The Meaning of Life According to Simone de Beauvoir

When some­one pre­sumes to explain the mean­ing of life, they usu­al­ly draw, how­ev­er vague­ly, on reli­gion. Many a philoso­pher has ven­tured a sec­u­lar answer, but it’s hard to com­pete with the ancient sto­ries of the world’s major faiths. The rich­ness of their metaphors sur­pass­es his­tor­i­cal truth; humans, it seems, real­ly “can­not bear very much real­i­ty,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quar­tets. Maybe we need sto­ries to keep us going, which is why we love Pla­to, whose myth of the ori­gins of love in his novel­la, the Sym­po­sium, remains one of the most mov­ing in the West­ern philo­soph­i­cal canon.

Pla­to’s philo­soph­i­cal project was a sto­ry that exis­ten­tial­ists like Simone de Beau­voir were eager to be rid of, along with the hoary old myths of reli­gion. The Athe­ni­an’s pious ide­al­ism “dis­missed the phys­i­cal world as a flawed reflec­tion of high­er truth and unchang­ing ideals,” says Iseult Gille­spie in the TED-Ed video above. “But for de Beau­voir, ear­ly life was enthralling, sen­su­al, and any­thing but sta­t­ic.” Mate­r­i­al real­i­ty is not an imper­fect copy, but the medi­um into which we are thrown, to exer­cise free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty and deter­mine our own pur­pos­es, as de Beau­voir argued in The Ethics of Ambi­gu­i­ty.

For de Beau­voir, as for her part­ner Jean-Paul Sartre, the “eth­i­cal imper­a­tive to cre­ate our own life’s mean­ing,” pre­cedes any pre-exist­ing mean­ing to which we might attach our­selves, and which might lead us to deny free­dom to oth­ers. “A free­dom which is inter­est­ed only in deny­ing free­dom,” she wrote, “must be denied.” We might think of such a state­ment in terms of Karl Popper’s para­dox of intol­er­ance, but the idea led de Beau­voir in a dif­fer­ent direction—away from the lib­er­al­ism Pop­per defend­ed and in a more rad­i­cal philo­soph­i­cal direc­tion.

De Beauvoir’s exis­ten­tial­ist fem­i­nism asked fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about the giv­en cat­e­gories of social iden­ti­ty that lock us into pre­fig­ured roles and shape our lives with­out our con­sent or con­trol. She real­ized that social con­struc­tions of womanhood—not a Pla­ton­ic ide­al but a his­tor­i­cal production—restricted her from ful­ly real­iz­ing her cho­sen life’s mean­ing. “Despite her pro­lif­ic writ­ing, teach­ing, and activism, de Beau­voir strug­gled to be tak­en seri­ous­ly by her male peers.” This was not only a polit­i­cal prob­lem, it was also an exis­ten­tial one.

As de Beau­voir would argue in The Sec­ond Sex, cat­e­gories of gen­der turned women into “others”—imperfect copies of men, who are con­strued as the ide­al. Lat­er the­o­rists took up the cri­tique to show how race, sex­u­al­i­ty, class, and oth­er sto­ries about human iden­ti­ty restrict the abil­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als to deter­mine their lives’ mean­ing. Instead, we find our­selves pre­sent­ed with social nar­ra­tives that explain our exis­tence to us and tell us what we can hope to accom­plish and what we can­not.

De Beau­voir was also a sto­ry­teller. Her per­son­al expe­ri­ences fig­ured cen­tral­ly in her phi­los­o­phy; she pub­lished sev­er­al acclaimed nov­els, and along with Nobel-win­ning nov­el­ists and play­wrights Sartre and Albert Camus, made Exis­ten­tial­ism the most lit­er­ary of philo­soph­i­cal move­ments. But when it came to grand abstrac­tions like the “mean­ing of life,” the answer all of them gave in their philo­soph­i­cal work was that such things aren’t hov­er­ing above us like Pla­to’s ide­al forms. Each of us must fig­ure it out our­selves with­in our flawed, imper­fect, indi­vid­ual lives.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Fem­i­nist Phi­los­o­phy of Simone de Beau­voir

Simone de Beau­voir Defends Exis­ten­tial­ism & Her Fem­i­nist Mas­ter­piece, The Sec­ond Sex, in Rare 1959 TV Inter­view

Simone de Beau­voir Tells Studs Terkel How She Became an Intel­lec­tu­al and a Fem­i­nist (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.