Friday, October 10, 2014

Constraints, Structures, History...and the Reality of Freedom

From Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophical Writings (Edited by Margaret A. Simons, with Marybeth Timmons and Mary Beth Mader). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004. I thought I’d share a small snippet from one of the essays, “Moral Idealism and Political Realism” (1945): 

…[U]pon closer examination, the lines separating utopianism from realism are less distinct than they may have appeared at first. In fact, we can prove that squaring the circle and perpetual motion are impossible, but man is not what he is in the way a circle is, whose radii remain invariably equal. He is what he makes himself be, what he chooses to be. Whatever the given situation, it never necessarily implies one future or another since man’s reaction to his situation is free. How can he decide in advance that peace, war, revolution, justice, happiness, defeat, or victory are impossible? When Lenin was preparing in Switzerland for the coming of a new order, he could have been taken for a great dreamer; and if no one had been so bold as to want the Russian Revolution, if Lenin and all the revolutionaries had thought of themselves as insane, they would indeed have been so, for the revolution would not have happened.

That is why, when reform is suggested, the first reaction of the political conservative is always to declare it impossible, because he knows that by declaring it impossible, he contributes to making it so. It was, no doubt, not enough, as French pacifists imagined it was, simply to declare ‘There will be no war’ for it not to happen. However, it is also true that the impulse through which we accept the advent of a certain future contributes to its formation. We therefore do not accept the collaborators’ excuse of having been victims of a simple intellectual error. They argue that they believed Germany’s defeat to be impossible. This means that they consented to her victory. In reality, they opted for the German supremacy that they claimed merely to have recognized. Furthermore, the word ‘recognition’ is itself ambiguous, because when we recognize a government, we make it exist as such. Gaining an awareness is never a purely contemplative process; it is engagement, support or rejection. In 1940 some Frenchmen accepted collaboration with Germany in the name of realism. But they are striking proof of the weakness of an attitude that mutilates and distorts the very reality on which it claims to base itself, since it refuses to make the fact of human freedom an integral part of this reality. If all nations had resigned themselves to accept Hitler’s triumph, Hitler would have indeed triumphed; but they could refuse and they did. It is this refusal that the collaborator was unable [or refused] to see. Anxious to give up his own freedom, he wished to be carried along on the great current of history, forgetting that history is made by men. To be sure, the occupation of France by Germany was a reality. But it was equally real that the French remained free to give the event the meaning they chose. If everyone had collaborated, Germany would have become an ally. If they resisted, she would remain an adversary. [….] The first mistake of the political realist is to underestimate the existence and weight of his own reality. This reality is not given. It is what he decides to be. The lucid political man who truly has a hold of things is also conscious of the power of freedom in him and in others.

Image: A group of French resistants at the time of their joining forces with the Canadian army at Boulogne in September 1944. Accessed at the Wikipedia entry on the French Resistance.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home