Since its founding, the United States has elicited much curiosity and commentary from European intellectuals. Oscillating between paternal interest and fraternal rivalry, Europe's ambitious scribes have braved the Atlantic, written sprawling books, instructed us in manners and morals, and measured our development against Old World benchmarks. Sometimes this interest has been positive, sometimes ambivalent; often, especially in recent years, it has been negative and condescending.
The French, in particular, have commented prodigiously on America. From Talleyrand and Tocqueville to Jean Baudrillard and Bernard-Henri Levy, French thinkers have left lasting guideposts of interpretation, if not always on the actual America of Iowa City and Cleveland then at least on the symbolic America, that golem of soulless modernity.
As the process of post-Cold War European unification unfolded, hostility to this symbolic America unfortunately helped define the new European identity. Where then might one turn to find a more measured view from abroad? The French philosopher Jacques Maritain provides an interesting starting point. His picture of the nation, as glimpsed in Reflections on America (1958), offers a sympathetic treatment of the United States, one that deftly mixes historical insight and theological reflection.
Such a treatment by a French Catholic did not appear likely in the middle of the twentieth century. As an expression of political modernity, the United States long stood under a cloud of suspicion for devout Catholics, who in the nineteenth century tended to associate liberal ideas with the French Revolution's anticlericalism. Moreover, Catholic misgivings cannot be isolated from more-general Old World elite hostility toward an upstart nation. This hostility waxed and waned through the nineteenth century, reaching a high-water mark in the early twentieth century as the United States' industrial clout grew. The politically polarized interwar years saw a high volume of Anti-American literature published in Europe. Georges Duhamel's French bestseller, America the Menace (1930), expressed a typical loathing of commerce, crowd culture, and entertainment in America. Three years before Hitler ravaged Europe, Duhamel saw in the United States nothing but the brutalization of conscience, the standardization of culture, and the debasement of civilized values.
Unlike many commentators, Maritain and his wife Raissa actually lived in the United States. He fled war-torn Europe in 1940 for what was to be a brief exile. As things turned out, he accepted academic appointments in New York and Princeton and wound up living in the United States until 1960 (punctuated by three years as French ambassador to the Vatican after the war).
In Reflections on America, European elite criticism of the United States is never far from Maritain's mind. When unwarranted, he contravenes it; when justified, he presents it shorn...