Was Garrigou-Lagrange a ‘Personalist’?

A few years ago my father discovered and translated Yves Simon’s correspondence on the controversy surrounding Charles De Koninck’s masterpiece, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists. (The translated correspondence will be appearing soon at The Charles De Koninck Project).

Yves Simon was a French émigré philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who was a friend of Maritain, and on friendly terms with De Koninck. He corresponded with both of them about De Koninck’s book. He was very upset that the book was being taken as an attack on Maritain, as he did not think that Maritain was in fact a ‘personalist’ in De Koninck’s sense. He criticized De Koninck explicitly whom he meant by the ‘personalists’. When De Koninck was lecturing at Notre Dame, Simon had someone ask him whom he had really been attacking. In a letter to Maritain he describes the scene as follows:

After the lecture there was a party at my house. I had told W[aldemar Gurian] to open fire. He didn’t delay. Hardly had De Koninck sat down when he got the fatal question […] Who are these personalists? De K. hesitated visibly and showed a little less Belgian good nature and a little more reserve. He mentioned a Californian review […]; Adler and Farrel; Garrigou-Lagrange (with insistence), Fr. Schwalm, the author of lessons in social philosophy. As for Esprit— he did not know it; Maritain— he did not know him. When we insisted that the whole world believed Primacy of the Common Good was directed against you, he asked if the ideas of Maritain are such that one could recognize them in the personalism he described: the common good as mere instrument, etc. We insisted that many readers have the impression that you shared these idiocies. In private conversation I told De K twice that, whatever his intentions may have been his book was being exploited “as an instrument of defamation,” that I would not want to have this on my conscience, and that he should publish an article or a note to put an end to this. His objection: “But then I would have to read Maritain! I don’t have the time.” (Simon to Maritain, September 8, 1944).

Simon was never satisfied by this answer. Two years later, in a letter to De Koninck he writes, “nobody has ever believed that ‘these personalists’ are Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (!) and Fr. Schwalm,” and, “Only anonymity permitted you to attribute to M. Maritain these characteristic propositions, stupidities and monstrosities.” (Simon to De Koninck, June 20, 1946).

My own sense is that De Koninck was not being entirely frank. I think he was writing mostly against the second-hand Maritainism that he encountered in conversations with French exiles, rather than with the writings of the persons he mentions. Simon is right that the people De Koninck did mention are rather surprising; if one had to spontaneously write a list of Catholic personalists, one would be unlikely to include any of them. The most surprising mention is certainly Garrigou-Lagrange. (Note Simon’s exclamation mark after his name).

Was Garrigou a personalist in De Koninck’s sense? That is, did he hold that the dignity of the person meant that the person could never be entirely subordinate to any society? Or, more precisely, that the dignity of the person was greater as whole than as a part?

Garrigou certainly understood that De Koninck’s crucial point, that the highest goods are the most communicable. In Three Ages of the Spiritual Life he writes as follows:

We must begin to detach ourselves from earthly goods in order to grasp clearly the following truth often uttered by St. Augustine and St. Thomas: ‘Contrary to spiritual goods, material goods divide men, because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a number.’ A number of persons cannot possess integrally and simultaneously the same house, the same field, the same territory; whence dissensions, quarrels, lawsuits, wars. On the contrary, spiritual goods, like truth, virtue, God Himself, can belong simultaneously and integrally to a number; many may possess simultaneously the same virtue, the same truth, the same God who gives Himself wholly to each of us in Communion. Therefore, whereas the unbridled search for material goods profoundly divides men, the quest for spiritual goods unites them. It unites us so much the more closely, the more we seek these superior goods. And we even possess God so much the more, the more we give Him to others. When we give away money, we no longer possess it; when, on the contrary, we give God to souls, we do not lose Him; rather we possess Him more. And should we refuse to give Him to a person who asks for Him, we would lose Him.

Moreover, in his Introduction to On Kingshiphe explicitly accepts St. Thomas’s teaching that the common good is greater and more divine than the good of individuals as such:

The goal of society constituted in this way is consequently the common good, which is superior to the proper good of each individual, despite what individualism claims. The common good, nevertheless, ought not to absorb the proper good as communism claims. 􏰀The common good of the multitude is greater and more divine than that of an individual􏰁 (De Regno, Ch. IX). It is peace, the tranquility of order in the city or the nation. (p. 2)

So far, apparently, so un-personalist. My father, however, has discovered a text where Garrigou does indeed adopt a personalist position. It is in his commentary on the questions on beatitude in the SummaHere is the offending passage:

Here enters a question: Does the human individual exist to serve society (communism), or does society exist to serve the individual (liberalism)?

Communism and liberalism are two extremes. Between and above these extremes runs the golden middle way. The in­dividual, in temporal matters, serves society; but in eternal things he rises above civil society, since he is a fellow citizen of the saints, a member of the household of God. In defense of his country the citizen must be willing even to shed his blood. But civil authority, on the otherhand, while its proxi­mate goal is the well-being of society, has as its ultimate goal that eternal life which is the end of all human activity. Man’s active life, then, his lower and external life, is subordinated to society. But man’s contemplative life, his higher and in­ternal life, transcends civil life.

Here we note the distinction between “individual” and “person.” The animal is an individual, but not a person. Man is both an individual and a person. Man, as an individual, is subordinated to society, whereas society is subordinated to man as a person. Thus in the spiritual order (as person) man is bound to provide first for himself, whereas in the temporal order (as individual) man is praiseworthy when he is generous in providing for his neighbor. Again, virginity excels matri­mony, because divine values surpass human values. And pri­vate spiritual good stands higher than common civil good.

Here too lies the reason why the secrets of man’s heart are not really parts of the universe, and hence cannot naturally be known. (p. 75)

At first it seems that he is giving the right answer (the one affirmed by De Koninck): man transcends temporal civil society because he is ordered to the common good of a higher society: “he is a fellow citizen of the saints.” But then in the next paragraph he introduces the nonsensical distinction between man as individual and man as person that is the foundation of Maritainist personalism. (Recall Grenier’s demolition of this sophistry). From this he draws a truly disastrous conclusion:

Thus in the spiritual order (as person) man is bound to provide first for himself, whereas in the temporal order (as individual) man is praiseworthy when he is generous in providing for his neighbor. […] And pri­vate spiritual good stands higher than common civil good.

That is personalism of the worst sort, and it is astonishing that a theologian as great as Garrigou-Lagrange ever seriously proposed it.


15 thoughts on “Was Garrigou-Lagrange a ‘Personalist’?

  1. It must be remembered that Non-Conformism(or better known as Personalism)is the Modern Revival of the late Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais(1782-1854)’s Political Thought condemned by the encyclical: “Mirari Vos”. For the Modern exponent of Scholastic Thomism to say such opinions as this strikes me as odd ,if not self-contradictory.


  2. But did he seriously propose it? A reading of his entire corpus would suggest that the individual/person distinction, and man’s twofold relation to civil society based thereupon, is something he noodled around with but didn’t follow anywhere. At least I can’t think of anywhere else where he even explicitly brings this distinction up again, although I haven’t read nearly everything he wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Perhaps there is something in this confused train of thought which permitted Lagrange to support Vichy, and to suggest excommunication to Maritain if he didn’t… (for instance as reported by Francesca Murphy in “Art and Intellect in the Philosophy of Etienne Gilson”, and likely elsewhere)

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  4. As to Vichy, one could certainly take the position that the Petain government was the legitimate government of France, and therefore commanded the natural obedience of Frenchmen due their sovereign. There was continuity between the Third Republic and the Vichy state, but this would be a fairly rigid position, in the circumstances.

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    • The question is less one of legitimacy (Maritain seemed to find this point debatable) and whether any legitimate state which asks illegitimate duties of its citizens commands such dutiful allegiance that the citizens would be threatened with excommunication by objecting to either material or formal participation.


  5. Pingback: St. Gregory Nazianzen on the Primacy of the Common Good in the Spiritual Life | Sancrucensis

  6. Thank you Father, would it be possible for you to expand on that in any way please? I had assumed that the development of that line of thought from G-L was reliable. It never occurred to me until I read this post that it might have a “liberal” political implication, only that it was a means of defending orthodox morality, through a development of the psychology of St Thomas, building on the tradition of St. Bernard.


    • I do think it is mostly reliable, and that it has a lot of important insights. I think that in 20th century exponents of that line of thought one sometimes sees an overly absolute understanding of human dignity that leads to some wrong conclusions. Thus Garrigou-Lagrange’s greatest student, Pope St. John Paul II, has some writings on capital punishment that I think are not quite right. Similarly Hans Urs von Balthasar “daring to hope” that all men are saved seems to me to be coming from an overly absolute understanding of the dignity of the person. (Balthasar was not a “personalist” in the strict sense, but he seems to develop Carmelite mysticism along lines similar to St. John Paul II).


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  8. Pingback: Yves Simon’s Correspondence with Charles de Koninck and Jacques Maritain on the Common Good | Sancrucensis

  9. Pingback: Yves Simon’s Correspondence with Charles De Koninck and Jacques Maritain on the Common Good « The Charles De Koninck Project

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