Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, known merely as Simone de Beauvoir, was a French novelist, existentialist philosopher, social theorist, and feminist.
De Beauvoir was born on January 9th, 1908. At the age of 15, she had already decided she would be a writer. After passing her bachelorette exams in mathematics and philosophy, she studied mathematics at Institut Catholique, literature and languages at the Institut Sainte Marie, then philosophy at the University of Paris Sorbonne, where she met many of the other rising intellectual stars of the day. People such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and her future life-long companion, Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1929, at the age of 21, de Beauvoir became the youngest person ever to receive a degree in philosophy and the 9th woman. On the final exam, she won second place. Sartre, aged 24, won first.
De Beauvoir’s methods and philosophical approaches are notably diverse, but in general, they revolve around the existential notions of freedom and how social constructs limit that freedom. Where she breaks from her existentialist peers is on what one must do after that.
As a philosopher, she developed a kind of existentialist ethics that condemned identifying with specific abstractions at the expense of individual freedom and responsibility.
As a feminist, she uses the same existentialist philosophy to disclose how the passive acceptance of roles assigned to women by society keeps them oppressed.
For de Beauvoir, once the biggest physical oppressions have been more or less lifted, our biggest oppressors become ourselves. We oppress ourselves primarily from fear. We’re afraid to break through the normative stories we tell ourselves because that’s what we know. That’s what we are comfortable with.
De Beauvoir says that to be human is to be free. And to be free is to make choices for ourselves.
Until we stop seeing ourselves as the other, and something else as the norm, we can’t free ourselves. To break that, we have to look at the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that we use to choose our lives, and pursue our own course.
De Beauvoir passed away on April 14th, 1986
Notable Works & Suggested Reading:
De Beauvoir was a prolific writer. She wrote novels, plays, philosophical treatises, feminist masterpieces, cultural studies, and a two-volume autobiography.
De Beauvoir won the Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) for this novel. Taking place after WWII, the story revolves around a close group of French intellectuals as they attempt to establish their place in a new world, let alone a modern France.
This book is essentially a response to what Beauvoir believed was the lack of an ethical framework in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. If everyone has to decide for themselves what it is they need to do, how do you have any notions of ethics of right and wrong? Discovering your freedom to create meaning is excellent, but like any liberating event, it also leaves you with a sense of uncertainty or ambiguity about what to do next. Especially when it comes to the consequences of your actions.
De Beauvoir begins to answer this question by outlining the various ways we deny our own freedom. She then goes on to explore the multiple options available once we discover that we are responsible for our own freedom. Interestingly, Beauvoir concludes that the actualization of our own human freedom depends on the freedom of others.
“The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning, so to say it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.”
Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in 1949, just five years after French women had been granted the right to vote. It’s a scholarly and passionate plea for the abolition of what she called the myth of the “eternal feminine” and remains a central feminist text to this day.
According to de Beauvoir, femininity is not something inherent to one’s nature, but a construct learned through socialization to keep institutions of patriarchy dominant.
To illustrate this, she makes a comparison between a girl and a live doll. According to De Beauvoir, when a girl plays with a doll she learns to identify with the conditions of being dressed up and made pretty. But not in a way that gives her any agency of her own. She learns to objectify herself in the same way that men objectify women. A doll is submissive. Its role is to be dressed up, to listen to the little girl’s secrets, and comfort her when she is upset or lonely and lie at home waiting for her to return from school.
De Beauvoir argues that when the girl grows up, she will find herself in the same situation as her doll. As a woman, it is her job to attract a husband with her beauty. And to maintain it to keep him happy and make sure he doesn’t cheat. To quietly listen to his problems and wait at home for him when he’s at work. In other words, whether plastic or flesh, she becomes an accessory,
She gives three reasons why women have always been historically treated as inferior and secondary to men. She explains that society teaches women to:
- Fulfill a man’s needs and therefore exist for men instead of alongside them
- Follow external cues to seek validation of their worth
- Expect to have less public influence (and fewer rights)
Even if a woman doesn’t marry, she would still be held to male standards through external pressures like the beauty, fashion, and diet industry, which de Beauvoir sees as being complicit in the patriarchal objectification of women.
De Beauvoir believed that the first step to liberation is getting women to learn to recognize many of these social norms as constructs. Only then will they have the freedom to escape whatever context they are trapped in and determine their own destiny.
“The advantage man enjoys, which makes itself felt from his childhood, is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male. Through the identification of phallus with transcendence, it turns out that his social and spiritual successes endow him with a virile prestige. He is not divided. Whereas it is required of woman that in order to realize her femininity, she must make herself an object and prey, which is to say that she must renounce her claims as a sovereign subject. It is this conflict that especially marks the situation of the emancipated woman. She refuses to confine herself to her role as female, because she will not accept mutilation; but it would also be a mutilation to repudiate her sex.”
De Beauvoir’s autobiography is a rare peek into the life of a philosopher and how life events both shaped and are shaped by her existential world views and intellectual pursuits. Both of which were far from the norm for a young woman growing up in a French middle-class bourgeois family during the turn of the century. It is one of the few glimpses of an existentialist life in action, written by one of existentialism‘s most intellectual scholars.
Three Ways to Apply Simone de Beauvoir to Your Life:
Don’t Follow the Crowd, Even Your Own
“We are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite – and a call to action to this end.”
Many people fear real freedom. Not because of its liberating consequences, but because of the self-responsibility it demands. You can respond to this fear in a lot of ways. You can attach yourself to an ideology, allow what you do for work to define who you are, or just go with the cultural flow without considering anything else.
De Beauvoir considers these types of options to be ones made in “bad faith,” life paths based on the comfort you find in being an object of something rather than a free subject of yourself. Beauvoir is trying to set you free. She is trying to tell you that unlike objects that depend on external factors for their values and meaning, you need to create your own values and meaning.
Notice what this means, though. Identifying as a woman or as poor, and the whole idea of female or class solidarity is no longer an option. Beauvoir says you should have nothing to do with that. Importing narratives like these may seem liberating, but they still make you an object. If identities are social constructs, then you are not a woman, you are not poor. To believe that you are a woman, or poor, or a victim, is to accept someone else’s narrative, a narrative not written by you but by thousands of years of human history, including those trying to fight it. Beauvoir says to be truly liberated, you need to get all that out of your head. To achieve this, you need to make life new for you. Because ignoring your freedom with “bad faith” decisions is an inauthentic way to live.
Face the World Without Flinching
“Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.”
Let’s just assume you have shaken off the shackles of objecthood. You are now free. What should you do? How should you live? This decision is even more complicated now because it must be an individual decision. You must choose for yourself. No one else can tell you what the answer is.
For de Beauvoir, the question is also part of the answer. To live freely is not to know if things are going to work out, but doing it anyway. Because if you think you know the outcome of life, or what it should be, then de Beauvoir suspects that you have given in to some kind of narrative.
For de Beauvoir freedom is not happiness, joy, or love. Freedom is being able to face, accept, acknowledge, and be ok with the human condition. So don’t back away from it. Don’t look away. Don’t accept some narrative just because it’s comfortable.
That fearlessness is the drive that de Beauvoir is calling on you to have. If you are going to free yourself. If you are going to become truly human, and hence free other people, you need that fearlessness. You need the courage to try and be yourself and face the world without flinching.
Let Others Live Their Own Life
“To will oneself free is also to will others free.”
If everyone is trying to be free all the time in their own way, how do you ever have group action? How do we coordinate ourselves to do anything? According to de Beauvoir, all you can do is try and convince people. You can persuade them to join you freely. But that’s it. Based on your own philosophy of freedom, you can never force people to do anything. De Beauvoir says that this is how you can tell whether or not you are dealing with a liberating movement. If all the members seem pretty much free, you will probably be ok joining it. If, however, they look like they are being forced in some way, then politely go your own way.
Even if you are right, and all your goals are just, you can never try and force people to join you. You cannot free other people when you are not free yourself. All you can do is inadvertently oppress them.Your primary responsibility is to allow someone else to express their freedom, even if it means they are choosing to not really be free. Because in the end, that is the most important thing you are working for.
Existentialism imposes on you the burden of making yourself free. And in making yourself free, you free other people.
“One is not born a woman but becomes one.”
“Society cares for the individual only so far as he is profitable.”
“That which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results.”
“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”
“Happiness, therefore, does not lie in amusement; it would, indeed, be strange if the end were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself.”
“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present … Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won.”
“All oppression creates a state of war; this is no exception.”
“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, and compassion.”
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”
“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself – on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger. In the meantime, love represents in its most touching form the curse that lies heavily upon woman confined in the feminine universe, woman mutilated, insufficient unto herself.”
“Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being.”