The Useless Passion

French writer and feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir was Jean Paul Sartre’s long-time lover and companion. She did not consider herself a philosopher, but nevertheless advanced some challenging ideas. One of these was her concept of the “useless passion,” the desire to be God. De Beauvoir posited two sides to this passion: violence and merging. Violence, the attempt to wound or destroy others is a bid for omnipotence. Merging with the world or cosmos, what we might call the “all-is-one” philosophy is a bid for omnipresence and omniscience. At the philosophical level, the useless passion stems from the truth of human existence; that is, that we are finite and that we will die. The useless passion is our desire to escape from our finiteness. It is important to realize that those who espouse violence and the all-is-one philosophy may be unaware of their true motives for doing so.

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir’s useless passion is the desire to escape death by becoming God.

The useless passion arises from the inability to accept the reality of human separateness. This fear of being apart (from others, from the world) stems in turn from having a poorly defined sense of self. People who do not know themselves have an exaggerated need for the regard and affection of others and often intensely dislike being alone. Ironically, de Beauvoir herself suffered from this difficulty of a poorly defined sense of self. She was terrified of being alone and experienced intense loneliness when on her own.

A well-defined sense of self is essential before we can respect and take pleasure in differences. Someone with a strong sense of self enjoys the character of others and does not feel threatened by differences between themselves and other people. In the same way, a sturdy sense of self allows the enjoyment of the uniqueness of things in the world. Those with a poorly defined sense of self prefer the all-is-one way of looking at things. They like conformity, uniformity, and merging.

De Beauvoir was a self-hater – the classic symptom of self-alienation or a poorly defined sense of self. Having identified with the plight of the poor, she felt guilty and ashamed of her origins in a privileged class. (Virginia Woolf, another early and influential feminist, suffered from precisely the same problem. She too felt guilty about coming from a moneyed class.) For de Beauvoir warring with the self (self-hate, self-loathing) appears as the internal mirroring of the potential violence between the self and others. The violence has turned inward. Remember that potential violence is an aspect of the desire to be God. De Beauvoir must have derived her concept of the useless passion from her own experience.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

8 thoughts on “The Useless Passion”

  1. This is an interesting post, Thomas. Have you read Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’? It seems pertinent to mention it here, as its protagonists could be said to be suffering from the useless passion. In one of the key plot points, they pursue ‘merging’ (in a rather novel way) – a pursuit which culminates in violence.

    As one of the characters says, ‘The appeal to stop being yourself, even for a little while, is very great … To escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being.’ The attempt to do just this results, sadly, in both violence and tragedy.

  2. I believe that this is the basis for religious rites that change one’s name. Once they become a “new person in god,” they then feel that they have the ability to change their outlook and work on their issues.

    However, I do not believe that all people suffer from this malady. There is a vast number of people who are grounded in reality and feel that the world is a beautiful place and a mirror of heaven.

  3. I’m not familiar with Tartt’s work, Mari, but it sounds interesting and very pertinent to my post. Authors can be astoundingly perceptive when it comes to the psychology of their characters. Freud admitted that writers had already laid out much of what he had to say.

    The desire to escape from “being yourself” is driven by self-alienation. It is important to differentiate between the authentic self and what Jung called the false persona. Keeping up “appearances” in order to *consciously* maintain a false persona – to present a phoney idealized version of yourself – is a terrific strain. You may make a revealing mistake at any moment. Exposure, loss of face, and humiliation are constant threats. This precarious psychological situation is the very essence of existential angst. From time to time, those with serious false persona problems crack and start babbling about getting out of themselves for a time. (Most people use the word “self” to refer to the conscious I, rather than the psychologist’s more comprehensive idea of the self.)

    Grounded in the true self, authentic people do their best to present themselves as they actually are. They often take pains to correct any overblown impression they may have inadvertently given. Knowing its worth in terms of peace of mind, they consciously work to maintain a *realistic* persona. Having nothing to hide and no idealized false image to uphold, they have no need of “escape.”

  4. De Beauvoir’s idea is all about escaping from mortality, and from the fear of death that goes with being mortal. The desire to be God in this case is not benign. It is not a desire to be with God or possessed by God. It is an attempt to become so powerful that, like God, death cannot touch you. Simone de Beauvoir was a complete atheist and used God as a metaphor for infinite power.

    I think your point relates to the shedding of the false self (see my reply to Mari’s comment) and the embracing of the authentic self, which is certainly “grounded in reality” as you put it. As you probably know, (your blog reveals wide knowledge of religious matters), many religious people see Jung’s unconscious mind as the presence of God within the human being, or at least, the inner link with God. For someone desperate to shed a burdensome false persona, a ritual name change might help. However, what do you think of the risk that the adoption of a new name might simply replace one false self with another?

  5. Yes, it is very possible to just replace one false self with another.

    I have seen where the person becomes even worse because they now believe that God has empowered them with the characteristics of the new name. The initiation and name changing process enflames the ego instead of burning it to the ground, so the authentic self can emerge.

    The other issue is that initiation and name changing is not for everyone. There are many people who do not need any more Passion/Kundalini in their lives. They are already caring and compassionate by nature. I call them egoless because for the most part they think of others before they think of themselves. They need to enhance the intellect and strengthen the concept of self or the “I AM” in Biblical terms. They need to take back their power and include the consideration of themselves in the matrix of decision making.

    When you initiate and change the name of an egoless person, they lose all the sense of the self that they have so laboriously built. They become confused, lost, and cut away from all the people and things that they loved. They can fall into a despair that can lead to suicide if the psyche is not strong enough to fight the overwhelming emotions.


    They become enraged, vengeful, and destructive due to the overload of emotion. I call this the Medusa effect. All cultures have a myth that tells of a virgin or loving mother goddess that has a wrathful aspect. Kali, Pele, & Sekhmet are just a few that I can think of off the top of my head.

    When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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