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.
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
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
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
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
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.
, 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.
Back to Index