Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash/Champs-Élysées, Paris, France
The Serious Man and the rise of the mob:
A contemporary contemplation of the works
of Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt
by Fabia Chenivesse-Wong
In the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, between a cafe and a sober grey church, sits a square named for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. The two frequented this corner of the Latin Quarter – particularly its cafes, which they used as places of intellectual exchange and camaraderie. It was there that they and their contemporaries refined the existentialist philosophy they espoused, through writing and public engagement.
De Beauvoir was a prolific memoirist, essayist and author of fiction. During the Second World War she remained in occupied Paris. Her contemporary, Hannah Arendt, also called Paris home for a handful of years. Arendt had fled her native Germany when Hitler came to power. As a woman in exile she too formed part of the intellectual community of the Latin Quarter. Arendt likely crossed paths with De Beauvoir, though they seem to have never collaborated. Arendt remained in Paris until the capitulation of France led to her arrest and internment. She escaped a camp in the south of France, making New York her subsequent home.
The indelible mark left on the two intellectuals during these dark years in Paris is best understood through an examination of their contemporaneous works. De Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity was published in 1946. Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in 1951. Her report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Banality of Evil, was published in 1963. The works are vastly different in magnitude and approach. What they share is that they are the fruits of two minds of exceptional power and sensitivity, produced in the attempt to understand and to expose, with intellectual rigor and honesty, the nature of evil.
De Beauvoir’s Ethics seeks to address a sustained critique of existentialism: that the philosophy condones a relativist morality, a world without good or evil. If there is no God and no destiny, and each man through his actions in life is completely free to define himself, is there room for an ethical standard with respect to the treatment of others? Or does existentialism require only that one lives authentically – that is, in line with whatever one chooses to value, regardless if those values are moral?
In Ethics, De Beauvoir articulates a defence of existentialism as moral. She contends that the nature of existence – our utter freedom and the lack of any real external values beyond those we conscientiously adopt – implies an equally forceful responsibility: that the only truly moral attitude would be to act in the furtherance of the freedom of others, and that the particular significance of a given action is never a given but must be constantly won. In an echo of Marxist theory, every man, according to De Beauvoir, needs the freedom of every other man; and one acts unethically whenever he oppresses the freedom of another or imposes his will against another’s attempt to emancipate him or herself.
De Beauvoir and other existentialist philosophers offer different explanations on how to address the intersection between morality and existentialism but they agreed on the concept of bad faith. In short, living in bad faith is what Sartre called living inauthentically – that is, by rejecting one’s freedom in a wilful act of denial.
In Ethics, De Beauvoir uses the parable of the Serious Man to elucidate on the concept of bad faith. De Beauvoir considers that each human being faces an initial moral choice that arrives at the end of childhood or innocence: to accept the rules of the “serious” or respectable world as given and incontrovertible, or to acknowledge his or her freedom, and therefore responsibility, to choose how to live in the absence of any hard and fast infallible rules. The existentialist considers the first choice a flight from truth and responsibility, and those who have made it as “Serious” men.
The Serious Man attempts to abdicate his freedom by subordinating it to the values of his particular age without question or criticism. He imagines that acting consistently with these values somehow validates his existence, and so he acts in furtherance of an end that he wilfully deludes himself is unquestionably right. He believes for belief’s sake, preferring to accept authority and by doing so, retreats from personal responsibility for his actions. Because he does not value his own freedom, he is less likely to value that of others, and so he is dangerous. De Beauvoir uses the example of the colonial highway administrator to illustrate her point: someone whose function involves the unjust expropriation of land and the furtherance of an exploitative project, and who comforts himself with the guise of officialdom and the mythology of being part of a civilizing force.
The Serious Man will conform to whatever structure he is placed within; the particularly skilled or strategic Serious Man will simply be better at ascending the chain of command. While he can appear benign, once the totalitarian leader or despot destroys existing norms and places himself above any office, principle or ideology, it is the Serious Man who will carry out his terrible work.
The Jerusalem trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi official charged with the deportation of Jews to extermination camps during the Second World War, is the subject of Hannah Arendt’s journalistic work, The Banality of Evil. Arendt observes that Eichmann is neither a “clown” nor a “monster”, but rather an unremarkable civil servant, seeking to carry out his assignment with a dull-eyed professionalism. She describes how Eichmann, when first advised of the Final Solution and shown the death camps first-hand, testified to his initial traumatization and for a short time, evaded arranging deportations to those camps. Then, within weeks, rather than applying for a transfer – though such a thing was frequently granted without adverse consequences – he began executing the deportations as directed. He considered the disloyalty implied by requesting a transfer “unthinkable.”
Eichmann personifies the Serious Man, and during his trial makes his flight from freedom his explicit defence: the state having legalized crimes, he had only being doing his duty by playing his role in the execution of the Final Solution. Perhaps as a means to show his own ordinariness, he testified as to other “respectable” gentlemen, whom he describes as free of any form of anti-Semitism, who had an even more direct role in carrying out mass executions of Jews. In a strange part of the trial, Eichmann testifies that up until his participation in the mass killings, he had lived according to the Kantian categorical imperative, an ethical standard that requires individual action to be such that it can be made into law. Arendt observes that in fact, Eichmann’s conduct as a Nazi was consistent with a perversion of that imperative, putting the will of the Fuhrer atop an incontrovertible hierarchy of norms.
In The Rise of Totalitarianism, an issue explored by Arendt is the mechanism of the ascendance of the mob, a precondition to Germany’s descent into totalitarian dictatorship. After the moral erosion of the nation-state brought on by the European adventures in colonialism, she writes that there arose a generalized rage at the empty respectability of bourgeoisie values which had shown themselves as false, particularly after the carnage of the Great War. Arendt writes: “self-willed immersion in the suprahuman forces of destruction seemed to be a salvation from the automatic identification with pre-established functions in society and their utter banality, and at the same time to help destroy the functioning itself.” The extinguishment of the individual in a mass movement, the need to be “We” rather than “I”, facilitated an escape from the weight of personal responsibility for one’s actions, and at the same time permitted people to feel historically significant, at a time of individualized helplessness in the face of geopolitical forces spiralling out of control. Disappearing into a movement, becoming a member of a “superior” group conveyed esteem and value where little or none could be found in quotidian life.
While De Beauvoir’s Ethics sheds light on the internal forces at play in shaping an individual like Eichmann, and indeed each of us, Arendt’s works consider the external conditions under which the Serious Man is enabled, encouraged and weaponized. Both writers raise the alarm at how swiftly sleepwalking apathy can turn to mass violence.
There have recently been dark days across the globe. Even so, it would be difficult to argue that the challenges faced currently in the occidental world are comparable to what happened in Europe one hundred years ago. While the West has seen relative peace, there have arisen other forces that, in a novel and distorted way, mirror the conditions described by Arendt that led to the rise of tyranny and the Second World War, and which encourage the Serious Man’s ascent, or rather, his descent into the mob: feelings of inadequacy fuelled by the cons of capitalistic opportunity and meritocracy and the reality of a growing wealth gap; the technologically facilitated elimination of opportunities for reflection and conscientious decision-making; social isolation; a generalized feeling of political helplessness in the face of parties whose differences are ever-decreasing, amplified by a constant news stream of distant world events; the encouragement of narcissism and self-absorption through social media; worship of the individual, celebrity, exceptionalism and the genius or hero myth eroding sentiments that foster solidarity; the growth and dominance of entire industries capitalizing on alleviating personal responsibility, et cetera. In the meantime, the once unthinkable – like Neo-Nazis marching in Germany – continues to occur, and the unutterable has found its place in the public discourse.
Recently in France, simmering, generalized rage has erupted in uncontrolled protests across the country. The demonstrations were ignited by the Macron government’s increase in the tax on diesel, a fuel widely used by countryside and suburban dwellers. The fact that the protests are without leadership or formal organization contributes not only to heightened chaos but also to difficulty in pursuing conventional means of negotiations. The demands articulated to date have been abstract and ephemeral, ranging from a general reduction in taxes for the working class to address a plummeting purchasing power, to the resignation of the president, who is widely perceived as being out of touch with the poor and rural working class of the country. Although demonstrations are by no means uncommon in the country, the sudden violence and convergence of the far right, the far left and the apolitical in a mass expression of discontent has rocked the French political establishment.
In a recent interview, perhaps in an attempt to refine her earlier labelling of Trump supporters as “deplorables”, Hillary Clinton considered that Western populism met “a psychological as much as political yearning to be told what to do, and where to go, and how to live and have their press basically stifled and so be given one version of reality”. During the same interview, she suggested that in order to effectively fight the extreme right, Europe would need to draw the line in relation to migration, that it had “done its part.” Clinton’s pragmatism, by no means unique to her (Mitt Romney comes to mind, as does Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, who is making it increasingly difficult to discern between the extreme Right and the extreme Left), is emblematic of the power politics that is gradually and effectively draining whatever credibility is left of the political class. It makes one nostalgic for the time when “appeasement” was a dirty word.
After the US mid-term elections, “progressive” publications heaped praise on those Democrats who were able to unseat their opponents by staying mum on issues of race and immigration. Reactionary politicking devoid of principle is as effective in the long term as admonishing a rule breaker about “the way it’s always been done” without being able to explain why it is so. It is the organizational equivalent of De Beauvoir’s Serious Man: unethical in its adherence to rules that have been shown to be ineffective and acceptance of the terms of a race that will inevitably lead to the bottom. When one side, misled or not, is fighting for what they perceive as the soul of a nation, and the other is talking about points, strategy and prudence, it is easy enough to predict the outcome of the fight. By playing into the hands of those who would destroy norms and set their own rules, this class of politicians has already lost the game.
Although the precise mechanisms may seem new, even a cursory review of De Beauvoir’s and particularly Arendt’s work highlights the precedents in history for the spiralling situation we find ourselves in today. It will, as such, be our conscientious decision, as individuals and as a society, whether to learn from or ignore the lessons of the past. In making that decision it is worth keeping in mind James Baldwin’s warning, that “anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster”.
 De Beauvoir, S. (1946). Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté. France: Gallimard.
 Arendt, H. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harvest. (“Origins”)
 Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin.
 Origins, supra, p. 331.
 Wintour, Patrick (2018, 22 November). Hillary Clinton: Europe must curb immigration to stop rightwing populists. The Guardian. Retrieved http://www.theguardian.com.
About the author:
Fabia Chenivesse-Wong. Fabia studied and practiced law at a regional law firm in her hometown of Toronto, Canada, before moving to The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2011. For six years she worked for UN tribunals, prosecuting international crime. Currently based in the south of France, she writes about gender, race, culture and the law.