Most noted within existentialism for his disputes with Jean-Paul
Sartre, Gabriel Marcel was a gifted essayist and playwright, specializing
in matters of faith and morality. Marcel is generally considered a “Christian
existentialist” due to his Catholicism and the influence of Søren
Kierkegaard on his philosophy.
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Gabriel Marcel was born 7 December 1889 in Paris to Henri
and Laure (Meyer) Marcel. His father was a civil servant. Due to the nature
of European politics of the time, it is important to note Marcel’s mother
was Jewish. This link to the Jewish faith and traditions would influence
Marcel’s understanding of human cruelty.
In approximately 1894, Marcel’s mother died. Marcel was
four years old. Marcel’s father was generally secular, probably agnostic.
Henri never discussed Laure’s death with their son. In fact, Henri did
not permit discussions of religion in the household. Marcel later suggested
that the lack of religion in his father’s house is why it became a personal
fascination for Marcel.
The French government dispatched Marcel’s father to Sweden
in 1898. Marcel spent only a few years in Sweden, deciding to pursue his
education in France.
Marcel reccived his doctorate in philosophy from the
Sorbonne in 1910. His studies were influenced by Bergson and F. H. Bradley.
(I admit to being unfamiliar with both.)
Some form of health problem led Marcel to relocate to
Switzerland in 1912. It seems to have been common to seek care and rest
at various spas and health clinics at that time. While resting physically,
Marcel began writing Journal Métaphysique, which was
later published in 1927.
World War I
During World War I, Marcel served with the Red Cross.
WWI is sometimes described as worse than World War II. New technologies
and horrific weapons left battlefields barren of all life. These images
influenced Marcel, and most other European writers.
Marcel became obsessed with issues of death and immortality.
He wondered what happened to the essense of men killed in battle. As a
liaison officer for the Red Cross, Marcel was called upon to comfort the
relatives of missing, captured, or killed soldiers. Notifying families
that their loved ones had been killed in action deeply affected Marcel.
While with the Red Cross, Marcel began his first play, Le
Soleil invisible (“The invisible sun”). Marcel would write more
than 20 plays during his life.
Between the Wars
Some biographers suggest that Marcel introduced the works
of Kierkegaard to France in a 1925 in an
essay published by Revue de Metaphysique. For Marcel, Kierkegaard
seemed to be writing about the anxieties experienced by all individuals.
Searching for meaning, and thinking about Kierkegaard, Marcel attended
Marcel joined the ranks of “Christian existentialists”
while working as the drama critic for L’Europe nouvelle. Following
a favorable review of a work by François Mauriac, Marcel received a note
from the author. “Why are you not one of us?” Mauriac asked.
Marcel joined the Catholic Church in 1929, at the age
of 39, and would remain a defender of faith until his death. His deeply
held religious beliefs would later conflict with trends among the French
While the French Left was embracing atheism and Marxist
ideals, Marcel was developing a different view of freedom. For Marcel,
freedom was demonstrated by a respect for and love of other individuals.
The truly free would undertand the rights of all men had to be defended
to deserve personal freedom.
World War II
Gabriel Marcel interviewed many French victims of Nazi
Concentration Camps following World War II and wrote several works based
on these interviews.
Marcel died of a heart attack in 1973.
1889 December 7
Born in Paris, France
Father made ambassador or “French representative” to Sweden
Doctorate from the Sorbonne
Moves to Switzerland, begins writing Journal Métaphysique
1923 – 1941
Works as a “reader” (editorial post) at Grasset and Plon Publishers.
Conversion to Catholicism.
1945 – 1973
Drama and music critic for Nouvelles Litteraires.
1973 October 8
Dies of a heart attack in Paris.
Journal métaphysique, 1927
Rome n’est plus dans Rome, Play: 1951
Être et avoir, 1935 (Being and Having,
Présence et immortalité, 1959
Le Mystère de l’être, 1950 (The Mystery
of Being, 1951)
Homo Viator, 1945 (English, 1951)
Les Hommes contre l’humain, 1951 (Man Against [Mass]
Le Déclin de la sagesse, 1954 (The Decline
of Wisdom, 1954)
Gabriel Marcel offers a bridge between the atheistic
existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the theism
of Søren Kierkegaard. As a proponent of
existentialism and phenomenology, Marcel argued for a rejection of philosophical
systems that claimed abstract truths were of primary importance. In Marcel’s
view, philosophy needed to emphasize lived experience: a phenomenological
approach. Marcel considered his approach a “concrete” philosophy.
Marcel’s texts and plays are not rigidly organized philosophical
works. Instead of presenting a systematic philosophy, most of the texts
are journals and transcripts of talks. As a playwright, Marcel’s works
were often too meandering. His desire to create philosophical plays meant
his works did not appeal to a wide audience. The topic of social alienation
was not one on which post-war Europeans wished to dwell.
Alienation for Marcel was not a given state of existence.
The characters in his plays might fear being alone, or find themselves
experiencing anxiety brought on by social changes, but there is the hope
of connecting with other individuals. Love and friendship become part of
authentic existence, not acts of bad faith or old-fashioned notions no
longer valid in post-war Europe. For Marcel, the state of the world during
his life was all the more reason to seek connections.
Faith and Existentialism
Like Rollo May, another Christian
existentialist, Marcel was concerned with the “dehumanization” of individuals
in twentieth-century society. Marcel wanted his philosophical and literary
works to stand as studies of this alienation. For Marcel, philosophy and
religion were both concerned with the means by which individuals could
overcome alienation and the absurdity of life in order to live an authentic,
Because existentialism was popularized by the charismatic Sartre,
many associate the term with atheism and Marxism. However, Marcel was not
an atheist, nor was his philosophy as dark as most associated with existentialism.
Marcel considerd himself a “Socratic Christian” in the tradition of St.
Augustine and other Christian philosophers. There is an optimism with Marcel’s
works, focused not on the dread and anxiety of Kierkegaard,
but rather on the hope offered by Jesus Christ. (As an agnostic individual,
I believe once can be optimistic with a faith in mankind — though such
a faith is always being tried by the state of our world.) As a passionate
convert to Catholicism, Marcel sought to connect his philosophical beliefs
to his faith.
Like Kierkegaard, Marcel
was not concerned with proving the existence or nature of God. For Marcel,
faith was a lived experience that defied explanation. Instead of aiming
to win converts to Christianity, Marcel sought to explore the relationships
between people, as well as between the individual and modernity. Through
relationships a person might come to understand God and existence, Marcel
Marcel was conerned that modern life, and a near-religious
embrace of technology, was leading to the denial of God’s existence. Without
a belief in God there is no hope — life is meaningless, according to Marcel
and other theists. Like others concerned with the influence of technology,
Marcel feared that technology and science were defining life in terms of
human function: workers are simply the operators of technology, devoid
of any other value. In modern nations, workers were becoming objects, without
dignity. This is the existence of the factory worker, for example, regardless
of political system. The value of the person is not how he or she relates
to others and God, but how well machinery is operated.
In Marcel’s model, the human-God relationship leads to
better human-human relationships. This put Marcel at odds with Sartre and
other leading French leftists. The Soviet Union demanded atheism; the state
was supreme — not the individual and certainly not God.
Cain, Seymour; Gabriel Marcel (Regnery,
Cain, Seymour; Gabriel Marcel's Theory of Religious
Experience (P. Lang, 1995)
Gallagher, Kenneth T.; The Philosophy of Gabriel
Marcel (Fordham University Press, 1975)
Grene, Marjorie; Introduction to Existentialism (University
of Chicago Press, 1959)
Konickal, Joseph; Being and My Being: Gabriel Marcel’s
Metaphysics of Incarnation (P. Lang, 1992)
Lapointe, Francois and Lapointe, Claire; Gabriel
Marcel and His Critics: An International Bibliography (Garland,
Lazaron, Hilda; Gabriel Marcel the Dramatist (Humanities,
Lescoe, Francis J.; Existentialism with or without
God (Alba House, 1973)
McCowan, Joe; Availability: Gabriel Marcel and
the Phenomenology of Human Openness (Scholars Press, 1978)
Moran, Denis P.; Gabriel Marcel: Existentialist
Philosopher, Dramatist, Educator (University Press of America,
Randall, Albert B.; The Mystery of Hope in the
Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel (Mellen Press, 1992)
Traub, Donald F.; Toward a Fraternal Society: A
Study of Gabriel Marcel’s Approach to Being, Technology, and Intersubjectivity (P.
Wall, Barbara; Love and Death in the Philosophy
of Gabriel Marcel (University Press of America, 1977)