Book Review: What is Existentialism by Simone de Beauvoir

First things first, and an unpopular opinion. After having read Sartre and also de Beauvoir, I have no hesitation in saying that she was a better mind, with greater felicity of expression than the former.

After having struggled with Sartre, Heidegger and Kierkegaard, what a pleasure it is to read a book so lucid as this. उन सब को जो पूरा समझ ले वो नोबल का हक़दार। (An unpopular opinion), but when you read those three, apart from being struck by their brilliance, you are also left thinking as to what was the need for them to write so abstrusely….when the essence of what they wrote could be summarised in this one sentence, ‘Human existence precedes essence, human beings are condemned to be free and faced with difficult choices in life, all these choices are contextual and change with changing times, and no choice is good for eternity, that it makes sense only in here and now.’ ….So now go and bloody make those choices, don’t ask us, existentialist philosophers for answers!’

As someone deeply influenced by the principles that existentialism espouses, (for me it is more a praxis than philosophy) it is a praxis of living in time and space, here and now, and making those difficult choices that life throws at you. So as Sartre says, ‘we condemned to be free’..and that freedom devolves on only us to make our choices. Even not making a choice is a choice. ‘तुम जानो और ज़िम्मेदारी लो!, is the maxim! And that is what makes this praxis/philosophy so powerful for me. It imposes upon you a responsibility to think and understand constantly, diligently and in all its ramifications. This act of thinking and understanding cannot be outsourced, even if it is, the burden of final outcome is yours and yours alone, for you ‘freely’ agreed to act on the advice provided. Surely, as circumstances change, the decisions need reevaluation. So all thinking is contextual and is finite. There are no ‘infinite’, ‘universal’ or ‘higher’ values that can provide answers to all questions for all times.

Such demands are bound to lead to frustration and finally make one realise the futility of it all; क्या बॉस, कुछ भी पूरी तरह सही नहीं है दुनिया में। How long can you live with the weight of this ambiguity and relativity? Finally the ‘absurdity’ of it all is bound to hit you…दुनिया और आप भी एक बेसिक्ली तमाशा ही हैं। But is it all meaningless, as reading the works of Camus fills you with? Many have criticised it as a pessimistic philosophy. But is it? I don’t think so. In fact existentialism constantly demands on you to understand and reflect more deeply on issues, for only then informed choices can be made. Further it makes you understand that much of things/issues/situations are grey and the (so called) best answer/solutions/responses to them can only be contextual, situational and finite, and at times only partially optimal. No answer one arrives at can be true to that it remains valid for all times to come or leads one to a utopia. Taking this argument forward, existentialists disregard the belief that certain social or moral values provide the a-priori framework for judging issues as wrong or right for all times to come.

In this book, Beauvoir uses the characters of ‘Pyrrhus and Cineas’ to take us through the main ideas of existentialism and touches upon how these ideas relate to God, the rest of humanity and one’s own experience of living. In a way the book carries forward from Sartre’s introduction to existentialism ie. “Man is condemned to be free”, de Beauvoir then asking. ‘And what after that?’….

Lovely read! 

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