It might seem, at first, like the existentialists paint a pretty bleak picture of existing. You’re born into a world with no meaning or values to guide you on your way. Literally everything that you work towards in your life will fail, or at the very least crumble at the feet of history. There is no God to turn to; you’re all on your own, and no help is coming.
You’re stuck. It’s you and your freedom against the world. You can’t get away from it. Even in its utmost denial, you affirm its presence by choosing to deny it. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, French existentialist philosopher-couple extraordinaire, reject the comfort of determinism. You are a free being and your despair is proof of that fact.
Beauvoir, in “Existentialism and Popular Wisdom,” defends against the charge that existentialism paints man as a miserable creature, doomed to always exist in anguish, anxiety, and despair at their condition.
Her defense is predicated on comparing the views of human nature presented by the existentialists and by those who make the accusation that existentialists are guilty of miserablism.
Beauvoir shares Sartre’s view that there is no human nature — there is no essence to being human because to be human is to transcend your given situation, to construct your reality according to your subjective values and meaning imposed upon the world.
The individual realizes this radical freedom through engaging in concrete projects of their own making. The project discloses the individual’s freedom and values, and the only requirement is that the project must strive towards freedom for all; it cannot come at the cost of another’s ability to engage their own transcendence.
Beauvoir notes how many critics of existentialism are willing to accept views that construct a human nature, especially those that construe human nature as evil, greedy, or self-interested. It is fairly uncontroversial to accept that humans are driven entirely by self-interest, and defenders of this view negate friendship and even love by reducing them to expressions of this pure regard for self.
However, she argues that if one accepts this view, they must accept a miserablism far worse than that of existentialism, because it offers no way out for humans. If it is human essence to be greedy and self-centered, there is no alternative; one cannot be good, and surely that’s a more miserable view than one that views every human as capable of transcending their situation.
The only way people intellectually accept this view of human nature but do not feel the misery they do when faced with existentialism, Beauvoir posits, is by having a separation between what they say they think and how they actually engage with the world. Their belief does not line up with their action, and they exist happily in this incongruity.
Existentialism, on the other hand, is a reasoned doctrine that does not allow one to escape from its consequences so easily. Beauvoir says that existentialism is not just a philosophy, it is a fundamental way of engaging with the world — one that forces you to take responsibility for your role in creating that world, and it is in this attempt to eschew ownership of this duty that leads to the accusation that existentialism is miserablism.