Like all those who place the ego’s false persona before all else, Simone De Beauvoir struggled mightily with the reality of death. She writes of “the scandal of finiteness,” referring to our inescapable mortality. When you insist on emphasizing your separateness and see yourself as merely an isolated conscious ego, it becomes inevitable that fear of the permanent extinction of consciousness — occasioned by physical death — will threaten your peace of mind. Death can become something of a preoccupation.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre wanted more from life than it could give. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The real scandal here is de Beauvoir’s way of ignoring the bigger picture — the immortality of the human race, which transcends individual mortality. Unfortunately, for those locked into believing they are merely a self-made false persona, only the individual counts. They never look beyond the boundaries of self-absorption and never seem to learn that such selfishness comes at a terrible price. Placing too much emphasis on maintaining a false image is a massive source of anxiety. The chronic angst generated by the necessity of maintaining and defending an idealized false persona is confused with fear of death and labelled existential angst. However, it is the dread of humiliation and exposure as a fraud that really drives this kind of continuing anxiety. The more-immediate fear is the death of the false persona.
Inner emptiness, the inability to tolerate being alone are symptomatic of a lack of self-knowledge, a poorly defined sense of self. Sufferers often describe the chronic condition as a feeling of loneliness. People with this problem usually have a desperate need for the regard and affection of others, said regard and affection providing the means to ward off, or at least ameliorate, painful self-dislike. Since they cannot accept themselves, they have a powerful need to forget themselves, to get out of themselves, to do something, anything, which will promote self-forgetfulness, self-oblivion. Psychologists claim that a lack of happy family life in childhood may lay the foundations for such a plight. A child unloved by its parents never learns to love itself.
Like The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” you may experience self-alienation as a feeling of intense loneliness or inner emptiness. (photo: Erik Ribsskog)
French journalist and philosopher Albert Camus said, “man in the world is absurd.” Like so many recent Western philosophers, he was thinking of the individual rather than the human race as a whole. Camus felt that he (like all individuals) was alone in the world, and the world, being cold and inanimate, cared nothing for him. In return, he owed the indifferent world nothing. While he does end on a defiant note (we must stand against the uncaring world and take possession of it) this is definitely not a philosophy designed to infuse your spirit with joy.
Albert Camus’ emphasis on the individual left him with the feeling that “man in the world is absurd.” (Image: public domain)
Camus’ position arises from two sources: the human craving for meaning and the desire for individual immortality. In fact, he frames his entire argument from the perspective of the individual person. Nowhere does it occur to him that he might take a broader perspective, move to a higher level. When it comes to meaning and immortality, the concept of society (humans in organized groups) is not on the radar for Camus. There is only the wretched mortal individual and his pathetic lonely agony in a cruel world.
While not the most sympathetic, Ray Monk is perhaps the most thorough biographer of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. According to Monk, Russell felt lonely and separated. He felt trapped inside the prison walls of his self, and believed only another person could alleviate the agony of imprisonment by seeing into his soul. (For clarity, I should mention that Russell was one of those who used the word “self” to describe the conscious “I.”) This is the desire, so commonly met with, to find a profoundly understanding soul mate.
Bertrand Russell craved someone who could see into his soul and relieve his sense of loneliness and separation. (Image: public domain)
In reality, Russell was agonizingly self-alienated. As someone who stressed conscious reasoning above all else, he was partially cut off from his unconscious mind. The resulting isolation of his ego, or “self” as Russell would have it, was the source of his painful loneliness. A sound connection with the unconscious adds richness to life. A more plentiful supply of allusive symbols and subjective images would have balanced the dry logic of mathematics and the cold sterility of abstract reasoning that were the centrepieces of Russell’s world. He would have had a greater sense of meaning. In all likelihood, an improved connection with the unconscious would have enhanced his emotional life as well.
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’s useless passion is the desire to escape death by becoming God.