The Personalist Project

In his great work Homo Viator, Gabriel Marcel reflects on the problem of despair, the threat of meaninglessness and absurdity, and the stance of defiance against reality as we find it (and whomever is responsible for it).  He discusses the philosophy of the atheistic absurdist Albert Camus in a chapter entitled “The Refusal of Salvation and the Exaltation of the Man of Absurdity.”

            Marcel regards this kind of absurdist approach not so much as a real philosophy, or a solid position that can actually be defended, but rather as a “contagion” and an “infiltration by which evil can reach our very foundations.”  But, if there are no rational foundations to such an attitude, how does it reach us?  How do we get infected with it?

            Marcel points to “three main ways by which this evil thing can reach us.”  One way is by suffering through traumatic, negative events that seem to upend and mock the hierarchy of values and thus threaten to twist our minds.  I submit that one such event—to some—might be the feast which we celebrate today: the feast of the Holy Innocents, the senseless slaughter of infants.  As Marcel says, “The events which assail us can at any moment devastate our existence in such a way that we no longer see anything stretching around us but the undefined no man’s land of universal inanity…[and] absolute nihilism.”

            Another way in which this evil can reach us involves a tedium vitae, a “boredom and disgust with living, …encouraged by inhuman conditions.”  Especially over much time and experience of life, when we see so much potential wasted, so much good twisted, so much of the triumph of evil in this world, life can gradually wear us down so that we are tempted toward—or even just gradually fall into, without even noticing or deciding—a sort of cynical negativity about human affairs.  This involves not just one overwhelming event that knocks us for a loop, as above, but an ongoing series of many reversals, disappointments, and sadnesses that may gradually overwhelm after many years.  I submit that yesterday’s feast and the long life of St. John the Evangelist might represent—to some—this danger.  From such a perspective, John could be seen as a mere lowly fisherman, never married, persecuted, tortured, exiled, and finally such a feeble old man that he could hardly walk and talk.  Such events can lead to a “rupture, or more exactly a loosening, of the ontological bond which unites each particular being to Being in its fullness…an ontological traumatization.”

            A final danger that Marcel describes is a stubborn refusal to accept the possibility of any answer to the difficulties, sufferings, and crosses of life—as if to do so would be to blind oneself to the reality of the evils and therefore superficialize them and no longer do them justice.  Thus the absurdist wants to stand defiantly against any possibility of an answer to his assertion of meaninglessness, despair, and absurdity: even to stand defiantly against the possibility of a Saviour.  Marcel says, “we have here, first and foremost, the claim not to allow oneself to be consoled: this claim implies a pride…[which] accounts for the refusal to consider the signs, numerous enough for whoever takes the trouble to notice them, of a supernatural intervention….”  The feast of St. Stephen Protomartyr on the first day after Christmas seems to correspond to this temptation. 

            It is the reality of the unseen world—which Stephen saw as he died—which gives us the only perspective from which to overcome these temptations to meaninglessness and despair, to giving up on life as we near its end, to allowing ourselves to be twisted by traumatic reversals.  St. Stephen rejoiced at his death (and entrance into eternity), begging forgiveness for his murderers.  St. John never “gave up” in his enfeebled old age, but in the light of Christ—and only strong enough to mumble one sentence—kept repeating “Little children, let us love one another!”  In the liturgy of the Church on this feast of the Holy Innocents we rejoice in the “infant Martyr flowers…Beside the very altar, gay with psalms and crown, ye seem to play; All honor, laud, and glory be.”  Such attitudes, a scandal to the worldly soul, have their justification only in the reality of the unseen world and the humble acceptance of our need for penance and for help.  Truly, as we sing all week in the octave of Christmas, “Today is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.”  He is indeed the Son of God made man, the entrance of eternity into time, the answer to the temptation—whatever its source might be—to meaningless, absurdity, despair, and defiance.

Comments (18)

Tim Cronin

#1, Dec 28, 2011 9:57pm

I recently read "Acedia & Me" and the temptation to despair mentioned in this article reminds me of the bad thoughts of acedia. One of the remedies seems to be to remember that "Sufficient for a day is its own evil" and to concentrate on the task at hand.

Michael Healy

#2, Dec 28, 2011 10:13pm

Josef Pieper's book Leisure, the Basis of Culture has some excellent remarks on sloth or acedia compared to a genuine participation in the world of leisure (prayer, study, love, beauty, play)--especially at the beginning of Chapter 3.

Tim Cronin

#3, Dec 29, 2011 6:29am

Excellent, I just added it to my Amazon wish list.

Michael Healy

#4, Dec 29, 2011 2:21pm

Sorry but I am not familiar with that particular book, so move it to the top of your list at your own discretion!

Michael Healy

#5, Dec 29, 2011 11:42pm

From the more complete title, it sounds like an excellent book.  I like the description "superabundant integration" especially.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Dec 30, 2011 8:32am

Kevin was a student of Jules' at Ave Maria. :)

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Dec 30, 2011 9:16am

"A final danger that Marcel describes is a stubborn refusal to accept the possibility of any answer to the difficulties, sufferings, and crosses of life—as if to do so would be to blind oneself to the reality of the evils and therefore superficialize them and no longer do them justice."

I've encountered this kind.  People who think that to have hope of a Savior is to be pathetically naive, engaging in childish fantasies.

But to hold this position, they have to deny so much of what is right before their eyes, such as the reality of sanctity.  If belief in a Savior is childish naivete, then how explain the fact that so many of humanity's greatest and most excellent heroes and benefactors--virtually all of whom had much more personal acquaintance with the reality of evil that most--shared the belief?

Consider people like John Paul II, Solzenhitsyn, Mother Teresa, Maximilian Kolbe, Louis Pasteur.  Consider artists too.  Michaelangelo, Bach, Shakespeare... If their faith and heavenly vision is mere illusion, how is that the art it inspired  is so transcendently great and enduring?

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Dec 30, 2011 2:32pm

I've just come across a passage in Raissa Maritain's memoirs that I think reinforces your central point, viz. that only belief in the unseen world can save us from despair.

She and Jacques were at the point of finishing their studies at the Sorbonne, which had led them to atheism and scepticism.  Though their love for one another and for all kinds of objective values was great and profound, they were feeling overwhelmed by the sense of evil in the world and the ultimate meaninglessness of life.

She writes:

"Our complete understanding, our own happiness, all the sweetness of the world, all man's art, could not make us accpet without some reason—in no matter what sense of the word—the misery, the unhappiness, the wickedness of men.  Either the world could be justified, and this could not be if real knowledge did not exist; or else life was not worth the trouble of a moment's further notice."

They determined to search a little while longer, and then, if no solution appeared, to commit suicide.  Shortly afterwards they encountered Henri Bergson and were on the road to conversion.

Michael Healy

#9, Dec 30, 2011 2:49pm

Not only the great examples of famous saints and intellectual leaders, but also the "little people" the world doesn't know about participate here.

In The Gulag Archipelego, Solzhenitsyn writes about moral and religious choices among the political prisoners under Stalin (and others) in the direst circumstances in Siberian prison camps.  In a chapter entitled "The Ascent" near the end of Volume II, he tells of many--though, he says, alas, not the majority--who preferred to die rather than to lie, cheat, steal, murder, or betray.  Threatened with the complete collapse of their previous lives and nothing in prospect but deprivation and pain, they discovered a transcendent source of meaning.  He says:

Let us admit the truth: At that great fork in the camp road, at that great divider of souls, it was not the majority of the prisoners that turned to the right.  Alas, not the majority.  But fortunately neither was it just a few.  There are many of them--human beings--who made this choice.  But they did not shout about themselves.  You had to look closely to see them.  Dozens of times this same choice had arisen before them too, but they always knew, and knew their own stand.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Dec 30, 2011 3:07pm

May whatever emergency comes to us--whatever fork in the road--find us the grace to choose right for ourselves!

Jules van Schaijik

#11, Dec 30, 2011 5:43pm

Great post, and several interesting comments. I just wanted to mention a previous post I wrote about the Maritain's suicide pact. It has some great quotes in it.  Then Josef Seifert wrote a great follow-up. If you have some free time, reading these would be a good way to spend it. 

Kevin Schemenauer

#12, Jan 2, 2012 12:59pm

Jules invited me to comment on my book which was mentioned earlier in the comments. I enjoyed writing it. I learned a good deal from von Hildebrand's insightful application of superabundant finality and the virtue of reverence to the role of procreation in marriage. I also found von Hildebrand's framework to be a rich ground to plant the insights of Janet Smith and John Paul II on the divinely instituted mission of parenting. I regret the book costs $60 ($49 on Amazon) - I was naive in the publishing process.

Jules van Schaijik

#13, Jan 2, 2012 1:46pm

Kevin Schemenauer, Jan. 2 at 12:59pm

Jules invited me to comment on my book

Thanks for taking me up on that, Kevin.

I noticed, by the way, that you added a bio to your profile but not a picture. Did you run into difficulties with the latter? If so, I'd be happy to help.

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Jan 2, 2012 1:53pm

And tell Fran we'd love to see her jumping in too!

Michael Healy

#15, Jan 2, 2012 7:25pm


Dr. Seifert, in his excellent response that you link to in your comment above, says he will try to find and post the complete text of Von Kleist's letter.  Do you know if he ever did that and can you post the link?

Jules van Schaijik

#16, Jan 2, 2012 8:46pm

I don't think he ever did, but I found a link to it myself. I had never read it before. It is very moving, but unfortunately only in German.

Josef Seifert

#17, Jan 3, 2012 5:53am

Nietzsche, in a moving passage, quotes one of several letters of Kleist in his Third Untimely Meditation:

This was the first danger in whose shadow Schopenhauer grew up: isolation. The second was despair of the truth. This danger attends every thinker who sets out from the Kantian philosophy, provided he is a vigorous and whole man in suffering and desire and not a mere clattering thought- and calculating-machine. Now we all know very well the shameful implications of this presupposition; it seems to me, indeed, that Kant has had a living and life-transforming influence on only a very few men. One can read everywhere, I know, that since this quiet scholar produced his work a revolution has taken place in every domain of the spirit; but I cannot believe it. For I cannot see it in those men who would themselves have to be revolutionized before a revolution could take place in any whole domain whatever. If Kant ever should begin to exercise any wide influence we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism; and only in the most active and noble spirits who have never been able to exist in a state of doubt would there appear instead that undermining and despair of all truth such as Heinrich von Kleist for example experience as the effect of the Kantian philosophy. "Not long ago," he writes in his moving way, "I became acquainted with the Kantian philosophy--and I now have to tell you of a thought I derived from it, which I feel free to do because I have no reason to fear it will shatter you so profoundly and painfully as it has me. --We are unable to decide whether that which we call truth really is truth, or whether it only appears to us to be. If the latter, then the truth we assemble here is nothing after our death, and all endeavor to acquire a possession which will follow us to the grave is in vain. --If the point of this thought does not pierce your heart, do not smile at one who feels wounded by it in the deepest and most sacred center of his being. My one great aim has failed me and I have no other." [Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, Mar. 22, 1801.] When indeed will men feel in this natural Kleistian fashion, when will they again learn to assess the meaning of a philosophy in the "most sacred sanctuary" of their being.

Josef Seifert

#18, Jan 3, 2012 6:05am

Kleist, who lives in a dramatic way the skeptical crisis that is caused by Kant’s philosophy, writes somewhere else:

If all men had green glasses instead of eyes, they would have to think that the objects they see through them are green – and they would never be able to decide whether their eye shows them the things as they are, or whether they add to them what does not belong to the thing but only to the eye. The same happens with our understanding ...

Kleist also further portrays the shock that this thought arose in him:

... The thought that we in this world know nothing, absolutely nothing of the truth, that what we call here truth has a completely different name after death ... this thought has shaken me in the holy shrine of my soul. My only and highest aim has sunk, I have none other left. Since that moment books disgust me, I lay my hands in my lap and I look for a new goal which my spirit, with exhilaration  and excitement, could confront again. But I don’t find it, and an inner restlessness makes me wander, I go to smoky cafés and to gatherings, to concerts and shows. I walk in order to entertain and drug myself and I commit foolish things that I feel ashamed of writing about, and yet the only thought that, in this outer tumult, my soul continually cries out to itself is this: your only and highest goal is sunken ... I cannot take a single step without being clearly aware of where I want to go to.

The tragic element in our spiritual state seems to lie in the fact that this Copernican turn, experienced so disturbingly by Kleist, and the crisis produced by it has already discouraged us so much by its dark spiritual presence that we are already so indifferent towards its horror that intending to refute Kant looks completely “old fashioned” or “arrogant” today. “We can no longer go back behind such great spirits ... We must think from our place in the river of history ... truth is historically limited, at least our cognition of truth ...”, and similar sound the confused manifestations in which the influence of the “All-crusher” expresses itself, of whom Nietzsche has spoken – and the influence of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Who does not think of Heinrich von Kleist’s commotion about the fact “that all the truth that we gather here is worth nothing more after death” when reading in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit:

Who commits suicide ..., as far as he is and he understood himself in this being, in the despair of suicide has extinguished Dasein and with it truth. (§ 44, c.)

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