An illuminating introduction to the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and its relevance to modern life
In an age of self-exposure, what does it mean to be authentic?
“Authenticity” has become attenuated to the point of meaninglessness; everyone says to be yourself, but what that means is anyone’s guess. For existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, authenticity is not the revelation of a true self, but an exhilarating quest towards fulfillment. Her view, central to existentialism, is that we exist first and then spend the rest of our lives creating—not discovering—who we are. To be authentic is to live in pursuit of self-creation and self-renewal, with many different paths towards diverse goals.
How to Be Authentic is a lively introduction to Simone de Beauvoir's philosophy of existentialism, as well as an exploration of the successes and failures that Beauvoir and other women have experienced in striving towards authenticity. Skye C. Cleary takes us through some of life’s major relationships and milestones: friendship; romantic love; marriage; children; and death, and examines how each offers an opportunity for us to stretch toward authenticity. While many people don’t get to choose their path in life—whether because of systemic oppression or the actions of other individuals—Cleary makes a compelling case that Beauvoir’s ideas can help us become more conscious of living purposefully, thoughtfully, and with vitality, and she shows us how to do so in responsible ways that invigorate every person’s right to become poets of their own lives.
The ideas of French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir ground the advice in this thoughtful guide by philosopher Cleary (Existentialism and Romantic Love). To be authentic as de Beauvoir understood it, Cleary suggests, one must "create our essence through our choices" and think critically about "mystifications," or the common cultural narratives that shape how people view and interpret the world: "It can be exceedingly difficult to tease apart what is influenced by outside forces and what one authentically wants." Cleary updates de Beauvoir's critique of instant gratification for the digital era, lambasting "fast fashion, slot machines, social media feeds" for providing fleeting satisfaction that leads to enduring discontentment, and she urges readers to instead "take control of our own projects so that we can be free to create our own happiness." References to Lizzo and The Good Place help make de Beauvoir's jargon-heavy philosophy accessible to lay readers, but some of Cleary's colloquialisms might elicit some groans ("Gouges foresaw that the haters were going to hate"). This lucid introduction to de Beauvoir and existentialism has some worthwhile insights.