Existential men of de Beauvoir

By Christopher Wink | Apr 17, 2007 | Existentialism

In 1947 French author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) published The Ethics of Ambiguity, arguably the most accessible explanation of a host of existential ideas and themes. A notable member of a notable age in French philosophy, Beauvoir had a close relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and was a contemporary of Albert Camus (1913-1960) and fellow Parisian Simone Weil (1909-1943). In Ethics, one of Beauvoir’s more memorable techniques was to characterize a series of men with certain existential qualities in order to make the themes easier to understand through their personification.

In one way or another, almost all of the personalities form and fall into one or another, but one is particularly interesting in the problems it encounters, the serious man. This man is enraptured in the very spirit of seriousness, considering his values bigger than his personage, certainly an example of Sartre’s concept of bad faith.

In order to further take on his values, the serious man attempts to destroy his subjectivity in order to lose himself in the object he takes so seriously. To destroy his subject he rejects all of his freedom, lessening it to the cause or his values, which are, most certainly in his mind, unconditional. The idea is that by aligning himself entirely and irrevocably with his values, he gives himself value. In this way, the serious man can seemingly avoid confronting the stress of life by allowing the structure of his value system to choose his path for him.

That said, it is important to understand that the serious man needn’t focus on something that might be considered a serious matter by most. While a serious man might enslave himself to a strict moral code in relation to the perils of life, another serious man could do the same to fashion or something otherwise frivolous and be likewise steadfast in his adherence to whatever code he chooses to follow. That is, the importance is not about what he is serious, but rather that he is serious.

The merit in understanding this is to be aware that no one should allow himself to justify being stringent and obstinate in any strict code of self-imposed law, no matter the subject, because the problem of the serious man is indifferent to it. Once freedoms are denied to follow an end that one claims are absolute, the serious man appears and that man is, to revert to Sartre again, not only in bad faith but allowing himself less of an existence than is possible. Freedom is existence and any self-inflicted infringement of it is wholly debilitating. A life in the absolute, no matter the cause, motivation or goal, is a dangerous, self-harmful one.

Such is one of the many gifts de Beauvoir offered her readers. There is nothing entirely new about the concept of the serious man, but she may have made it more accessible than anyone ever had before. Indeed, while she was active in the 1950s and the 1960s, noted for her travel writing, fiction and her personal accounts with maturing and aging, and continued publishing through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Ethics of Ambiguity of the 1940s might be her most important addition to the literary and philosophical worlds.

This was prepared for a class on Existentialism taught at Temple University by Professor Lewis Gordon.