Aspects of Marcel's Essays

By Reed, Teresa I. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Aspects of Marcel's Essays


Reed, Teresa I., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


GABRIEL Marcel expresses his ideas in several different forms autobiographical journal, philosophical essay, music, and drama--and each of these can be considered a part of the whole of his work. This is neither the trivial point that Marcel's works belong together because he wrote them, nor the slightly less trivial point that common themes unify his authorship. Rather, the unity of Marcel's work results from the distinctive and sophisticated application of a particular understanding of parts and wholes to the relations among forms of expression and to the relation between a form of expression and the content expressed. His philosophical essays provide a clear example of the latter, because the essays illustrate and embody the views he presents in them. This essay reflects on parts and wholes in Marcel's philosophy, explores the way in which his philosophical essays exhibit aspects of a whole, and concludes by relating Marcel's part-whole thinking to his Catholicism.

Marcel uses the essay form for most of his overtly philosophical writing. Many philosophers have written "essays" that are really "treatises"--Locke, Berkeley, and Hume immediately come to mind. Marcel's essays, on the other hand, are really essays, employing a "tentative and open-ended" exploration of ideas (Hall 79-80, 82) rather than the rigorous argumentation more typical of philosophical expression. Although he was highly trained in philosophical argumentation and could have chosen it for his mode of expression, he decided to avoid it, and he tells us this directly. For example, in his central essay, "Concrete Approaches to Investigating the Ontological Mystery," Marcel says:

   Instead of beginning with abstract definitions and dialectical
   argumentation that are sure to discourage my audience. I prefer to
   start with a sort of global and intuitive characterization of
   persons for whom any sense of being or the ontological is lacking,
   or who--more exactly--have lost all consciousness of having had any
   such dimension to their lives. (172)

Marcel chooses to start with a description rather than "abstract definitions and dialectical argumentation." Most philosophers prefer a linear style or dialectical style that exposes their definitions, premises and conclusions. A philosopher's decision to avoid the structure of philosophical argumentation runs the risk of losing the philosophical audience and thereby marginalizing the philosophical positions s/he would advance. However, one must not forget philosophers such as Pascal and Nietzsche whose seemingly disorganized brilliance appeals to both a philosophical audience and a general one. Marcel reaches out to the literate public in his essays while engaging in a sometimes subtle dialogue with past and present philosophers. After all, philosophy throughout history has been presented successfully in a wide variety of styles. Moreover, O.B. Hardison, Jr. points out "that the essay was born from a moment of profound, even terrifying, doubt, and that its rhetoric has often been adopted by authors who have sensed the power of the forces of dissolution" (23). Marcel no doubt is one of those authors, for he claims that we live in "a broken world" (Mystery of Being 1: 22-47) and that this is "an eschatological age" (Mystery of Being 2: 186-210):

   [W]hat is clear is that men today are faced with a fact which would
   have been inconceivable at the beginning of [the twentieth] century:
   they know that they have it in their power to destroy the [world].
   Moreover, one would have to be blind not to see that, at every level
   of being, a clearly traceable process of self-destruction is taking
   place; while it is much harder to see what are the forces which
   can--or could if the occasion arose--keep this process in check.
   ("Existence and Human Freedom" 48)

Although Marcel is not a pessimist, he has the existential philosopher's sense that human free choices can, and often do, individually and collectively lead to catastrophe. …

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