Although existentialist philosophers rarely labeled themselves as such or agreed on a definition of what they were doing, existentialism is a coherent and sound philosophy. It begins with the claim that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that people enter the world (they exist) before they can be said to have a fixed definition (or essence). They are free to create their own essence, and with this freedom comes responsibility. The contrast between how strange it is to exist and the reality that we are here is called “absurdity.” From absurdity, nihilists would avow that life is meaningless, and thus do whatever they want. Existentialists, however, typically reject nihilism and embrace authenticity. For Martin Heidegger, authenticity was related to our “being toward death.” For Friedrich Nietzsche, the “eternal return of the same” counsels us to live as if our life will repeat itself eternally.
Some French existentialists, however, posited more nuanced ideas of authenticity that engaged with other people, systems of oppression, and the world. Skye C. Cleary’s How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment explores Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas of existential authenticity and applies them to life today. The book sits at the intersection of biography, philosophy, and self-help, yet it transcends all three. Cleary successfully fuses philosophical analysis, personal insight, and cultural commentary.
How to Be Authentic is structured into three sections. Cleary’s three sections are “Formative Years,” “Situations,” and “Toward Fulfillment.” The four sections of volume two of The Second Sex are “Formative Years,” “Situation,” “Justifications,” and “Toward Liberation.” Both structures proceed from thoughts on being human to current problems faced, culminating in ideas for action. Cleary’s blend of contemporary, personal, and philosophical analysis parallels much of Beauvoir’s own work. Both works center lived experience, including aging, parenting, and marriage.
How to build an authentic marriage? Historically, heterosexual marriages have privileged men’s careers, personal lives, and especially finances. Cleary applies Beauvoir’s philosophy to advocate for dividing labor equitably. Men must clean and cook and, if applicable, care for children more to compensate for historical inequities. Even when partners share household labor, how can anyone commit to a romantic relationship for life with existential authenticity if change is constant in the process of becoming ourselves? Cleary answers that rather than a traditional “till death do us part” union, existentially authentic marriages require regularly choosing to build a marriage together, in many cases over the course of a lifetime.
Beauvoir’s own open relationship with Sartre remains part of their legend, an enduring detail of the French existentialists’ public image. While maintaining that Beauvoir and Sartre’s lifelong relationship was existentially authentic, Cleary adds that their “essential” relationship prevented “contingent” relationships outside their partnership from attaining authenticity. Contingent relationships were plagued by power imbalances tracing their roots to Beauvoir and Sartre’s essential connection. (As a result, be it said in passing, one of their “contingent” lovers died by suicide, and another suffered a nervous breakdown.) Every relationship, either platonic or romantic, begins with a power imbalance, and yet such a relationship can transcend the resulting power struggle to attain authenticity through genuine connection. Friendship operates authentically in this way, too: “It is exhilarating to be respected by a friend,” writes Cleary, “to find comfort through shared suffering and empathy, to challenge each other with new ideas and insights, and to discover the world together.”
How to be an authentic mother? Becoming a parent is existentially complicated. The accessibility of abortions and reproductive health care can make motherhood as authentic of a choice as possible for the mother. Cleary points out that these agents of freedom remain disproportionally inaccessible to marginalized populations, including people of color and people in poverty. Even in the best circumstances, however, motherhood can cause further existential crises. Cleary offers descriptions of her own postpartum struggles to illustrate for the reader the existential complications of parenting.
How to age authentically? Ranging from coloring hair to plastic surgery, consumerist society pressures us to hide our aging. Cleary is less concerned with judging each of these antiaging measures as right or wrong and focuses instead on whether their motivations are authentic. For example, if a woman uses antiaging treatment to reduce sexist ageism in the workplace and advance her career, that might be existentially authentic. Obscuring age to resist the fact that we are all going to die, according to Beauvoir and Cleary, is “inauthentic” and “problematic.” Awareness of inevitable death should motivate people to rebel and resist oppression while we are here, according to Beauvoir and Cleary.
Cleary integrates race and racism into her analysis throughout the book. She quotes, among others, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, and Koa Beck. Some of these women critiqued Beauvoir’s white feminism. Cleary writes: “I have wrestled with critiques by women of color of Beauvoir and whether I should write at all because, as a white middle-class woman, I don’t want to soak up the moral oxygen by claiming that my struggle should be the only one that matters.” Cleary constructs a narrative in which Beauvoir applied existentialism to feminism; hooks, Lorde, and others added feminism to antiracism to center intersectionality.
Cleary’s How to Be Authentic is fresh, new, and prescient. She explores the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccinations, hashtag activism, the murder of George Floyd and the global response, social media generally, and modern workplace struggles, all through the lens of Beauvoir’s philosophy. When the idea of suicide emerges as it typically does in existentialism, Cleary uses the updated language (like “died from suicide” and “took their own life”) rather than the accusatory “committed suicide.” She adds a personal anecdote about a friend who died from suicide.
How to Be Authentic builds on a recent flurry of existentialist nonfiction. British writer Sarah Bakewell’s 2016 book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, invited readers to 20th-century Parisian cafés for accessible and engaging philosophizing. Kate Kirkpatrick’s 2019 book, Becoming Beauvoir: A Life, analyzes the philosopher’s life and works, including previously unpublished letters. Cleary’s own 2015 monograph, Existentialism and Romantic Love, builds on her doctoral dissertation to philosophize romance.
In Existentialism and Romantic Love, Cleary constructs a case against the idea of “soul mates” and advocates for authentic relationship-building. Beauvoir enjoyed long hikes, while Sartre detested hiking, exemplifying the healthy pursuit of their own interests. Cleary’s husband plays team sports, while she practices yoga. I find energy and inspiration in acoustic open mic night at a local café, while my husband prefers Emo Night concerts. Relationship psychologists likely support the notion that partners should maintain their own interests. As a philosopher, Cleary adds a layer: indulging in the constant process of becoming oneself is necessary for authenticity. Building on her philosophy of romantic love, she bears out the idea of authenticity in this new book.
Rebecca Brenner Graham earned her PhD in history from American University in 2021. She works as a history teacher at the Madeira School and as an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University.