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.