Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Talk about a Power Couple!  He is responsible for the 20th-century French Existentialist claims that

life is absurd,

God nonexistent,

we create our identities

and the values we give to our projects.

And she?  She is responsible for taking the fight for women’s liberation – earlier focused on the right to vote and own property – into the whole fabric of modern life with her book, The Second Sex.  What she used, to dig out a new basis for women’s lives, were Sartre’s tools: if human nature (here female nature) is not programmed genetically, psychologically or culturally, but is self-invented, then women can simply refuse the program and define themselves as they choose.

The world we live in is different because of Sartre and de Beauvoir.  How did this couple come to be?

I’ve been reading an intelligent and interesting book about them, by Carole Seymour-Jones, titled, A Dangerous Liaison.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Simone was born to a French couple that married under several misconceptions.  He (the groom) thought she (the bride) was rich.  She thought he was aristocratic.  In fact, her inherited wealth was about to go down the drain and his marginal aristocracy to sink into dissolute womanizing.

If a girl in that social circle wanted to marry, she needed to bring a dowry to the altar.  Simone, as the child of this marital failure, would be unable to furnish that.  If she was to escape the twin burdens of dreary poverty and her mother’s grimly martyred piety, she had better study hard, get into the best schools and acquire the license to teach high school.  The bourgeois values of religion, chastity and feminine subordination would be useless baggage for a girl determined to make the dogged climb out of a hand-me-down existence.

And Jean-Paul?  How did he get to be the legendary Sartre?  He, unlike Simone, was born to safety in terms of social class and wealth.  In France however, there is one thing from which even these advantages cannot protect you:


As a small child, Jean-Paul had been wreathed by a halo of golden curls.  After his grandfather took the little boy for his first haircut, it turned out he was an ugly kid.  (There is more to his childhood than that, but I abridge.)

Until Jean-Paul learned that he could enchant boys and – more important – girls, with words, his peers made a target of him.

So-o—o … he “invented himself out” — out of this predicament — with the help of his verbal brilliance.  And eventually would translate this personal gift of self-invention into a philosophy.

How Jean-Paul and Simone met in Paris, at the Ecole Normale Superieur, France’s training ground for successful intellectuals, is the story that goes on from there.

But what do we make of these beginnings?  Had de Beauvoir been able to afford a dowry — had Sartre been good looking — would we have had the French Existentialism and Second Wave Feminism that we know?

What strikes me about this question is that it belies the premise – we can freely choose the kind of self to have that made their influence so enormous.

Each, with extraordinary talent, hard work and self-discipline, made the best of the circumstances they’d been given.  The readers who took their influence — and tried to pull invented identities magically out of very different hats — were at risk of misjudging talents and circumstances that were not Sartre’s or de Beauvoir’s. 

Do we invent ourselves?  Is a woman liberated merely by defining herself as free?

Well, these ARE the questions,

aren’t they.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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