Gabriel Marcel: Man Against Mass Society. (10/13/2001)

Gabriel Marcel, a French existentialist, in Man Against Mass Society, expresses a broad ranging disagreement with two different philosophical schools that were more or less contemporaneous, and even joined at the hip, so to speak, at the midpoint of the 20th Century in European culture. He objected to both more or less on the same ground, even if they were marginally different in their respective approaches to the ideology which led to Marcel's rejection of them. Jean-Paul Sartre developed an existential philosophy that was primarily materialistic in its orientation and decidedly atheistic in its outlook toward religion and the existence of God. While one might expect two French existentialists writing at the same time to have much in common, during most of his life Sartre also expressed a compatibility with Marxism, remaining loyal to most of its causes, even if he did criticize its totalitarian oppression at times, until he finally abandoned it in 1977. Since Soviet communism was atheistic, and since Marxism is also known as "dialectical materialism," Sartre's support for Soviet political ideology, as an embodiment of atheistic materialism, placed him in a position that opposed basic and fundamental ideals and ideas expressed by Marcel in his philosophical point-of-view.

There are two ways in which one can view Marcel's position. On the one hand, it is possible to subject his thought to analysis as an expression of the events and circumstances in which he lived and wrote. Since Man Against Mass Society first appeared in 1952, one can argue that his concern over the loss of human freedom in the face of materialistic society, the primary theme of his reflection, was wholly influenced by, if not specifically derived from, the rise and development of Soviet society and culture at the time. What Marcel saw happening in the Soviet Union, then, became a kind of immutable model for the effects that materialistic culture must necessarily always produce for and among people who are subjected to a state-sponsored atheism in a system designated as "dialectical materialism." In other words, if a state apparatus is decidedly materialistic in its orientation and practice, even to the point of becoming atheistic, then the people who live in that state must necessarily be deprived of their freedom as the government becomes necessarily totalitarian. The fact that Soviet communism reached its most influential and aggressively expansionist apex at the time Marcel was writing his assessment of materialistic society, at the beginning of the Cold War, as it were, it is only natural to assume that such external social and political events guided his response to it. Marcel puts his essential concerns in these terms:

"a materialistic conception of the universe is radically incompatible with the idea of a free man: more precisely, that, in a society ruled by materialistic principles, freedom is transmuted into its opposite, or becomes merely the most treacherous and deceptive of empty slogans." (20-21)

One problem with taking a purely sociological or historical approach to the thought of any philosopher, of limiting his/her perspective to the condition of being nothing more than a response to particular aspects of time-trapped social or political relationships, is that the ideas expressed must be limited to the specific standards that apply at the time and cannot be elevated to the level of universal laws or rules that exist necessarily at other times and in other places. This observation cuts both ways, so to speak. That is, if Marcel drew his perception of the relationship between materialism and the absence of human freedom solely from observations he made about the nature of Soviet society in the early 1950's, it becomes very difficult for him to argue convincingly that this Soviet characteristic necessarily applies to each and every civilization or culture that exhibits a bent toward materialism. He makes this claim in the statement quoted above when he casts his prescription in universalist terms by arguing that "a materialist conception of the universe," and not a political or social proclivity of Soviet rulers, is responsible for the fact that "the idea of a free man" has become incompatible with the social and political norms of a state apparatus like the one seen in Marxism. He reinforces this essential distinction when he says that people, in the face of materialistic society, must "proclaim that we do not belong entirely to the world of objects to which men are seeking to assimilate us, in which they are straining to imprison us." (22) The idea that every material view of the universe, as opposed to any spiritual or religious one, for instance, is taken up with the hope and the intention of enslaving everyone with the opposing view might be one consistent with the materialism of the Soviet state but cannot be applied, at the same time or in the same way, to any other view that depends more on the non-spiritual physicality of the observable universe, than it does on a creationist or religious perception of it, as being the best way to describe reality.

Marcel draws his argument toward religiosity when he notes that "a man cannot be free or remain free, except in the degree to which he remains linked with that which transcends him, whatever the particular form of that link may be" (23). In most traditional European and Christian contexts, of course, references to the transcendental generally point to God as being the most obvious and accepted object or subject to which man can upwardly link himself. He goes on to suggest that materialism itself is a form of sin, in that "societies built on a materialistic basis, whatever place they tactfully leave for a collective and at bottom purely animal exaltation, sin radically against intersubjectivity; they exclude it in principle; and it is because they exclude it, that they grub up every possible freedom by its roots" (24). Marcel's concept of intersubjectivity is based on the notion that love, either agape (charity) or philia (attachment), function as the necessary basis for connecting one subject to another. Materialistic societies deny both charity and attachment, according to Marcel, simply because in a radical materialism the idea that all subjects are but objects in reality renders the basis for inter-connectivity, subject to subject, an impossibility.

Two things are apparent here. If a purely sociological point-of-view is adopted, one that emphasizes the historical moment of this philosophical position, it would be difficult to argue that Marcel is wrong in his assessment of Soviet communism because it is true that the Soviet state, which was both atheistic and materialistic, generated a social condition in which individual freedom was universally sacrificed for the sake of a collective totalitarian state. At the same time, however, it would also be difficult to generalize from that specific political reality by claiming that every materialistic ideology must also necessarily deny basic human freedom to the people who embrace it or live their lives inside its constraints. Materialism, even atheistic materialism, cannot be called, or identified as, the sole cause of the loss or absence of individual freedom. Using the Soviet state as an example of a materialistic culture that also denies freedom is perfectly legitimate, and very probably true, but to universalize the example, making it apply to every case where the material dominates over the spiritual, or where the two sides of this binary opposition somehow share equal credibility or space, tends to make it more difficult, not less, to evaluate Marcel's stated theme that materialism, in and of itself, necessarily and always limits or denies or abrogates individual human freedom or that societies so defined or structured necessarily commit egregious sins against intersubjectivity.

A recent example to the contrary, in fact, can be used to call Marcel's position into serious, if not fatal, question. On September 11, 2001 AD, members of a deeply religious, even radically spiritual, Islamic sect, hijacked four US commercial airliners and flew two of them into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon in Washington DC, and the fourth into a rural field in western Pennsylvania. As many as 6,400 relatively innocent people were thus murdered by a group of assassins who claim their suicidal act of destruction was demanded by their faith in Allah and directed at those specific targets because they represented, according to some Islamic people, the secular materialistic world of modern-day American Christianity. In retaliation, the US has launched a war against the state of Afghanistan where the leader of the terrorists, Osama bin Laden, is thought to be in hiding. The US, acting wholly on the strength of deeply held religious beliefs, according to George W. Bush and his advisors, intend to hunt down the evil perpetrators of this terrorist atrocity, root them out of their caves, where they live like animals apparently, and bring them to a Christian justice. The people of Afghanistan, who successfully fought a protracted war against the atheistic materialism of Soviet communism, are now ruled by the Taliban, a deeply fundamentalist branch of radical Islam, who have systematically denied virtually every kind of freedom anyone can think to mention. At the same time, George W. Bush has asked Congress to pass an expansion of governmental police powers that seriously threaten the structure of civil liberties in this country to make it easier for his government to track down and punish terrorist wherever they might live and hide. While the facts mentioned here might fall into a class of events similar to the ones Marcel uses in his analysis, it is nevertheless obvious that these examples tend to support the notion that spiritual radicalism, even a profound and deeply held belief in God, is just as likely to spark serious restrictions against freedom as is a materialistic atheism.

In a slightly broader context, and with regard to Marcel's concerns about intersubjectivity, one can just as easily argue that fundamentalist religiosity is much more likely, or equally prone, to sin against it, with its proclivity to launch war and counter-war against its enemies, as is any atheistic or materialistic culture on the face of the earth. To limit such behavior to materialism, as if the two things are inseparable, is clearly contradicted by any collection of fact from any period of time. The practice that every religion has of demonizing the Other into this or that category of absolute evil, just before it launches its next war of annihilation against them, testifies clearly to the fact that we have much more to fear from deeply held and passionately radicalized spiritual beliefs than we ever will from any other source. To see why this is inevitably true one need only look carefully at Marcel's idea that man can remain free if, and only if, he (she) remains "linked to that which transcends him [her]." To see the transcendental at all, a person must look up to that which is above, to that which is higher than, to that which has more power than he/she possesses. The inequality inherent in hierarchical structure is, and always has been, the single most powerful force arrayed against freedom that exists anywhere in the universe. To credit materialism, which denies the existence of transcendental hierarchy in its more articulated forms, with this denial of freedom, is the same as pointing away from the real source of that constriction (hierarchical spiritualism) in the idea that human beings are by nature too pitifully weak and sinful to stand alone, and without the prop of fanciful appeals to God's salvation, on the hard, sure ground of their own existence. Marcel, like most other well-meaning Christians, is trapped by conceptualizations of sin (the pride of independence, for instance) that force one to embrace servitude for the sake of salvation as opposed to freedom in the face of the fear of damnation. With the myth of transmuting a purely mortal existence into an eternal life-force at stake, almost no one has the courage to question the contradictions inherent in the Christian ideology of sin as servitude.

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