The Serious Man

The existentialists are the only ones I know of who really understand what human freedom is. It is similar to the Buddhist concept. But as either will say, intellectual understanding of it is of little use, you have to find out what it means for yourself.

Simone de Beauvoir, however has taken a different approach – by describing some of the ways in which people avoid being free – in the chapter Personal Freedom and Others in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity. I will try to summarize what she says there. The opening paragraph puts it well:

Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first been a child. And indeed, the unfortunate choices which most men make can only be explained by the fact that they have taken place on the basis of childhood. The child’s situation is characterized by his finding himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, and which appears to him at an absolute to which he can only submit. In his eyes, human inventions, words, customs, and values are given facts, as inevitable as the sky and the trees. This means that the world he lives in is a serious world, since the characteristic of the spirit of seriousness to to consider values as ready-made things.

That does not mean the child is serious. On the contrary, he is allowed to play, to expend his existence freely…He feels himself happily irresponsible. The real world is that of adults where he is only allowed to respect and obey…Later on, he will become a big, imposing statue…He is in a state of security because of his very insignificance.

There are beings whose life slips by in an infantile world because, having been kept in a state of servitude and ignorance, they have no means of breaking the ceiling that is stretched over their heads…This is the case of slaves who have not raised themselves to the consciousness of their slavery. The southern planters were not altogether in the wrong in considering the negroes who docilely submitted to their paternalism as “grownup children.”

This is also the situation of women in many civilizations…If what is called women’s futility often has so much charm and grace, if it sometimes has a genuinely moving character, it is because it manifests a pure and gratuitous taste for existence, like the games of children.

The fact is that it is very rare for the infantile world to maintain itself beyond adolescence. With astonishment, revolt, and disrespect the child asks himself, “Why must I act that way?” “What good is this?” and “What will happen if I act another way?” He discovers his subjectivity; he discovers the subjectivity of others. He will have to chose and decide. He must at last assume his subjectivity.

How will he handle this freedom? Here Beauvoir goes into a long discussion – but ends up speaking of serious men, using the Nazi Goering as an example, but Hitler probably would have been an even better example. These have great energy and an undeniable appeal – for the large numbers of people who follow them.  They have grand goals (often their own self-aggrandizement) and do not hesitate to sacrifice others in the pursuit of these goals.

Many of the Reformation leaders were of the same temperament – and were responsible for vast slaughter. One could even accuse the radical abolitionists of helping cause the Civil War.

The American Civil War is a good test case. How should have America dealt with the problem of slavery, once it was established? There were lots of sensible suggestions, but in the end they were not even tried. With the invention of the Cotton Gin, slavery became too profitable.

In our time, much the same logic applies. The invention of computers and the Internet has made the power complex profitable as never before. Lots of way to overcome this have been suggested, but they will never be tried.

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Being-in-Itself and Being-for-Itself

Existential Philosophy is important – and it amazes me how much it has been ignored – especially by British and American philosophers. It is true, that taken to extremes it ends up being a bunch of twaddle, as philosophy often does – and it is also true that it was sentimentalized into trite nonsense by the New Age generation (and even, at times by Sartre himself). But the basics are solid, and I will try to go into them here.

The basics are a new duality – not mind and matter, as Descartes formulated the problem – but being-for-itself (consciousness) and being-in-itself (things). They key point here is that being-for-itself is empty, and only exists as it relates to things-in-themselves. This offends people who like to think they are all-important.

People are both – we are conscious (strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to say we have consciousness), and we have bodies and we are objects for other people and other things. This is what Simone de Beauvoir speaks of in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, which is relatively accessible.

Beauvoir’s influence on existentialism has been underplayed – since Sartre was such a showman. But it would not be inaccurate to say it was a joint creation. Sartre, when in a prison-of-war camp in Germany, would send each installment to her to be edited and commented on. She, in turn, would send him his writing materials. The Germans were easy on Sartre, perhaps because he used Heidegger as one of his sources. (For those not familiar with Heidegger, he tolerated the Nazi regime, and never apologized for this.)

Instead, Beauvoir is usually considered a feminist – which she certainly was.  When later questioned by her biographers, she was often ambiguous herself when describing her role in its creation – preferring to see herself as social writer.

From my own viewpoint, I think existentialism was overlooked because it said too much about the human condition, which was fast deteriorating. People no longer wanted to think about their situation – or much of anything else. This is what existentialists call bad faith – not taking responsibility for one’s life.