De Beauvoir addresses the objection that “to will freedom” is a meaningless phrase with “no concrete content for action.” But the very meaning of freedom requires taking definite action in the world. Willing freedom, de Beauvoir reiterates, is the same thing as willing “to disclose being,” although every time being comes into existence, it is “constantly surpassed.” Perfection—a complete and absolute disclosure of being—is impossible. Rather, incremental success in disclosing being reveals new frontiers to be tackled: “with each step forward the horizon recedes a step.”
De Beauvoir dismisses this objection because it is impossible to achieve freedom without action, but also impossible to consider people free after telling them exactly what actions to take. The complex concept of disclosure, originally from Heidegger, refers to the way one’s actions reveal one’s underlying motives, commitments, and abilities. So each action discloses each person’s being in so far as they have specific traits at the present moment, a being that people immediately overcome, as everyone is always progressing toward new goals and improving their current selves (which is why de Beauvoir says being is “constantly surpassed”). But this incremental disclosure of being can never be confused with the desire to become and disclose a single, absolute, unchanging, perfect being.
Similarly, it is wrong to think of science as a way of capturing the serious, whole truth about anything; rather, it is about “the possibility of new discoveries,” which is to say the achievement of freedom through inquiry. Technology’s goal is discovery itself, not improving human life (which it seldom actually does). It only tries to improve life by making things easier, by helping people live less, when what they need is to live wholly. Art, likewise, “should reveal existence as a reason for existing” rather than trying to grasp absolutes.
De Beauvoir’s theories of art and science plant both firmly in history, seeing them as reflections and engines of the times, rather than a repository for universal truths. They appear as models for human action and striving in general, which is about neither pinning down truth nor streamlining life, but rather helping people undertake the difficult and dedicated work required to fully embrace their free existence.
While “it is permissible” to hope that at some point in the future people will learn to take full advantage of their freedom, in the present many “can justify their life only by a negative action,” transcending themselves but not moving themselves closer to their goals. This is because they are oppressed, and oppression is always imposed by other people (never by things, which can be obstacles, but never truly limit people’s freedom). This is because of people’s interdependence; one needs others to keep the future open. But they often fail, denying people the resources they need to truly pursue their freedom, turning others’ lives into mere strenuous labor, forcing them “to mark time hopelessly in order merely to support the collectivity.” The only solution to oppression is to seize one’s freedom through revolt, substituting one’s own vision of a future for the oppressor’s.
De Beauvoir shows that sometimes people lack any means to translate their natural freedom into moral freedom because of others’ power over them; in such a condition, the only way to pursue one’s moral freedom is to reject oppression, a situation analogous to an ill person needing to heal before being able to pursue their own projects. The fact of oppression is still another reason why people’s freedom depends on the freedom of others. In turn, de Beauvoir implies that people oppress others because of the inadequate moral attitudes she elaborated in the second part of her book, each of which can lead people to trample upon others’ freedom, treating them as mere instruments for one’s own benefit.
So, de Beauvoir summarizes, there are “two ways of surpassing the given”: one that incorporates it (innovation, art), and one that rejects it (revolution). In his optimism, she argues, Hegel failed to properly distinguish these and did not see that, in reality, “revolt is not integrated into the harmonious development of the world,” but rather develops the world through disharmony and rupture. Marx understood this (which is why the class struggle is primarily a struggle against class oppression and inequality), just as he understood the way oppressed people can be “mystified” into not understanding their condition.
De Beauvoir’s discussion of Hegel and Marx (who adapted Hegel’s philosophy to the situation of the modern capitalist economy) is a means of showing that political struggle has meaningful consequences. For Hegel, revolt was part of the inevitable progress of history, and so did not change history’s course—which means that the free will of the oppressed does not come to bear on the structure of society as a whole and the freedom of all society’s members. Marx showed that class struggle is part of a drive for freedom, and de Beauvoir seems to agree with this part of the Marxist picture of social change (but she still disagrees that revolution is a necessary product of people’s objective social conditions—instead, she thinks it is something they must choose to do).
The solution is, of course, to give the oppressed and enslaved a means to revolt and understand their condition. This is distinct from charity, which involves deciding what is best for someone else from the outside; rather, it is about opening up mutual freedom out of a more fundamental interest in others’ existence. External action can show the oppressed a possibility of freedom, but never choose it for them. The oppressed person can easily “flee from his freedom” like anyone else—and those from the oppressor’s class can pursue their own freedom in conjunction with that of the oppressed, although there is still hearty debate about the usefulness of imagining a post-revolutionary utopia. Ultimately, the oppressed are most involved in the struggle for liberation, but this struggle morally involves everyone.
De Beauvoir’s distinction between charity and political support is a crucial and underappreciated one for people of privileged backgrounds hoping to advance humanity’s collective struggle for liberation. It is possible to model freedom and support the free choice of oppressed peoples, but never decide what they should do. Notably, despite the restrictions on their freedom, the oppressed person is not excluded from the realm of ethics: it is still completely possible for them to act evilly (by supporting or accepting their oppression). Not only does everyone’s freedom depend on the freedom of others in an abstract sense and in the sense of people’s particular social relationships, but de Beauvoir takes it a step further by saying that oppressed people’s struggle for liberation implicates everyone in the world.
There are also questions of political tactics in liberation struggles, like how groups oppressed by multiple forces or oppressed groups pitted against one another should act. This depends on individual circumstances, but the ultimate goal should always be freedom. The oppressor might claim that the oppressed is trying to invert the situation and deny their (the oppressor’s) freedom, but in fact the “freedom” the oppressor is talking about is “quite plainly […] the freedom of exploiting the working class.” This freedom denies others’ freedom, violating genuine freedom’s indefinite movement, and therefore it must itself be denied.
Oppressors’ propensity to adopt the language of freedom and rights is a crucial reminder that morality is primarily a function of action and concrete commitments, and not of ideas and abstract values. De Beauvoir makes it clear that the term “freedom” should be restricted to those kinds of liberties that are compatible with the freedom of everyone else. In turn, this implies that the kind of freedoms sought by serious, nihilistic, passionate, and adventurous men—in addition, of course, to those sought by the oppressor—do not count as freedom at all.
More often, oppressors see themselves as defending things like “civilization,” “institutions,” “monuments,” or “virtues” in the name of holding on to what they can be certain about from the past. While change does always require sacrifice, the past always vanishes eventually, although many revolutionaries too eagerly dismiss it as entirely irrelevant, which suggests an inadequate recognition of past people’s humanity and potential to offer us insight.
“Civilization,” “institutions,’ “monuments,” and “virtues” are all serious values that have no meaning in themselves, but are only important if and when they support human freedom.
Yet conservatives often choose “the Thing” from the past over the people of the present. An illustrative example is Portugal under the dictator António Salazar, where people are forced to re-enact old cultural rituals whose value is precisely “that men attempted through them to escape from coercion.” Even the most historically-minded know that artefacts are valuable because of “the civilization which they represent,” not in themselves.
The past is another kind of serious value often idolized by oppressors but ultimately meaningless except for in its relation to freedom; in fact, by replacing an emphasis on the past’s lessons about freedom with a valorization of the past for its own sake, conservatives like Salazar mystify the conditions of oppression, diverting people away from seeing a model for their liberation.
Accordingly, de Beauvoir argues, the oppressor’s idols—virtue, civilization, history—do not justify oppression. Instead, these are “hardened and mummified forms” of the past, which was really “an appeal toward the future,” an appeal of the same sort that one should make in the present. This means assuming, not valorizing or rejecting, the past.
De Beauvoir sees the past as a motion toward the present, not as a set of symbols and cultural forms to which one can look for meaning—because their meaning is precisely people’s attempt to make a better future. One must assume the past, as the set of unchangeable circumstances that made the present possible, just as one must assume the unchangeable fact of ambiguity (which includes the fact that people do not choose their life circumstances).
In fact, de Beauvoir notes, often oppressors do appeal to the future—for instance, by claiming that capitalist production is the most useful. But usefulness is always a question of usefulness for particular people and particular human ends. Last of all, de Beauvoir suggests that the oppressor does show how difficult it is to respect everyone’s freedom—but this does not make it any less imperative to try: everyone “must reject oppression at any cost.”
The oppressor wants a closed future—a future in which others work for his own personal interest—rather than the kind of open future de Beauvoir advocates, one in which human freedom is constantly expanding. In other words, the oppressor’s government tries to define the future for people rather than giving them the means to define their own futures. Just as it is impossible to achieve one’s perfected mental image, it is impossible to completely respect others’ freedom all the time, but de Beauvoir refuses to make the perfect the enemy of the good: rather, one should try to get as close as possible to fully respecting others’ freedom, and the impossibility of perfection is simply a reason why people must always continue striving to honor the freedom of all humanity.