Serious Man or Creature of Action

Tom Kennedy

During the course of this academic quarter, I have come into contact with two different ideas about man and the role he takes in the world that seem to conflict. The first idea is Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of the serious man. Beauvoir’s says that the serious man is someone who devotes himself to a worldly end in order to escape the subjectivity of his existence. She believes that through his devotion to this arbitrarily chosen end, the serious man attempts to give up his own freedom, and that this is condemnable(47-48). The other idea I have encountered, which seems to conflict with this condemnation of the serious man, is the idea of man as a “creature of care”. By this I mean a creature whose nature it is to be devoted to this earth and to be tethered to it. It is a creature who is defined by its need to cultivate some thing or strive for some end. The tension between these two ideas must be resolved. What is man’s nature and how does that relate to his culpability when it comes to devotion to some self imposed end?  I say that to condemn a man based on his ultimate devotion to something worldly is wrong. The breadth of Beauvoir’s idea encompasses all of humanity. We must all be devoted to some worldly end, because man is inherently what I would call a “creature of action”. In this sense man is not free; we must all be “serious” about something.

When I describe man as a “creature of action”, I am saying that man is defined by his need to act in this world. A creature that is human has no choice but to be devoted to this world, because man’s nature is only defined in his necessary attachment and devotion to something worldly. An idea that parallels this well is Hannah Arendt’s action-oriented idea of freedom. In What is Freedom, Arendt dismisses the idea of freedom being some inherent inward human condition, insisting that this “inward space where the self is sheltered against the world must not be mistaken for the heart or the mind, both of which exist and function only in interrelationship with the world.”(145) She is saying that what makes us truly human lies outside of ourselves, in our interactions with the world. I agree. Just as Arendt says that freedom only exists in the political sphere, I would posit that humanity only exists in the world of interactions with earthly things. The mistake that Beauvoir makes is to assume there is some component of humanity separate from its devotion to the world. There is no “self” that, untethered to the earth, chooses its measure of devotion to it. The inward space of the mind is a confused jumble of causality and outside influence, through which we are somehow deceived and given the illusion of separation from this earth. Implicit within humanity is action and devotion on earth, and nothing else.

Another line of thinking that parallels and supports these ideas is that of the 18th century political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke, arguing against Thomas Paine and other supporters of the French revolution, who appeal to arguments about man’s inherent nature and man in the state of nature to support the imposition of a “natural form of government”, also denies the idea of man having any nature separate from his actions. In his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, he insists that “Art is man’s nature”. By art he means the creations of man within society, which is another way of saying the manifestation of man’s actions in this world. It is ironic that many existentialists vehemently denied that man has some nature, yet still supposed that he did have some “self” independent of his attachment to the world and his “art”. What is this thing that they believe just “exists”? They seem to assume it can be defined and evaluated by some “will” it contains in relation to earthly participation. In reality there is only art.

The “art” Burke speaks of would undoubtedly fall into the category of bad faith and seriousness in many existentialist’s eyes. To dismiss and condemn all the “serious” actions of men who were fully devoted to earthly things is to discard history and the immense value it contains. The record of man’s devotions and ends is nothing less than the aggregate nature of man himself. Beauvoir, in the breadth of her definition of seriousness, has condemned all of humanity.

The idea of man as a creature defined by his necessary devotion to the earth is not a novel one. It can be traced all the way back to the the book of Genesis in the old testament of the Bible. The expulsion of Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden marks the symbolic beginning of humanity. When God casts them out upon the earth he tethers them to it. For the first time they are creatures of the earth, who must live through action on the earth. God decrees to Adam and Eve:

“Cursed is the ground because of you!

In toil you shall eat its yield,

all the days of your life….

By the sweat of your brow

you shall eat bread,

Until you return to the ground,

from which you were taken;

For you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.(Genesis 3:17-19)

In this passage God defines man as a creature whose nature it is to be necessarily dependent on and devoted to the earth. This chapter of Genesis is the one where god truly creates humanity.

The gardener, depicted in the drawing of Josef Capek, brother of the author. (From:

The end man devotes himself to on this earth does not have to be related to survival or sustenance. Man can choose to devote himself to anything, but he cannot not choose. Even when a hermit deceives himself into thinking that he is not devoting himself to some worldly end, in reality he is ultimately devoted to the idea that his separation from others gives him superiority over them. David Foster Wallace conveys this idea using the word “worship”. “Everybody worships.” He says, “The only choice we get is what to worship”(8). Beauvoir seems to present the idea of seriousness with a menacing tone, but she herself admits that the choice of what to be serious about is completely arbitrary (47). One of the first examples that comes to my mind when I think of the creature of action arbitrarily devoting itself to some end is Karl Capek’s depiction of the gardener in The Gardener’s Year. The gardener is serious about gardening. It defines his life and gives him purpose. When Capek writes of the gardener arriving in the garden of Eden and obsessing over the soil instead of the divine, he shows that, for the gardener, the garden is what he cares about above all.

One of the reasons why Beauvoir condemns the serious man is because she believes that, implicit in a man completely devoting themselves to something, he ceases to care about anything else except in terms of its usefulness towards the end to which he is devoted. Writing of different examples of serious men, Beauvoir states: “For the military man, the army is useful; for the colonial administrator, the highway; for the serious revolutionary, the revolution – army, highway, revolution, productions becoming inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself. Therefore, the serious man is dangerous.”(49) In this general argument an assumption that Beauvoir makes about the nature of man reveals itself. She assumes that man’s devotion to something is tied to his judgments about the value of other things, I would argue that man does not really have such judgment when it comes to human interaction. Man is not bound by anything other than habit. We all believe that we have ethical and moral values but when these are put to the test we just as easily follow and break our rules. When a man chooses to be serious about something, values are not involved. Devotion is all that matters, in the act of devotion itself the need to act is satisfied. We are just trying to be like Sisyphus in Camus’ interpretation of the Myth of Sisyphus. The task confronting us is life; we must roll some rock or fill some bucket and attempt to find meaning in it. The Father who has poured his life into taking care of his daughter may kill for her benefit, but he just as easily may not. He is ultimately devoted to his daughter but because he really has no ability to place comparative value. His relation to other things on earth, and the means by which he attempts to achieve his end are determined by habit (emotional and evolutionary) and tradition alone.

The idea of man as a creature of action is completely compatible with the assumption that we live in a subjective world. It is because the world is subjective that our choice of what we devote ourselves to is so arbitrary. Man still faces the anguish of having to choose what to do, and can just as easily be in bad faith by tricking himself into thinking that he is not free to choose what he is serious about. The creature of action also feels anguish in the pursuit of their task. Even when one has dedicated themselves to an end doubts and fears of error persist. The gardener, on a meandering path of discovery and adaptation, still feels anxiety because of the arbitrary nature of his end. What does it mean to dedicate oneself to the garden? What is the garden? One can never be sure. The only existentialist arguments I am criticizing are those that would condemn a human for truly caring about something in this world. Aside from Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre also went down this path of thinking in his example of the waiter, who he condemns as a “playing at being a waiter in a cafe” (386). We should not condemn a man for trying to find something to devote himself to in this world when that is the only thing he must do.

One of Beauvoir’s chief points, about dedication to an end leading to a dogma in the world, does have merit. It is possible for someone deceive themselves into believing that there is a certain order in the world, and many people across history have done terrible things in the name of their self imposed dogma. Of course there are people in this world that are condemnable. To say that we must all act is not denying any possible system of ethics. The issue is that Beauvoir has gone too far and too broad in her condemnation of devotion to an end. Most kinds of seriousness are not accompanied by sweeping dogma or self imposed objectivity. The legitimate culpability lies in the way the man goes about being serious, not the seriousness itself.

Beauvoir implicitly sets up a dichotomy between being an enlightened existentialist or a serious man. When first reading her argument, this seems like a choice between being a cold, calculating, murderous fascist and not being such a person. This first step in showing why her argument does not work is to make this dichotomy consistent with the Beauvoir’s other examples of seriousness. A fascist or tyrant may be possible serious men, but Beauvoir, describing the serious man attempting to flee his subjectivity, writes he is no longer a man, but a father, a boss, a member of the Christian Church or the Communist Party.”(48) These examples seem much less sinister. Beauvoir is clear that the devotion she describes extends to all sorts of arbitrary action. So in reality the “choice” she is presenting is between being ultimately dedicated to something (like a child, or a congregation, or a garden), and not immersing yourself in some act. Surely millions of people would be counted in the former category, but who would be in the latter? No one. I am saying is that the such detachment from the world is not a possibility because man is a creature of action.

To further illustrate this lack of choice humanity has when it comes to seriousness, I imagine what the impossible alternative to worldly devotion would look like. Such a creature would be detached from all cares. Not tethered down to this earth, it would simply float around among the endeavors of all the creatures of care surrounding it. It would be an enigma, never settling, never moving with purpose, never acting towards an end. A good example of such an impossible creature is the character Bartleby in Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville. Bartleby has no meaning or reason behind his actions. He does what he pleases but nothing pleases him. He cannot even disobey with force or devotion! The words “I prefer not to”, given to anything seeking his action, are not a conscious defiance of will but the verbal manifestation of his separation from the world of devotion and action in which he exists. Ultimately, Bartleby’s condition is not sustainable, and he withers away, leaving a world where he never really belonged. Bartleby is not a creature of action or care; he is not human. There is no human alternative to giving oneself to this world completely.

Are we to condemn the mother for being ultimately dedicated to her child? Can we look down upon the teacher who only cares about imparting knowledge, or the artist who only really “lives” inside his studio? Simone De Beauvoir would label them cowards and self deceivers; serious men and women who are damaging to themselves and the world. But she has supposed a choice where there is none. Everybody across the world goes through this life striving for something. She supposes a “self” that is not completely tethered to world and its happenings. Ultimate devotion to some end cannot be a failure of man because it is what defines man. Devotion to some thing, some arbitrary cause, is how man spends his time on earth. We must cultivate some garden in this world, giving our effort and sweat and toil to the earth. From the earth we are born, to the earth we give ourselves ourselves, and to the earth we return. Human life is a serious affair in an absurd world.


 Works Cited:

Beauvoir, Simone De. The Ethics of Ambiguity. N.Y.: Citadel Pr., 1962. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. Between past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Burke, Edmund. An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in Consequence of Some Late Discussions in Parliament, Relative to the Reflections on the French Revolution. By the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. New York, NY: London, 1791. Print.

Bible. Revised Standard Version. N.p.: Oxford Univ, 1962. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address – May 21, 2005 Written and Delivered by David Foster Wallace (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Čapek, Karel. The Gardener’s Year. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Print.

“Melville, Herman. 1853. Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Melville, Herman. 1853. Bartleby, the Scrivener. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.