Marcel on Hope and Participation

What does it mean to hope? And why is this a quintessentially human phenomenon? Irrationality seems to drive so much of what humans qua humans do: the decision to start a business against all odds, a mother’s decision to keep her baby despite the fact that her husband is out of the picture, a person who lives on courageously in the face of terminal illness.

These examples (and of course many others) show that there is something quintessentially human about hoping against the odds. It seems that the measurable, the numbers, the naked empirical facts are somehow unable to capture this element of reality. If we were to follow the odds, what is “reasonable” in this sense, it seems that one might never achieve anything truly great.

To be sure, causality is an important hallmark of reality, one that helps us to understand the physical properties of the universe and how to carry out the more basic functions of life. Yet if we are to move toward an understanding of the whole, including the persons who ask questions of being, we must step beyond causality and include hope as a philosophical tool for the evaluation of reality.

In examining hope, let us begin as Gabriel Marcel does: by examining its obverse, despair. For Marcel, the capacity for despair should be one of the criteria for personhood. It is an essential element of being human. But what does despair mean? In Marcel’s words:

Inasmuch as I am able to evaluate the world of reality (and, when all is said and done, what I am unable to evaluate is for me as if it were not) I can find nothing in it that withstands that process of dissolution at the heart of things which I have discovered and traced. I believe at the root of despair there is always this affirmation: ‘There is nothing in the realm of reality to which I can give credit—no security, no guarantee.’ It is a statement of complete insolvency (Marcel 2018, 25).

Despair, then, is that nagging feeling that there is nothing at the center of everything which one can always “fall back on”; a guarantee that the arc of history really does bend toward justice. But one might be left asking: why is despair, as Marcel defines it, considered a negative emotion? Why does it take such an act of will to turn ourselves away from the deep desire for the guaranteed center? Why does the possibility of its non-existence (whatever this might mean) drive some to thoughts of suicide, as it did for Raïssa and Jacques Maritain?

Indeed, one could describe Stoicism as the extension, to its logical end, of this principle. To state this view succinctly: there is not anything outside myself on which I can count; thus, I can only count on myself and must train myself to eliminate its the desire for such a guarantee, in other words, I must detach my “inner self” from the world in the profoundest sense. This may be one reason why we see a resurgence of interest in Stoic thought in contemporary discourse.

This capacity for despair, then, points to a need that resides in all persons: what Marcel calls the “ontological need.” It is the need we all have for something we can count on which is beyond ourselves. The absence of such a primordial guarantee at the center of reality is a central problem of modernity. On the personal level, this absence is a disaster.

This is why, as Albert Camus famously proclaimed, the central question of philosophy must be the question of suicide. But this question of despair leaves three possible solutions: one can commit suicide; one can assert some form of heroic responsibility in the face of the absurdity of existence, as Sartre does; or one can use it as the starting point in the search for ultimate meaning.

Marcel falls into this latter camp: for him, despair is “an essential starting point of any genuine metaphysical thought” (Marcel 2018, 24). This means that one cannot come to hope without first appreciating despair on some level. In fact, Marcel rails against the clinical abstraction of philosophy as it was practiced during his primary education in part for this reason. Viewing reality through the lens of abstract propositional truths robs one of the sense of tragedy inherent to existence, of a sense for what it means to despair, and by extension, to be human:

The natural trend of philosophy leads it into a sphere where it seems that tragedy has simply vanished—evaporated at the touch of abstract thought. . . . Because [the Idealists] ignore the person, offering it up to I know not what ideal truth, to what principle of pure inwardness, they are unable to grasp those tragic factors of human existence (Marcel 2018, 24-5).

But, as mentioned above, Marcel is clear that this just the starting point. We need the Nietzsches and the Sartres of the world to show us the meaning of despair so that we can begin moving toward hope:

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 spring board to the loftiest affirmation (Marcel 2018, 27).

We can see this all around us: many people don’t remain in open despair for very long. They pick up the pieces and set about doing great things. They take risks and achieve marvelous things. They overcome great challenges in order to go beyond what they “should” do in terms of “reasonable judgement.” They stand outside the probabilities: they defy causality. This constitutes a core element of Marcel’s description of hope:

Beyond all experience, all probability, all statistics, I assert that a given order shall be re-established, that reality is on my side in willing it to be so. I do not wish: I assert; such is the prophetic tone of true hope (Marcel 2018, 26).

In a sense, then, hope is an essential element in the participatory unfolding of being, because in the assertion of hope, the capacity for action springs forth. It is through this resolute defense of the goodness of being that the “surface of being” can be “ruffled,” as Váçlav Havel puts it (Havel 2009, 329). It is through hope, then that the most meaningful participation with being can come about.  

The ‘Man for All Seasons’ and Ontological Exigency

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.