Calls to Action in The Second Sex and Atlas Shrugged

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged wonderfully clash and coincide. The former is at home exploring every inch of what is and what could be while the latter embraces a meticulously distilled philosophy. Where they find each other is in a call to action, and consequently, in a rejection of stillness: Beauvoir labels this the latter immanence while Rand identifies it as the choice to refuse reason and action.

In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir encourages women to consider trading passivity — which she describes as immanence — for transcendence. As its name implies, transcendence is the pursuit of transformative action. She describes this as man’s social condition insofar as it is a privilege, and a biological resolve insofar as it reflects man’s restlessness. She writes:

“In fact, man’s privileged situation comes from the integration of his biologically aggressive role into his social function of chief and master; it is through this function that physiological differences take on all their full meaning. Because man is sovereign in this world, he claims the violence of his desires as a sign of his sovereignty; it is said of a man endowed with great erotic capabilities that he is strong and powerful; epithets that describe him as an activity and a transcendence; on the contrary, women being only an object is considered hot or cold; that is, she will never manifest any qualities other than passive ones.”

For Beauvoir, activity is both a mental spirit and a physical presence. To be in transcendence is to own the act of controlling. It is to be at home in tension and in creating the conditions for its release. This situation is what enables one to move beyond the world of marionettes and to act within the realm of confident playwright, decider, leader, and active author of one’s own destiny.

Transcendence, you may have discerned from the quote above, is where the need to create lives.

She goes on:

“Man’s project is not to repeat himself in time: it is to reign over the instant and to forge the future. Male activity, creating values, has constituted existence itself as a value; it has prevailed over the indistinct forces of life; and it has subjugated Nature and Woman.”

And then:

“To maintain himself, he creates; he spills over the present and opens up the future.”

I would hold that this call to situate ourselves in transcendence applies across genders. If we find ourselves confined in a state of immanence, we all have the choice to cast off the confines of passivity. To do so requires one to be daring enough to act on the thoughts that seize us when are in the middle of an “existential” crisis. If we are doing it right, transcendence feels aggressive, daunting, and disintegrating.

While this essay is about action — there is a strong case for being within immanence. Arguments in support of this situation would underline the salience of maintaining our species, values, traditions, and ideals. When we choose immanence, we enjoy the security of lines which guide and contain. We dare the world to stand within the folds of our expectations. When it challenges our worldview, we demand that it behave. We may even remind the irreverent actor of the universal principles we believe in. We pride ourselves on staying loyal, true to our colors. There is much to admire in such a life.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy argues that reason can and must be employed to summon universal truths. Virtuous action, for Rand, consists in manifesting our rational desires. There is then an ethical dimension to action that does not appear as clearly in The Second Sex.

Her worldview — which is described heavily with male pronouns — claims that the measure of principled man is one who comes to know what he wants and, unbent by the influence of others, acts to realize it.

Dr. Akston — Atlas’s moral philosopher — describes how:

“Every man builds his world in his own image…He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice. If he abdicates his power, he abdicates the status of man and the grinding chaos of the irrational is what he achieves as his sphere of existence — by his own choice…Whoever preserves a single thought uncorrupted by any concession to the will of others, whoever brings into reality a matchstick or a patch of garden made in the image of his thought — he, and to that extent, is a man and that extent is the sole measure of his virtue.”

While the competing worldview holds:

“…that the values of one’s spirit must remain as an impotent longing, unexpressed in action, untranslated into reality, while the life of one’s body must be lived in misery, as a senseless, degrading performance, and those who attempt to enjoy it must be branded as inferior animals.”

In her view, truth is absolute and reason is the channel to discover it. There is a solid explanation for every mystery, an answer for every question, a solution to every problem if only we apply the power of the reasonable mind. We must then act to see this truth become reality, thus making the world a mirror of our innermost convictions.

Through her principal agent, John Galt, she exclaims:

“The man who refuses to judge, who neither agrees or disagrees, who declares that there are no absolutes and believes that he escapes responsibility, is the man responsible for all the blood that is now spilled in the world.”

For Rand, there is great consequence to rejecting the power of manifesting reason through action. In Atlas, to be human, we must trust our selfish desires and keep our virtue unchecked by others. By proceeding in this vein, we may achieve the highest state of mind, reason, and action.

Read as an ode to human potential, this title and what it commands is intoxicating. For anyone who has felt that this life has defeated them, reading Atlas Shrugged will permit the inspiration to act in uncompromising accordance to their own will. The only commandment is a selfish commitment to reason.

But it would seem that to keep our “thought uncorrupted by the will of others,” Rand would may have us convince ourselves that our own brand of reason is true enough to act on.

This is where/why I part ways with Rand.

While I applaud her ode to human potential and the mind, there is an inconsonance that began to ring more and more clearly after I put down Atlas Shrugged. She does not grapple with the pernicious problem of incomplete information. This phenomenon — of which there are too many bald examples — eats into the ability to formulate pristine conclusions.

If we unconsciously err about what is true and/or what we think serves our own interests, then under Rand’s philosophy we may unnecessarily suspend the quest to expand our understanding. Uninterested in the expansion of awareness, we stop questioning. And when we stop questioning, we lose sight of continuing to test the foundation of our answers.

It is horrifying to consider that a choice to shrug off the reality of others may lead to arrogantly living according to an erroneous worldview.

Where the two authors connect is far more convincing. They agree that it is imperative that we open ourselves to the possibility of making this world in our image. Having overcome many impossibilities imposed upon their sex/gender — Rand and Beauvoir extol the virtue of living restlessly, mindfully, and actively.

Both works are sincere, vulnerable, raw, and authentic. This may be inadvertent, but the fever-pitch language around gender and identity delivers a sense of struggling to live up to a standard. The sentiment is that these women, far from content, are hyped on the adrenaline of action. Their ideas boil; they take us to where creativity and possibility abound.

Fevers may run us to the edge of life, but they also drive us to where we finally feel the full and voluptuous intensity of living. If you need a hit of something dizzy — give either/both of these books a read.

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