There has been a lot of discussion in cyberspace lately about the suffering and joy in marriage, and whether a spouse can “know” the other spouse. The Catholic convert and philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, explored what the virtue of fidelity means. Here are some of his key insights.
Gabriel Marcel, the French playwright, personalist philosopher, and influential Christian existentialist, is known for his term “creative fidelity,” which he systematized in the so-named chapter of his so-named 1970 book, Creative Fidelity. (pages 148-173) “Creative” means having the quality of creating, able to create, originative. Marcel used it to refer to the power of individuals to create and nurture a relationship. “Fidelity” is the quality of being faithful, faithfulness, loyalty, unswerving allegiance to a person. Marcel showed how transcendental faith precedes fidelity, and how without faith there can only be counterfeit forms of fidelity. He used the words together to signify this vitality and mystery in commitment, something living and evolving.
Fidelity can only be understood in the context of personhood and faith, a concept that begins and ends with paradox. The more we understand “having faith” and “believing in” another “person,” the more we understand what it means to be human.
Faith and the “I-Thou”
Marcel began by asserting that “faith cannot be transcended.” Our mind cannot contemplate beyond it. Faith in God is a relationship that allows us to conceive of individuality of persons and relationship between persons. While the Trinitarian, One God and Three Persons, aspect of individuality and relations is recognizable, the existentialists of Marcel’s day spoke in terms of basic word pairs described by Martin Buber. The “I-It” pair signifies an experience between a person and an object. The “I-Thou” pair signifies the relationship between two persons. Buber wrote that the “I-It” cannot be spoken with one’s whole being while the “I-Thou” can be. To experience objects is to continually point to the past while to experience beings is to live in the present. In other words, our interaction with objects is one-way and not reciprocated as time passes. Our interaction with people is a mutual flow in the here and now. Views of relationships that only consider the past are views that objectify persons.
The “I-Thou” relationship between two people requires an acknowledgement of mystery, which is not a gap in knowledge, but a kind of perfection, a need. Marcel taught through stories, and to demonstrate the need for mystery, he told a story from his play, Iconoclast. A man loves the wife of his best friend. When the wife dies and the husband finds another wife, the friend avenges the dead woman, whom he feels is being betrayed, and arouses suspicion of her fidelity in the husband. It causes the husband horrible anguish. The friend later discovers that the husband is not remarrying to betray the wife, but because he wanted to kill himself after losing her. The wife had revealed herself to him, after her death, and urged him to live and marry another woman who could care for their children. The apparent betrayal was really a fidelity. The friend tries to restore the husband’s faith by telling a lie, but it is too late. The friend snuffed out the mystery for the husband. Now doubting his wife, the husband loses the faith that permitted him to live and invokes the death he wished, leaving the children orphaned. Marcel concludes with two points:
“It is not our part to judge what constitutes fidelity or treason in another.”
“Beings can only be in harmony in the truth.”
The mystery of fidelity is linked to the mystery of death, which cannot be isolated from the mystery of love. If a person creates a void around him, death is but a permanent sleep. If a person loves another, if there is fidelity, then he is not in a void even after death, which reveals a mystery of time. Fidelity in its metaphysical essence vanquishes time, and to grasp this “effective fidelity” is to start to understanding what Marcel meant by “creative fidelity.”
Constancy is Not Fidelity
Marcel compared a creative fidelity to an in-the-moment constancy. Constancy is the rational framework of fidelity, but not fidelity itself. It is to persevere with a goal, an act of the will but only in the moment. For example, a friend who is constant could be forcing himself not to change, as a duty to hide indifference and honor his obligations. Such a constancy is based on a personal desire to feel beyond reproach, and if that feeling were known to the other it would not be fidelity in the strict sense. The act is willed for instant satisfaction. If the friend knew he might he want to release his so-called friend from the burden. “Don’t think you are obligated to me…” Irreproachable conduct is insufficient because the true feelings would shatter and shock the one who trusted, as if the value of the friendship has been lost and “what remains is only straw.” Again, Marcel demonstrated how no one can “judge” fidelity from the outside of a relationship; authentic fidelity can only be appreciated by the one to whom it is pledged.
Fidelity implies something deeper too, an ever-presence. A friend who shows fidelity to the other is ever-present, still with the other even if he is physically absent, even during difficult times. It is a knowing between the individuals, a spontaneity, a voluntary and unrestrained giving of the self. Under the idea of mere constancy, freedom is only found for both individuals if the other destroys the pact that binds them because unless he frees the other, he cannot free himself. Constancy is a struggle, at first internal, then external, then it culminates in hatred because pure spontaneity cannot be coerced.
Fidelity in Marriage
Fidelity is obviously not limited to friendship. In marriage the same problem can form. One spouse can be faithful to the other out of a sense of duty or obligation, reducing fidelity to constancy. If the other partner perceives this, it is anguishing. For social reasons, it is also obvious that friendship and marriage are different, especially when children are involved. Does that partner have the same right as in a friendship to release the other from duty? Or should family unity be preserved even at the cost of partial hypocrisy? Here Marcel argued that we must leave the social plane and explore the reason for the marital vow. The conjugal union is a Sacrament, a fidelity not only to the person but also to God.
What does it mean to vow fidelity then? Can such a promise even be made considering how people can change? Might the inner disposition of one or both spouses change? In the intensity of the moment a person may realize the permanency of his promise, but he may also realize that no one can know for certain that a promise of marital fidelity is valid. How can the person making the promise know he will never change his mind, much less the one he pledges fidelity to? Either person could change so much that the other could say, “This is not the same person I committed myself to.” The partners could declare the promise null and void if that were all fidelity depended on.
What is the marital vow, then, if not immutability of inner disposition? Can a person vow to act as if the inner disposition doesn’t change? Does he or she have that right? In spiritual terms, can a person will that his behavior will remain the same if his feelings change? Marcel used these questions to demonstrate the difference between faithful friendship and marital fidelity. He also used a story about an invalid. Suppose a man visits an invalid to be polite. The visit brings the invalid pleasure, and man begins to understand the invalid’s solitude and suffering. Succumbing to an irresistible impulse, the man vows to visit regularly. He may not dwell on the fact that his inner disposition may change, but if he does think of it, he only thinks of it in passing because he has a strong sense that it would be cowardly to even dwell on that question. The moment he commits himself, however, the situation is changed. The vow has been registered by the invalid, who now counts on it. Suppose the visitor gets invited to a play he wants to see, but to attend, he has to break his commitment to the invalid. He can either break his word and go see the play, or keep his word and visit the invalid. If he does the latter, he may do it with a feeling of resentment even if he fakes it outwardly. He may conceal his resentment to spare the invalid pain. He is acting the part, a lie, and he knows it.
So what should the visitor do? Acknowledge that he was wrong to make the commitment? Tell the truth to the invalid?
The scenario demonstrates Marcel’s warning about constancy, a “pay on delivery” concept of fidelity and how it is even more dangerous for marriage when one person is committed and permanently dependent on the other to commit back. It also shows the social damage of such an idea. If all people lived as if constancy is fidelity, no one could ultimately count on anyone else. “I can’t promise anything, I’ll come if it’s possible, don’t count on me…” Social life would be impossible, an anarchy.
Commitment Can Change You
Marcel logically explored this difference between fidelity as moments in time versus fidelity as a transcendental faith. Suppose it is true that all a person can validate is his present inner disposition. References to past behavior would be unreliable since past inner dispositions are unknown. A body can die and an autopsy can reveal the exact state of all organs at the moment of death, but a mental autopsy at the time of death is impossible. A personality is not material.
A man who has a trivial fight with his wife and is struck by an automobile right after saying his last words, “You are a nuisance; I can’t stand you any longer.” Is that necessarily the definitive state of his feelings for her. Maybe he did still want to be with her; maybe he did not. It is impossible to say because the personality transcends the mental states.
Another way to consider the marital vow is to make it dependent on future conditions. One could say: “I like you now because I’m in a good mood, but I don’t know what mood I will be in tomorrow. Something might happen to put me in a bad mood.” Such a view denies free will, denies any ability to act on one’s self, denies any ability to be “creative” of one’s self. This is Marcel’s rudimentary form of “creative fidelity.” The person’s behavior is permanently changed by the commitment. Even if he is tempted to deny it, he has the power not to.
Fidelity is Not for Spectators
Marcel then explored whether a commitment can be invalidly made, as if to turn his life into a lie. He called that a counterfeit fidelity. It seems there can never be adequate grounds for making a vow since all risks cannot be known. It seems there should be some test for the initial assurance for grounds for fidelity. It seems a vicious circle, especially to bystanders. That is the point: From without all fidelity seems an incomprehensible and impractical gamble. The bystander could say, “How can that man commit himself to that ugly, or that old, or that strangely dressed woman?” However, fidelity is not for spectators.
To Commit Yourself is to Know Yourself
Within this cycle of seeking to know the other and committing anew each moment even without absolute assurance, there is a creative growth. The knowing and communicating between two people, as they change throughout life, is the essence of authentic, creative fidelity.
To commit yourself, is to know yourself, but to know yourself, you have to commit yourself.
Sparing yourself any commitments is to spare yourself any trouble, to stay aloft, and such a life is incompatible with self-knowledge. Relationships grow. Within this intimacy of fidelity, perspectives change. In the depersonalized, overly rational idea of fidelity, to perform an unwanted duty in the moment seems to be living a lie. In the fuller, transcendental, spiritual sense of the virtue of fidelity, the desire not to perform a duty is merely a temptation to overcome. The choice to overcome the temptation is embodied in the free act of remaining faithful to a commitment.
Creative Fidelity is Lived
Marcel also warned of another counterfeit form of fidelity. Some modern ideologies deny the soul and equate “states of consciousness” to brain states, rendering knowledge illusory. That idea strips fidelity of any meaning too as if both people are only objects. There were ideas to counter such materialism, but they went too far the other way. Viewing fidelity absolutely, vowed not to a creature, but to God himself, construes it as an unconscious egocentrism, something made up in the mind, imaginary. A man could conclude that he is not really committed to the woman “as she really is” but to the idea of her.
Real fidelity is lived as “I-Thou” between two people. If it is only an interaction between objects, the reality of fidelity is questionable. If it is all in the mind, then fidelity is separated from being. If, however, the conscience is centered on God, in his real being, and directed to the other as a real being, then any disappointment in another person is mitigated. If a man becomes disappointed in his wife, it is within his power to blame only himself for his own inadequacy. In this way, Marcel showed that fidelity is an appeal to the depths of our own insufficiency, which presupposes a radical humility before God, a commitment to God, a dependence on God.
This hope is the heart of fidelity; this faith the origin of it.
Under the first fidelity to God, the other fidelities become possible and find their guarantee because relationship is consecrated. Viewed this way, we can see how fidelity becomes creative. The more the spouses know each other, the more they love each other, and the more they love each other, the more they want to know each other. In this intimate partnership of life and love, each individual comes to know himself or herself better too, perfecting each other and leading each other closer to God.
Marcel thought that to reject the transcendent ability to believe in another person is to appeal to the constancy mentioned before. To say “I believe” is to say “I exist.” He also thought that a fideism, faith divorced from the sensible nature of the body, cannot find real knowledge. “Faith must participate in the nature of sensation.”
Belief in a “Thou,” is a reality, either personal or suprapersonal, something we know intimately. To believe in another person requires the one believing to not lose contact with himself or herself, to acknowledge his or her own being and existence—to believe in his or her own soul.
The mystery of knowing your own soul is difficult to grasp. It can be intellectualized to the point of falsifying belief as an imperfect way of knowing, of imagining, but the different paths of understanding fidelity start from understanding what belief is. The soul which has faith is a consecrated soul. This mystery makes the philosophical consideration difficult, but it is the only clear path for an authentic philosophy of fidelity.
Can You “Know” Your Spouse?
There will still be difficulty when a person realizes that belief does not resolve the question of absolute knowledge down to a tidy elemental form. However, this is an error born of atheism. The refusal to admit you “know” anything without absolute, hard, empirical and physical proof is a reductionist, materialistic, atheistic attitude, an attitude that seeks to deny any mystery or belief, and in doing so denies any ability to trust or have faith. From a religious point of view, this incredulity arises from a certain pride in one’s reason, which is sinful.
Incredulity itself is an infidelity. Incredulity is an obscurity, a hiding of the self. We cannot affirm belief without reflecting on our insufficiencies, and that is hard for people to do. To affirm “I do not believe in you,” however, is not the opposite of “I believe in you,” but rather a limitation on the self. To say “I do not believe in you” is to acknowledge that belief is real, but to refuse to do it. How is that overcome? A non-believer forms a belief in others by participation of the body and the soul in the life of the other, and that requires assent, to will it. To refuse to commit to another, even though you know you will suffer, is a despair and a betrayal that robs a person of belief. Denying the ability to be able “to know” a spouse, “to believe in” a spouse, is to reduce the relationship to colliding inanimate matter, which is dehumanizing.
Creative Fidelity is a Mystery of Faith
Here Marcel showed the power of personalist thinking. Without belief, death is the only future that is certain. Such darkness extinguishes hope, paralyzes man’s efforts, and leads us to conclude that non-being is possible, that suicide is possible, and that the world is an illusion and death has the last word. Belief is a rejection of death, not only belief in God but also belief in other people. Viewed this way, we can hope that death tears us from ourselves so that we can become better what we are. To quote a friend of Marcel’s, Arnaud Chartrain in La Soif: “It is death that will open the door to all we have lived.”
In closing, it is useful to note how Marcel’s description of creative fidelity is consistent with the Catholic Church’s teaching on conjugal fidelity.
The married couple forms “the intimate partnership of life and love established by the Creator and governed by his laws; it is rooted in the conjugal covenant, that is, in their irrevocable personal consent.” Both give themselves definitively and totally to one another. They are no longer two; from now on they form one flesh. The covenant they freely contracted imposes on the spouses the obligation to preserve it as unique and indissoluble. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Fidelity expresses constancy in keeping one’s given word. God is faithful. The Sacrament of Matrimony enables man and woman to enter into Christ’s fidelity for his Church. Through conjugal chastity, they bear witness to this mystery before the world. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2364-2365)
Particularly note the “intimate partnership of life and love established by the Creator” and how the covenant that is freely entered imposes an obligation to preserve the union as “unique.” Also note that the Sacrament of Matrimony “enables man and woman to enter into Christ’s fidelity for his Church” bearing witness to this “mystery before the world.” Although Marcel did not develop his philosophy of authentic virtue as a theological discourse, he did show how it not only is—but only can be—a mystery of faith.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.
Marcel, Gabriel. Creative Fidelity. Translated by Robert Rosthal. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002, pages 148-173.