“Behold, I show you the last man.”
“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks.”
— Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
After fourteen years, Friedrich Nietzsche returned to his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872) with an excoriating verdict. In his notorious “An Attempt at Self-Criticism” he wrote: “today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused”. While his harsh criticism may be warranted in some respects, this text remains a profound keystone in aesthetics and Nietzschean philosophy as a whole. Simone de Beauvoir published The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1947 and, like Nietzsche, years later penned her own attempt at self-criticism. In her autobiography, The Force of Circumstance (1963) she writes: “Of all my books it is the one that irritates me the most today”. Yet, this work remains one of the best — and quite possibly, the best — theories of atheist existentialist ethics written in the twentieth century. Perhaps both existentialist philosophers were embarrassed by the expression of the youthful exuberance and unapologetic frankness evident in their early texts. However, despite their theatrical self-effacement, insights in both works remained central to their later writings.
Twentieth-century existentialism faced a difficult terrain when it came to the question of ethics. Most representatives of the tradition placed the question of God and religion either as antithetical to existentialism (Sartre and Beauvoir), peripheral to existentialist concerns (Merleau-Ponty and Camus) or central to but not determinative of ethics (Tillich, Marcel, and Frankl). Beauvoir claims, again in her autobiography, that her reason for writing the Ethics was to defend against attacks on Existentialism for being pessimistic, frivolous, despairing, and nihilistic. Most of these attacks issued from the philosophical rejection of God and the resultant fear this rejection produced in those who think that without divine law, humans would quickly descend into immorality.
Beauvoir’s name usually appears (somewhat ironically) in the vacillating obsession with her romantic relationship to Sartre or her ground-breaking feminist work, The Second Sex. But despite her own gestures to distance herself from it, The Ethics continues to captivate those of us who find ethics to be inherently ambiguous and historically situated. The cause of Beauvoir’s irritation with this book was in her depictions of various modes of human existing that she later found too abstract, removed from reality, and devoid of social context. Yet, these portraits of human beings living in what Sartre would call “bad faith” remain the most important and oft discussed aspect of the work. Accessible and illuminating, these portrayals pop up in unlikely places (even appearing in such bubble-gum pieces as, “The Nine People You’ll Date According to Simone de Beauvoir” in The Huffington Post). The issues raised in The Second Sex about how women are made to be the corollary of masculine subjectivity and systematically denied autonomy (acutely relevant with the current global rise of bombastic patriarchal masculinity) remain pressing. However, as of late, I have been drawn more and more to her analyses of the various attitudes of inauthenticity outlined in The Ethics of Ambiguity. These sketches are profound in their simplicity and provide a short-hand for naming a panoply of disingenuous and often dangerous ways of acting in a fraught and ambiguous world.
Yet, there is nothing simplistic about The Ethics. It was published in 1947, three years after the four-year Nazi occupation of Paris ended. The work is thus saturated by the experiences of a philosopher struggling to come to terms not only with recent global carnage and genocide but with the uncertainties of how to live in the world knowing that no God can expiate humankind and no absolute moral laws can ground it.
To try to begin to tackle such an abyssal problem, Beauvoir begins, as so few philosophers do, with childhood. Although aware that childhood is not an ideal Edenic situation, it is remarkable insofar as 1) it is a shared, therefore universal human state and 2) it is marked by the experience of finding ourselves in a world where the values, institutions, practices, and truths are in place before our arrival on the scene. As a result, the world appears fixed, with values as given and immutable and people as possessing static roles and identities. To the child, her teacher is not a person who engages in teacherly activities, but rather is essentially a teacher. Just ask any child about the experience of running into a teacher outside of school. It is disorienting because to children, adults have a kind of substantial nature that is not separable from their ascribed identity. That humans are not essentially what they do is a realisation that (hopefully) comes with maturity.
This faith in the givenness of the world is the driving force behind the most widespread unethical attitude discussed in the Ethics: the attitude of seriousness.Like the child, the serious man (sic) maintains truth as absolute, values as indisputable, and people as possessing invariable natures. Because we all lived in the serious world as children, this approach to life is by far the most common (we slip into it quite often). Every time we find ourselves denying the fluidity of our choices because we are something (a nurse, a father, a wife, a communist, etc.) we are in the serious attitude. Although common, this alignment is not morally neutral. Unlike the child, the serious person has passed through the crisis of adolescence and should have thereby challenged the authority of the adult world. Thus, the appearance of seriousness reveals something deeply duplicitous. While seductive, the attitude of seriousness is a manifestation of a deeply problematic desire to fix being in oneself and the world. It is the voracious yearning to be something — a Christian, an American, a lawyer, a conservative, a good person, etc. — as a way to avoid the anxiety of having to choose at each moment and take responsibility for those choices. It is far easier to hide behind labels than to admit that these labels only have meaning because I continue to choose them and give them meaning. Yet, however much I may wish otherwise, I cannot be anything. In fact, the harder I try to fix my identity, the more anxiety I feel when it is threatened and the more energy I put into preventing any challenges to it from within and without. Inevitably, the ruse reveals itself in more or less destructive ways.
For Beauvoir, one can only do what children do, which is to play at being. The ethical attitude is, in part, recognising that we are constantly becoming through actions and choices based upon the intricate and complex web of our individual, social, and historical situation. We will never reach the plateau of being anything at all. As Sartre also points out, this realisation of the nothingness at the heart of being fills us with anxiety and dread as it induces an existential feeling of groundlessness. To combat this uneasiness, the serious person seeks refuge in identities in order to flee this terrifying feeling. In truth, “the thing that matters to the serious man is not so much the nature of the object which he prefers to himself, but rather the fact of being able to lose himself in it”. However sad it is to see people refusing to question the fixity of their lives, seeing their choices as made for them, and acting as grown-up children who do things because they have to, the danger is not simply that of living an inauthentic and unfulfilled life. Rather, the attitude of seriousness is exceedingly dangerous because those who adhere to it completely put nothing in question and will set up idols to which all is sacrificed: wealth for the capitalist, power for the politician, war for the general… As such, the serious person slides all-too-easily into the position of the tyrant, demanding not only his own subjective sacrifice to his idols, but the sacrifice of others to them as well. “Dishonestly ignoring the subjectivity of his choice, [the serious man] pretends that the unconditioned value of the object is being asserted through him; and by the same token he also ignores the value of the subjectivity and the freedom of others, to such an extent that, sacrificing them to the thing, he persuades himself that what he sacrifices is nothing”. Such willingness to sacrifice all freedom, choice, and responsibility to an identity or cause leads to fanaticism and this fanaticism infringes on another key component of ethics for Beauvoir — the recognition and respect of the freedom of others. To illustrate this dangerous tendency, Beauvoir lists examples of fanaticism in the European Inquisitors, Southern American Vigilantes, and French Colonial Administrators, all of whom are willing to kill hundreds or even millions in the service of an unattainable and inhuman Idol. When one’s identity or goal becomes fixed and absolute, no sacrifice is too great to sustain it.
But who is it who does the work of the serious person? Certainly, other serious-minded individuals who buy into various ideologies are key players in great fanatical movements. However, there is another attitude in Beauvoir’s ethics required for seriousness to grow beyond itself and to effect real social and political destruction: this is the attitude known as the “sub-man”.
Beauvoir’s depiction of the sub-man has been at the forefront of my mind in recent global political developments (and more pointedly, in my home of the United States). The fanaticism of the serious person often burns itself out without much damage if it doesn’t have henchmen to do its dirty work. And the sub-man is the character who is the go-to for such work. When President Trump (in many ways a serious man) blares confidently: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell … I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise” to whom is he speaking? When he directly claims or alludes to immigrants as “rapists”, “criminals”, and “animals”, who is going to take him at his word and prepare to act if called upon to do so? When he leads thousands in the anti-Clinton chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” who is it who is carried away by the call to contain political threats by any means necessary? Who are the people who so readily endorse what is clearly hateful and violent language, many of whom are actually prepared to act on it? This is clearly an overly-simplistic question as we are not talking about a uniform mass of humanity. But certainly, for Beauvoir, the primary army who carries out the will of the serious man is composed of sub-men — those who await commands in order to be the willing tools of a leader shrewd, charismatic, and serious enough to use them. If there is a hierarchy of human beings, Beauvoir tells us, the sub-man would be “on the lowest rung of the ladder”.
Nietzsche’s speaks throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra, of the hardest truth for his protagonist to swallow: the existence of the “last man”. The last men — those who blink in the face of the impossible marvel of existence — are ineradicable; like flea beetles, they cover the earth and cannot be overcome. Beauvoir’s sub-man is an expression of these existence blinkers. As she explains: “They have eyes and ears, but from their childhood on they make themselves blind and deaf, without love and without desire”. The serious person feels the quaking, vibrating pulse of existence and submerges all of her energy into trying to freeze it, to provide unshakable foundations to an inherently precarious condition. The sub-man, however, denies the very movement of life itself. Through a pathological fear of tension and risk, her orientation toward existence is one of denial, rejection, and detachment. I understand the sub-man as the couch-potato of life, viewing the world as paradoxically terrifying yet also hopelessly boring. Feeling both indifferent and suspicious, the sub-man tries to avoid choice and responsibility, not as the serious man does by attempting to lose himself in identities and fixed ends, but by trying as much as possible to make himself into a thing. As Beauvoir puts it,
“He is afraid of engaging himself in a project as he is afraid of being disengaged and thereby of being in a state of danger before the future, in the midst of its possibilities. He is thereby led to take refuge in the ready-made values of the serious world. He will proclaim certain opinions; he will take shelter behind a label; and to hide his indifference he will readily abandon himself to verbal outbursts or even physical violence.”
Returning to my earlier questions — to whom is Trump (or Duterte, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, Johnson, etc.) speaking? Beauvoir provides us an answer with the sub-man. This character changes with power, “One day a monarchist, the next day, an anarchist, he is more readily anti-semitic, anti-clerical, or anti-republican”. He is, in short, defined not by positive choices, but by being against whatever bogeymen the savvy crafters of seriousness tell him to be. And if those bogeymen change day to day or even moment to moment, all the better for the figures of power who manipulate the sub-men to their purposes. Beauvoir writes,
“Weighted down by present events, [the sub-man] is bewildered before the darkness of the future which is haunted by frightful spectres, war, sickness, revolution, fascism, bolshevism. The more indistinct these dangers are, the more fearful they become. The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself.”
One need only to tinker with the above list to hear it resonate powerfully today … haunted by frightful spectres of immigration, socialism, taxation, unemployment … to see how easy it can be and is to mobilise the sub-men for wicked deeds. Beauvoir was right to show how dangerous people are who adopted the fanaticism of seriousness and who were willingly swept along by the currents of sub-humanity during World War II, and so should we too be on guard of their reappearance in the historical present.
Perhaps Beauvoir was right to criticise her depictions of the attitudes in The Ethics of Ambiguity as being overly abstract. Certainly, one cannot simply group large swaths of any collective as being one type of person. A better way to read these attitudes (and there are so many more than the two discussed in this piece) is that they can and often do come to be expressed by all of us at certain times and in different ways. This is why ethics is such a slippery domain for Beauvoir — how do we make rules for social and political action given the constantly, maddeningly shifting terrain for choice and action? Regardless of the oversimplification, Beauvoir saw the sub-men with her own eyes as her fellow citizens helped Nazis cart off French Jews to concentration camps. That much was not abstract.
But does the call to avoid unethical attitudes carry any weight in the modern condition? Haven’t we moved past this idiosyncratic way of talking about ethics based in notions of freedom and responsibility? Science often purports to have done away with these approaches that so occupied thinkers like Beauvoir (see, for example, a discussion on Neuroexistentialism recently published in the last issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine). Hard determinism seems to have edged out existentialism’s focus on individual lived experience, choice, and authenticity. To someone like Beauvoir, however, the confidence that any theory or system has answered the mysteries of human experience is itself an expression of the serious attitude — a continuation of the European belief that we can expose being — get the truth of the world through numbers and experiments. While science (like art, technology, and mathematics) is a vital component in disclosing the world, it is not the only way to do so. To believe that it is right, is to adopt the attitude of seriousness. And taken to an extreme, it can become just as fanatical as certain political or religious movements.
While the realities of being material beings in a material world were not lost on Beauvoir (the notion of situation and facticity loomed large in her studies well beyond the concerns of the Ethics) the reduction of the human to scientifically objectified matter is objectionable on aesthetic and more importantly, moral grounds. In fact, Beauvoir’s analysis of oppression is that it strives to reduce humans to things, merely maintaining existence through mechanical gestures. This is precisely the mechanism of oppression: to reduce human beings to pure facticity, congealed in immanence, cut off from the future, and therefore manipulatable and morally nugatory. Reduced to an object, a person “no longer appears as anything more than a thing among things which can be subtracted from the collectivity of other things without its leaving upon the earth any trace of its absence”. Beauvoir reminds us of the material, animal flesh of the decomposing corpses of Buchenwald and Dachau, that express “the stupid tranquillity of trees and stones”. And these corpses were not historical accidents, but the direct product of the unethical attitudes of the serious and sub-man working in tandem to horrifically destructive ends.
At the very least, given the limited nature of human consciousness and perspective, even if we did stumble onto the answer to life, the universe, and everything, we wouldn’t have a god’s mind to understand what it means. As the Presocratic epistemic sceptic Xenophanes knew millennia ago, no one has ever seen the truth of the world and “even if he should completely succeed in describing things as they come to pass, nonetheless he himself does not know: opinion is wrought over all”. More pointedly, our lived experience is certainly one wherein we feel like we make choices and are compelled to take responsibility for those choices. And we certainly live in a world where the ethically minded judge those who harm, oppress, torture, and kill and believe that they should be held accountable for those actions. Tyrants, fascists, megalomaniacal officials, and corporate tycoons are not bits of matter in the abyss to those who suffer under their violence, but rather, human beings in a human world who must take responsibility for the creation of that world. This is why, for Beauvoir, there is an ethical demand to not accept the serious and sub-minded as inevitably recurring attitudes (even if, like Nietzsche’s last men, they are) but rather to stand up to them, call them out, and, if necessary, fight against them. And this requires vigilance in monitoring not just those who we think may be guilty, but perhaps more importantly, ourselves. Because no one is immune to the seductiveness of fleeing the agony of choice and responsibility.