The leaders' three wise men: Frenchman's ideas 'a bit Trudeauesque'


Byline: Joanne Laucius, Source: The Ottawa Citizen

Page: A10, Edition: Final

Mon, May 31, 2004


We dissect our political leaders' sartorial selections, their colour preferences and what they like to eat. But one thing we usually fail to ask is who their favourite philosophers are. To wade too deeply into philosophy is to plumb essential and vexing questions, but one thing is clear: A candidate's favourite philosopher can reveal some of his ideas about us and our society. Here, in very simplified terms, Joanne Laucius looks at the philosophers who have shaped the candidates.


- - -Paul Martin's favourite philosopher began his intellectual journey as a typical quest for a young man -- the French academic wanted to find the meaning of life. But this quest had an unusual twist. Jacques Maritain, the son of a Protestant family, and his wife, Raissa Oumansouff-Maritain, a Russian Jewish poet, made a suicide pact. If they didn't understand the meaning of life after a year, they would kill themselves. After a year, the unlikely pair came to an equally unlikely conclusion -- instead of suicide, they both converted to Catholicism. "There were no more questions, no more anguish, no more trials -- there was only the infinite answer of God," Ms. Oumansouff-Maritain would later write.

      Mr. Maritain was part of a movement that began in the late 19th century that revitalized interest in the 13th-century theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas. He has been called a "20th-century Thomist." Like Thomas Aquinas, Mr. Maritain believed that that there was no conflict between faith and reason, and that the existence of God could be philosophically demonstrated.Religion, according to Mr. Maritain, was not a matter of opinion or preferences, but a matter of truth. Mr. Maritain would become one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the 20th century. Starting in 1932, he gave a series of lectures at the Institute of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he moved to the U.S., where he taught at Princeton and Columbia.

      In the 1930s, Mr. Maritain was attacked for being "communistic" said William Sweet, a professor of philosophy at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University and an expert on Maritain. Mr. Maritain, for his part, wrote a book on Christianity and democracy, and argued there are universal principles in Christian philosophy that had to be respected. "It's a very progressive view," said Mr. Sweet. "It recognizes the dignity of the individual and the social responsibility of the individual." Although Maritain was not actively involved in politics, some members of Pierre Trudeau's cabinet were also of the generation to be influenced by Mr. Maritain, said Mr. Sweet. In fact, Mr. Maritain's ideas about the individual's obligations to work for the welfare of the community are "a bit Trudeauesque," said Mr. Sweet.

      Mr. Martin has also acknowledged the influence Mr. Maritain has in his life. Mr. Maritain, like Aquinas, believed in the "first mover." "St. Thomas would say there had to have been a God. Maritain would say there has to have been a first mover. That's whatever you want to call God," said Mr. Martin last year. An atheist could only embrace some of Mr. Maritain's point of view, said Mr. Sweet. "If you want to buy Maritain, you have to be open to a higher value." In Mr. Maritain's view, government is to serve the well-being of the person, said Mr. Sweet. And the individual has a spiritual dimension. "The role of government is to allow each individual to perfect himself or herself." Maritain's philosophy is believed to have left a mark on a number of national declarations, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

      Mr. Maritain and his wife returned to France in 1960, where she died later that year. Mr. Maritain moved to Toulouse, where he lived with a religious order, the Little Brothers of Jesus. He died in 1973.


      One of Stephen Harper's favourite philosophers is Adam Smith, an 18th-century Scot known as the patron saint of economics and the free market. Mr. Harper is an economist by training, and, as he noted in one interview in 2002, he has been influenced by the classical economists.

      Smith wrote the influential Wealth of Nations, a 1776 book whose ideas about the free enterprise still resonate today. His central idea? Unbridled market forces do a better job of promoting social good than the efforts of the state.

      Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. The exact date of his birth is unknown, however he was baptized on June 5, 1723. At 14, he entered the University of Glasgow, then the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment, and graduated three years later with a scholarship to Oxford.

      In 1751, Smith was appointed professor of logic at Glasgow University, later transferring to the chair of moral philosophy. His lectures were embodied in his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which discussed the ethical principles that held society together. One of those principles is the idea that each of us has an "impartial spectator" who overrides self-interest. Smith believed that people are driven by passions, but regulated by an ability to reason -- "led by an invisible hand .... without knowing it, without intending it [to] advance the interest of society."

      The success of the book attracted a wealthy patron, and Smith took up a lucrative post as the tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch, which allowed him to travel in Europe. In 1776, Smith moved to London, where he published his look at economic freedom: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Human nature is the driving force in history, driven by the desire for improvement, he argued. And competition is the mechanism that orders society, "a desire that comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until we go into the grave." Competition forces prices down to their natural levels and the market is a vast self-correcting mechanism that allowed wealth to grow, argued Smith, who opposed not just government intervention, but also monopolies." To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers," he noted in The Wealth of Nations. "It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation that is governed by shopkeepers."

      Some have suggested that modern corporate libertarians have "betrayed" Smith. "For example, corporate libertarians fervently oppose any restraint on corporate size or power," wrote David C. Korten in When Corporations Rule the World, arguing Smith was writing about small farmers and artisans trying to get the best price for their products, and not giant corporations.

      It appears that Smith himself was not gung-ho on greed. He lived his last years in semi-retirement and acquired another lucrative post, this time as commissioner of customs and salt duties. When he informed the Duke of Buccleuch that he no longer needed his pension, the duke replied that his sense of humour would not allow him to stop paying it. Perhaps Smith allowed his "invisible hand" to guide his financial affairs.

      When he died in 1790, it appeared he had given away money "on a scale much beyond what would have been expected from his fortune."



NDP leader Jack Layton's favourite philosopher was also his mentor as a student at McGill University in the late '60s.That should be no surprise, since philosopher Charles Taylor happens to have had a long NDP history of his own. Under the NDP banner, he lost to Pierre Trudeau in Mount Royal in 1965. He lost three other federal elections as


      Mr. Taylor, 72, may not have won at the polls, but he knows how to wow them in academia. He is an internationally respected and multifaceted thinker who has been been a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University and has met with Pope John Paul II and former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. He has fought for Canadian federalism. He is fluently bilingual and is admired in French as well as English Canada. Last year, he was awarded the inaugural Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, which carried with it a $100,000 prize. His writing has been translated into 20 languages.

      Mr. Taylor's work covers topics ranging from individual rights and collective responsibilities to language and multiculturalism and the meaning of the secular state. He is also an expert on the 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a point Mr. Layton brought up a few months ago when he visited an undergraduate class in political process and behaviour at McGill.

      When Mr. Taylor approaches a problem, he thinks of it as a dialectic, Mr. Layton told the students. (Dialectic is the practice of weighing and reconciling contradictory points of view).The idea he was bringing out of the discussion is that resolutions to conflicts come out of dialectic, said Antonia Maioni, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. "We don't have to be satisfied with the status quo," said Ms. Maioni."You can challenge assumptions in society."

      But Hegel is only a small part of Mr. Taylor's work. He is often classified as a communitarian, a philosophy that places a high value on the good of the collective as opposed to the individual. Focus on the self, he says, "both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society."He has also taken on a large number of the big issues in western society. In his 1989 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Mr. Taylor, a devout Catholic, suggested that secular sources of inspiration may not be able to sustain important values over time, and suggested a return to Judeo-Christian spirituality. In a preface to a 1998 series of lectures on living in the secular age, he said he wanted to "get at the condition of belief/unbelief today." Why, he asked, was it difficult not to believe in God in 1500, while today it is faith that is hard?

      His most recent works have focused on the idea of the western sense of self. Morality, Mr. Taylor explained in his 2002 book Sources of the Self, is the way we live, not just arguments about how we should behave. Morality is also about visions of the good that are unique to each individual's environment and culture, and not about universal visions that are imposed on us. He argues that individuals find visions of the good in our cultures, the groups we join and we define them for ourselves.