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In Brief: Simone de Beauvoir on Freedom

Updated on January 21, 2019
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J S Penna, a retired editor and lover of English and American literature, pauses to muse on great works she appreciates.

Simone de Beauvoir

Themes

Freedom is a theme central to existentialism, and Simone de Beauvoir takes up this theme in two of her works, The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex. Other existnetial themes upon which she touches are those of existence, subjectivity and, to a lesser degree, the anguish and despair of life.

The Ethics of Ambiguity

The Ethics of Ambiguity concerns itself almost entirely with freedom. According to de Beauvoir, freedom is "the original condition of all justification of existence." It is the source of values. "To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision." The will is defined by obstacles, which a human being either overcomes or fails to overcome. If a person does not overcome a given obstacle, that person must accept his/her lot, for in doing so, he/she maintains at least an abstract freedom. The person must find a new aim; in so doing, and in successfully overcoming the new obstacles--a person reaches out to a new future with new possibilities and a new freedom. This freedom discloses the world and being; de Beauvoir says is the "transition from being to existence." The goal is to conquer existence--because life is real, with real dangers and problems, and a person must decide for him/herself (as nothing is decided in advance for him/her). These points, then, illustrate de Beauvoir's existential stance in the matters of existence, anguish and despair, and freedom.

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir expands on the aforementioned themes in The Second Sex. the second sex is, of course, woman. De Beauvoir hits upon why women are not considered equal to men: humanity is male ("mankind"), and man defines woman as a thing relative to him. She compares and contrasts relationships: master to slave, native born to stranger, European to "native." Woman is the "Other"--the outsider (a necessary one, to be sure). But unlike the role-relationships cited, that of man-woman had never been reversed, and women continued to be submissive.

Happiness is often associated with being at reset. In this respect, one might expect that "housewives" would be more happy than career women. But existentialism rejects this idea, because an individual "achieves liberty only through a continual reaching out toward other liberties," which is a "justification for present existence." Thus, a woman--a free and autonomous human being--should be a Subject, too, and not just the Object. She--her self, her ego--is as essential as a man. De Beauvoir was convinced that woman's freedom and fraternity would not be achieved by laws but by her and men's realization of their sameness--their humanness, their needs, their pain and despair, their eventual death. Of course men and women are different, but de Beauvior argued that women should have an independent existence apart from their biology and traditional sexual role. She believed that if women were freed from their roles as "Others," then liberty would be established for both sexes.

Freedom for Women and Men Alike

Simone de Beauvoir is remembered as a feminist; however, as we have seen, her writings discussed the concept of freedom for women and men alike. The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex are a good starting point for readers interested in further exploring her ideas.

© 2019 J S Penna

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