Am I Just a Product of My Environment?: Reviewing Skye Cleary’s How to Be Authentic

In HOW TO BE AUTHENTIC: Simone de Beauvoir and The Quest For Fulfillment, Skye Cleary resurrects the prominent feminist philosopher. Simone de Beauvoir, who spent most of her life terrorized by her own mortality, created a system of thought that transcended her corporeal self, resulting in a life immortalized by the beauty and necessity of her everlasting precepts. If the work of most philosophy is but a footnote to Plato, then the great works of feminist thought are but mere footnotes to de Beauvoir.

In traversing the trajectory of her life, Cleary asked: What does an authentic individual look like? In attempting to disentangle our desires from the influences of our environments, we often wonder how much of ourselves are, in reality, the products cultivated by our homes. And if most of our lives are indeed determined, then how free can we be? De Beauvoir argued that while we’re trapped, to some extent, in the facticities of our world (our genes, parents, socioeconomic statuses, and culture), most of us possess the ability to transcend them, or at least attempt to; fundamentally, environment isn’t destiny. And rather than propounding a “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” version of philosophy, de Beauvoir highlights the importance of community and civic engagement for substantial material and psychological change.

In wondering who we are and could be, Cleary maintains that we ought to additionally consider what we owe others, asserting, “Although authenticity is a quest, it’s not a solo one… Authenticity is about forging our own paths, but it doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we like. For Beauvoir, freedom without responsibility is meaningless. Responsibility means acknowledging that we are interconnected, and that we live situated in a particular time and place. Beauvoir—more so than any other philosopher—is unique in helping us navigate this tension between riding our own freedom and maneuvering through a world filled with others trying to do the same.”

In essence, authenticity implies a strong sense of reality; in order to be real, we have to first possess a genuine understanding of our impact on the world and care enough about it. Unfortunately, while her philosophy was elegant and timeless, de Beauvoir struggled to enact it in her own life. Leading lives filled with countless scandals and some debauchery, de Beauvoir and her partner, existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, emotionally wounded countless lovers, including their own students. Although she tirelessly fought for human rights, I wondered how much de Beauvoir cared about individuals. And, like any other heroine or hero, her character wasn’t deficient in major flaws.

As the book progressed, Cleary provided us with a lens through which to conceive of de Beauvoir’s perspectives. Stifled by a culture that told her who she was and ought to be, de Beauvoir became an iconoclast after discovering the vacuity of authoritative ideologies. In challenging the supposition of human nature, Cleary paraphrased Simone when she wrote, “Mystifications are false ideas about who we are and what we’re are supposed to be. Mystifications are a problem because they are illusions that get in the way of authenticity. One of these mystifications is the assumption that women and men have in-built essences that define them in an absolutist way—for example, that women are emotional and men are rational, and which enables men to perform better than women.” In this conception, human nature is less of a fact and more of a bludgeon. Analytic philosophers direct us to explore both the validity and consequences of ideas, respectively labeled “the upstream evidence” and “the downstream consequences” by philosopher Andy Norman. In doing so, we ask ourselves how beliefs affect our cultures and whether they’re worth holding onto. In the case of human nature, while its soundness is hotly debated, its consequences are indisputable. And de Beauvoir, like many other contemporary scholars and activists, acknowledged and articulated the exponential harms created by the construct, and justifiably disavowed it on both grounds.

However, even with all of this in mind, the most impressive aspect of the book was the author’s willingness to be vulnerable, her decision to undertake a profoundly risky endeavor. In sharing her own struggles with mental illness and difficult romantic relationships, Cleary showed the reader how far away from the ideal the world can often be. Yet, she remained hopeful of its future. Skye opened the door to the dark side of life but provided us with the tools to initiate re-shaping it. In the perfect existential manner, she held up our collective contradictions to us. And one can argue that Simone de Beauvoir epitomized stark contradiction, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we would recognize that we do, too.

To be authentic, we have to continue to acknowledge our own faults and those of our beliefs. We can’t proceed with those that perpetually, and selfishly, foster harm, for doing so would imply that we’re living in bad-faith (or denial in psychological terms). Cleary was honest about de Beauvoir’s weaknesses as well as her own, and her bravery isn’t lost on the reader. If there’s any limitation in this work, it’s that it leaves the reader begging to learn more, wishing to ask Cleary how she effectively continues to battle back against the demons of self-doubt.

You may pre-order the book here:

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