by Margarita Mooney on September 30, 2020


Jacques Maritain’s work Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, delivered as the A. W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1952 is both history of art and philosophy of humanity.[i] Maritain’s Creative Intuition is a Thomistic exploration into the spiritual preconscious from which stems poetic knowledge that helps unite beauty, truth and goodness. As with his other, perhaps better-known works, Maritain’s exploration of art and poetry points to a similar conclusion: there is a part of the human person that is an irreducible mystery where the encounter with God happens, but that inner element of us is profoundly shaped by the practical intellect through which works of art and poetry are created.

One of Maritain’s main claims is essentially one about intellectual history and culture: poetic knowledge has been forgotten. For many, only the scientific method is ever objective, whereas literature, poetry, art and other forms of beauty can be nothing but subjective. Writing in a Thomist tradition, for Maritain, relegating beauty, art and poetry to the purely subjective realm is to lessen their intrinsic relationship to the truth. The proper use of the human capacity we have for creative intuition must be ordered by the intelligence for it to feel fulfilling, satisfying, joyful, and beautiful.

By poetic knowledge, Maritain means much more than writing poems. For Maritain, “poetic experience is concerned with the created world and the enigmatic and innumerable relations of beings with each other.”[ii] Poetic knowledge expresses itself in work through a dynamic process: “Poetic experience is from the very start oriented toward expression, and terminates in a word uttered, or a work produced; while mystical experience tends towards silence.”[iii] As he puts it, “man is homo faber and homo poeta at the same time.”[iv]

Poetic knowledge is therefore communication between the soul and the world, as “the soul is known in the experience of the world and the world is known in the experience of the soul…In poetic intuition objective reality and subjectivity, the world and the whole of the soul, coexist inseparably. At that moment sense and sensation are brought back to the heart, blood to the spirit, passion to intuition. And through the vital and nonconceptual actuation of the intellect all the powers of the soul are also actuated in their roots.”[v]

Poetic knowledge is the expression of what Maritain calls creative intuition that emerges from the spiritual preconscious. The very idea that humans have a spiritual preconscious—a central aspect of Maritain’s philosophy—is a key premise that distinguishes his philosophy of humanity from ancient Greek philosophers, Freudian psychology, and post-modernism.

Although ancient Greek philosophers, especially Plato, were very aware of this spiritual preconscious, Plato attributed the creative actions of humanity as a kind of muse, a spiritual power that descends into man in a mysterious way. But for Maritain, our creative capacity is part of our rational, practical human nature; it’s a capacity that allows us to connect to the supernatural, but it’s a human capacity that works its way through our rational, embodied human nature. Art and poetry therefore are things we can rationally understand, improve, and perfect because they are things we do or make, and then reflect on, repeating the process towards perfection. Art and poetry are practical without being pragmatist, or aimed purely at doing something in the world, fulfilling a useful need, or solving a problem: they emanate from our spiritual preconscious, cooperate in divine creation, and shape our relationship with our creator. Art and poetry transcendental, radiant and profoundly disinterested, pointing us toward the infinite.

Maritain also distinguishes the spiritual preconscious from the Freudian subconscious, which he describes as “blood and flesh, instincts, tendencies complexes, repressed images and desires, traumatic memories.”[vi] He goes so far to call the Freudian subconscious the “deaf unconscious—deaf to the intellect, and structured into a world of its own apart from the intellect.”[vii] Maritain doesn’t deny that the Freudian subconscious exists or is powerful; what Maritain questions is whether the Freudian subconscious acts autonomously or whether that subconscious can be directed by another power, namely the spiritual preconscious. Not recognizing that humans have a spiritual preconscious, or not educating that spiritual preconscious, leads to dissonance, dispersion, and the fragmentation caused by a lack of direction for our drives, passions and instincts (i.e., the Freudian subconscious.)

To bolster his argument that the spiritual preconscious is distinct from the Freudian subconscious, Maritain argues that human experience reveals there is a nonconscious world of activity that exists in humans prior to our ability to even given it conceptual form, or describe it. So much of what makes human life beautiful, meaningful, fulfilling comes from this intuition, this imagination, through which we grasp at things deep inside ourselves. Have we not all felt the light of reason coming as a sudden inspiration by day, or a feeling that slowly emerges at night and we still wake up with, guiding our way through the world?

Maritain aims to restore the relationship between reason and beauty, stating: “Reason does not only consist of its conscious logical tools and manifestations, nor does the will consist only of its deliberate conscious determinations. Far beneath the sunlit surface thronged with explicit concepts and judgments, words and expressed resolutions or movements of the will, are the sources of knowledge and creativity, of love and above-sensuous desires, hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul.”[viii]

            As part of our rational nature, therefore, art and poetry are capacities to be honed, refined, reflected on, growing gradually towards perfection. Because art and poetry bring new objects into the world, Maritain argues they form part of the practical rather than the speculative intellect: knowing for the sake of action, of bringing something into existence. Participating in art and poetry forms our identity and subjectivity into beings who have inner qualities of a stability in how to use our many human capacities for the good.

The liberation of so-called infinite human power through creative action, a philosophy of art endemic to post-modern theories grounded in a Freudian understanding of our subconscious and epitomized in the surrealist movement in art, is not the same thing as the freedom that we experience when we integrate our preconscious intellect with the divine. Neither the wildness of the surrealists nor the automatism of those who see artistic expression as purely a response to sensory stimuli build our capacity for inner freedom.

Our imagination, as important as it is to poetry and art, is meant to be directed by our intelligence. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas, Maritain argues that intelligence doesn’t exist for the senses; our intelligence is a more perfect power than our senses. The senses serve our imagination which is supposed to serve our intelligence. The spiritual preconscious is a “root activity in which the intellect and the imagination, as well as the powers of desire, love and emotion are engaged in common.”[ix] This inner drama need not lead to fragmentation where our desires and emotions “lead a wild life of their own,”[x] but our intelligence can elevate our desires, make them truly human, permeated by our intelligence. Therefore imagination can express “the freedom of the creative spirit.”[xi]

The subjectivity of the poet or artist matters because it is through the exhilarating, dynamic process of creativity that we see ourselves as subjects with an interior grasping towards infinity through actions that create objects in the world. Our creative intuition is a “faint attempt to immortalize”[xii] the infinite, to give it a concrete form. Every object we make is laden with significance deeper than sensory perception. What Maritain calls the “creative self of the artist,” is a “person as person, in the act of spiritual communication, not his person as material individual or as self-centered ego.”[xiii] To be fully human and not egotistical, art and poetry must therefore be profoundly disinterested, even self-sacrificial for the sake of revealing one’s creativity as a sign of transcendent beauty. Poetry and art emanate from the deepest recesses of our soul but are “in no way for the sake of the ego.”[xiv]

For Maritain, the emotional satisfaction of bringing something into being that did not previously exist is a sign that our subjectivity participates in the mystery of the infinite. The objects of our creative work have a subjective dimension as signs of another reality, a reality that is transcendent—other than our humanity—but yet reaches down into it, becomes immanent. In this way, therefore, all art is supposed to be sacred; to bring us closer to the truth of our humanity and lead us to the blessed life.

All of Maritain’s work aims to further the human journey towards sanctity. Even if one is not a professional artist or poet, participation in creative acts as Maritain describes them is nonetheless essential to human perfection, a way to unite the human and the sacred.

One way to learn about poetic knowledge in daily life is through the Benedictines. Any image of Benedictine monks of fleeing from the world or contemplating the mysteries of God in isolation from material reality are a mischaracterization of the Benedictine charism, which Saint John Henry Newman characterized as the way of poetry.[xv]

Newman’s summary of the Benedictine way of life from his essay on the Benedictine Schools summarizes beautifully the particular gifts of the Benedictines: simplicity, commitment to place, routine, hospitality, and seeing the totality of reality. Benedictines see the sparkling of divine creation in every living organism, from the sky that covers all of creation to the microbes of the soil. Newman’s reflections help us all see the Benedictine charism as a gift to the church and the world, something we can all learn from, even if we never become Benedictines.

To see the totality of things and to live a contemplative life in the ordinary work of manual labor and repetitive daily routines, as Benedictines do, requires an attentiveness to the present moment and commitment to particular people and places. Poetry and are meant to arrest our attention, slowing down our tendency to analyze, measure, and manipulate needs to be forgone in order to return to a childlike, simple state of perceiving reality that opens up to a sacramental way of living—seeing in visible things the invisible grace of God.

Participating in art and poetry is crucial to the blessed life because each human person contains a subjectivity that is a universe unto itself, a universe that expresses itself through immanent arts that make objects. The objects we interact with—either objects we have made, objects others have made, or objects in nature, impress themselves upon our intellect through sense perception. But there is a dynamic and largely unconscious process through which something goes from the exterior of the person back into the spiritual preconscious, where we can say we know something, having grasped its significance.

Maritain’s impressive work on creative intuition forms part of the larger ongoing debates about how to reconcile the modern focus on the subjective nature of human identity with our embodied, rational capacities. Along with other philosophers who have been called personalists, Maritain demonstrates powerfully how the human person exists as a singular, unrepeatable and irreducible material object in the world, but is endowed with a subjectivity that flows outward to other human subjects who are also singular objects similarly endowed with freedom and creativity. Grasping the ideas of creative intuition, the spiritual preconscious and poetic knowledge—a challenging and thrilling endeavor—allows us to see other human beings as capable in cooperating in acts of divine creation, acts in which we can all cooperate with God and each other using our unique, distinct gifts.

Maritain’s perhaps better-known writings on political institutions in the modern world stemmed from these important insights about how true human cooperation and solidarity emerge: not from instrumental exchanges but from free subjects bringing new works into being, and reflecting together on their significance and contribution to the inseparable personal and common good. Poetic knowledge is therefore central to what Maritain called integral humanism—a philosophy of politics, of art, of education, and of humanity.

As the scientist Carlo Lancellotti describes, the Benedictine charism, or more broadly speaking poetic knowledge as a way of life, can bring order out of chaos precisely because it focuses on the elementary aspects of Christianity; and true order stems from the bottom up, from the spiritual preconscious that works its way out into the world, cooperating with God, not the top down.[xvi]

Understanding Maritain’s philosophy of art and poetry as a philosophy of humanity is important to remedy today’s common views of identity that stop at the Freudian subconscious of drives and passions, or to remedy understandings of culture or beauty that have been severed from rationality or from cooperation with the divine. The loss of poetic knowledge is one reason we are suffering a crisis of attention afflicting culture, politics, education and the church. The lack of imagination and the relegation of the divine to mystical, not poetic, knowledge has led to what sociologist Robert Bellah called the desiccation of common culture.[xvii] Roger Scruton charged that philosophy of art and works of art that are seen as purely subjective expressions of the passions have desacralized culture.[xviii] As the Catholic poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Dana Gioia, puts it, a dialogue between art philosophy is crucial to renewing not just culture but also our civic life, our life together.[xix]

An integral human life is a poetic life, one in which poetry “proceeds from the totality of man: sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, intellect, blood and spirit together.”[xx] Poetic knowledge reminds us that art, poetry and music are not primarily about self-satisfaction or pleasure, but the processes through which we create objects of art, music, poetry, produce resonance and harmony in the soul which in turn sow the seeds of a life-giving, integrated culture.


[i] Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2018).

[ii] Ibid, p. 216.

[iii] Ibid., p. 216.

[iv] Ibid, p. 40.

[v] Ibid., p. 113.

[vi] Ibid, p. 84.

[vii] Ibid, p. 84.

[viii] Ibid, p. 86.

[ix] Ibid, p. 100.

[x] Ibid, p. 109

[xi] Ibid, p. 101.

[xii] Ibid, p. 115.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 129.

[xiv] Ibid, p. 129.

[xv]  Margarita A. Mooney. “The Benedictine Charism as Poetry: Sacramental Living that Sows the Seeds of Order.” Introduction to A Benedictine Education: A Collection of Essays but Saint John Henry Newman. Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2020.

[xvi] Carlo Lancellotti and Margarita Mooney. “St. Benedict and Education: Bringing Order out of Chaos.” In Margarita A. Mooney (editor). Love of Learning: Restoring Classical Liberal Arts Education. Providence, RI: Cluny Media, Forthcoming 2021.

[xvii] Robert N. Bellah. Beyond Belief.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1970. Chapter 15, “Between Religion and Social Science,” pp. 237-59.

[xviii] Roger Scruton. Preface and Chapter 1 “Judging Beauty.” Pp. xi-28 in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[xix] Dana Gioia “Why Beauty Matters.” First Things, February 18, 2020. https://www.firstthings.com/media/why-beauty-matters

[xx] Ibid, p. 101.