Obituary: Jean Guitton

James Kirkup@jameskirkup
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:39

JEAN GUITTON - Christian philosopher, writer, painter, novelist and journalist - was the friend of statesmen, politicians, presidents and fellow authors as well as of theologians and philosophers.

He was a friend and disciple of Henri Bergson, who made him one of his literary executors. He had profound reverence for Teihard de Chardin. Camus became his friend after being influenced by his Portrait de Monsieur Pouget, and early work written while he was imprisoned in a stalag, published by Gallimard while he was still in the concentration camp. Pouget was a self-educated peasant of immense learning, a blind Lazarist priest and visionary recluse whose example taught Guitton fundamental moral and religious principles that were to guide his whole life, and to show him how to reconcile Catholicism with the realities of contemporary science and history. It also taught him compassion for those in spiritual and material distress. One of his most brilliant pupils at the Lycee du Parc at Lyon was the future Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who in a fit of folly murdered his wife in 1980 and was confined to an asylum for life, during which time he had the faithful support of his old teacher.

Yet Guitton's earliest teacher of the Christian faith was his own mother, to whom he pays fervent tribute in the following words:

I who have had no other teacher of religion than my mother, still remain true to a way of belonging to the Catholic Church, to the sacraments and to God in a manner different from all my contemporaries. My mother alone formed my concept of faith, and for a very particular reason. In 1905, my parents did something scandalous: while all the family had been raised under the Jesuits, they sent me to a state school. Pope Pius X condemned this kind of conduct.

He took a degree in philosophy, which he taught in various provincial schools and universities before being appointed in 1955 to the Faculty of Letters as Professor of the History of Philosophy at the Sorbonne. As he had been a non- collaborationist supporter of Petain under the Vichy regime, this appointment at first met with some resistance from students and staff.

The greater part of Guitton's work is centred on questions of faith in an age of science. He was a fervent ecumenicist, and had early adopted the second Viscount Halifax's concept of a "corporate union" of the divided churches. Though Lord Halifax was an Anglican, Guitton found common ground with his ideas through the works of Cardinal Newman. Guitton regarded himself as a true "free-thinker", insisting that "Catholic" meant "universal". He believed that all the Church's present troubles, since the Second Vatican Council, were caused by the extinction of the mysterious and mystical aspects of liturgical prayer. It is no wonder that he had sympathy and admiration for traditionalists like Monsignor Lefebvre who rejected the modernised form of the Catholic liturgy and defied suspension and excommunication. Guitton also blamed the Church's new attitudes for the proliferation of sects.

He conversed with and often disagreed with contemporary philosophers. After his encounter with Heidegger, he wrote, with his familiar little touch of harmless malice:

Heidegger and Bergson had the same kind of look, like the Athenian owl, the look of privacy taken by surprise. Heidegger was a Swabian peasant with neither talent nor eloquence. Bergson, on the contrary, was all talent, a fountain of sparkling speech.

Jean Guitton became a friend of Pope Paul VI, who on his last day on earth asked him to read to him from Guitton's Children's Catechism, in which he emphasised the positive aspects of faith: hope, happiness, kindness rather than the threats of hellfire and the Devil as rewards for sinful life. He was the first layman ever to be invited to address the Vatican Council in 1962. He was attentive to the problems posed for the faithful by biology and astrophysics, and his advice was to study scientific laws and observe those of the Gospels.

In one of his last works, Mon testament philosophique (1997), Guitton converses entertainingly and illuminatingly with a wide variety of characters, beginning with Lucifer and ending with Francois Mitterrand, by way of Pascal, Bergson, Charles de Gaulle, Aristotle, St Augustine and St Therese of Lisieux. He praises the virtues of the Internet to de Gaulle, and acts as father confessor to Mitterrand, who was obsessed and frightened by the prospect of a life after death. Guitton comments, with his little acid note: "He thought I had a private line to life beyond the tomb - he put his trust not in God but in `specialists'. He'd have consulted a butcher about butchering."

Guitton was also a gifted painter, and through Jean Cocteau carried out the decoration of the Chapel of the Premonstratensians in Rome. But he will be remembered as a professor of life as well as of philosophy. The oldest member of the Academie Francaise - "Immortals" as they are popularly known - already has his own place in our intellectual heavens. At the end of Mon testament philosophique, he even contemplates his own funeral, which he obviously hopes will be a state occasion with a day of national mourning at the Invalides. A forgivable ambition in a man endowed with spiritual grace and rich scholarship.

Jean Guitton, philosopher, writer and painter: born Saint-Etienne, France 18 August 1901; died Paris 21 March 1999.

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