The Personal Meets the Political

Sartre, Boris and Michelle Vian, and Simone de Beauvoir at the Cafe Procope, 1951

The Personal Meets the Political

I’m still reading A Dangerous Liaison, the book by Carole Seymour-Jones, about the great twentieth-century power couple, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.  In my previous blog on them, I focused on the inconsistency between their philosophic claim that we invent ourselves, and the actual circumstances plus iron self-discipline that shaped the dazzling careers of these two writers.

Mine was a criticism from outside.  As I learn of the personal lives of these two shapers of the Zeitgeist, I want to know, what’s really in play here?

Seymour-Jones has read the letters, diaries, major philosophic and literary works, and she pairs their written words, private and public, with the real-life pathways of each writer.  Her take on these evidences seems to me intelligent and morally serious.  Of course, it’s not the last word but, for a human life, can there be a last word?  What we do have is relevant information on a question of wide concern: 

for these two opinion-shapers 

what was the connection 

 between the personal and the political

 and how did it influence the Zeitgeist?

First, let’s get into the evidence.  De Beauvoir and Sartre recruited favorite students as rotating sex partners for the two of them,  captivating young followers by their intellectual power and bohemian freedom.

When Nazi Germany conquered and occupied France, Jewish students and professionals they knew were under mortal threat, forced out of positions high and low, required to wear the yellow stars that made them easier to round up and kill, but also killed if they were discovered without the yellow stars.  Though their so-called “family” of students included one young Jewish woman named Bianca Bienenfeld, both Sartre and de Beauvoir maintained a tone of coolly satiric indifference to Bianca’s terror.

Sartre’s literary career continued and flourished under the Nazi Occupation.  He even took a post involuntarily “vacated” by a man named Dreyfus – the actual grandson of Alfonse Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused in France’s famous Dreyfus Case!

After the Liberation, Sartre managed, by his brilliance as a rhetorician and politician of ideas, to facilitate the confusion of his own border-line war-time record with that of a real resistant, the writer/philosopher Albert Camus.  Effectively, Sartre worked to create the myth of France as a nation that had collectively resisted the German Occupation — representing the existentialist as the archetypal hero of that resistance.  Sartre’s lifelong support for the Soviet Union may have been another instance of borrowed valor.  During the Occupation, communists had gained a special reputation for courage as resistants.

Is that all?  No, there is more.  In the waning days of the Occupation, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus met other Parisian intellectual swells in sumptuous apartments, brimming with champagne and delectables for the palate — for orgies that pagan Rome might have envied!

What are we to make of all this?  Well, first of all, nobody’s life will bear microscopic examination under white light.  Second, after the War, when news of the death camps and returning skeletal survivors filtered into common awareness, de Beauvoir felt that she and Sartre had to turn their concept of existentialism in a more morally responsible direction.  Personal self-invention had implications for others, who ought henceforth to be included in the existentialist theories.

It’s likely that the whip-lash effect of the War played some part in de Beauvoir’s eventual resolve to write The Second Sexa book so consequential for women globally.

In the final romance of her womanly life, with Claude Lanzmann,  producer of the documentary “Shoah,” she wanted him to believe that she’d had but a very few previous intimate encounters and he could trust her true-heartedness as a woman.  The perennial man/woman asymmetries reasserted themselves for the last time.

How should we regard this much-too-complex story?  These two defined the contemporary world, as much as any literary pair ever did.  In order to surmount very particular social obstacles, they resorted to the extreme theoretical claim that we can invent our purposes and personal characteristics wholesale.

That claim was psychologically understandable, rhetorically dramatic and professionally attention-getting.  They stuck by it, though their personal lives were not an advertisement for their theories.

They did retain two theoretical constants not deemed self-invented:

consciousness v. nature

It was left to the post-moderns to take the further steps:

 doubting that we have access

to our own consciousness,

and doubting that our words refer

to anything objectively out there.

Skepticism is thereby carried to its limit.

Perhaps a philosopher of history, Hegel, can help us decipher this story.  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit shows the human mind refusing – in epoch after epoch — to find repose in skepticism.

The more extreme the doubt, the more the doubter will secretly crave certainty.  The more absolute the freedom claimed, the more tyrannical will be the restraints to which the claimant will surrender, body and soul.

You can pick your own examples.

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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