Old Age and the Question of Authenticity

[Une traduction française de cet article sera bientôt disponible]

By Sonia Kruks,

Political philosopher at Oberlin College (USA). She is best known for her scholarly work on the political and social ideas of the French existentialists. She has also published extensively on feminist theory. She is a long-time specialist of Simone de Beauvoir and has published groundbreaking books and articles on Beauvoir. She has recently published an essay on Old Age with Kate Kirkpatrick.


This is a shorter version of the paper presented at The 2022 Conference of The International Simone de Beauvoir Society, June 2-4 2022.


One is not born but rather becomes old – and to become old, like becoming a woman, is to become “the Other.”  The old are cast: “outside humanity,” Beauvoir says in La Vieillesse (translated as Old Age or The Coming of Age) and they are conceived as: “sub” human (OA 4, 505; V 10, 531)1) Although there are also profound differences, for both women and the old (of any gender) their existence is profoundly shaped by alterity2.

Beauvoir had argued in The Second Sex that, their alterity notwithstanding, an authentic pursuit of freedom remains possible for women. For, “to become a woman” also involves a project of active self-making and it is not reducible to passively “being made” one. Thus:

the traps of bad faith and the mystifications of the serious are lying in wait for [women],3

and their freedom:

cannot  authentically assume itself except in revolt: this is the only way open to those who have no chance to build anything; they must refuse the limits of their situation in seeking to open paths to the future. (Ibid.)

But what, then, of the old? Can they still “seek open paths to the future”? Is revolt, or at least resistance, also open to them as an authentic path to freedom? Indeed, are any authentic projects open to them? It is striking that, although Old Age is otherwise similarly organized to The Second Sex, it has no equivalent to the final part of The Second Sex on “The Independent Woman,” on the woman who struggles to affirm her freedom. So, one must ask, does Beauvoir perhaps see old age as a unique situation, in which the demands she makes of (younger) women to eschew bad faith and engage in an authentic pursuit of freedom no longer apply? Or, could it be that she has radically modified, or perhaps abandoned, her prior ethics? How far do Beauvoir’s life-long values persist, and how they have mutated or perhaps even been discarded in her book on old age?

The “desert” world of impoverished old age and the question of bad faith

InThe Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), Beauvoir had described the “sub-man” as one who endeavors, in bad faith, to his flee freedom and refuses to commit himself with any passion to projects. He “experiences the desert of the world in his boredom.”4 Apathetic, fearful, lacking desires of his own, the sub-man’s acts: “are never positive choices, only flights” (Ibid. p.43). Strikingly, now, in Old Age, Beauvoir also uses the term “sub-man” with reference to a majority of the old – but with a difference. For here, the sub-man is no longer presented as one who chooses an inauthentic flight from freedom but as one whose is existence is so constituted by dehumanizing deprivations and physical debilities as to preclude authentic action. She writes that it is only when

the old person is not the victim of economic and physiological conditions that reduce him to the condition of the sub-man [ȧl ’état de sous-homme], that he remains, throughout the alterations of the aging process, the individual that he has been (OA 505 TM; V  531) – but few are so fortunate.

For the great majority, their final age is, indeed, a “desert.” But “if the retired man is rendered hopeless by the lack of meaning [le non-sens] in his present life, this is because his existence has always been stolen from him” (OA 541-2 TM; V 568). In a profit-oriented, capitalist, society, where costs are always measured against benefits, after a life of alienated labor they are cast aside, regarded as “mere scrap,” as “walking corpses”(OA 6 TM; V 13). They face a “sterile” future and an “unpeopled” world, and after retirement they sink into a “deathly apathy” [une sinistre apathie] (OA 451-2; V 475-6).

InThe Ethics of Ambiguity, as in The Second Sex, Beauvoir criticized those who are complicit in their own alterity, those who “flee” freedom in strategies of bad faith and self-objectification. But now she portrays with great sympathy a range of attitudes and actions that she would once have criticized as instances of such flight. For many of the old, she argues, they are, rather, valid forms of “defense.” They are important means through which “the old person tries to defend himself against the objective precariousness of his situation and against his inward anxiety” (OA 466; V 490).

For example, a common defensive strategy that Beauvoir sympathetically describes is to “take refuge in habit” (OA 466; V 490). InThe Second Sex, Beauvoir criticizes women who throw themselves into repetitive routines of housework as a means to evade their freedom. “Housework,” she says, “in fact permits a woman an indefinite flight from herself” (TSS 478, TM; DSII, 271). However, Beauvoir does not similarly depict the, sometimes obsessive, embrace of habits by the old as a form of “flight.” Rather, their habits hold out promise of much-needed protection against the meaninglessness of life. Habit is how “the old person escapes from the sickening quality of excessive leisure by filling it with tasks and duties that for him take on the form of obligations” (OA 467; V 491). The rigid habits that many old people adopt offer them a the degree of “ontological security”:

Because of habit [the old person] knows who he is. It protects him from his generalized anxieties by assuring him that tomorrow will be a repetition of today (OA 469; V 493).

As well as clinging to their habits, the old often cling excessively to their possessions. Indeed, Beauvoir observes, the two traits merge, since “the things that belong to us are as it were solidified habits”(OA 469; V 494). Furthermore, ownership itself is also felt to be: “a guarantee of ontological security.” Objectifying oneself in things, and especially a self-identification with money (which is deemed synonymous with power), is a commonly attempted form of defense: “Thanks to his possessions the old person assures himself of an identity against those who see him as nothing but an object” (OA 470; V 494). This defense is likely to fail, Beauvoir says (OA 470; V 494-5). However, she does not consider such self-objectification a form of bad faith. Similarly, she does not criticize those who attempt to evade their situation by trying to escape into a frozen world of past memories. They “affirm a fixed essence,” she writes and they

tirelessly tell themselves how this being that they were lives on inside them. . . [that] they are forever this ex-serviceman, this worshipped woman, this wonderful mother (OA 362, emphasis added, TM; V 384).

Their memories cannot “resuscitate the real world from which they emanate” (OA 364; V 386), yet Beauvoir does not criticize this clinging to the past as flight from freedom.

Yet others assume the disabilities of old age in an exaggerated form in order to justify excluding themselves from responsibility for action. A frequent device is to turn to hypochondria.

For many, illness can act as an excuse for the inferiority to which they are now doomed. It can also justify their self-centeredness – henceforth their body requires all their care (OA 302; V320).

However, far from being critical, Beauvoir adds that “these forms of behavior are based upon a very real and intense anxiety” (Ibid.). Similarly, some exaggerate mild impairments. Having some difficulty walking, they “mime” paralysis; others, being a little deaf, stop listening. However, “playing at being disabled, they become so” (OA 303; V322). In such ways, some strengthen their exclusion from the world even when this has not yet been fully imposed on them (OA 303; V 322). One could say here, as Beauvoir says of (younger) women, that they are complicit in their oppressed status; indeed, that they comply in “making themselves an object” [se faire objet].(TSS 491; DSII 195), yet Beauvoir makes no such claim. To the contrary, she sympathetically describes such behavior, especially (but certainly not only) on the part of the impoverished and institutionalized old. Not only are they “despairing “ but they are: “justifiably” [à juste titre] resentful and demanding” (OA 303; V 322).

Wronged and bullied, [the old person] retaliates by refusing to take part in the game. The adult world is no longer his: he challenges its regulations and even its ethics (OA 480 TM; V 505).

And yet, bad faith and inauthenticity have not disappeared from Beauvoir’s ethical lexicon. For she begins the book by excoriating the bad faith embraced by most “active adults” (as she calls them) who seek to deny their own immanent old age by objectifying those whom they view as already old. In the Introduction she writes:

Let us cease cheating [cessons de tricher], the meaning of our life is in question in the future that awaits us; we do not know who we are if we ignore what we will become. Let us recognize ourselves in this old man, in this old woman. We must do so if we want to take up our human condition in its totality (OA 5 TM; V 11).

However, to the contrary, most attempt to flee from this immanent and dreaded “other within us” (OA 288; V306). Instead of seeking to recognize themselves in the old, younger adults view (and treat) them as a “different species;” it is their bad faith flight from their own incipient old age that accounts for much of denigration and mal-treatment they inflict on the old.

 Authenticity in “active” old age

But to return to the old themselves: If the great majority cannot be judged to be in bad faith, does this mean that Beauvoir has also suspended her earlier notions of freedom and authenticity with regard to the old? Not entirely. For this majority, condemned to a futile and meaningless existence, lies only at one end of a spectrum of possible lives that she presents. At the other end, she insists, authentic action does remain possible, but only for an elite. It is possible for those privileged few who do not suffer such deprivations, and who have engaged in meaningful projects earlier in their lives. Many of the extended examples she offers are of such people: they are those who enjoy both existential and material resources to prolong “active” life. They are mainly artists, writers, composers, and so forth, and they continue to be creative. Indeed, they can create freed from their earlier “fetishes and illusions.” Now realizing that “the idea of advancing towards a goal was a delusion” and that (citing Sartre’s words) life is “a useless passion”(OA 491; V 517), individuals such as these can act in ways that “bracket” their earlier, personal desires for fame, and so forth. Instead, they freely engage in valued activities for their own sake or for the sake of humanity. Indeed, some sustain their life-long projects with optimism until the end, even in spite of increasing physical ill health. Renoir, for example, she says, not only determinedly continued to paint when half-paralyzed but also felt that his art was developing (OA 313; V332). She gives Victor Hugo as another example: although debilitated, he remained creative and was publicly celebrated until very late old age (OA 508ff).

Neither authenticity nor bad faith?

InThe Second Sex Beauvoir insisted that,

Every subject posits itself as a transcendence concretely, through projects; it accomplishes its freedom only by perpetual surpassing toward other freedoms; there is no justification for present existence than its expansion toward an indefinitely open future (TSS 16. Emphasis added; DSI 31).

She continues to affirm a similar notion of freedom in her examples of creative old age. She also emphatically reiterates it in the conclusion to the book. There, she writes, “Projects have only to do with our activities. Undergoing age is not an activity,” and

There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work… in old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves (OA 540; V 566-7).

The notion of authentic freedom that Beauvoir offers here presumes the continuation into old age, albeit somewhat diminished, of the passions and vitality and, especially, of the forward temporal thrust, that fuels the free, transcendent projects, of  younger adults. She closes the book by envisioning an “ideal  society” where these can continue for all throughout late life (OA 543. V 569).

In such an “ideal” society, after enjoying life-long participation in meaningful, collective activity, individuals will  remain active and valued social participants during their very last years. They will engage in authentic action until they finally die from a brief illness “without having suffered any degradation” (OA 543; V 569).

Beauvoir’s “ideal” presupposes the overthrow of contemporary capitalist society, and she closes the book with the ringing statement that “It is the whole system that is at issue and our claim cannot be otherwise than radical – change life itself” (OA 543; V 570). However, she has also shown in extensive detail, earlier in the book, that old age is far more than an oppressive social condition. Indeed, she actually begins the “Conclusion” by remarking that “it is an empirical and universal truth that after a certain number of years the human organism undergoes a decline. The process is inescapable” (OA 539; V 565). Thus, the “ideal” of old age that she proposes could also be viewed as an aversive denial on her part of the physical decline that accompanies aging in any society. A conclusion that some critics have drawn is that Beauvoir herself views the old as less than fully human; indeed, that she participates in their objectification. However, I do not think such a conclusion is justified.

It is true that Beauvoir herself undeniably shares in the profound terror of old age that pervades modern society. In a well know passage at the end Force of Circumstance  she writes of herself that old age “has got me now. I often stop, flabbergasted at the sight of this incredible thing that serves me as a face… when I look [in the mirror]  I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure.”5 However, her aversion to her own old impending age does not lead her to flee it by casting the old as “Other.” To the contrary, her goal in writing the book is the very opposite: to disclose the humanity of the old by breaking what she calls the: “conspiracy of silence” that surrounds them (OA 2; V 8). In the “Introduction” she states that she aims to make the voice of the old heard. She writes: “if their voice was heard, one would be forced to acknowledge that this is a human voice. I shall force my readers to listen to it” (OA 2 TM; V 8 emphasis added).

However, in affirming the humanity of those who no longer can engage in meaningful projects, Beauvoir complicates the distinctions between freedom and “flight,” between authenticity and inauthenticity, that lie at the heart of her earlier ethics. As I have argued in previous work, over time Beauvoir became  increasingly aware of how la force des choses, the weight of situations, can constrain freedom, foreclose projects and even, at times, limit the possibility to conceive of them. Even so, it is not only in her early “moral essays” and in The Second Sex but yet later still, in “Right Wing Thought Today” (1955) and novels such as The Mandarins (1954), Pretty Pictures (1966), and The Woman Destroyed (1968) that her thinking still hinges upon the play between two the opposing “poles” of authentic free action and  forms of  inauthentic flight, including bad faith and complicity.

As I’ve said, this antithesis is still operational in Old Age, in her critique of the younger “active adults” who, attempting to flee their own old age, objectify the already-old. However, in her portrayals of old age itself, there has emerged an asymmetry between the poles of the antithesis. Authentic projects do remain possible for a privileged few. Yet the oppressed and/or debilitated majority, those whose world is a “desert” and who engage in no authentic action, are not concomitantly viewed as in bad faith. They do not flee freedom.

Old Age marks the culmination of a long trajectory in Beauvoir’s thinking. Over time, the once-clear antithesis between authentic action and inauthenticity, which had once shaped her moral universe, had already become increasingly blurred. But now, in her encounter with debilitated old age, I think it has finally ceased to be viable. Thus I conclude with some questions that may orient further discussion: Do we need to try to re-conceptualize freedom, so as to accommodate the humanity of those who no longer can engage in projects that open, transcendent, toward the future?  Or, do we perhaps need to look elsewhere, to sentience, to shared vulnerability, to immanence, or passivity – as well as to free action – as sources for the value human existence?


To cite this article: Sonia Kruks, “Old Age and the Question of Authenticity”, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, July 2022. URL: https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3906

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  1. La Vieillesse, Paris: Gallimard, 1970. Abbreviated as V. Page references are given in the text; Old Age[The US version is called The Coming of Age], trans. Patrick O’Brien. London: Andre Deutsch & Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972. Abbreviated as OA. Page references are given in the text. Modifications to the translation are indicated by TM (translation modified []
  2. Beauvoir considers women’s old age only briefly in The Second Sex (cited hereafter as TSS) and even less fully in OA. As a personal experience old age is of as much concern to women as men, she says. However, from the perspective of their societal roles and influence on history, “old age is a problem concerning men” (V 99; OA 89-90). Much of what Beauvoir writes in the second part of OA, “Being-in-the-world,” concerning the lived experience of old age, does also pertain to women (and also to members of minority ethnic and racial groups in modern Western society). There are, of course, also profound  differences that she does not address but, in what follows, I shall generally bracket the problem of her disregard of women. []
  3. The Second Sex, trans. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Knopf, 2010, p. 664. Abbreviated as TSS. Page references are given in the text. Le Deuxième sexe, vol. 2. Coll. Folio. Paris: Gallimard, 1988, p.522. Abbreviated as DSII []
  4. The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans.  Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel, 1967, p. 45. []
  5. Force of Circumstance, vol.2. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Paragon, 1992, p. 378. []

Marine Rouch

Doctorante à l'université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès - Histoire contemporaine des femmes et du genre - Histoire littéraire - Laboratoire FRAMESPA (UT2J) - Laboratoire ALITHILA (Lille 3). CV ici : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/curriculum-vitae

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