The desires to love and be loved are, on Simone de Beauvoir’s view, part of the structure of human existence. Often, they go awry. But even so, she claimed, authentic love is not only possible but one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who want to be free. So what, exactly, is this authentic love?
In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argued that culture led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments. Surely, she argued, the situation could be improved – and everyone is ‘judge and party’ in the question of how to love well. Beauvoir’s account of ‘authentic love’ in this book was the product of more than 20 years of philosophical reflection. As a young philosophy student in Paris, she had already recognised that some conceptions of ‘love’ legitimated injustice and perpetuated suffering. As a teenager, she began a project of revaluating love, in both theory and practice, that would last most of her life. Caricatures of her beliefs put all the emphasis on the existential theme of freedom, on whom you love and how, but there was far more to authentic love for Beauvoir than unhindered individual choice. For the later Beauvoir, in order for love to be authentic, it must be reciprocal and non-exploitative. But it was difficult to achieve this, because society perpetuated myths of love that idealised unethical relations between the sexes.
Beauvoir’s ethics were shaped by a tradition according to which whom and what we love plays a pivotal role in whom we become. For the Augustine-infused Catholicism of her childhood, one of the key ‘rules of life’ was to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Her philosophical education kept returning to it: the ‘love command’ of the Hebrew Bible, reiterated in the New Testament by Jesus Christ and St Paul, features in many classic works of normative ethics; both Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, for example, claimed to offer answers to the difficult question: how can I love another as myself? Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847) – though less frequently considered a core text of moral philosophy – analysed the command word by word, in the hope that obeying it could overcome a deep human dread: ‘the dread of being alone in the world’. [Continue reading…]