Yves Simon’s Correspondence with Charles de Koninck and Jacques Maritain on the Common Good

My last post reminded me of a correspondence between Yves Simon and both de Koninck and Maritain on the common good that my father translated some years ago. So I got permission from my father to post it at The Charles De Koninck Project. It’s a fascinating correspondence, and gives a lot of details about the controversy over de Koninck’s book. Consider, for example, this description of a party at Simon’s house in South Bend:

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 right in the solar plexus: Who are these personalists? De K[oninck] hesitated visibly and showed a little less Belgian good nature and a little more reserve. He mentioned a Californian review (do you remember, The Personalist, which Mounier discovered four or five years after launching Esprit); 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[oninck] 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.” Gurian could not believe that he has not read you. As for me, I believe it readily.

“The Integrists in Quebec”

In the midst of the controversy over Charles de Koninck’s book, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, Jacques Maritain dismissed de Koninck and those who followed him as reactionary intégristes, unable to meet the true challenges of the age:

I was deeply touched by the article of Fr. Eschman in The Modern Schoolman. He has masterfully exploded Koninck, and we can now enjoy entering a fine period of scholastic controversy worthy of the Baroque age. While the world is in its agony, and Monsieur Sartre offers to the intellectuals an existentialism of nothingness, the integrists of Quebec will doubtless raise the cry of alarm in the presbyteries of the New World against the Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and, as our good friends at the Tablet call it, Neo-Pelagianism menacing the Holy Church.

J ’ai été profondément touché par l’article du Pére Eschmann dans The Modern Schoolman. Il a mouché Koninck de main de maître et nous aurons la joie d’entrer ainsi dans une belle période de controverses scolastiques dignes de l’age baroque. Pendant que le monde agonise et que M. Sartre propose aux intellectuels l’existentialisme du néant, les intégristes de Québec vont sans doute jeter dans les presbytères du nouveau continent le cri d’alarme contre le néolibéralisme, le néo-individualisme et, comme disent nos bons amis du Tablet, le néopélagianisme qui menacent la sainte Église. (Jacques Maritain to Etienne Gilson, November 15, 1945; via Francesca Aran Murphy, to whom I owe part of the translation)

And yet, seven decades later, de Koninck’s book, and those who used it to combat certain forms of “personalism” seem remarkably prescient. There was indeed in the thought of certain Catholic intellectuals eager to speak to the concerns of the age a danger of neo-liberalism, neo-individualism, and, neo-Pelagianism. The effects of it are ever more apparent.

Christian Roy has argued that de Koninck’s book was,

in some ways… a prophetic warning of a notable drift towards hedonistic secular individualism, which progressive Christian personalism unwittingly helped usher in Catholic societies such as Quebec.

That is, it was a warning that the attempt of a certain kind of attempt by Catholic intellectuals to, as it were, co-opt or subvert the spirit of the age was counter productive, and led to the opposite result of that hoped. Instead of a reversal of secularization there was a huge acceleration. But it was also a warning that even among those who remained in the Church a new liberalism and a new Pelagianism would take hold. A candid examination of debates within the Church in the past few decades— especially in Western Europe— show just how prophetic such warnings were. This is one reason, why, to the great annoyance of a certain relation of mine, I have tried to reclaim the (to his mind sinister) term integrist/integralist to name my own approach to thinking about the common good as a Catholic in the modern world.

Conference on the Common Good at Notre Dame

Some graduates students at Notre Dame are organizing a very promising conference: The Common Good as a Common Project. They have lined up Alasdair MacIntyre (!), Jean-Luc Marion, Jean Porter, and Emilie Tardivel-Schick as key-note speakers. They have released a call for papers, requesting abstracts of “both theoretical and applied papers that address key questions about the common good” to be submitted by November 15th (Feast of St. Leopold of Austria).

I am planning to attend myself, and to give a presentation, the abstract of which follows. Continue reading

Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

I read a paper on individualism and totalitarianism in the writings of David Foster Wallace and Charles de Koninck (see below) at a conference on “Political Demononolgy” at Worcester College, Oxford on Friday. The talks were about all sorts of things from all sorts of perspectives. And many of them were quite good. Conor Cunningham’s keynote on evil as the refutation of eliminative materialism was hilariously funny (“Some of you might be interested in the political implication of all this. But I don’t do politics; I’m from Belfast.” “I hope you don’t read Bataille— he’s crap.”). Adrian Papst gave a wonderfully clear and convincing paper on the pessimism of liberalism— looking at Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and making a plea for a politics of the pursuit of common ends. And Henry Mead gave a fascinating paper on the idea of original sin in T.E. Hulme, and his guild-socialist friend A. R. Orage. Sadly I had to leave before the final keynote by Elizabeth Frazer, but I have heard that a recording will be made available soon. I met some people that I only know through the internet— including Andrew Cusack, whose excellent blog I have followed for years.

I have pasted my talk below, and have also made it available in audio and pdf formats.

The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

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Political Evil


There will be a one-day conference on “the genesis, location, logic, categorisation, or implementation of political evil,” especially as approached in literature and theology, in Oxford on May 20th. I am going to be reading a paper on David Foster Wallace, Michel Houellebecq, and Charles de Koninck. I was pleased to see that they have put portraits of  two of my authors on the conference poster. An Abstract of my paper follows.

The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck, David Foster Wallace, and Michel Houellebecq


The Laval School Thomist Charles de Koninck (1906-1965) argued that individualism and totalitarianism are both founded on the same misunderstanding of the common good. In both ideologies the common good is seen as a bonum alienum, a good that is not really the good of the members of society, but rather external good that is in some way opposed to the individual good. In individualism the common good (thus misunderstood) is then subordinated to the private goods of individuals, becoming an instrument of individual desires, and debasing politics into an art of balancing private interests. In totalitarianism, on the other hand, the individual is subordinated to the good of the collective, thus debasing the human person to the status of a means to an extrinsic end. Totalitarian subordination can be proposed in at least two ways. In Fascism the subordination of the individual is proclaimed in open and naïve terms. In Marxism-Leninism, on the other hand, it is affirmed in a dialectical fashion, which always holds out the promise of a future transcendence between the opposition of individual and society, the future transcendence, however, cannot mitigate the present opposition.

De Koninck argues that the excesses of each of these paths lead to a desire for the other. The crushing of individual freedom in totalitarian systems makes individualism seem attractive. And conversely the pusillanimity and meaninglessness of individualist societies gives rise to totalitarian temptations of various kinds. I will examine the descriptions of such totalitarian temptations in the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Michel Houellebecq. Showing that both give plausible descriptions of what it feels like in current individualist societies to be subject to the sort of pressures that de Koninck elucidates.

Charles De Koninck in the House of Commons

In yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons, Sir Edward Leigh gave a remarkably well informed reading of Laudato Si’. He even mentions our very own Charles De Koninck:

The Pope is repeating the philosophy of the 20th century philosopher, Professor Charles De Koninck, who understood that the person, the individual, could not be neglected. He differed from the personalists because he knew that the person had to be integrated within a vision of the common good. In the encyclical, the Pope constantly concentrates on our common good and our common nature: the good of the individual, the good of the family, the good of the village, town, province and country, and the good of the whole world. People—you and I—have to be understood, De Koninck argued and the Pope now argues, in the context of our place in the universe as a whole. That is one thing that the Pope is trying to do with the encyclical. Like De Koninck, the Pope understands the truth expressed by St Thomas Aquinas that the greatest perfection of the created person is the good of the universe.

One might almost think that Sir Edward has read my blogposts on the matter— such as this one or this one.

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: Continue reading

Is marriage ‘pre-political’?

I remember Marcus Berquist once remarking that the problem with politics nowadays is that all the really important things have already been settled, and settled wrong. Given the developments of recent decades (and indeed centuries), there was nothing surprising about the United States Supreme Court’s decision on homosexual “marriage.” Viewed as a symptom of the general corruption of our time it is a sad thing. Viewed with a bit of detachment though, there is something comical about the court’s “finding” a right to this spectacularly irrational abomination in the terse, 18th century prose of the constitution that it has to pretend to interpret. Justice Scalia’s comparison of the opening line to a fortune cookie is even a bit unfair. Unfair, that is, to fortune cookies; they are not accustomed to apply their banalities to such extreme perversion.

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Laudato Si’ and Charles De Koninck

In a programmatic post on the new encyclical, John Brungardt argues that Charles De Koninck’s philosophy of nature and his anti-personalist account of the common good, both rooted in his rich understanding of the order of the whole universe as the final cause of creation, make De Koninck a particularly suitable instrument for pursuing the concerns of Laudato Si’. Continue reading