The Great Thirst
by James V. Schall, S.J.
In The Range of Reason, Jacques Maritain wrote: “The world is prey to a great thirst, an immense mystical yearning which does not even know itself and which, because it remains without objective, turns to despair or neurosis.” Most people easily comprehend the notion of a great “thirst.” Thirst concentrates our attention. If thirst is great, we do not ask: “What quenches our thirst?” We know. The “object” of our physical need is “water, cool clear water,” as the Sons of the Pioneers used to sing.
Other beverages, like lemonade, can also subdue our dry throats. Chesterton said that people, after a long, hot, walk on a dusty English road, do not drink beer because of its alcohol. Beer is a drink. We are thirsty. In normal thirst, what we most want is simply water. It is because beer is mostly water that it can do the trick. A martini or a brandy, in the same circumstances, would not do the trick. Indeed, either would probably increase our thirst for water. We might wonder: “Why is there both water and thirst in the universe?”
What is interesting about Maritain’s remarks is the analogy to another kind of “thirst,” one for something other than water. This is not an argument from desire to existence, but from existence to desire. This “mystical yearning” does not know itself. Unlike normal thirst, this deeper thirst does not know its object straightaway. What is it that will satisfy us?