Simone de Beauvoir’s garden of meaning
What is existentialism? For Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908) the discipline is a response to the human need to find a ‘place in a world turned upside down’. It cannot be explained succinctly. Still, let’s have a go.
Pyrrhus and Cineas
In her 1944 essay Pyrrhus and Cineas Beauvoir looks to explain humanity’s quest to find meaning by way of analogy.
Pyrrhus has a plan:
‘We are going to subjugate Greece first,’ says Pyrrhus.
‘And after that?’ asked Cineas.
We will vanquish Africa.’
‘We will go onto Asia … ’
‘And after that?’
‘We will go on as far as India.’
‘Ah! I will rest.’
‘Why not rest right away?’
According to Beauvoir, Cineas’ question haunts our projects. For why do anything? What’s the point? We’re only going to end up where we started.
However, it’s only Pyrrhus who leads an authentic life. Whereas many people fail even to question their lives, he directs himself towards goals, having the imagination to forge something for himself from the world.
Pyrrhus doesn’t leave to return home, where he started: he leaves to conquer; then to conquer again ... Each time he decides a new end. Each time he ‘transcends’ his situation.
‘The paradox of the human condition is that every end can be surpassed, and yet, the project defines the end as an end.’
The values we draw from our projects are never intrinsic, ready-made, or universal. To believe they are is to possess bad faith.
‘By identifying himself with his sex, his country, his class, with the whole of humanity [or God], a man can increase his garden, but he increases it only in words … [T]he fly on the stagecoach claims he is the one who led the carriage to the top of the hill.’
We give the world meaning through our engagement with it, an act which is accomplished with freedom and subjectivity. We throw ourselves towards ends with uncertainty: the price of leaving the world of ennui and inertia behind us. But, by choosing the locations and the limits of our projects, we snatch ‘the world from the darkness of absurdity’.
This garden must belong to me; I cultivate it. It even transcends me when I die.
‘I am enclosed within it until death because that garden becomes mine from the moment I cultivate it.’
It matters that our values are not given to us. My garden cannot be merged with the sterile void of the Universe, a passive equilibrium.
Being is not fixed to things: being is fixed to itself in a mode of transcendence. Like Pyrrhus’ journey, projects don’t end: ends are surpassed by other ends. Conquer or rest: it doesn’t matter which you choose. Just choose!
‘Is that my business? What does India matter? And what does Epirus matter? Why call this soil, this woman, these children mine? I brought these children into the world; they are here. The woman is next to me; the soil is under my feet. No tie exists between them and me. Mr Camus’s Stranger thinks like this; he feels foreign to the whole world, which is completely foreign to him … The inert existence of things is separation and solitude.’
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