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Simone de Beauvoir at 60

Simone de Beauvoir thought our lives are programmed in childhood with a limited set of possibilities. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Simone de Beauvoir believed that, “The programme laid down in our childhood allows us to do, know, and love only a limited number of things; when the programme is fulfilled and when we have come to the end of our possibilities, then death is accepted with indifference or even as a merciful release – it delivers us from that extreme boredom that the ancients called satietas vitae.” The notion that our childhood defines us is sound. Our genes (character, behaviour) interact with our environment, we form a sense of how the world works, and we build a set of values. The development of this unique set of emotionally important ideas lays down the foundation of what will or will not motivate us as adults.

The thing to remember is that our genes and these subjectively formed guiding principles are a steering mechanism, an inner guide, and as such, they are open ended. They are not a limited program that our lives follow stepwise from beginning to end. De Beauvoir indicates her understanding of this by her choice of the word “possibilities.”

However, beyond this point de Beauvoir takes too limited a view. For her, the possibilities are finite. That is, we may “do, know, and love” only so many things and once we have exhausted those things, interest is at an end. We can only descend into “satietas vitae,” an enervating boredom with, and loathing of, life. De Beauvoir imagines the condition becoming so acute that even death seems acceptable, preferable to what has become an empty existence.

This is the position of someone who has conceptualized herself into a corner. If we drop the specific idea of a limited number of things and substitute instead the general notion of themes we can see the horizons expand. We can spend a very long time living out the themes embodied by our emotionally important ideas.

Now add in the concepts of social, cultural, and technological progress. Life already provides endless variations on any and every theme. On top of that, there is always something new to love or be interested in within the sphere of your own personal interests and preoccupations. For example, as an intellectual, my primary identity (and overarching theme) is that of a thinking creating person. Intellectuals engage in careful thinking and deep creativity. Ideas fascinate me, and while a particular set shine more brightly than the rest, I never run out of new ones to explore. As it happens, my main areas of interest have proven inexhaustible.

De Beauvoir’s worldview was that of a self-alienated extremist obsessed with enjoying personal freedoms not attainable in life. Her unwillingness to accept life’s real limitations made her combative and needlessly negative about other things where room to maneuver was actually present. Her belief in overemphasizing the significance of the individual left her alienated from the greater society around her. The smallness of her world and the horrible limitations she experienced in it were largely the product of her own inner critic, as were her boredom and existential angst.