Gabriel Marcel On Existentialism–and Life


Gabriel Marcel On Existentialism–and Life

Quotations from The Philosophy of Existentialism.

Rather than to begin with abstract definitions and dialectical arguments which may be discouraging at the outset, I should like to start with a sort of global and intuitive characterisation of the man in whom the sense of the ontological–the sense of being–is lacking, or, to speak more correctly, of the man who has lost the awareness of this sense. Generally speaking, modern man is in this condition; if ontological demands worry him at all, it is only dully, as an obscure impulse.

The characteristic feature of our age seems to me to be what might be called misplacement of the idea of function, taking function in its current sense which includes both the vital and the social functions. The individual tends to appear both to himself and to others as an agglomeration of functions…So many hours for each function. Sleep too is a function which must be discharged so that the other functions may be exercised in their turn. The same with pleasure, with relaxation; it is logical that the weekly allowance of recreation should be determined by an expert on hygiene…The details will vary with the country, the climate, the profession, etc., but what matters is that there is a schedule.

I need hardly insist on the stifling impression of sadness produced by this functionalised world. It is sufficient to recall the dreary image of the retired official, or those urban Sundays when the passers-by look like people who have retired from life.

It should be noted that this world is, on the one hand, riddled with problems and, on the other, determined to allow no room for mystery…In such a world the ontological need, the need of being, is exhausted in exact proportion to the breaking up of personality on the one hand and, on the other, to the triumph of the category of the “purely natural” and the consequent atrophy of the faculty of wonder.

As for defining the word “being,” let us admit that it is extremely difficult. I would merely suggest this method of approach: being is what withstands–or what would withstand–an exhaustive analysis bearing on the data of experience and aiming to reduce them step by step to elements increasingly devoid of intrinsic or significant value.

Thus I believe for my part that the ontological need cannot be silenced by an arbitrary dictatorial act which mutilates the life of the spirit at its roots. It remains true, nevertheless, that such an act is possible, and the conditions of our life are such that we can well believe that we are carrying it out; this must never be forgotten.

It should be added that the Cartesian position is inseparable from a form of dualism which I, for my part, would unhesitatingly reject. To raise the ontological problem is to raise the question of being as a whole and of oneself seen as a totality.

From this standpoint, contrary to what epistemology seeks vainly to establish, there exists well and truly a mystery of cognition; knowledge is contingent on a participation in being for which no epistemology can account because it continually presupposes it.

I am therefore led to assume or to recognize a form of participation which has the reality of a subject; this participation cannot be, by definition, an object of thought; it cannot serve as a solution–it appears beyond the realm of problems: it is meta-problematical.

A mystery is a problem which encroaches upon its own data, invading them, as it were, and thereby transcending itself as a simple problem.

It might perhaps even be shown that the domain of the meta-problematical coincides with that of love, and that love is the only starting point for the understanding of such mysteries as that of body and soul, which, in some manner, is its expression.

Actually, it is inevitable that, in being brought to bear on love, thought which has not thought itself–unreflected reflection–should tend to dissolve its meta-problematical character and interpret it in terms of abstract concepts, such as the will to live, the will to power, the libido, etc. On the other hand, since the domain of the problematical is that of the objectively valid, it will be extremely difficult–if not impossible–to refute these interpretations without changing to a new ground: a ground on which, to tell the truth, they lose their meaning. Yet I have the assurance, the certainty–and it envelops me like a protective cloak–that for as much as I really love I must not be concerned with the attempts at devaluation.

Hence I am in the presence of a mystery. That is to say, of a reality rooted in what is beyond the domain of the problematical properly so called. Shall we avoid the difficulty by saying that it was after all nothing but a coincidence, a lucky chance?

To think, or rather, to assert, the meta-problematical is to assert it as indubitably real, as a thing of which I cannot doubt without falling into contradiction. We are in a sphere where it is no longer possible to dissociate the idea itself from the certainty or the degree of certainty which pertains to it. Because this idea is certainty, it is the assurance of itself; it is, in this sense, something other and something more than an idea.

I am convinced, for my part, that no ontology–that is to say, no apprehension of ontological mystery in whatever degree–is possible except to a being who is capable of recollecting himself, and of thus proving that he is not a living creature pure and simple, a creature, that is to say, which is at the mercy of its life and without a hold upon it.

It should be noted that recollection, which has received little enough attention from pure philosophers, is very difficult to define–if only because it transcends the dualism of being and action or, more correctly, because it reconciles in itself these two aspects of the antimony. The word means what it says–the act whereby I re-collect myself as a unity; but this hold, this grasp upon myself, is also relaxation and abandon.

It is within recollection that I take up my position–or, rather, I become capable of taking up my position–in regard to my life; I withdraw from it in a certain way, but not as the pure subject of cognition; in this withdrawal I carry with me that which I am and which perhaps my life is not. This brings out the gap between my being and my life. I am not my life; and if I can judge my life–a fact I cannot deny without falling into a radical scepticism which is nothing other than despair–it is only on condition that I encounter myself within recollection beyond all possible judgment and, I would add, beyond all representation.

The double meaning of “recollection” in English is revealing.

Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me, which cannot but will that which I will, if what I will deserves to be willed and is, in fact, willed by the whole of my being.

I do not wish: I assert; such is the prophetic tone of true hope.

…While the structure of the world we live in permits–and may even seem to counsel–absolute despair, yet it is only such a world that can give rise to an unconquerable hope. If only for this reason, we cannot be sufficiently thankful to the great pessimists in the history of thought; they have carried through an inward experience which needed to be made and of which the radical possibility no apologetics should disguise; they have prepared our minds to understand that despair can be what it was for Nietzsche (though on an infra-ontological level and in a domain fraught with mortal dangers) the springboard to the loftiest affirmation.

To the question: what can man achieve? we continue to reply: He can achieve as much as his technics; yet we are obliged to admit that these technics are unable to save man from himself, and even that they are apt to conclude the most sinister alliance with the enemy he bears within him.

I have said that man is at the mercy of his technics. This must be understood to mean that he is increasingly incapable of controlling his technics, or rather of controlling his own control. This control of his own control, which is nothing else than the expression on the plane of active life of what I have called thought at one remove, cannot find its centre or its support anywhere except in recollection.

We have to recognise that we have no control over meteorological conditions, but the question is: do we consider it desirable and just that we should have such control? The more the sense of the ontological tends to disappear, the more unlimited become the claims of the mind which has lost it to a kind of cosmic governance, because it is less and less capable of examining its own credentials to the exercise of such dominion.

The metaphysical problem of pride–hubris–which was perceived by the Greeks and which has been one of the essential themes of Christian theology, seems to me to have been almost completely ignored by modern philosophers other than theologians. It has become a domain reserved for the moralist. Yet from my own standpoint it is an essential–if not the vital–question.

Faithfulness is, in reality, the exact opposite of inert conformism. It is the active recognition of something permanent, not formally, after the manner of a law, but ontologically; in this sense, it refers invariably to a presence, or to something which can be maintained within us and before us as a presence, but which, ipso facto, can be just as well ignored, forgotten and obliterated; and this reminds us of that menace of betrayal which, to my mind, overshadows the whole world.

Fidelity to a principle as a principle is idolatry in the etymological sense of the word; it might be a sacred duty for me to deny a principle from which life has withdrawn and which I know that I no longer accept, for by continuing to conform my actions to it, it is myself–myself as presence–that I betray.

Presence is a mystery in the exact measure in which it is presence. Now fidelity is the active perpetuation of presence, the renewal of its benefits–of its virtue which consists in a mysterious incitement to create.

Thus if creative fidelity is conceivable, it is because fidelity is ontological in its principle, because it prolongs presence which itself corresponds to a certain kind of hold which being has upon us; because it multiplies and depends the effect of this presence almost unfathomably in our lives. This seems to me to have almost inexhaustible consequences, if only for the relationships between the living and the dead.

A presence is a reality; it is a kind of influx; it depends upon us to be permeable to this influx, but not, to tell the truth, to call it forth. Creative fidelity consists in maintaining ourselves actively in a permeable state; and there is a mysterious interchange between this free act and the gift granted in response to it.

When I say that a being is granted to me s a presence or as a being (it comes to the same, for he is not a being for me unless he is a presence), this means that I am unable to treat him as if he were merely placed in front of me; between him and me there arises a relationship which, in a sense, surpasses my awareness of him; he is not only before me, he is also within me–or, rather, these categories are transcended, they have no longer any meaning.

It will perhaps make it clearer if I say that the person who is at my disposal is the one who is capable of being with me with the whole of himself when I am in need; while the one who is not t my disposal seems merely to offer me a temporary loan raised on his recourses. For the one I am a presence; for the other I am an object.

Unavailability is invariably rooted in some measure of alienation.

But the characteristic of the soul which is present and at the disposal of others is that it cannot think in terms of cases; in its eyes there are no cases at all.

It is as though each one of us secreted a kind of shell which gradually hardened and imprisoned him; and this sclerosis is bound up with the hardening of the categories in accordance with which we conceive and evaluate the world.

I know by my own experience how, from a stranger met by chance, there may come an irresistible appeal which overturns the habitual perspectives just as a gust of wind might tumble down the panels of a stage set–what had seemed near becomes infinitely remote and what had seemed distant seems to be close. Such cracks are repaired almost at once. But it is an experience which leaves us with a bitter taste, an impression of sadness and almost of anguish; yet I think it is beneficial, for it shows us as in a flash all that is contingent and–yes–artificial in the crystallized pattern of our personal system.

To be incapable of presence is to be in some manner not only occupied but encumbered with one’s own self….I may be preoccupied with my health, my fortune, or even with my inward perfection.

Pessimism is rooted in the same soil as the inability to be at the disposal of others.

In contrast to the captive soul we have described, the soul which is at the disposal of others is consecrated and inwardly dedicated; it is protected against suicide and despair, which are interrelated and alike, because it knows that it is not its own, and that the most legitimate use it can make of its freedom is precisely to recognize that it does not belong to itself; this recognition is the starting point of its activity and creativeness.

I would suggest in conclusion that existentialism stands to-day at a parting of the ways: it is, in the last analysis, obliged either to deny or to transcend itself. It denies itself quite simply when it falls to the level of infra-dialectical materialism. It transcends itself, or it tends to transcend itself, when it opens itself out to the experience of the suprahuman, an experience which can hardly be ours in a genuine and lasting way this side of death, but of which the possibility is warranted by any philosophy which refuses to be immured in the postulate of absolute immanence or subscribe in advance to the denial of the beyond and of the unique and veritable transcendence. Not that there is anything in this which, in our itinerant condition, we can invest like a capital; this absolute life can be apprehended by us only in flashes and by virtue of a hidden initiative which can be nothing other than grace.

…Testimony bears on something independent from me and objectively real; it has therefore an essentially objective end. at the same time it commits my entire being as a person who is answerable for my assertions and for myself. this tension between the inward commitment and the objective end seems to me existential in the highest degree.

In the last analysis testimony bears on an event or that part of an event which is unique and irrevocable.

…Testimony is based on fidelity to a light or, to use another language, to a grace received.

The world seemed to me then, as now, an indeterminate place in which to extend as much as possible the region where one is at home and to decrease that which is vaguely imagined or known only by hearsay, in an abstract and lifeless manner.

I think that my love of travel has always been bound up with the need to make the world inward to me by becoming, as it were, a naturalised citizen of the greater part of it.

During the last three years before the war of 1914, I pursued, outside the beaten track, the inquiries that were to lead me to my first existentialist statements…I think that not one of us could suspect the fragility, the precariousness, of the civilisation which enveloped us like a tegument; a civilisation on which the wealth of centuries seemed to have conferred a solidity we would have thought it madness to question. For my part, I cannot think without nostalgia of the dusk of that Europe in which the material conditions of life seemed to be so easy, and where communication between countries was almost untrammeled. We ought no doubt to have guessed that this euphoria was a snare and that this facility concealed the worst dangers; but I do not remember that we ever suspected it.

All the evidence goes to suggest that we come up against obstacles which are inherent in our condition as men, and that we cannot overcome these obstacles without an interior transformation which we cannot operate by ourselves. the only genuine inward mutation of which experience offers us irrefutable proof takes place in the order of mysticism and is therefore inconceivable without the hidden impulse of grace.

The stage always remains to be set; in a sense everything always starts from zero, and a philosopher is not worthy of the name unless he not only accepts but wills this harsh necessity. Whereas the temptation for a congress man is always to refer to an earlier congress where it was established that…This perpetual beginning again, which may seem scandalous to the scientist or the technician, is an inevitable part of all genuinely philosophical work; and perhaps it reflects i its own order the fresh start of every new awakening and of every birth.

Does not the deepening of metaphysical knowledge consist essentially in the steps whereby experience, instead of evolving technics, turns inwards towards the realisation of itself?

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