Simone de Beauvoir was a philosopher and writer of notable range and influence whose work is central to feminist theory, French existentialism, and contemporary moral and social philosophy.
When Time magazine selected the top ten non- fiction books of the twentieth century, they included The Second Sex (1949), “Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical treatise on the condition of women in modern life” ( June 8, 1998).
Life magazine named Simone de Beauvoir one of the one hundred most influential people of the millennium:
“She developed existentialist philosophy in novels and nonfiction, . . . and wrote the most influential feminist book of the twentieth century.”
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), a trained philosopher, was well known to students in the 1950s and 1960s as the existentialist author of The Ethics of Ambiguity (1946) and The Second Sex (1949).
Beauvoir’s most widely read philosophical works are still The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. But her later work as well is philosophically deep and often original. It offers mature perspectives on such topics as torture and old age in addition to new perspectives on her earlier work.
Beauvoir’s total output (still being translated into English) is prodigious.
Equally popular with philosophers and non-philosophers are Beauvoir’s stories and novels, especially She Came to Stay and The Mandarins, which won the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1954.
Her short memoir, A Very Easy Death, reflecting on the death of her mother, and the longer treatise, Old Age, belong in anyone’s list of classics on ageing and dying.
The four volumes chronicling her life and intellectual development, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, The Force of Circumstance, and All Said and Done, revisit many of her earlier ideas and together construct a “life-story.”
Less well known are Beauvoir’s travel diaries from her visits to the United States for four months in 1947 (America Day by Day) and to China in 1955 (The Long March).
The America diary includes wonderful descriptions of life in Beauvoir’s favourite city, New York , as well as detailed and painful observations of racial segregation in the South.
Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908 and died there in 1986. She and Sartre became lovers and companions, and although their relationship was not exclusive, it continued throughout most of their lives.
Beauvoir had many friendships and love affairs with women and men. Some are revealed in her autobiography, others in posthumously published letters. Beauvoir traveled widely and wrote about her experiences and views in fiction, plays, journalistic articles, autobiography, and philosophy.
Beauvoir’s philosophical training began early. She went to a Catholic girls’ school, which, like many schools in France at the time, included a great deal of philosophical reading, especially Aquinas and other writers thought to be significant to religious and moral life.
In addition to medieval philosophers, Beauvoir read medieval mystics, Immanuel Kant, Rene ́ Descartes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and was generally well versed in the history of philosophy by the time she went to the Sorbonne.
Taking a degree at the Sorbonne was acceptable to her parents only because she had no dowry, which made them believe her unlikely to marry and that she would therefore have to work to support herself.
She obtained teaching certificates in literature, philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Mathematics .In 1929 she was the youngest student ever to pass the degree exam in philosophy.
Beauvoir and Existentialism
Existentialism is a branch of philosophy best known from French writers during the 1940s and 1950s, especially Beauvoir, Sartre, and Albert Camus . Existentialism is mostly concerned with ideas of choice, meaning, and the limits of existence. In general, existentialists think human existence has no predetermined meaning. It is up to each of us to use our freedom to choose our actions and interactions in the world. Each individual carries the burden of finding, revealing, and making meaning in the world.
A hallmark of existentialism is the authors’ preoccupation with death, anxiety, and fear. In contrast to novelists who focus on escape from reality, existential literature tries to express the always tenuous and questioning aspect of human consciousness, the human tendency to ask: why?
A second hallmark is the focus on freedom, especially the burden of responsibility that taking up one’s freedom entails.
As Beauvoir points out in The Ethics of Ambiguity, most of us feel great anxiety in adolescence, the moment when we are first faced with freedom or with choosing for ourselves. It is also the moment at which we begin to realise that parents and authority figures are fallible.
“But whatever the joy of this liberation may be, it is not without great confusion that the adolescent finds himself cast into a world which is no longer ready-made”.
Beauvoir, like Nietzsche, focuses on joy as well as anxiety. Also reminiscent of Nietzsche, she rejoices in the shedding of old values and the dynamic creation of choosing value.
According to Beauvoir, each person
“bears the responsibility for the world which is not the work of a strange power, but of himself, where his defeats are inscribed and his victories as well”
For Beauvoir, human freedom has meaning because of what we do with it. The value that we find in the world we find through our actions, our choices, and our investments in other people. Life has meaning, but it is up to us to find, discover, or reveal that meaning. Some value in the world must be revealed, other value must be cre- ated. Sometimes value must be revealed and created simultaneously.
Like Sartre and Camus , she used fiction and plays as well as philosophical treatises to explore philosophical thought. She Came to Stay (her first novel) is a fictional account of some of the philosophical questions found in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
Beauvoir won the Prix Goncourt, the highest literary prize in France, for her novel The Mandarins, which asks whether ethical action is possible. Much of her philosophical thought can be found in her novels.
Today Beauvoir is studied as an important philosopher in her own right.
One of the most prolific and influential female thinkers of the twentieth century, she is widely acknowledged as in many ways the leading philosophical grandparent of women’s studies and contemporary feminist theory.
Although she did not explicitly and publicly identify herself as a feminist or with a women’s movement until later, her sympathies definitely moved in that direction in The Second Sex, which is sprinkled throughout with criticisms of “antifeminists.”