GABRIEL MARCEL (7 dec. 1889 - 8 oct. 1973) was born and studied in Paris. As a young man and after, he travelled in most European countries, America, the Middle East and Japan, for his holidays or to give numerous lectures such as the Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen (published as Le Mystère de l’Être) or the William James Lectures (L’Homme problématique). Aged 18, he gave a doctoral dissertation on “Les idées métaphysiques de Coleridge dans leurs rapports avec la philosophie de Schelling”. After having been a teacher, he devoted most of his time to philosophy, writing dramas and comic plays, reviewing books and plays in many literary and artistic magazines or newspapers. He was also a musician and wrote about 30 melodies.
Gabriel Marcel has been one of the most influential living philosophers, and since he became a R.C. in 1929 he has been considered as the main spokesman of Christian Existentialism, which he himself preferred to call Neo-Socratism. His personal thought is as far from German Existentialism (Heidegger) as it is from Jean-Paul Sartre’s. Demanding and lucid, it doesn’t move in the sphere of abstract, disincarnate thinking, but lets itself be taught by life : it is life itself that sets problems and gives solutions.
Marcel’s starting-point is a meditation on the existence of God and on the meaning one is to give to the word «Existence» when one asks whether God “exists” or not – a meaning obviously different from the one we have in mind when we are speaking of a thing.
GABRIEL MARCEL WROTE IN 1969 :
“Are you thankful enough to God for having given you such a fine life ?” At that moment, a few months ago, when an old friend suddenly posed the question, I felt unable to answer it, although it found an echo deep within me. It seemed to call upon me to take a new look at my life. “Is it quite so ?” I asked myself. “Can I say in all sincerity that I have had a fine life ?” A few moments later, it was as if an acquiescence rose upward from the very deeps of me. Yes, it is true : everything considered, my life has been a beautiful one ; my old friend was right. But then why a hesitation before acquiescence ? I see two reasons. First, the ineradicable sorrows that have darkened my existence : the death of my mother when I was still a small child ; then, a little more than twenty years ago, the disappearance of my companion, following by a few years that of my aunt, who had been a second mother to me. Let it not be said that such griefs are, after all, the common lot. That is a meaningless platitude.
Second, my life has been perpetually harrowed by a searching, often and for long stretches undertaken in darkness and in anguish. Nothing could be more false than to envisage it as a progression toward the light. True, I have known stages not only of reward and rest, but also of illumination ; quite often they have been followed, however, by the most painful downfalls...
In the lecture I gave in Frankfurt in September 1964, when I was awarded the Peace Prize, I said that the role of the philosopher today was to be a watchman. This is my profound belief. This role, which the alarming progression of technology renders more and more necessary, is also more and more contested. The Nietzschean idea of the tragic thinker will thus be confirmed, although in a very different sense from what the author of The Dawn conceived. I have to acknowledge that in this role I have acquitted myself most imperfectly. To be sure, I filled my works with warnings and cautions, for I have never lost sight of the anguished predicament of our world today. And never since the terrible days of 1914-1918 have I ceased to feel, I can say in my flesh, the unutterable ordeal that our moral condition imposes on those who love – that is to say, on the only ones who count. In that sense, I believe I can say that my thought has been a commited thinking – not for the benefit of any party or ideology, but for my fellow beings.
(« An Autobiographical Essay »,
in The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel,
Open Court, La Salle [Illinois], 1984)
GABRIEL MARCEL BY ANDRÉ A. DEVAUX
A philosopher en route, proceeding towards Hope
Gabriel Marcel chose to express his thought directly and autobiographically. Some critics have been tempted to deny him the title of metaphysician, forgetting that the greatest texts of the philosophical literature bear this particular mark – this incomparable accent by which a personal experience can be recognized. Such are Descartes’ Discours de la méthode or Spinoza’s Traité de la réforme de l’entendement, for example. As for Marcel, he gives us his “Metaphysical Diary” where we find notations of quite various activities, from the treasures of pure esthetics (Marcel is also a playwright and a musician) to deep philosophical speculation. Such a polymorphic proceeding is something particularly attractive in an author through whom the man is constantly appearing (See Blaise Pascal: “We thought we were meeting an author – and we have found a man”).
The first “Diary” covers the most decisive decade 1913-1923 and accounts for the essential process which is to lead Gabriel Marcel to the central event of his life, his coming into the Roman Catholic Church – an unobtrusive but decisive event, as it is told in a later text with a somewhat mysterious title : Être et Avoir (Being and Having). Next comes Du Refus à l’invocation : Essai de philosophie concrète, of same consonance, then The Metaphysics of Josiah Royce, where Marcel analyses the work of the American philosopher, Royce’s most important ethics and theory of loyalty. Next comes Homo Viator, where we find Man such as Marcel sees him, en route, journeying, travelling forth beyond all empirical hopes, towards true Hope, so that the subtitle of this last book – Prolegomena to a Metaphysics of Hope – would suit the whole body of Marcel’s work.
Not that Hope could be immediately conquered. Marcel’s starting-point is worry, disquiet. It is not a Descartes-like methodical doubt, which is technical, wisely intellectualist ; it is not curiosity, inquisitiveness – i.e. a subject’s move towards an object – but disquiet about oneself, about one’s own center. The philosopher will never give up his search towards the possession of his intimate self, overcoming his initial state of worry by explicitly recognizing and trusting transcendence.
A philosophy of Mystery and Communion
Marcel breaks away from a strict rationalism that explains the whole Universe in terms of intelligibility. He gives Mystery the part it deserves, for we are situated inside a real, inexhaustible world that cannot be reduced to the lean abstraction of Intellectualism. “A Problem is something we meet on the road and are faced with... A Mystery is something in which we find ourselves, therefore essentialy something not lying as a whole before our eyes.” Mystery, therefore, comes before Problem, and Marcel’s philosophy is one of faith, but one that does not forget or exclude the role of intelligence. In this sense Marcel sets himself in the steps of Bergson : for the two philosophers there is one touchstone, and one alone, to warrant the value of thought – that is living life, experiencing it deeply, not overlooking anything or cheating in any way. Now we understand that the Mystery of Mysteries is our own “incarnation”, enlightened by the Marcellian meaning of “Être et Avoir” (Being and Having) : Having is quantitative, measurable, outside of me, Being is quality, mystery, intimacy. Genuine philosophizing will be an ascent to Being through a reduction of Having.
Thus Marcel’s thought is able to restore the “nuptial pact” between Man and Life, between every man and his whole life, in an effective communion. Man is body and soul, and the philosopher cannot ever forget this alliance – for the philosopher is a man haunted by the Real.
André A. Devaux, Paris
E.M. CIORAN ON GABRIEL MARCEL (1971)
“Everyone has known times when he has been tempted to posit universal nonsense”, wrote Marcel during the Second World War (Présence et Immortalité). One might say that the basic meaning of his work and of his life was his refusal to succumb to this temptation, which is the most terrible of all temptations, since it is the product of our negative states, of our weak moments, and of all the gaps in our being. Such temptations are also characterized by a certain sick quality that gives them a dangerous, irresistible charm. The person who is alive has a natural relish for being ; it is therefore easy for him or her to seek and to find meaning in everything. Imagine this relish diverted, perverted, or merely weakened ; what previously had some significance has now ceased to have any, and this disastrous sliding has nowhere to go but down until it ends in the total unhinging of meaning from existence, with no hope of bringing the two together again. Without faith and without the need he always felt for holding onto and creating relationships and convictions for himself, Marcel might not have avoided the lasting experience of nonsense, especially since nihilism is neither a paradoxical nor a monstrous position, but rather a logical conclusion wrecking every mind that has lost intimate contact with mystery (mystery being the prudish term for the absolute).
(in The Philosophy of Gabriel
Open Court, La Salle [Illinois], 1984,
Présence de Gabriel Marcel