Gabriel Marcel

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John F. Zeugner

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Like many existentialists Marcel eschews systematic thought or interlocking philosophic abstractions. He presents his "various data" in a manner that is always reflective, exploratory, occasionally contradictory—proceeding from flashes of insight or acute psychological dissections of particular, concrete situations, rather than from consistently elaborated premises. His style is properly matched to his favorite journal form—periodic entries which return to, as well as abandon, a few dominant themes. Nonetheless, in two major works, The Mystery of Being and Being and Having …, something like a system of concerns can be identified.

For Marcel, intersubjectivity, that is, the intimate, subjective relation between two persons (I and Thou in Martin Buber's terms), is the "cornerstone of a concrete ontology." Hence, in this "metaphysic of we are as opposed to a metaphysic of I think," Marcel asserts that "love as the breaking of the tension between the self and the other, appears to me to be what one might call the essential ontological datum. I think, and will say so by the way, that the science of ontology will not get out of the scholastic rut until it takes full cognizance of the fact that love comes first." Through intersubjectivity, through love of the other, especially as the I and the other exert reciprocal "calls" upon one another, man, for Marcel, begins to identify and distantly satisfy what he calls the "urgent inner need for transcendence."

Marcel gives a peculiar, unconventional meaning to transcendence…. Rather than establishing a dichotomy between immanence and transcendence, Marcel contends that transcendence, insofar as it can be grasped at all, must be regarded not as pure thought but rather as a kind of experience which is both purer and more saturated than the normal experience of immanence. Apparently for Marcel the mystery of transcendence centers about the urge to become one with Being, to bridge "the absolute impassable gulf which opens between the soul and Being whenever Being refuses us a hold."

In the sphere of immanence we undertake, says Marcel, "desperate efforts to make ourselves as one with something which nevertheless is not, and cannot be identical with our beings." We thus covet possessions which take possession of us; we dwell in the region of having rather than being and are only vaguely aware of the dissatisfaction which flows from the inner need for transcendence.

Love for the other begins to satiate the urge for Being, and our ultimate appeal for transcendence is directed toward "an absolute Thou, a last and supreme resource for the troubled human spirit." Finally, therefore, Marcel asserts, "exigence of God is simply the exigence of transcendence disclosing its true face."

Those who cannot enter this love for the other, this inter-subjectivity, are limited to the sphere of immanence. They live in life tedium; they fall into an inertia. They delight in their autonomy and in their autonomous pursuits. They fail to understand that only an ontological deficiency has disposed them toward autonomy. In every other way they are non-disposable (or perhaps, non-available), not open to others, to Being, to God. They wallow in an only faintly perceived despair. They live in the tragedy of having, never comprehending Marcel's declaration: "Fundamentally I have no reason to set any particular store by myself, except insofar as I know that I am loved by other beings who are loved by me." (pp. 23-5)

John F. Zeugner, "Walker Percy and Gabriel Marcel: The Castaway and the Wayfarer," in The Mississippi Quarterly (copyright 1974 Mississippi State University), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1974–75, pp. 21-53.∗

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