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The Philosopher In The Mass Age

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By DONALD DeMARCO

Gabriel Marcel’s book Man Against Mass Society (1952) is a reaffirmation of the fact that good philosophy is never irrelevant to the times in which we live. Marcel’s thesis is twofold. On the one hand, it examines the phenomenon of “mass society.” On the other hand, he explores the duty of the philosopher. These two concerns represent the very opposite poles of the human spectrum.
His analysis of the masses is unsparing, yet insightful and vitally needed. “The masses are of their very essence — I repeat, of their very essence — the stuff of which fanaticism is made: propaganda has on them the convulsive effect of an electric shock. It arouses them not to life, but to that appearance of life which particularly manifests itself in riots and revolution.” Historically, and psychologically, he is on good ground. Viktor Frankl has written about “psychic epidemics” that are possible causes of war.
The current riots, especially in various cities throughout the United States that are, ostensibly, a reaction to police brutality, represent the phenomenon of a mob fueled by propaganda. For Marcel, who is the founder of a French school of Catholic existentialism, such occurrences portray the masses “at a level far below that at which intelligence and love are possible.” Marcel holds little hope in communicating with the masses. And yet, he is an apostle of hope. “I am inclined to believe that hope is for the soul,” he writes in his book, Homo Viator, “what breathing is for the living organism.” His hope rests on the goodness of God and the inherent potential for goodness in man.
What is the duty of the philosopher, asks Marcel. “Without any possible doubt,” he states, “it is that I ought not to sin against the light.” His thought in this regard is linked to the Gospel According to John: “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” The richness of this passage, for Marcel, is of “unsurpassable adequacy that is in fact the most universal characteristic of human existence.” A person, therefore, is not fully a person, unless he is enlightened by that light.
This “light,” which comes from God, is realized at its upper limit as Love and Truth. A truth that lies below this limit is a pseudo-truth. Love without truth is “a mere delirium.” We now witness injustice parading as “justice,” violence pretending to be “peaceful.” If the philosopher’s first duty, in the negative sense, is not to sin against the light, that same duty, in a positive sense, is to radiate this light for the benefit of each other. We have this capacity. We are derelict if we do not cultivate it.
In the Marcellian sense of the word “philosophy,” we can all be philosophers. This notion offers great hope. Marcel is often referred to as a “neo-Socratic.” Socrates was not an academic. Unfortunately, philosophers, according to the popular perception, are to be found only in the university classroom. And even then, most of those who claim a philosophical education teach not philosophy but its history, or even worse, repudiate philosophy, replacing it with relativism, cynicism, skepticism, or nihilism.
Seven years after the publication of Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society, George Grant wrote Philosophy in the Mass Age. At one time Grant was regarded as Canada’s most outstanding philosopher. His status suffered considerably, however, when he defended the unborn. He was unwilling to conform to the Zeitgeist, and also unwilling to ignore the lives of the innocent.
“The dying out of careful philosophical study in Canada,” he wrote, “is one factor helping to produce our dead-level, conformist society. When people have not thought about ideas quite different from their own, they tend simply to live within the principles of their civilization, not even conscious that they are living within those limits.”
The masses conform to a single idea and are highly susceptible to propaganda. The American media have assumed the role of fueling the masses with dubious ideas and omitting important facts. For example, David Dorn, a black retired police captain, spent 38 years with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. He was helping out the owners of Lee’s Pawn and Jewelry store when he was shot to death by a looter. The assailant, 24, and also black, has been taken into custody and charged with first degree murder, first degree robbery, first degree burglary, and the illegal possession of a firearm.
The media coverage was either scant or nonexistent. No media coverage was allowed inside the church during Dorn’s funeral services. His demise, virtually unreported by the mass media, did not fit into its specific propaganda interests. His passing did not matter in the ideological sense.
Marcel is a convert from atheism to Catholicism, which is to say, from nihilism to Love and Truth. He continues to radiate his values through his many books. Marcel has a special gift for personal reflection. And he also has the ability to awaken his readers to personal reflections of their own. Etienne Gilson has said that “Marcel is always assured of a circle of readers. In his work, man is directly in conversation with man: It will always have readers, because he will never cease to make new friends.”
In the final analysis, we all feel drawn to opposite poles: one toward conformity with the masses and the loss of personal uniqueness, the other toward personal authenticity and to God. Marcel engages his readers with the hope that they will follow the latter. He is horrified, as we should all be, of the former.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus of St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review and is the author of 34 books. His latest books, How to Navigate through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com. He is also the author of How to Flourish in a Fallen World [En Route publishers]. Reflections on the Covid-19 Virus: A Search for Understanding is in production.)
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