I’ve recently embarked on a study of Gabriel Marcel’s thought and I must say that the experience has been rather exhilarating: the freshness of his work speaks loudly and clearly across the decades since he wrote. Unpacking the meaning of his work has been an extremely useful exercise in identifying the spiritual problems that lie at the root of modern political life. Here I want to focus on one aspect of his work, ontological exigence as it is presented in his book Philosophy of Existence.
But first let’s go over some background points. Marcel’s so-called “Catholic existentialism” seems at first glance to be a contradiction. The marriage of these two terms is an unlikely one. Existentialism usually invokes cartoonish images of snooty overly intellectual Frenchmen lamenting the woes of their existence while ensconced in the material comfort of a beautiful Parisian café (with tiny glasses of Pernod, of course). Especially when one considers its Sartrean expression, existentialism is the philosophy par excellence of the nihilistic and alienated individualism against which the Church has been railing for decades if not centuries. Catholicism, for its part, is often viewed as the stalwart, scolding, religion of yesterday, clinging hopelessly to its medieval traditions and philosophy while the world passes it by. Since the genesis of existentialism in the volcanic figure of Kierkegaard, the alienation of modernity has in part been seen by many existentialist critics to be connected with the moral imperialism of the Church.
How exactly does Marcel combine these two currents? It seems of necessity to be a feat of dialectical ambiguity. Here I want to attempt a beginning at answering this question by making a literary comparison between Marcel and Robert Bolt’s compelling portrayal of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Particularly, I think that More’s character speaks volumes about Marcel’s “creative fidelity.”
To quickly set the scene: More was the Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII. After the King was refused an annulment for his barren marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry formally broke with the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England. In this process, Henry required that all government ministers take an “Oath of Supremacy,” acknowledging Henry as head of the Church of England. More’s refusal to do so resulted in his execution in 1535.
Robert Bolt’s depiction of the events leading up to More’s death in his play touches on themes that correspond to certain aspects of Marcel’s philosophy. Let us begin with one of the great moments in the play, where More is trying to explain to his friend Norfolk why he cannot take the oath:
And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it—I do—not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I! (More goes up to him and feels him up and down like an animal. . . . ) Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord! (123-4).
More is the quintessential tragic figure: in remaining connected to his being, he is renouncing his life. He is Orestes: he must kill his mother (the source of his life) in order to avenge his father (the genesis of his being). As Marcel so forcefully asserts in Philosophy of Existence: “my being is not my life” (21). In choosing his being, More must renounce his life.
But as they are wont to do, these great literary themes open more questions than answers. We feel their correctness before we can articulate it in words. What is being? For Marcel, it is that which “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” (11). Following Bergson, Marcel thinks that being is necessarily existential—it cannot be grasped through the merely propositional. Its source is the person.
Thus, when More’s family, colleagues, and friends exhort him to be “reasonable,” to do the sensible thing, to just sign the oath even though he privately does not agree, they are asking him to renounce this wellspring of his personhood. But I must be cautious here: this source of personhood, the ontological exigence, is not necessarily something that is simply grasped in its totality once and for all. It is, on the contrary, indeterminate, paradoxical: “To formulate this need is to raise a host of questions: Is there such a thing as being? What is it? etc. Yet immediately, an abyss opens under my feet: I who ask these questions about being, how can I be sure that I exist?” (12). Were he to take the oath More would be in a sense renouncing his ability to ask these questions, he would be allowing the exigencies of his situation to dictate the answers rather than allowing him to ask the questions of the existential search.
Marcel poses the rhetorical question: “Surely I, who formulate this problem, should be able to remain outside it? . . . Clearly this is not so” (12). The questioning is never of one who stands outside being, able to interrogate it in the same way an empirical scientists interrogates nature. It is instead like a stage upon which being plays out: to ask the question of being is to be an I. To engage in the questioning is to ground the notion of self, to allow it to participate in the unfolding of being. This is what Marcel calls the “meta-problematical”:
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 the meta-problematical (15).
Allowing this meta-problematical to recess from consciousness, what Heidegger calls “the forgottenness of Being” is to forget the “I.” In this sense, the Oath of Supremacy takes on for More a sort of existential imperialism: it is the encroachment of an outside force onto an indelible facet of the personal; an integral part of what it means to be an “I.” The meta-problematical is in all cases my quest, a set of questions that can never be understood in the abstract, can never be answered by anyone but me. This is why no one ever became wise solely by reading a lot of philosophy. It is only when, through experience, one comes to understand the meaning behind the various articulations of being one finds in philosophy that it can flower into its full potential. Bolt’s depiction of More demonstrates this to great effect: the need for each person to play his or her part on the stage of being; to participate in that which can never be engaged in the abstract.
For Marcel, this ontological exigency can never be denied, and any philosophical outlook that does so inevitably results in the alienation of the person that has been the hallmark of modernity.