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So I am reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvior. In page 30, she writes the following, which confuses me.

Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject—an ethical claim—lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated, and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided.

The whole piece goes like this:

At the moment that women are beginning to share in the making of the world, this world still belongs to men: men have no doubt about this, and women barely doubt it. Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them. Lord-man will materially protect liege-woman and will be in charge of justifying her existence: along with the economic risk, she eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its goals without help. Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject—an ethical claim—lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated, and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided.

Is Simone implying that the path to freedom robs one of their transcendence through some evil force? I understand that being enslaved gives one some sort of definition in a power hegemony, albeit it robs them of their actualised existence. But what is she suggesting with this foreign will that lurks in the shadows of this pernicious path? Especially with the "it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated, and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth.", it sounds like the enslaved identity catered to the individual's transcendence, before the rebellion took it away, and now the distraught individual is destined to fall into the jaws of some evil will.

I must mention I am neither a native English speaker nor a philosophy student. I found this book and have just started to read.

Thanks in advance.

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  • I’m going to move this to the Philosophy site - think you may have meant to ask this there.
    – CDJB
    Nov 25 '21 at 11:01
  • Yes; the "evil force" is male power. Nov 25 '21 at 13:30
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So there is

"to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated, and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth"

Vs living authentically, a term with a long pedigree in philosophy, of especial significance to existentialists.

The context is serfdom of women, or feudal relations between the sexes: Lord-man, liege-woman.

You might consider the way WW1 ended the vestiges of feudalism, the idea of there being a class of people to be 'cannon fodder', people being used not for their skills, but only as a disposable resource, meriting no concern or interest in their own right.

This is the evil, when people have the power and then do use others only as means, & disregard them as having ends, ie disregard their wellbeing having intrinsic value.

The parallel is very strong to the miitary inequality, because the Sufferagettes in England had made so little progress politically on votes for women that in 1912 they had launched a bombing and arson campaign. At the outbreak of WW1 women had to be allowed to work, including dangerous munitions work vital to the war, and that had more impact than previous politics (similarly with shift from colonies to commonwealth especially in WW2, as support in war proved countries partners not clients). In many regions, citizenship was related to ability to take up arms, or provide other substantial service to the state.

About transcendence for DeBouvoir, from SEP:

She develops the concept of freedom as transcendence (the movement toward an open future and indeterminate possibilities) to argue that we cannot be determined by the present. The essence of freedom as transcendence aligns freedom with uncertainty and risk. To be free is to be radically contingent. Though I find myself in a world of value and meaning, these values and meanings were brought into the world by others. I am free to reject, alter or endorse them for the meaning of the world is determined by human choices. Whatever choice I make, however, I cannot support it without the help of others.

She pictures a tension between freedom/autonomy, vs pursuasion/collaborative activity. Our transcendence is the way we exist as a decision making agent, that is the source of our living authentically. Without it we become limbs of others, subject to their purposes, & usable for evil if they decide, or simply against our own interests which have no or limited power. And DeBouvoir makes of transcendence & freedom goods in themselves, for beings, as serving their highest (transcendent) interests.

You can link this to a long-standing discourse in Western thought, about greater wisdom resulting in greater freedom, like Socrates on the Sophists, or Stoicism:

“Freedom is the prize we are working for: not being a slave to anything —not to compulsion, not to chance events— making fortune meet us on a level playing field.” - Seneca

I link the concerns of autonomy & self-interest to game theory, genes, & replication of replicators here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

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The only thing resembling an evil force in this passage is the temptation of women choosing to resume their old way of relating to men as a thing in need of protection. After Simone de Beauvior this temptation did happen in third wave feminism with political programs like ending "violence against women".

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Simone de Beauvoir, along with Sartre, belonged with the existentialist movement. Existentialism is about the idea that people are not defined by an essence, an original nature that would determine who they are and how they act, but by their actions and experience. In the eye of the existentialist, every person is a unique individual who can define their own set of values and meaning for their life.

Simone de Beauvoir famously used this school of thought for feminism in The Second Sex. For her, women are not born with the traits commonly associated with their sex, as a disdain for violence, a taste for feeling pretty or a sense of modesty. Those are learned through growing up in a society where they are already the norm. This view is condensed in the sentence (approximately translated) "one is not born a women, but becomes a woman", and is the corner stone for what is called today gender theory. It also mean that women can decide to embrace other values and behavior if they so desire.

The first quote in your question sums up the basics of existential angst, and the temptation to avoid it by giving up on one's singularity.

Every individual (women in the case of Beauvoir, but not necessarily) can claim to define their own values and meaning for life ("assert himself as subject"). It is indeed "an ethical claim" as ones values define what they hold to be a proper behavior. But this comes with a lot of stress (the existentialist angst, "the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence"): the possibility of failing to live up by one's own standard, of being wrong, of conflicting with others, of being judged.

To avoid this hardship, one can instead conform to already in place standards, religious or traditional. But then one becomes passive, submissive to someone else's standard ("alienated, and lost", "prey to a foreign will").

This will is impersonal, for example in the case of feminity, not any single individual decides how women ought to behave. In that sense, it is not an "evil" thing, but it is definitely foreign, as it does not emane from the subject. A woman who goes through life conforming to this foreign standard would therefore be not living her own life.

I think "Is Simone implying that the path to freedom robs one of their transcendence through some evil force?" is a misunderstanding. Those who are robbed of their transcendence are the one who fall for the temptation of giving up on the path to freedom because of the angst.

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