virtues,” acknowledges this ‘external’ law, and as a kind of ‘interior’ law regulates the human will toward the good.

Making and the virtue of Art: Unlike the sphere of Doing, which is oriented to the good of the human maker or artist, the sphere of Making is concerned exclusively with the good of the thing made, the work of art itself (A&S 8). As human actions have laws, so do human arts, and Art is Maritain’s name for the virtue that regulates artistic actions from within, though not without reference to ‘external’ rules. All such rules take their bearings from a single “law”: “There is for Art but one law—the exigencies and the good of the work” (A&S 9).

Immediately after this strong remark, Maritain discusses the exhilarating and problematic nature of the virtue of Art, and its demands upon the artist. Doing, which is interested only in the good of the whole person, and Making, which is interested only in the good of the thing made, are often at odds, and though they are not equals, they are well matched. Neither sphere has absolute authority or autonomy; the independent self-rule of each is limited, real, and necessary. Within its own sphere, the virtue of Art must be allowed to rule, and nothing – certainly not the virtue of Prudence – can lawfully usurp this authority; but outside this sphere, the human artist has other essential considerations, commitments, laws. Thus the virtue of Art is “extrinsically subordinate…to the good of the [human] subject” (A&S 71). In the same way that secondary act requires primary act (cf. two orders of the human intellect), so the virtue of art requires an artist-subject who is a first a person. Here Maritain parts company with Wildean aesthetics. “Art has no right against God,” who is “infinitely more lovable than art” (A&S 70-1).

Note. Maritain means every conceivable artistic discipline: shipbuilding, cabinetry, ironmongery, computer and engineering, in addition to the fine arts (see below), such as music, painting, dance, and poetry. 

Art as a virtue: To call Prudence a virtue is nothing new. It is one of the four natural virtues, along with Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, to which the medieval theologians added the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. But how can Art be a virtue? What are usually referred to as the seven virtues are the seven moral virtues, but not all virtues are moral. Some are intellectual, and as we have seen above, Art is a virtue of the practical intellect.

Not all art is Art. If Art is a virtue, it can hardly be equated with or reduced to the art work, an artistic decision, or an artistic discipline. Virtues are habits or dispositions of the soul, tendencies toward certain actions done for the good of their subjects. (Vices are tendencies to act in a way that abuses the subject.) Art in the sense of virtue is thus a spiritual quality, a ‘habit’: “Art, first of all, is of the intellectual order, its action consists of imprinting an idea in some matter: it is therefore in the intelligence of the artifex that it resides, or, as is said, this intelligence is the subject in which it inheres. It is a certain quality of this intelligence” (A&S 10, emphasis in original). The virtue of Art can also be described as an “instrument” of the artist, comparable to painter’s brush (A&S 94). For a rough analogy to art as a virtue, consider “creativity” in contemporary idiom.

Habitus: Maritain uses habitus (Lat.) to explain Art as an intellectual (rather than moral or theological) virtue. Here I must retreat to quotation (all from A&S 10-11). “The ancients termed habitus qualities of a class apart, qualities which are essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist.” These subjects need not be immaterial: “Health, beauty are habitus of the body.” Nor need they be natural: “sanctifying grace is a habitus (supernatural) of the soul.” (These two quotations show Maritain’s use of the same form for singular and plural constructions.) Some habitus have their subject in neither the body nor the soul but in “the faculties or powers of the soul,” intellect and will. These include both “the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues,” which are called “operative habitus” inasmuch as these powers “tend to action.” (There is no contradiction here with what was said above of the two orders of the human intellect. The speculative order is concerned with knowledge, and the practical order with action. But knowledge is a kind of action: “The intellect acts, indeed its act is, absolutely speaking, life par excellence” (A&S 5), But this act is “immanent,” beginning and ending in the intellect. The practical order aims at actions performed or works made outside the intellect.)

Note. What is the relation of habitus to habit? Habitus is decidedly not “habit in the modern sense of the word,” “mere mechanical bent and routine.” In fact habitus is the “exact contrary” of habit, which “resides in the nerve centers,” while “operative habitus” is immaterial, “resid[ing] principally in an immaterial faculty,” either intellect or will.

Note. What does Maritain mean by habitus “perfecting…the subject in which they exist”? Here is a memorable gloss: “Habitus are intrinsic superelevations of living spontaneity, vital developments which render the soul better in a given order and which fill it with an active sap.”

Fine art: “Art in general tends to make a work. But certain arts tend to make a beautiful work, and in this they differ essentially from all the others” (A&S 33). The useful arts are “ordered to the service of man,” but the fine arts are “ordered to beauty.” “The fine arts thus stand out in the genus art as man stands out in the genus animal.” See also A&S 126-7.

The transcendentals: “Objects of thought which transcend every limit of genus or category, and which do not allow themselves to be enclosed in any class, because they imbue everything and are to be found everywhere” (A&S 30; cf. IP 247). The transcendentals are a special kind of intelligible, and include being, the one, the true, the good, the beautiful, potentiality and act. Each transcendental “is being itself” from a certain angle, or “a property of being.”

Beauty or the Beautiful: To define beauty Maritain quotes St Thomas: id quod visum placet (“that which, being seen, pleases”; A&S 23). Maritain glosses visum as “intuitive knowledge” (cf. human intellect above). Such “vision” may be sensual (sense-knowledge) or, using “sight” metaphorically, purely intellectual (a kind of labor-free rational knowledge; cf. A&S 26). Only the former is connatural (see below) to man (A&S 24).

Connaturality: “A kind of conformity and intimate proportion” between two things (A&S 12). Connatural beauty, for humans, is an intelligible wrapped up in a sensible. For additional uses of the word and idea, see A&S 15, 24, 25, 48, 153n1.

Poetry: Rather than the contrary of prose, Maritain means by poetry the human activity of apprehension and re-creation, in space and time, of substantial forms. Since substantial form is “the ontological secret” (A&S 24) of everything that exists, and not living beings alone, poetry has for its object the entire cosmos. In a passage that must have pleased Flannery O’Connor, Maritain writes that this apprehension or “divination” is “of the spiritual in the things of sense,” and therefore must “express itself in the things of sense” (A&S 128, 129; cf. 24, 25). With “divination” Maritain indicates that this knowledge is not attained rationally and discursively; there is no abstraction of substantial form from material body. Poetic knowledge is akin to the angels’ intuitive knowledge. Here a glance suffices; the intellect’s normal labor is not needed.

Note. Another extraordinary quotation: “The poet hears the passwords and the secrets that are stammering in things…perceives the realities, correspondences, figures of horror or of beauty of a very certain objectivity…captures like a spring-finder, the springs of the transcendentals…not by disengaging this objectivity for itself, but by receiving all this into the recesses of his sentiment and of his passion—not as something other than he, according to the law of speculative knowledge, but on the contrary as inseparable from himself, and in truth as part of himself” (A&P 89).