The Ethics of Ambiguity

Simone de Beauvoir is the brilliant mind behind this work; a work that forever changes the lives of those who read it. Here is my analysis of part of the introduction of my favorite book on Existentialism, The Ethics of Ambiguity:

The continuos work of our life,” says Montaigne, “is to build death.” He quotes the Latin poets: Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit. And again: Nascentes morimur. Man knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo. A new paradox is thereby introduced into his destiny. “Rational animal,” “thinking reed,” he escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power’ can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things. At every moment he can grasp the non-temporal truth of his existence. But between the past which no longer is and the future which is not yet, this moment when he exists is nothing. This privilege, which he alone possesses, of being a sovereign and unique subject amidst a universe of objects, is what he shares with all his fellow-men. In turn an object for others, he is nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends.


Indeed, we are nothing without those around us. Without other beings and other objects, what would we have to compare ourselves to? This passage does an excellent job of illustrating the fact that very little separates what I am from what you are.

As long as there have been men and they have lived, they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition, but as long as there have been philosophers and they have thought, most of them have tried to mask it. They have striven to reduce mind to matter, or to reabsorb matter into mind, or to merge them within a single substance.

Those who have accepted the dualism have established a hierarchy between body and soul which permits of considering as negligible the part of the self which cannot be saved. They have denied death, either by integrating it with life or by promising to man immortality. Or, again they have denied life, considering it as a veil of illusion beneath which is hidden the truth of Nirvana.

Throught human history, many of mankind’s schools of thought have failed to deal with the reality of our situation in a way that doesn’t deny life or death. Regardless of what life or death is, or even what the future holds, the present moment is our home; to deny this by contriving some sort of escape will not help one to be true to the present moment.

And the ethics which they have proposed to their disciples has always pursued the same goal. It has been a matter of eliminating the ambiguity by making oneself pure inwardness or pure externality, by escaping from the sensible world or by being engulfed in it, by yielding to eternity or enclosing oneself in the pure moment. Hegel, with more ingenuity, tried to reject none of the aspects of man’s condition and to reconcile them all. According to his system, the moment is preserved in the development of time; Nature asserts itself in the face of Spirit which denies it while assuming it; the individual is again found in the collectivity within which he is lost; and each man’s death is fulfilled by being canceled out into the Life of Mankind. One can thus repose in a marvelous optimism where even the bloody wars simply express the fertile restlessness of the Spirit.

Thus we are both individuals and part of a collective entity. Our lives and deaths will one day be forgotten; they will simply merge into the Life and Death of Mankind, which will one day be forgotten. This is the way of Nature.

All of the structures that can be built, all of the wealth that can be accumulated, and all of the battles that can be won will not change the fact that we will, one day, die and that mankind will one day die. Thus we have to realize that these things do not matter, since nothing was meant to last; it was meant to LIVE.

Dead things remain as they are forever, living things, on the other hand, undergo constant change. It is thus that we can feel good about the fact that death will one day occur for everything. Because of this, we are been able to ebb into existence and flow into death.

Although the book is difficult for most to read, I would highly recommend reading it several times; turning over each paragraph in order to understand the deeper meaning. It is truly a paradigm-shifting experience to read and analyze the work of Simone de Beauvoir.

Full Transcript: The Ethics of Ambiguity

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