Words of Past Experience

Pudeur, Prudery, and Artists (1919)

By Räissa Maritain (1883-1960) - Paris, France



The following text is the full entry for 10 March 1919 in the journals published first in French (Paris: Desclée Brouwer, 1963) and later in translation (Albany: Magi Books, 1974) by the author's husband, Jacques Maritain (1882-1873). The text appears on pages 92 through 96 in the 1974 edition.



I seem to see in every man someone under torture. The happiest are happy only in hope. Some truly are so but these are (almost) angels. Some appear happy but these are hardly men.




There is no prayer of union except in passive contemplation.




It is an error to isolate oneself from men because one has a clearer vision of truth. If God does not call one to solitude, one must live with God in the multitude; make him known there, and make him loved.


But if one establishes one's life in the city, one must not saunter about with one's hands in one's pockets. One must take part in the life of the city and try to 'establish all things in Christ'.


Many pious Catholics have been far too fastidious and withdrawn, too ready to leave activity to those who understand neither its principle nor its end. Or else they involved themselves in it with no knowledge of the things they are dealing with and their specific requirements. One must do everything well, especially if one has the perilous honour of serving Truth. Above all one must do no disservice to charity. Christianity is not only a force which makes for order -- people have been a little too conscious of that particular aspect of it.


It is a dynamic driving force, in virtue of the charity and zeal which animate it.


The very order it establishes, and guarantees, is not for the good of the few; it is for the good of the greater number, the common good.


Catholics have too often been the servants of what is least worthy of being served -- the servants of those who invoke "order" only in their own interest.




Two things manifest the spirituality of the soul: the nature of the intellect and pudeur.


[Jacques Maritain inserted this footnote here: 'Modesty', or 'sense of decency', by which one occasionally translates the French word pudeur, gives only a very incomplete rendering of its meaning. No English word or expression seems to suggest the idea (contained in the word pudeur and used in this sense in the passage) of a very delicate degree of 'modesty' -- owing far more to inner chastity than to any social convention -- which causes certain things, in particular involving the human body (but also the soul and sometimes its noblest and most cherished feelings), to appear as things which ought to be protected from the gaze of others, not because they are impure in themselves but because they might risk being in some way injured or soiled or profaned in the thought of others. In the circumstances, it seemed best to use the French word pudeur.]


Pudeur, in the human compound, is a spiritual instinct which reveals the real (and not conventional) superiority of the spirit to the flesh. It is a strictly human instinct, being an assertion of the rights of the spirit over the domain of the animal nature. A specifically human instinct. It is found neither in the angel nor in the beast. But the more man lives like angels, the more delicate his pudeur becomes -- (the child, being still too little developed as man, is unaware of pudeur); it grows in proportion as the spirit fortifies itself against the flesh. Thus pudeur is not related only to innocence: the child is innocent but is ignorant of pudeur; it lies in the instinctive consciousness which the spirit develops of itself and of the part assigned to it in the human compound.


Pudeur and prudery are opposed to each other, are in inverse ratio to one another. A soul anchored in innocence by the grace of God and the purity of life ignores prudery to the point of sometimes seeming to be destitute of pudeur. Anyone who knows that God has done all things well is not ashamed of any of the things God has made when he relates them to the wisdom of God.


But as soon as man feels that any subversion threatens the hierarchy of beings: God, spirit, animal nature, and especially when the flesh enters into conflict with the spirit, pudeur raises its voice all the higher when the spirit is freer and more vigorous and behaviour more innocent.


Pudeur is commonly more accentuated in woman because woman is to some extent above and below animal nature: above, by the greater purity of her life -- I am speaking in general; -- below, because her maternal functions are vegetative rather than animal. For these two reasons it is more repugnant to her to be recalled to her carnal functions.


A true and total love, a Christian marriage, idealise even the flesh because they unite not only two bodies, but two humanities. They are good because they are willed by God. They are innocent and pure. Do not let us be more spiritualistic than the Holy Spirit.


Shame is not always a sign of bad conscience. If I realise that someone has an impure thought about me, it is I who will blush.


If anyone lies in my presence, it is I who will lower my eyes . . .




Art draws all its objective value from its civilising power. It contributes works of goodness, of delicacy, of intelligence, of reason, -- in a word of all the gifts which are the dowry of human nature, -- it contributes to spiritualising man, to making him more ready to receive the natural and supernatural contemplative life, and to bear, through grace, savoury fruits of eternal life.


And certainly God does not need our preparation to make us divine -- He can 'make children of Abraham out of these stones'. But He did not create nature for the purpose of despising her powers; on the contrary He likes to see these powers act within a framework of order, and to make Nature the collaborator of his omnipotence.


The Catholics of today, when they are sound on doctrine, are as a rule narrow-minded as regards the proper domain of art and its civilising function, the function of natural spiritualisation it has in humanity. They are hard on artists. And the latter may well wonder whether their natural gifts are a sign of their being among the reprobate. It seems to me that Catholics ought to possess a genuinely informed doctrine concerning everything which is human, a doctrine which conforms with truth, taste and intelligence. No timidity. No pharisaism. No ignorance. No prudishness. No Manicheism. But the full and luminous Catholic doctrine.