Couple in the kitchen, USA, 1952. From the series ‘Love Story’. Photo by Dennis Stock/Magnum


Love is a joint project

For Simone de Beauvoir, authentic love is an ethical undertaking: it can be spoilt by devotion as much as by selfishness

by Kate Kirkpatrick + BIO

Couple in the kitchen, USA, 1952. From the series ‘Love Story’. Photo by Dennis Stock/Magnum

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’.

But despite the efforts of these and many other philosophers, ‘love’ remains a notoriously ambiguous concept, and what it means in practice is often obscured by a cloudy cocktail of need, pain and desire. Beauvoir thought its ambiguity led to exploitation: in theory, the imperative to love applied universally to all souls, whether sanctioned by duty, utility or divine command. In practice, it was abused to legitimate forms of hierarchy that were anathema to love itself (as she saw it).

In Beauvoir’s student notebooks from 1926, ethical interpersonal love is described in contrast to two forms of failed love. She calls these vices narcissism (or selfishness, or self-interest, in some English translations) and devotion. In their earliest formulations, she defined narcissism as ‘loving oneself and loving in the other, the love he has for you’. The failure of narcissism is that it forgets that there are two in love: the narcissist fails to remember that love must seek the good of the other. Her lover is a minor character in the great plot of her story. Devotion, by contrast, is an ‘absolute gift’ of the lover to the beloved, a ‘self-abnegation’ where the lover’s own consciousness is obliterated for the sake of the other. The devoted lover wants no plot but the one his beloved writes him; he either doesn’t want, or can’t hold, his own pen. In forgetting himself, his love likewise fails to accommodate two – in the young Beauvoir’s words, it’s a form of ‘moral suicide’.

Ethical love, by contrast, consists in what Beauvoir calls ‘equilibrium’ and ‘reciprocity’. In equilibrium there is self-giving without self-loss: lover and beloved ‘simply walk side by side, mutually helping each other a little’. Because people don’t always feel equal to each other – or worthy of love at all – Beauvoir discusses the dynamics that threaten this equilibrium: dynamics in which one person sees him or herself as inferior or superior. The ‘most fruitful’ type of love, Beauvoir claimed, was ‘not a subordination’, but rather a relationship in which each person supported the other in seeking an independent, individual life.

By 1926, Beauvoir, aged 18, had established the framework of reciprocal love that was so celebrated in The Second Sex. But it was a further 18 years later that she published her first essay on ethics, Pyrrhus and Cinéas (1944). In this essay, she sets out the ethical theory that Sartrean existentialism lacked. She discusses ‘the love command’ of the New Testament, pointing out that, when the disciples asked Jesus Christ: ‘Who is my neighbour?’, he didn’t respond by giving them an abstract enumeration of an ethics. Instead, he told them a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, who made a neighbour of the man abandoned on the roadside by covering him with his coat. On Beauvoir’s view: ‘One is not the neighbour of anyone. One makes the other a neighbour by treating him as a neighbour in action.’ Love, then, on her view, requires action – but what action it requires depends on the particularities of the person and the situation.

Beauvoir belonged to a generation of French philosophers who were wrestling with questions about the ‘death of God’ and the meaning of life: her student diaries attest to the fact that these questions affected her deeply. In Pyrrhus and Cinéas, she articulated an answer to the problem of how human life could have value, and how ethics could have a foundation, without a God to provide them. Her proposal was that, in the absence of a divine law-giver, our actions should be oriented to the human others because, even without an infinite being, our actions can take on an infinite dimension by being witnessed – by being seen by others, and by laying the foundations of other people’s projects.

There is a developmental element to her account, according to which the healthy transition from childhood to maturity is a process that involves both enchantment and bereavement: enchantment because small children, when loved by their parents, can be shielded from questioning the value of their lives or the arbitrariness of the rules that govern them; bereavement because these values and rules were reassuring and have now been lost. When a child finishes a drawing, she writes, he is eager to show it to his parents – his accomplishment gains reality by being seen by them. And tempting though it might be to think that we can outgrow this desire to be loved and valued by others, on Beauvoir’s view, we can’t. Although solitude can be enjoyable, Beauvoir wrote, no one is satisfied with it for an entire life: human beings need to be affirmed by a particular kind of gaze of love and recognition.

‘To will oneself free is also to will others free’

In maturity, this need is often unmet or misdirected. She outlines two wayward patterns it can follow: ‘devotion’ and ‘self-interest’. Developing ideas from her student notebooks and anticipating claims that she would make in The Second Sex, in Pyrrhus and Cinéas she claims that devotion has been the wish of ‘many men, and even more women’. On Beauvoir’s view, each human being wants to feel that his existence is justified – not just in the abstract sense that all human lives have value, but in the particular sense that my life is valued by others. The allure of devotion is that it promises rest from this exigency: the devoted person believes his or her life is justified because it is valued by, and meets the needs of, someone else. Devotion does not escape the problems of Christ’s neighbour; it still raises the question: ‘To whom shall I devote myself?’ But problematically, the devoted person takes the end of the other as a means to their own end – and wants it ‘without him and against him’. Devotion can be tyrannical – it claims to want the good of the other but in fact it imposes a value on the other that might not be of his or her choosing. The ‘ethics of self-interest’, by contrast, assumes that only I could meet the other person’s need for justification: it makes the other a satellite, whose value is contingent upon being in my orbit.

What is truly needed, on Beauvoir’s view, is that the other be respected as ‘a freedom’: as a person who is perpetually becoming, with projects for her life that must be of her choosing. Whether the love in question is one of friendship, family or erotic, to be ethical there must be two freedoms, both of which respect the value of freedom in each other – such that neither of them suffers the mutilation of subordination. It was inconsistent, she argued, to value one’s own freedom without valuing the freedoms of others: as she put it in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947): ‘To will oneself free is also to will others free.’

Beauvoir’s particularism resists being made into a general account of what this means in practice. But over the 1940s, she outlined several common patterns of bad faith that she thought obstructed virtuous, reciprocal love, and in her later works she became more explicitly feminist and political in her treatment of them. In her essay ‘Existentialism and Popular Wisdom’ (1945), Beauvoir describes ‘bad faith’ as a kind of hiding behind an alibi ­– a false alibi. For example, those who claimed that self-interest was ‘human’, or that ‘human nature will never change’, on her view, could ‘renounce any expectations of generosity or greatness from man’. They could laugh at the kind of reciprocal love she described as an ‘illusion of youth’ or ‘guilty folly’, rather than see it as something that was both possible and difficult.

In 1945 Beauvoir claimed that women, in particular, were encouraged not to expect great things of men. She wrote that contemporary young women’s newspapers warned them that ‘all men are pitiful beings, that their husbands will be no exception, and that they must indulge his weaknesses …, humour his pride’. ‘Feminine wisdom’ prepared women for romance and marriage by telling them to expect tyranny in the name of love, and to cope by manipulating it with guile. The good woman should accept her man ‘in his irremediable misery while feigning to respect an illusory freedom in him’. Women were also encouraged to find this situation funny: to hold their heads high and laugh at mediocrity rather than show that they were disappointed by it. She couldn’t help but wonder: were they so ‘quick to laugh at such a portrait for fear of being compelled to cry’?

Four years later, Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published, a milestone in feminist philosophy. One of its central claims, as I read it, was that freedom was something that needs to be fought for at multiple levels – collectively at the level of legislation and culture, and individually within women and men, in the process of each particular life. She agreed with G W F Hegel, that ‘man in his very nature is destined to be free’ – but she also believed that woman was too.

Collectively, legislation for suffrage, labour and property rights clearly changed the concrete possibilities that were available to women in important ways. But individually, each woman had to become an ethical self, who valued freedom for herself and others, for herself. And this was a struggle, Beauvoir claimed, not merely in the sense that becoming an ethical self is difficult for any human being, but because the legacy of women’s subordination lived on in conventions of ‘culture’ in ways that made it tempting to participate in its perpetuation. Cultural myths of romantic and sexual ‘love’ glorified the subordination of women and celebrated distorted desires in ways that were trickier to leave behind than, say, unequal access to the ballot.

Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in part because she believed that both men and women underestimated the extent of the difficulty that women faced on this front:

It is difficult for men to measure the enormous extent of social discrimination that seems insignificant from the outside and whose moral and intellectual repercussions are so deep in woman that they appear to spring from an original nature.

Building upon the developmental account that she offered in Pyrrhus and Cinéas, Beauvoir claimed that, before men and women became men and women, they were boys and girls who were presented with very different visions of their value and the possibilities their futures could hold. In 1949, the rules of some childhoods were much more reassuring than others. Boys, generally speaking, were encouraged to have projects for their lives – to see love as part of life, not all of it, and to believe that success was possible in more than one part at once. Girls, by contrast, were encouraged to see love as life itself – and to believe that to succeed at other things might make them less loveable.

‘They seek a glowing image of admiration and gratitude, deified in the depths of a woman’s two eyes’

Girls were encouraged to be accomplished and educated – but not too accomplished, not too educated. Most girls could not escape the recognition that, however accomplished or educated a girl became, she would be ‘judged, respected, or desired in relation to how she looks’. In puberty, many were alienated from their own bodies by the experience of being treated as sexual ‘prey’, as recipients of utterly unwanted desire. They knew they were not objects to be consumed – but they were not encouraged to react as conscious beings who could look back at their hunters and question the morality of their gaze. These are tropes and trends, not universal truths, so of course they admit exceptions. But they were widespread enough in 1949, Beauvoir thought, that certain patterns of bad faith were more tempting for men, and others more tempting for women.

In the first volume of The Second Sex, Beauvoir came to the conclusion that, for men, the worst alibi was the claim that it was just in their nature to dominate women – and that it was in women’s nature to submit. She wrote that:

The average Western male’s ideal is a woman who freely submits to his domination, who does not accept his ideas without some discussion, but who yields to his reasoning, who intelligently resists but yields in the end.

Instead of ‘a truthful revelation’ from another, Beauvoir wrote, ‘they seek a glowing image of admiration and gratitude, deified in the depths of a woman’s two eyes’. It was understandable that they wanted their mediocrity to be met with blithe laughter and feigned respect: but why did women hide their disappointment?

Beauvoir believed that culture shaped imagination, and imagination shapes life by enabling us to conceive of new possibilities to pursue in action. She dedicated a large section of the first volume of The Second Sex to representations of love in the influential literature that shaped her own imagination. She scrutinised the ways that women’s loves were depicted, noting how frequently they were vilified or idolised by men for the limitations they imposed on, or the salvation they delivered to, men. It was no wonder that men and women were confused: what she found was a ‘multiplicity of incompatible myths’. But myths always serve a purpose and, on Beauvoir’s view, beneath the multiplicity of myths, the purpose served was to show women that their true calling was ‘self-forgetting and love’.

In the second volume of The Second Sex, Beauvoir analysed what it was like to become a woman in the context of these contradictory myths, under the constraints of choice they imposed. She returned to inauthentic and authentic love, arguing that women were disproportionately encouraged to see love, not freedom, as their destiny – as the defining value of their lives. Whether in marriage, motherhood or religious life, love was presented to women as their ‘vocation’, their ‘supreme accomplishment’, as a ‘total abdication for the benefit of a master’. Since many women were taught that their value was conditional upon being loved by men, girls were encouraged to conceive of themselves ‘as seen through the man’s eyes’, to fulfil men’s fantasies and help them pursue their projects rather than dream dreams or pursue projects of their own.

Here, Beauvoir offers a portrait of ‘the woman in love’ as an exemplar of ‘devotion’. The woman in love attempts to see herself through her beloved’s eyes, to shape her world around his desires, to read what he reads, listen to what he listens to, and to take an interest in his ideas, art, politics and friends. In sexual life, she is treated as a means to his pleasure, not as a sexual subject with desires of her own. The woman in love delights in saying ‘we’ because she likes the security of identifying with her beloved; what she wants is to serve him, to feel useful; she never asks for reciprocity because of the risks that being ‘demanding’ might entail. But, as Beauvoir says, ‘this glorious felicity is seldom stable’. Eventually, she will realise that she has mistaken the desire for love for love itself.

‘Is it not possible to conceive a new kind of love in which both partners are equals?’

Many women have recognised themselves in Beauvoir’s portrait of ‘the woman in love’ – some have even accused her of writing self-portraiture. But whatever its accuracy as autobiography, her philosophical point was that it is hard to learn to love ethically when there are so few examples of reciprocity between women and men. History and literature attest to myriad ways in which men have expected women to give themselves in ways they never expected to give back. And in ordinary women’s lives, Beauvoir thought, the expectation to give without reciprocity leads many to become ‘split subjects’, torn between the desire to affirm herself and the desire to efface herself – in the hope of being more lovable. In a 1950 essay, she asked: ‘Is it not possible to conceive a new kind of love in which both partners are equals – one not seeking submission to the other?’

Beauvoir claimed to have caught partial glimpses of reciprocal love in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy and D H Lawrence, who recognised that ‘true and fruitful love’ included both the physical presence of the beloved and the beloved’s aims in life. But they, too, proposed this ideal to woman, since ‘love’ was her destiny. In ethical love, Beauvoir argued that women would still aspire to help their lovers pursue their projects – but the same ideal would be more widely shared by men:

The man, instead of seeking a kind of narcissistic exaltation in his mate, would discover in love a way of getting outside himself, of tackling problems other than his own. With all the twaddle that has been written about the splendour of such generosity, why not give the man his chance to participate in such devotion, in the self-negation that is considered the enviable lot of women?

Why not, indeed? If both partners conceived of love as a joint project, if both thought ‘simultaneously of the other and self’, Beauvoir argued, they could succeed at ‘finding the appropriate mean’ between narcissism and devotion. It will not deliver salvation. But neither does it settle for the mutilation of subordination in place of ‘an inter-human relation’ and the satisfaction of authentic love.