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.