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Jean Guitton - Biography

Jean Guitton was a French philosopher and writer who would be elected as a member of the prestigious French Academy in 1961. The French Academy is an institution whose function is to standardize and perfect the French language. It brings together leading figures from the literary fields (poets, novelists, theater people, critics) but also philosophers, historians and scientists who have shown some of what is deemed the best the French language. Moreover, it is now traditionally also bringing high-ranking statesmen and military servicemen as well as clerics. Guitton was born in Saint-Étienne in the Loire region of France on August 18th 1901 and died in Paris on March 21st 1999, reaching almost 100 years of age.

Guitton was born into a middle class Catholic family. His father came from a traditional Catholic practice while his mother was from a humanist Catholic faith. Furthermore, his maternal grandfather would even be proud to show his agnosticism. Such diversity in expressions of faith would mark the originality of Guitton’s thought. Guitton would be a brilliant student at the Lycée Saint-Etienne (high school), which would lead him in 1920 to enter the École normale supérieure (ENS), the most prestigious French school for humanities studies. He would get his agrégation in philosophy (French University high-level competitive examination for the recruitment of professors and often the gateway to PhD studies) only three years later.

Guitton would become a disciple of the major French philosopher Henri Bergson and truly began his literary career in 1933 with a PhD thesis entitled “Le temps et l'éternité chez Plotin et Saint-Augustin” (Time and eternity in Plotinus and St. Augustine). He would become a high school professor in several French cities, Troyes, Moulins (Lycée Théodore de Banville), and Lyon before becoming a university professor in Montpellier in 1937. During WWII he would imprisoned for most of the war, from June 1940 to June 1945.

However, being captive is turned into an opportunity for him to write and publish a metaphysical and political essay on French identity entitled “Fondements de la communauté française” (Foundations of French community), published in the middle of the war in 1942. The book is prefaced by the famous Marshal Pétain, who at the time was 86 years of age and the head of state of a Germany-occupied France. Guitton dedicated the text to him. It is important to add that Pétain’s government would as the war went on collaborate with the Germans, which would be very controversial. In this work Jean Guitton proposes to give to the “new France” he feels he is seeing rising from the defeat, a kind of “mystique” (mystical belief) that would successfully manage to synthesize the best of the “ancien régime” (old regime) and of the French revolution.

The journal he kept from 1942 to 1943 while he was a prisoner is also characteristic of his political agenda: he recounts, inter alia, his commitment to the Pétain camp, and would even lecture and organize meetings between French and German officers. Several pages of the journal would be published as early as March 7th 1943 in the weekly Pétain-centered newspaper entitled “Demain” (Tomorrow), whose mission it was to bring together Catholics from all sides behind Marshal Pétain. However, the publication of his journal would end up earning him a conviction in court for aiding the enemy and help German propaganda.

Luckily, as a close friend of Monsignor Montini, who would later become the Pope (Paul VI), his work is protected from the rigors of the Catholic Index, which was a list of books that Roman Catholics were not allowed to read. The purpose of this list was to prevent the reading of books deemed immoral or contrary to the Catholic faith. In fact, Guitton would even be called by Pope John XXIII to participate as a layman in The Second Vatican Council, which was the first time a layman would be invited to participate in such council. This council in particular is considered the most significant event in the history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. It symbolized the Catholic Church’s openness to the modern world and contemporary culture, which was recognized for the first time as made up of considerable technological progress, people’s emancipation, and growing secularization. Indeed answers to modern questions were sought in a turn to the roots of Christianity: the Bible (based on new biblical research) and the great tradition.

After the war Guitton would become a high school teacher again, this time in the south of France in Avignon and then a professor in the northeast of France at the University of Dijon and then finally in Paris to the Sorbonne. Jean Guitton would win the the French Academy Prize for Literature in 1954. His oeuvre would be a prolific one and for the most part included philosophical works and essays that would make him one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the late twentieth century. He would be supported by the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel, in 1955 Guitton would be appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Sorbonne, and that in spite of opposition from both, philosophers Vladimir Jankelevitch and Jean Wahl, who see there the potential return of Petain’s thought.

Meanwhile, Jean Guitton would continue to publish works of philosophy and apologetics (a field of theological or literary studies consisting in a systematic way to defend a position), which would largely contribute to making him one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century. Jean Guitton would also be appointed by Henri Bergson, the famous philosopher, Nobel Prize winner for literature, alongside Vladimir Jankélévitch as the heirs to his thought. Additionally, he would help make Marthe Robin know by, for instance, writing a book about her published in English as “Marthe Robin: A Prophetic Vision of the Gospel Message”. Further, he would frequently see her and seek her advice before running for a seat at the French Academy.

Not only would Guitton managed to be elected to the French Academy on June 8th 1961, but he would also get elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in 1987, and become a commander of the Legion of Honor as well. Guitton could also be proud to have had as a student, Louis Althusser who admired him and who would become a famous French philosopher. In fact, Althusser would even visit Guitton secretly late at night during the May 1968 revolts.

Guitton would continue to write until the end of his life. In 1984, he shared his thoughts on death and the afterlife in a book called “L’Absurde et le Mystère” (The Absurd and the Mystery), which he wrote after discussions he had had with French President François Mitterrand, then suffering from a cancer he kept very much as a secret. In 1991, Jean Guitton would be involved in a plagiarism case. Indeed, the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan had accused the Bogdanoff brothers to have plagiarized his book “The Secret Melody” (1988) for their book based on Guitton interviews entitled “Dieu et la science” (God and science-1991). The trial that would ensue found them not guilty in the slightest.

Jean Guitton will have also practiced painting as a hobby since his childhood. He would be strongly encouraged as an adult by the painter Édith Desternes, an artist residing in Paris. She helped him, for example to exhibit his works at the Galerie Katia Granoff in Paris. Jean Guitton would continue to follow her lead and would paint a “Chemin de croix” (Stations of the Cross) for the church Saint-Louis-des-Invalides in Paris. In the Catholic faith, Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis) is a ceremony held to commemorate the Passion of Christ and in particular fourteen moments of it. For each station, for each stop in the road, Jean Guitton would paint a different picture - an icon - onto which he would write a short sentence that illuminates the painting and reveal what is meant by it. Jean Cocteau, the famous French poet, artist and film director, would also encourage Guitton with painting, particularly with the project to decorate a chapel in Rome, which he would do.

Jean Guitton would die in 1999 at the age of 97. Having married late in life, he had no children. His brother, Henri Guitton, would become a renowned economist.

Jean Guitton was a French Catholic Philosopher. (August 18, 1901 - March 21, 1999)