Gabriel Marcel and the Discovery of Fatherhood

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) wrote about the meaning of the family beginning in 1927 with his earliest Metaphysical Journal right through to his latest autobiographical text, Awakenings (1971) and in dialogues with Paul Ricoeur and others in 1973 about his plays. As a philosopher of the “concrete,” Marcel was fascinated by the intimate relations and identities of family members.

The unfolding of his philosophical thinking about the family can be divided into three phases: first, autobiographical reflections on the family he was born into and brought up by; second, the preparation for teaching a course on Fatherhood in Lyons; and third, autobiographical reflections on the family he participated in as husband and father. Throughout these three phases Marcel also created over 20 dramatic plays, in many of which he developed consequences of distorted family experiences and of grace of conversion in the midst of what he called “the broken world.”

I. The Family as a Mystery or a Problem

In “Concrete Approaches to Investigating the Ontological Mystery,” Marcel offered his well-known distinction between a problem and a mystery: “A mystery is a problem that encroaches upon its own data, that invades the data and thereby transcends itself as a simple problem” (The Broken World, 179). Basically, Marcel is saying that if we consider something to be a problem, we make it something external to our own concrete experience; but if we consider the same thing to be a mystery, we allow it to “encroach” upon us as a person concretely involved in it. He concludes in his essay on “The Mystery of the Family” that “Thus it [a mystery] encroaches upon its own data and, invading them, passes beyond the range of a simple problem. It is in this very definite sense that the family is a mystery, and it is for this reason that we cannot properly and without confusion treat it simply as a question to be solved.” (Homo Viator, 69)

Marcel’s early family life was often a source for what he calls “secondary reflections” on the mystery of family. Marcel would bring forward a memory, for example, of his mother who died when he was very young, or of his mother’s sister who then brought him up, or of his father, a man who kept an emotional distance from him and who then married his aunt, more out of obligation, than from love. At the same time as Marcel might be critical of one or another aspect of these “so-called parents” of his, he would also allow the judged memories to confront his own ingratitude. This, in turn, could release a deeper response towards those persons who had taken care of him during his childhood. In one passage he wrote:

I was six and a half years old when my father and my aunt decided to get married. Thus, in a certain way, the unity of a broken household was reconstituted. I would no longer visit my father . . . he had come to live with us . . . Given these circumstances, I decided that they had married because of me and, quite unwillingly, I thus held myself responsible for a marriage that was, in the end, unhappy. Today, I tend to think that the truth was not so simple (Awakenings, 43).

Marcel was fascinated by how his own existence was mysteriously rooted in the historical genealogy of his ancestors: “My family, or rather my lineage, is the succession of historical processes by which the human species has become individualized into the singular creature that I am” (Homo Viator, 70). He wondered at the contingency of his own life:

Far from being endowed with an absolute existence of my own, I am, without having originally wished or suspected it, I incarnate the reply to the reciprocal appeal which two beings flung to each other in the unknown and which, without suspecting it, they flung beyond themselves to an incomprehensible power whose only expression is the bestowal of life, I am this reply, unformed at first, but who, as I become articulate, will know myself to be a reply and a judgment (Ibid., 70-71).

Marcel argued against the approach of many who see the family primarily in terms of the problems of marriage, divorce, birth-control, or abortive practices. This approach feeds on the family as a weakened institution, and it fosters the degeneration of the family simply into “nothing but material for rhetorical arguments (Ibid., 72).” Yet, Marcel wants to affirm that “the family is not an institution which has lost its meaning, it is still a living reality.” He concludes in an essay titled “From Opinion to Faith,” that “In a concrete philosophy we must almost invariably confront the drama concealed by the problem. As long as we think in terms of a problem we will see nothing, [and] understand nothing” (Creative Fidelity, 135).

II. Is the Living Reality of Family Primarily a Having, a Doing, or a Being?

Marcel considered, in “Outlines of a Phenomenology of Having,” the meaning of to have: “Everything really comes down to the distinction between what we have and what we are . . . What we have obviously presents an appearance of externality to ourselves . . . In principle, what we have are things . . . I only have what I can in some manner and within certain limits dispose of” (Being and Having, 155). Marcel asks whether we can say that “I have a body,” and he concludes that this is improper, because we cannot distinguish our self from our body. Therefore, my body is more appropriately thought of as my way of being in the world. In his essay “Creative Vow as Essence of Fatherhood,” Marcel applies the question of having directly to the family: “I can no more give existence to someone else than I can to myself . . . a double temptation consists of organizing my life as if I myself were the author of it . . . and of treating my children as though I had produced them . . . our child no more belongs to us than we do to ourselves” (Homo Viator, 120).

We could also ask, following Marcel’s analysis, what it means to say: “I have a family.” Listen to how Gabriel Marcel describes his own marriage to Jacqueline Boegner: “Contrary to what most often happens, it wasn’t only she who entered my life, it was her entire family” (Awakenings, 111). Marcel developed deep and affectionate relations with several members of his wife’s large family. He reflected: “how happy I was to be admitted into this vast family community . . . I have spoken enough about how I suffered as an only child, but now I was welcomed into a grand family where it seemed to me [that] it was good to get to know and greet everyone” (Ibid., 112). His descriptions did not claim possession or having, but rather an experience of being received into the real presence of a specific family community.

Marcel even experienced a unique and distinctive absence of his father-in-law who had died during World War I: “And yet I felt the presence of someone who was absent, as though he were living. This was Edmond Boegner . . . And I was never able to get over not having known him on earth. But how can I not admit that I still hope to meet him in another way and in a dimension, which is not of our earthly world” (Awakenings, 111). Marcel’s experience of his new extended family was imbued with the meaning not of having, but of being in relation.

Concerning the other option, or doing, Marcel acutely rejected this understanding as well. In his essay on the ontological mystery, Marcel acutely observed:

Today’s world is characterized, it seems to me, by an orientation misdirected by the notion of function . . . The individual tends to consider him or herself, and likewise tends to appear to others, as merely an agglomeration of functions . . . the individual has been inclined increasingly to regard him or herself as merely an aggregate of functions whose hierarchical order appears problematic (Broken World, 173).

What we do, or our function, is not the same as who we are in our family. During the early years of their marriage, when Marcel was teaching at Sens and writing dramas, while his wife developed her capacities as a musician, he wrote about his joy of being in this relationship: “Those years in Sens with my wife were some of the happiest moments of our life . . . I recall the many hours we spent there reading and listening to music . . . I am still shaken when I recall the anguish and indelible sorrows of that time (of World War I), but it seemed to me that, by virtue of my marriage, I had gone ‘out onto the open sea’” (Awakenings, 36-37). Although Gabriel and Jacqueline Marcel were each doing many different things, the living mystery of their marriage was more deeply revealed in their mutual being with and for one another.

In his essay, “Phenomenological notes on Being in a Situation,” Marcel elaborated on this core attitude: “I must somehow make room for the other in myself” (Creative Fidelity, 88); and “We are concerned exclusively with the experience which is expressed by the words being at home” (Ibid., 89); and “To receive is to admit someone from the outside into one’s own home” (Ibid., 90); and finally, “To receive in this context is to open myself to, hence to give myself, rather than to undergo an external action” (Ibid., 91). This reality of self-gift to another is an act of availability (The Philosophy of Existentialism, 39-43). This is the love that is at the heart of being in a family.

Marcel then observes that even though a husband and wife do not belong to one another like a possession, a person can give himself or herself to another as an act, almost saying that I belong to you because I freely give myself to you. This can be done in a spousal gift of love and in a religious act of giving oneself to God. In his “Phenomenological Notes on Being in a Situation,” Marcel summarizes it this way: “I should like to point out . . . the curious incongruity . . . between the statement I belong to you and its counterpart or rejoinder: you belong to me. The latter implies a claim, the former a commitment” (Creative Fidelity, 97).

What sort of relevance does Marcel’s distinction between being, having, and doing have for us today? The problem of the wife being understood as the property of her husband was a major difficulty at the heart of marriage up to the 20th century. In the 21st century the particular abuse of the notion of “having” is found in a widespread attitude towards children, in a so-called “right to have children,” and in a so-called “right to have a child of a particular type”—sex, or intelligence, or even designer-specified though a genome analysis. To a lesser extent, but still lurking within the mystery of marriage, is the question of how the doings of the mother or father may overrun the being of love within the family, with the increasing hours that parents work and in the multiple demands on children who participate in organized activities every day of the week.

III. Children and Creative Fidelity in Relationships within the Family

Gabriel and Jacqueline Marcel were plunged into the deep mystery of the overflowing of love from their marriage into the development of a family, when in 1922 they chose to adopt a six-year old boy:

We had been told that he was a timid child, who would perhaps not let himself be known too easily. How moved we were in seeing him run towards us and throw himself into our arms, as though he had truly been waiting for us. This was a moment of grace which I still keenly feel today. Here adoption took on its full meaning. Were we the ones who were choosing? Were we not rather chosen? (Awakenings, 114)

Twenty years later Marcel was invited to teach a course on Fatherhood at Lyons. His journals during his preparation are full of excitement and long thought-out insights into the meaning of Fatherhood. “First notes for a course on fatherhood which was requested for Lyons. Fatherhood as Heading—Fatherhood as a value of exaltation: ‘I am a father!’ . . . Pride . . . it is impossible to reduce fatherhood to a biological category, and yet it belongs to the flesh. Adoption is a grafting)” (Metaphysical Journal, 91). At the same time, Marcel was well aware of the real dangers facing families—dangers which have been clearly substantiated by the extraordinary intentional reduction, internationally, in the number of female babies born in the last years:

The more we tend to make the biological data and considerations predominate, the more we tend to obliterate in man the meaning of fatherhood. In this respect, the progress of biology can represent an appalling danger for man. It is permissible to ask if ignorance in this domain has not been in the past a true blessing: it would for instance be infinitely perilous for man to acquire control over the sex of his descendants (Ibid., 98).

Another danger Marcel analyzed is what he called “a loss of consciousness—a consciousness which bears on the specific bond between father and child” (Presence and Immortality, 161). He continued by observing that “It is strictly possible for the man to ignore the consequences of the sexual act and to be completely disinterested in them. This remark is important if we want to measure the abyss which separates procreation and paternity” (Ibid.).

Marcel, however, does not leave this concrete situation simply as a problem to be looked at from the outside. Instead, he enters into the heart of the mystery of Fatherhood in his well-known essay entitled: “The Creative Vow as Essence of Fatherhood.” After describing the sexual act of the man as akin to a “nothing,” a neant, because it is “a gesture [of emptying], which can be performed in almost total unconsciousness,” Marcel argues that a man must make a series of repeated acts to become a father who adopts a particular child: “Fatherhood . . . cannot by any means be restricted to procreation which, humanly speaking, can hardly be considered as an act. It only exists as the carrying out of a responsibility, shouldered and sustained” (Homo Viator, 116). It must be fulfilled by a creative vow, which is an “engagement and a decision . . . At the root of fatherhood . . . we can discern something which is analogous to this voeu créateur, and it is by this alone that fatherhood can be considered as a human act” (Ibid., 118).

Creative fidelity is the form of the commitment of marriage between a husband and wife, and it is the form of commitment of paternity between father and child. In an essay which unfolds the metaphysical structure and dynamics of “Creative Fidelity” Marcel asks how is a person able to make a commitment to another person that extends beyond the moment:

What does it really mean to swear fidelity? and how can such a promise be made? The question cannot be asked without giving rise to an antinomy. The promise in fact is made on the basis of some present inner disposition. However: Can I affirm that the disposition, which I have just at the moment that I commit myself, will not alter later on? (Creative Fidelity, 138)

He answers that the moment of commitment is different from a feeling that may come and go. “The moment I have committed myself, however, the situation is altered. Someone else has registered by promise and henceforth counts on me. And I know it” (Ibid., 159). Poignantly, Marcel remarks: “the personality infinitely transcends what we may call its snapshot states” (Ibid., 162). Ultimately, the guarantee for holding sequential acts of creative fidelity in continuity is a bond of absolute fidelity with God, who transcends time, and yet holds us in time.

While Marcel’s reflections primarily focused on creative fidelity in father-child and husband-wife relations, he also thought about similarities and differences in the mother-child relation. Marcel observed that the bond between a parent and child “is infinitely more marked in what concerns the relation between mother and child. Here the carnal bond cannot but be deeply felt. What can happen, but in comparatively rare cases, is that the mother experiences toward the child a resentment and so to say a persistent rancor” (Presence and Immortality, 161). In another passage from his 1943 Metaphysical Journal Marcel also said: “The child presents itself to the father at first as an intruder; to the mother he will give in proportion as she herself gives, provided she is not degenerate” (163).

Then in his essay, the “Creative Vow as Essence of Fatherhood,” Marcel argued that “the part which falls to the woman, a part, humanly speaking, [is] so much more active [than the man]: gestation . . . After all, it is the woman, and she alone, who brings children into the world” (Homo Viator, 102). Finally, in comparing woman and man, he concludes:

In general there is a network of much closer connections and much more delicate enervation in the woman than in the man between the strictly sexual modes of experience and the special aspects of emotional activity opened up by the existence of the child. In this respect we should be tempted to say that the man is perhaps more naturally detached than the woman; or, more exactly, detachment which generally of a morbid character in the woman, is on the contrary almost normal in the man (Creative Fidelity, 103).

For Marcel, the choice is between continuing to view the family as a problem which is based on fear, or beginning to view the family as a mystery, which leads to hope. In his “Metaphysic of Hope,” Marcel states that “Hope is situated within the framework of the trial, not only corresponding to it, but constituting our being’s veritable response” (Homo Viator, 30). Suffering through two world wars, Marcel understands that “The truth is that there can strictly speaking be no hope except when the temptation to despair exists” (Ibid., 36). Marcel continues: “When a man or woman despairs, he or she “sets before [the self] the dismal repetition, the externalization of a situation in which he [or she] is caught like a ship in a sea of ice. By a paradox which is difficult to conceive, he [or she] anticipates this repetition” (Ibid., 42).

For women and men who have acted out of despair in detachment from the family that calls to them, Marcel offers this constructive advice: “Hope is essentially the availability of a soul which has entered intimately enough into the experience of communion to accomplish in the teeth of will and knowledge the transcendent act—the act establishing the vital regeneration of which this experience affords both the pledge and the first-fruits” (Ibid., 67).

In conclusion, all the foregoing shows that Gabriel Marcel’s philosophy of the family has much to offer the contemporary world, which is still struggling with the very questions his philosophy addressed.

Featured Image: Edward Degas, Count Lepic and His Daughters, 1870; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M.

Sister Prudence Allen, R.S.M. is a member of the International Theological Commission. She has spent more than twenty-five years engaged in research on the concept of woman in relation to the concept of man in philosophy, which was celebrated by a conference at the Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.

Read more by Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M.