Last week, we had our first woman in this series on the survival of the fittest philosophers--Ayn Rand. Sadly, and like so many other instances of women breaking through male dominated hierarchies, that one happened when a woman acted like a stereotypical man—selfishly and competitively, forsaking those who cooperate as "consigned to the status of sacrificial animals." Now, as I turn to the only other woman in this series, at least she appears on the surface to have been a vigorous supporter of women as equals. Beauvoir is most famous for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, "a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism." It is full of such quotes as:
When an individual (or a group of individuals) is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he is inferior. But the significance of the verb 'to be' must be rightly understood here; it is in bad faith to give it a static value when it really has the dynamic Hegelian sense of 'to have become.' Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue? Many men hope that it will continue; not all have given up the battle.
It is vain to apportion praise and blame. The truth is that if the vicious circle is so hard to break, it is because the two sexes are each the victim at once of the other and of itself. Between two adversaries confronting each other in their pure liberty, an agreement could be easily reached: the more so as the war profits neither. But the complexity of the whole affair derives from the fact that each camp is giving aid and comfort to the enemy; woman is pursuing a dream of submission, man a dream of identification. Want of authenticity does not pay: each blames the other for the unhappiness he or she has incurred in yielding to the temptations of the easy way; what man and woman loathe in each other is the shattering frustration of each one's own bad faith and baseness.
When we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the 'division' of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.
It was said that I refused to grant any value to the maternal instinct and to love. This was not so. I simply asked that women should experience them truthfully and freely, whereas they often use them as excuses and take refuge in them, only to find themselves imprisoned in that refuge when those emotions have dried up in their hearts.
These are admirable identifications of the plight women faced in the first half of the 20th century, but if you read a few of the biographies of Beauvoir, or just the stunning and salacious recap of them in the New Yorker article Stand By Your Man—which chronicles the numerous seductions of vulnerable young women into dependent, sexual, triangular relationships between the women, Sartre, and Beauvoir—one can't help but think that she didn't want to stop women from being slaves in relationships so much as she wanted to be the master in one herself. Sartre "liked the company of women because he devoted much of his time to the business of seducing them." But Beauvoir appears to have felt the same.
We were two of a kind, and our relationship would endure as long as we did: but it could not make up entirely for the fleeting riches to be had from encounters with different people.
I suppose that's one form of equality, but one that is still dedicated to inequality itself. In interviews, "Beauvoir had flatly denied having had sexual relations with women; in letters, she regularly described, for Sartre, her nights in bed with women. The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people Beauvoir and Sartre were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection. They enjoyed, especially, recounting to each other the lies they were telling. Their customary method was to adopt a very young woman as a protégée—to take her to movies and cafés, travel with her, help her with her education and career, support her financially. For Sartre and Beauvoir, the feeling that they were, in effect, sleeping with their own children must, as with most taboos, have juiced up the erotic fun." There were trysts with 16 and 17-year-old students, initiated by Beauvoir. Sartre spent two years seducing one student's sister when the student wouldn't play with him. They encouraged sexual relationships with other partners of ex-partners within this "family." The nihilist existentialists turned to mere hedonistic games to occupy their time on earth.
This reminds me of a movie I watched this week--The Great Beauty. It is a near-universally praised film (91% score on Rotten Tomatoes) that is so shallow its only claim to depth is that the protagonist will occasionally glance at all the bacchanalia of Rome's pseudo-intellectuals and give it a wry and knowing smile as if to wink at the audience about how very shallow it all is, only to have a mafioso criminal comment at the end that its because of men like him that the whole world keeps running. It all overwhelms me with sadness at the waste that relativism and nihilism has wrought on those who have the opportunity to be some of humanity's best examples. The wealthy, famous, and intelligent have so often squandered their lives on meaningless sex.
This backdrop also lends some context to one of Beauvoir's other famous works, the novel All Men are Mortal. This is a book where the main protagonist, a man who was born immortal for no apparent reason in 1279, has come to lie immobile for weeks on end in a deck chair by a pool because after six centuries of existence wrapped up in some of the most important events in history he has given up all hope for humanity. By the end of the novel, I was screaming out in my head, "he is so alone because he is the only immortal!" Knowing more now about Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre and the way they treated others as playthings, it's no wonder she spent 400 pages expressing deep feelings of isolation and disgust.
Still, when trying to break a custom, an overreaction sometimes brings about a new normal, and Beauvoir's words did launch the second wave of feminism in the 60's and 70's. Her actions may not be my idea of finding powerful empowerment, but at least the words she used to justify her actions have helped others find a better way to change themselves and society.
I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth — and truth rewarded me.
Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.
One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.
If it came to be that each man did what he must, existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death.
Good words. So let's not harp on Beauvoir's personal failings any longer. Let's finish this week's essay with a reminder of what she helped bring to society, and then go celebrate with the other equal halves in your life, no matter what sex they are.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986 CE) was a French writer, existentialist philosopher, feminist, and social theorist. She did not consider herself a philosopher but her significant contributions to existentialism and feminist existentialism have solidified her legacy as a philosopher and feminist.
As an existentialist, Beauvoir believed that existence precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Beauvoir asserted that women are as capable of choice as men, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the immanence to which they were previously resigned and reaching transcendence, a position in which one takes responsibility for oneself and the world, where one chooses one's freedom. Certainly, Beauvoir was born a woman biologically, but the sense of the word she is getting at is a fully realized human. Beauvoir’s ideas are a good reminder that women are equal partners in the cooperative society we must build. Women should never be subjugated by force because their bodies are weaker than men’s, nor have their lives subjugated by children because they are the biological home for their gestation. Women and men must play equal roles in society and in the family.
Needs to Adapt