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Simone de Beauvoir: Freedom and forgiveness

Skye C. Cleary discusses how the philosopher’s existentialism informed her views on gender and justice


Footnotes to Plato is a TLS Online series appraising the works and legacies of the great thinkers and philosophers

Soon after Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) was released in France to great fanfare and controversy, Blanche Knopf, the co-founder of the New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., heard about it. Excited by the buzz, and initially under the impression that it was a sex manual, she sought the advice of an expert in sexual behavior: a retired zoology professor and insect specialist named Howard M. Parshley. He told her that it was not dogmatically feminist, but rather “intelligent, learned, and well-balanced”, and was subsequently asked to translate it into English.

Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex after female suffrage was already taking hold, and her philosophy unintentionally inspired a new “wave” of feminism that ushered in no-fault divorce, academic gender studies, greater access to education, and contraception, which made sexual discrimination at work and marital rape illegal, and granted women other rights that helped them to overcome being what Beauvoir called “prey to the species” and to take control of their own destiny. Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex as a purely theoretical work; yet she was pleased that it inspired activists, such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Kate Millett. In an interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber for French television in 1975, Beauvoir said that initially she had thought overthrowing capitalism would resolve the inequalities between the sexes. It was only later that she realized women’s situation was no better in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, or the Communist Party, for example, than it was in capitalist societies, and she decided to become more actively engaged in the feminist struggle.

Existentialism, as Beauvoir conceived it, was a living and practical philosophy. She did plenty of theorizing too – but she said her goal was to think through concrete problems, exploring potential solutions.  She published essays, as well as novels, plays, memoirs and personal letters, which gave her more freedom to explore the challenges of the human condition.

For example, Jean-Pierre – a character in Beauvoir’s play Les Bouches Inutiles (Who Shall Die) – is disgusted with the way in which his town in fourteenth-century Flanders is being managed; he turns down a prestigious government job in the name of keeping his hands clean. But when he finds out that the administration plans to banish women, children, the old and the weak from the town during a siege, he regrets his quietism. “What stupid arrogance!” he tells the woman he loves, “I was a coward, and I have condemned you to die by remaining silent”. He campaigns for the government to change its policy so as to respect the basic human rights of its citizens – and succeeds. Jean-Pierre’s realization is a reflection of Beauvoir’s broad call to action: to become engagé – to be committed and active participants in creating the conditions of our lives.

Beauvoir was reluctant to be categorized as an existentialist, or even philosopher, but posterity begs to differ. She has since become one of the most widely-read philosophers, existentialist thinkers and feminists of all time – largely because of The Second Sex, although in 1954, her novel The Mandarins also won the Prix Goncourt.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir began with the question: “What is a woman?” The answer, she found, was irritatingly complex. What started as an essay evolved into almost 1,000 pages of historical and philosophical analysis, which took her just fourteen months to write. As Beauvoir developed her philosophy in Parisian cafés in the 1940s, she became acutely aware of the inequalities between the sexes. One of her central themes underpinning the book is the Satrean maxim that “existence precedes essence”, meaning that we are thrown into the world (we exist) and then create our being (our essence) through our choices. If we’re prevented from choosing, then that’s oppression; if we choose to give up our freedom, then that’s what Beauvoir called a “moral fault”. The Second Sex became an in-depth philosophical investigation of how oppression, and women’s acceptance of it, shaped women’s situations.

The emphasis on situation is one of the key factors that distinguishes Beauvoir from other existentialists. For Beauvoir, we are free, but we are also thrown into contexts where we don’t always have the freedom to choose. This is very different from Jean-Paul Sartre’s emphasis on radical freedom; by his lights, any attempt to blame our situation for our predicament is a denial of freedom – a form of bad faith. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre imagined an impassable crag – a “brute existent”, to use a Heideggerian term – and suggested that it’s only impassable if one had imagined that it would be possible to climb it. In a not-so-subtle attack on this idea, Beauvoir argues in Ethics of Ambiguity that, “If a door refuses to open, let us accept not opening it and there we are free. But by doing that, one manages only to save an abstract notion of freedom. It is emptied of all content and all truth”. Whereas for Sartre, “success is not important to freedom”, Beauvoir’s point is that without the possibility to act – if we’re limited by our situation – then freedom is rendered impotent. We may be free to scale a crag, but unless we have the power to do it, it means nothing.

Beauvoir’s most revolutionary idea, which appeared in The Second Sex, is that, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. The meaning of this has been debated ever since she wrote it.  One way it can be understood is that although sex is biological, gender is socially and culturally constructed. The biological facts of a woman’s body do not mean necessarily that her role in society is to be a mother and housewife or that a man’s role is to be the breadwinner. Beauvoir argued that flawed logic such as this – that overemphasizes the biological aspects of life and reduces people to their anatomy – had been used to keep women in their role as “the second sex”.

We are all rooted in biology, but that doesn’t limit our futures in any meaningful way – hence her statement that “within the human collectivity nothing is natural”. We can’t deny the facts of our bodies – what she calls our “facticity” – but the assumption that our biology sets a specific destiny for us is mere prejudice. Gestating babies is a natural female animal function; the obligation to rear children is not. Rather it’s an engagement, a commitment that is chosen or rejected. Differences in the ways the sexes assert themselves are more about our situation than some “mysterious essence”. Although Beauvoir comes dangerously close to victim-blaming when she says that women have been complicit because they put up with it, she also acknowledges that women’s acceptance was a problem-solving strategy to negotiate the traditions, roles and constraints imposed on them.

This is where Beauvoir’s nuanced point about situation reaches its climax. Yes, we’re free, but it is always freedom in situation. Our freedom is violated when we’re in situations that close down the possibility of choosing into an open future. Those who are stuck in ignorance or oppressive situations are robbed of their freedom. Individuals can rebel against it, yet challenging social norms often comes at a high cost, which is why The Second Sex concludes with an urgent call to action for collective change – for women to challenge their oppression, embrace their freedom and live authentically by pursuing self-chosen projects and careers. The first step is economic independence; but we also need moral, social and cultural changes for relationships between the sexes to become one of fraternity, friendship and love instead of conquests and defeats. In an interview with Susan J. Brison in 1976, Beauvoir said, “I’m certain, in fact, that this idea of domination is one of the features of the masculine universe that must be totally destroyed, that we must look for reciprocity, collaboration, etc”.

Beauvoir’s ideas about how situations modify freedom also have wider implications beyond feminism to discussions on punishment, forgiveness and vengeance. Originally published in 1946 in Les temps modernes – a French journal edited by Sartre, Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Aron and others – Beauvoir’s essay “An Eye for an Eye”, written amid the war trials in the aftermath of the Second World War, considers the situation of criminals and the desire for vengeance.

Justice, Beauvoir proposes, affirms that we have a reciprocal relationship with other people, and if this relationship is disrupted, we want them to “pay for it”, to restore equivalence to our situation. Imagine you’re in a crowded place and you’re pushed. It feels like you’re a mere obstacle for the other, an object, a thing. You want an acknowledgement that the reciprocity between you and the shover has been violated. An apology can quickly disarm the situation and restore the respect between you and the other. If an apology is not forthcoming, it’s not unusual to want justice. Perhaps you address the perpetrator in a more-or-less polite manner, perhaps you hit them with your most scathing dagger-like look, or perhaps you give them a shove in return. This desire for restitution doesn’t just hold on a personal level – it’s an effort to maintain a level of respect between all of us. Beauvoir writes that, “the respect that he demands for himself, each person claims for his loved ones and finally for all men”.

Though one may well be angry at being pushed, usually the shover isn’t truly evil. More likely, it was an accident, or perhaps carelessness. Evil people will terrible things on others. For Beauvoir, “an abomination arises only at the moment that a man treats fellow men like objects, when by torture, humiliation, servitude, assassination, one denies them their existence as men”. It’s true that we’re objects for others, but we’re also subjects – and not to acknowledge this interior aspect of another’s being is violent. For Sartre, we’re always trying to reduce each other to an object, or reduce ourselves to an object for the other, and the attempt to rob one another of freedom forever traps us in sadomasochistic relationships. For Beauvoir, it’s an atrocity and to deny another’s subjectivity is the “sole sin” against humanity.

Robert Brasillach, the Editor of the Fascist newspaper Je suis partout, committed Beauvoir’s sole sin when, during the Nazi occupation of France, he published the pseudonyms and locations of French Jews, some of whom Beauvoir knew personally. Beauvoir sat in the press gallery during Brasillach’s trial, and when a petition circulated to save him from the death penalty, calling for “solidarity as writers”, Beauvoir refused to sign.

Punishment, Beauvoir thought, is a necessary evil against evil. If one is religious, one doesn’t face this problem. God is the ultimate judge and “He alone has the right to punish”. Others, however, do face the problem of how to uphold human values. Beauvoir thought she understood Brasillach’s situation reasonably well. She didn’t want him dead. But, she said, “there are words as murderous as gas chambers”. She didn’t believe in a God who would deliver ultimate justice, and she couldn’t excuse his advocacy of genocide.

Charles de Gaulle refused to pardon Brasillach and he was executed by firing squad. It might have seemed like this was a proper punishment but, for Beauvoir, this was not true vengeance; the victimizer escaped the experience of being in a reciprocal situation and, “in dying he slips out of the world; he shrugs off his punishment”. Nevertheless, although such punishment is a last resort, Beauvoir thought it important to reinforce the notion that actions have consequences, that life and death have meaning, and “it is not shocking to affirm them at the cost of a life”.

However, just as it’s absurd to hate a natural disaster for killing people, so too is it absurd to hate common criminals who do not intentionally violate our humanity. Soldiers in war, Beauvoir suggests, don’t deserve to be hated – not only because they act under orders, but because on both sides, the soldiers are in very similar situations. There is a reciprocity of situations.

Common crimes might seem horrendous in an objective sense. Yet, Beauvoir proposes, it’s a different story when we take into account the subjective experience of the perpetrator. Maybe the perpetrator made a mistake, or succumbed to an unfortunate impulse. Maybe they thought they were doing what was in their best interest at the time, or maybe they just weren’t thinking at all. We ought not be so quick to judge:

It requires a lot of arrogance and very little imagination to judge another. How can one measure the temptations a man could have faced? How can one appreciate the weight of the circumstances that give an act its real shape? One would have to bring his upbringing, complexes, failures, and entire past – the totality of his engagement in the world – into account.

Brasillach published multiple names repeatedly, intentionally, and fully aware of the murderous consequences of his doing so. Yet, in cases where the crime is an aberration, Beauvoir suggests erring on the side of forgiveness, since not all victimizers intentionally degrade the other to a thing: they don’t intentionally strip another person of subjectivity. A person might not understand what was wrong with their actions until they see it in a new light, through the eyes of their victims. In such cases, we could focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment.  Beauvoir writes,

One reeducates children, the ignorant, those populations that are ill-informed; one does not punish them. Neither does one punish the ill or those mad people in whom conscience has been annihilated. And everyone knows that even a normal adult always acts out of situations that he has not chosen, that numerous physiological and sociological factors weigh on him.

To understand is to accept, and if we understand the situation, the subjective experience of the victimizer, then often the crimes lose much of what makes them awful. In one of her more controversial statements, Beauvoir goes so far to say, “One could explain even Hitler’s conduct, if one knew him well enough”. Still, for Beauvoir, explaining a situation doesn’t mean forgiving it. Even in those cases when we do understand the situation, all we understand is the context in which a person chooses. “Certainly, man is wretched, scattered, mired in the given, but he is also a free being. He can reject the most urgent temptations.”

Beauvoir’s acknowledgement of the tension between freedom and facticity reveals itself here again: it’s true that we’re free and responsible for our actions, but we’re also clogged in situations. For Beauvoir, as for Sartre, we are the sum of our actions, but we’re also more than that. We’re also our future and intentions. We can’t escape our past actions, but we ought not be slaves to them – and we ought not to reduce people to being slaves to their past – because people can always redeem themselves through new actions:

Can one condemn an entire man on the basis of one moment of his life? This would be all the more cruel because this weakness that one reproaches him for is already in the past. It does not exist anymore as the expression of a freedom, but as something fixed that the guilty party trails behind him in spite of himself. Since he is other than the person who committed the crime, can we still hate him? And what good is served by punishment?

Ultimately, Beauvoir argues that “all punishment is partially a failure” because, to restore justice in the world, to make one really pay for their crime, the perpetrator needs to experience the horror of it. That means not only the suffering, but also the situation of the victim. When those in concentration camps were freed and slaughtered their jailers, they came close to successful vengeance because, she says, “the victims and their torturers had really exchanged situations”.

Nevertheless, Beauvoir is extremely reluctant to allow for private vengeance.  Certainly, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” has what she calls “a whiff of magic. It strives to satisfy some unknown dark god of symmetry. But, above all, it corresponds to a profound human need”. However, the principle serves only to send avengers floundering into a bottomless quagmire of revenge and injustice. Social justice might be enticing, but without due process, it risks descending into a tyranny: those seeking vengeance can easily get carried away with their will to power; they make mistakes, and the wrong people get punished.

Court trials aim to address such issues, but Beauvoir points out that they too are deeply flawed. Often they’re an exercise in drama and pomp, where disinterested judges following abstract processes dish out arbitrary punishments that are so far removed from the crime that they don’t provide any reasonable restitution for the wrong committed. While we might be tempted to think that objectivity in the courtroom is ideal, Beauvoir counters:

The official tribunals claim to take refuge behind an objectivity that is the worst part of the Kantian heritage. They want to be only an expression of impersonal right and deliver verdicts that would be nothing more than the subsumption of a particular case under a universal law. But the accused exists in his singularity, and his concrete presence does not take on the guise of an abstract symbol so easily.

This is, however, the system we have. One of the main problems with Beauvoir’s approach is that there is no concrete way to understand whether a victimizer intentionally treats another as an object, or whether there is some other motivation, or whether they’re lying. The purpose of courts is to take such things into account, but whether they do so in an effective manner is another question. Moreover, forgiving attitudes can be taken advantage of.

Yet the implication of Beauvoir’s thinking is that positive education, rehabilitation, and putting our confidence in people to redeem themselves are better paths than vengeance. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or letting people get away with atrocities; rather, it means being more finely attuned to individuals’ situations, respecting one another, and upholding the dignity of humankind. Whether it’s the tension between the sexes or between victim and victimizer, reciprocity and collaboration provide a clearer path towards fraternity and friendship. We’re all “gnawed away by nothingness”, as Beauvoir says; we are all adrift in the world together and find ourselves in ambiguous situations as freedoms constantly bumping into one another and into brute existents, but our lives are also interconnected like stones in an arch. Such is the human condition, Beauvoir writes: “For we have not only to establish what our situation is, we have to choose it in the very heart of its ambiguity”.

Skye C. Cleary, the Associate Director of the Center for New Narratives in Philosophy at Columbia University, is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love, 2015

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