Late in the summer of 1914, before the Western Front settled into its long stalemate, the French army suffered staggering losses at the Battle of the Frontiers and the First Battle of the Marne. Desperate inquiries flooded the Red Cross information service in Paris. Its newly arrived director was a twenty-four-year-old philosopher and playwright, Gabriel Marcel. His job was to track down information about soldiers missing at the front and then relay it to inquirers. In his autobiography, Marcel wrote of this daunting task: “For me it was a question, as much as possible, of taking every particular case that was handed to us by an anguished mother, wife, fiancée, or sister and of gathering the necessary evidence that would allow me to shed light upon the disappearance of a soldier.” Marcel worked with the information service for only a short time, but in a way he spent the rest of his life responding to those anguished inquirers, trying to do justice to their loves and losses.
Marcel would later become a prominent figure in the French literary scene, the “Christian existentialist” (a label he disliked) who sparred with Jean-Paul Sartre. Marcel’s Paris flat, where he regularly hosted Friday night salons, would become an intellectual hotspot. His work would influence writers and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic: Emmanuel Mounier, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricœur, Iris Murdoch, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Henry Bugbee. His philosophical writings would also find a large popular audience despite their wandering style. As Murdoch wrote in a review, Marcel’s “argument rambles around in an impressionistic manner, and he tends to let one special concept lead us on into another one, without either having been sufficiently defined by the examples.” Yet Murdoch also pointed to passages and concepts of great “revelatory power.” She was drawn to Marcel’s reflections on openness and self-enclosure, on mysteries and problems, on being and having, reflections that were shaped by Marcel’s time in the information service.
The service required Marcel to operate on two levels. On one level, the missing soldier was a “problem” that was solved when Marcel discovered the soldier’s status. To solve this problem, Marcel developed a “catalogue of the mind” based on field reports. The missing soldier became a variable in a formula derived from catalogue data. On another level, though, Marcel’s position entailed personal encounters. Whenever Marcel told parents their son was dead, it was painfully clear that the soldier was not a variable but a singular human being. Marcel had not solved the problem of the missing soldier for the parents. Even if his news brought an element of closure, the loss remained a “mystery” that would last for the rest of their lives.
The distinction between problem and mystery is central to Marcel’s philosophy. A problem is something external to us. It can be solved with the proper, generalizable technique. A mystery, on the other hand, is something from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Marcel called a mystery a “problem which encroaches upon its own data.” It has roots in the depths of our being, but it also reaches beyond us. There is no general technique for addressing a mystery. It can only be lived out with a wisdom responsive to the particulars of the situation and the people involved. Birth, love, and death are central mysteries for Marcel. The death of a child involves a parent in all three.
Marcel realized that he could have dealt only in techniques and problems at the information service, that he could have converted “the war into an abstract schema.” He could have acted as a functionary whose sole duty was to research and report information. This might have buffered him from the sorrow of the inquirers, but it would have also contributed to the dehumanizing effects of the war. This is why he tried to “welcome these people who came to me in a rather personal and human way such that they wouldn’t feel as though they were having to deal with some official at a desk or a window.” Marcel came to see “every index card” as “a heart-rending personal appeal.”
But those index cards also represented the danger of bureaucratic reductionism to Marcel, and this would become a major concern of his later writings. Marcel decried the horrific “techniques of degradation” deployed in the concentration camps and the Gulag. He feared that we had more broadly entered an age of “problematic” humanity, where people were treated as “cases” and saw themselves in turn as amalgamations of “functions.” He worried about a tendency throughout late modern culture, from the magazine stand to the doctor’s office to the halls of power, to reduce mysteries to problems: love reduced to a reproductive drive, death reduced to a mere biological endpoint. Marcel thought people in love or confronted by the death of a loved one may recognize the inadequacy of this, but they may also have lost the language to express mysteries or the wisdom to navigate them.
In Marcel’s view, philosophy should respond to this predicament by illuminating the richness of human life and human relationships, by helping people open themselves to this richness. He held that humans are thoroughly relational, that the “we are” is a better departure point for philosophy than the “I think.” But he also acknowledged that there are better and worse kinds of relationality. We can take a stance of “having” toward others, treating them as a means to our ends. This can take the form of overt subjugation or exploitation, but it can also be subtle. We can become self-enclosed by egotism, for instance, or we can be habituated into relationships of having through commodification and consumerism.
Marcel held that healthy interactions and relationships transcend the world of having and enter the world of “being.” They are marked by “communion.” Marcel saw his contemporary Martin Buber, who stressed the importance of the “I-Thou” relationship, as a kindred spirit in these regards. Marcel argued that we should cultivate a radical openness to others—what he called disponibilité (roughly “availability” in English). He claimed that healthy relationships with family members, spouses, friends, and neighbors involve a “creative fidelity” based on such openness. This fidelity involves continual attunement and responsiveness. Marcel distinguished it from mere constancy, which can be grudging perseverance in a static, stale relationship. Here Marcel was influenced by Charles Péguy, the idiosyncratic Catholic poet and thinker who died at the Marne.
Marcel claimed that we have an “ontological need” for communion with others and that many modern ills result from this need going unmet. On this point, Marcel disagreed sharply with the Sartre of Being and Nothingness. For Sartre, the relationship with the other was usually agonistic if not overtly antagonistic. Marcel acknowledged that there was much truth in Sartre’s deft analyses of how the other makes limiting claims and projects limiting roles that we can adopt in “bad faith.” Indeed, Marcel’s own plays are full of characters who consciously or unconsciously manipulate others for self-serving ends. Still, Marcel was wary of how Sartre—and modern philosophy more broadly—gave priority to conflict. Marcel recognized Sartre’s skill at uncovering hypocrisy and hidden motives, but warned that such suspicion easily hypertrophies so that love and gratitude become mere ciphers for desire and ingratiation.
Marcel’s philosophy reflects a sensibility that is deeply Christian. His account of disponibilité echoes the injunction to love one’s neighbor, the biblical wisdom that one must lose oneself to find oneself. He offered compelling philosophical accounts of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and love. His dynamic, creative fidelity marks not only healthy relationships between people but also the healthy life of faith. Marcel developed an influential account of hope during the Nazi occupation of World War II. He argued that hope exceeds the hope for particular outcomes. It is a sort of existential disponibilité that does not fatalistically close down possibilities. He claimed that love is the “essential ontological datum” and that it points the way to God.
Still, Marcel did not convert to Catholicism until the age of forty, and he always hoped that his philosophy would speak to believers and unbelievers alike. His father was agnostic, and Marcel did not grow up in a religious household. Yet religion interested him from a young age. Marcel converted in 1929 after the novelist François Mauriac wrote him a letter noting his proximity to Catholicism and asking him why he had not joined the church. Marcel was friends with Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson, but his conversion did not draw him to Thomism. He instead provided a different set of philosophical resources to the Catholic personalism that developed in early-twentieth-century France.
Today, Marcel is best known as an existentialist, and one of the central existentialist concerns is the confrontation with death. Marcel was less concerned with one’s own death, though, than with the death of the loved one. He noted some affinities between his own philosophy and Martin Heidegger’s, for instance, but he also claimed that Heidegger’s emphasis on “being-toward-death” “minimizes the importance of the death of the other, the death of the loved person.” Marcel warned that this could lead to “existential solipsism.”
The childhood loss of Marcel’s mother was crucial in this regard, as was the loss of his wife Jacqueline in 1947. The inquirers at the information service were important as well. In Marcel’s unfinished play The Unfathomable, written immediately after the First World War, characters respond to a missing soldier’s possible death in markedly different ways. Edith, the soldier’s sister-in-law, worked in an information service like Marcel. She has learned that her brother-in-law has indeed died. She maintains a sort of creative fidelity to him beyond death, though, a fidelity that counters despair. A priest friend, unsettled by the close relationship that had formed between Edith and her brother-in-law, tells her that she should not try to think about him but only pray for him. Edith responds, “When I think of him in a certain way—with tenderness, with recollection—there wells up in me something like a richer, deeper life in which I know he participates. This life is not I, nor is it he; it is both of us.” Marcel called this scene “one of the most significant that I have written.” For Marcel, such fidelity is not only about remembering a lost loved one in a certain way. It is about a love that truly transcends death, one in which it is still possible, at least some of the time, to feel the deceased loved one as an accompanying presence. Is this a real presence? Marcel called this a “crucial question the difficulty of which one should not underestimate.” But he claimed that the question of the loved one’s presence lies beyond a narrowly conceived objectivity. It is more a matter of faith, hope, and love.
Here another key difference between Marcel and Sartre emerges. Their approaches to God and the afterlife mirror their differences regarding the human other. For the atheist Sartre, God would negate human freedom. For Marcel, God is infinite love, to which we open ourselves not only in prayer and religious practice but also in communion with others. Far from limiting freedom, God offers the deepest freedom. Sartre’s classic play No Exit imagines hell as three people stuck together forever. Marcel knew that we can make each other miserable, especially when we are self-absorbed and manipulative. His idea of hell would likely be an even more extreme indisponibilité—a self-enclosure like that of Dante’s frozen Satan. In any case, he was more concerned with the hint of heaven experienced in love. “If there is in me an unshakeable certitude,” he wrote, “it is that a world deserted by love can only be swallowed up in death. But it is also true that, where love persists, where it triumphs over whatever tends to degrade it, death cannot but be definitively vanquished.” Marcel observed that hope for immortality is not necessarily selfish or life-denying. Often, it is hope for a departed love one rather than for oneself. Again, we might think of those anguished inquirers whose sons, siblings, friends, and lovers died in the war. Marcel claimed that the mystery of love, which seems to transcend our finitude in its intensity and reach, points toward consummation in a life to come.