[This book has been translated into English with the title Pyrrhus and Cineas.]
In his Life of Pyrrhus, Plutarch tells us how Pyrrhus' advisor, Cineas, in order to dissuade him from an overly ambitious plan (the conquest of Italy), asked Pyrrhus, "Then what will you do?" "Then I will take Sicily." "And then?" "Recover Macedonia." "And then?" Then Pyrrhus smiled upon him and said: "We shall be much at ease, and we'll drink great flagons of wine, my good man, every day, and we'll gladden one another's hearts with confidential talks." Cineas responded, "Then what stands in our way now if we want to drink flagons of wine and while away the time with one another? Surely this privilege is ours already, and we have at hand, without taking any trouble, those things to which we hope to attain by bloodshed and great toils and perils, after doing much harm to others and suffering much ourselves."
Pyrrhus was troubled, but not dissuaded by this argument. It seems that Plutarch believed that Cineas was the wiser man here. In her first philosophical publication, Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), Simone de Beauvoir explains that from the then newly minted standpoint of French Existentialism (F.E.) Pyrrhus was the wiser - he just lacked imagination.
Of course, that would be a conclusion of fairly limited import, except that de Beauvoir emphasizes that (1) humankind's situation requires each individual to choose freely his/her values, goals and projects and to carry them out (the alternatives are very bad from the point of view of F.E. - some background to F.E. is provided in my recent review of de Beauvoir's Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté), that therefore, at every completed step, the question "And then?" poses itself; Cineas' suggestion that "we may as well pack it in now and take it easy" is existential anathema. Indeed, de Beauvoir takes the matter further and explains why, in fact, (2) one can take Cineas' question as a query about the limits of Man and his projects. Where do we draw the line? When do we decide we have done enough and/or are enough?(*)
Lest you underrate the significance of these questions, consider two well known philosophical positions landing at opposite poles of the question "What are the limits of Man?" For the solipsist, his own consciousness is absolutely everything - nothing exists outside of it; everything is "his." For the stoic, nothing is "his" except his own will to make decisions; only a portion of his own interiority is "his" and all the rest lies on the other side of the line, including his own body. In other words, the question "what are the limits of Man and his projects?" is not merely a question of practicality, of contingency, of energy and fortitude - it is a philosophical question on which no consensus has been reached.
For the French Existentialists, what belongs to each human is their freedom to make choices, to formulate values, goals and projects. The project is "his" until he completes it, at which point it leaves his possession. She further writes:
Il n'existe aucun point privilégié du monde dont il puisse dire 'c'est moi' avec sécurité; il est constitutivement orienté vers autre chose que lui-même; il n'est soi que par relation avec autre chose que soi.
(There is no privileged point in the world of which he could say with certainty "It's me"; he is constitutively oriented towards something else besides himself; he isn't himself except by relation to something other than himself.)
So, in de Beauvoir's existentialist ethics that which enhances this particular kind of freedom for as many persons as possible is Good; she argues here as well as in Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté that the enhancement of others' freedom enhances one's own.
For de Beauvoir, Man is the constantly restless being, always turned towards the future, formulating goals and projects, carrying them out successfully or not, and then doing it again from that new contingent position. Coming to rest, renouncing all new goals and projects - these are betrayals of that which makes humankind humankind. Pyrrhus gets her vote, not Cineas.
As in Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté, de Beauvoir is working out ethical consequences of the metaphysical arguments Jean-Paul Sartre made in his L’Etre et le Néant (1943).(**) Metaphysics is foundation, but ethics - how does one live life, make choices, etc. in a manner that goes beyond following whim or merely conforming to the "crowd"? - is at least as important. On the side, as it were, de Beauvoir discusses various other ethical questions which I won't go into.
And on the side, as it were, I'd like to point out that this attribute of Man - that once he attains a goal, he is not long satisfied with it and soon longs for something else, and again, and again - this is recognized quite explicitly in Gautama Buddha's teachings. In Buddhism, this attribute is one of the primary sources of pain in this Vale of Tears and is to be strictly exorcised; one cannot even want Nirvana, because that wanting, that desire will block the possibility of attaining Nirvana. For de Beauvoir and Sartre, precisely this attribute is formulated positively and embraced. It is the means by which Man creates meaning and value in a world which is otherwise empty of it.
I wonder if we really have a clue what the hell Man is and what the hell his place is in the world, whatever the hell that is...OK, OK, I'll take a deep one. But it isn't going to stop me from thinking and learning and trying to understand, komme was wolle...
This first philosophical essay of de Beauvoir is significantly less jargon-laden than the later Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté and reaches out much more deliberately to the reader. Granted, there is a good deal of "throwing oneself into the future," and "transcendence" takes a bow again and again,(***) but de Beauvoir takes pains here to explain most of her points with concrete illustrations. I have a feeling she might have taken some flak for that from her peers.
(*) Of course, Cineas' intention was rhetorical, persuasive, not what de Beauvoir makes of it. But just as Camus would do in his essay on Sisyphus, de Beauvoir takes a classical story as a starting point to make an modern philosophical point.
(**) Sartre did not occupy himself much with ethics in the texts published during his lifetime, though there exists a posthumously published Cahiers pour une morale that I want to read in the near future.
(***) In F.E. every time an individual makes a decision and acts upon it to make a change in the world, "transcendence" takes place...