Friday 11 March 2016

Out Of Her Tree : Simone de Beauvoir

Of the influential philosophers of the 20th century one name stands out because it is that of a woman, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). During her lifetime her relationship with fellow French philosopher Jean Paul Satre and others was well-known, and she also had several with women. Simone never labelled herself sexually, either as a bisexual or heterosexual. As a philosopher she would have used semantics to dodge such labels.

As a philosopher Simone’s contributions to modern thought helped to change philosophy from the stuffy gobbledigook of academia into something more glamorous and, dare I say it, sexy. It was the circles in which she moved which made it so, and like many philosophers they encompassed those of differing political, social and religious backgrounds. Existentialism was that new glamorous philosophy. For a more detailed explanation of it you can find massive amounts of information on the internet.

Simone’s immediate ancestry was centred round law, politics and banking. Her mother’s family, the Brasseurs, were important members of the political and industrial scene in Luxembourg and Belgium. Her great-grandfather Hubert Brasseur (1823-1890) became a professor of political economics at Ghent University. In 1855 he created a religious stir when he and a fellow professor denied the divinity of Christ. Even though he had the support of the Belgian Prime Minister, a practicing Catholic, the Catholic Church reacted in typical manner and declared that parents should not send their children to Ghent. Whether this legacy passed down to Simone de Beauvoir and influenced her own atheist belief is difficult to say, but her ancestry contains other differences of religious opinion.

On her father’s side Simone has a large amount of aristocratic blood. Her great-great-grandfather Claude Bertrand de Beauvoir married the sister of Edme Georges Champeaux de Vauxdimes who before becoming a Catholic priest was a lieutenant in the French infantry. In 1791 the Revolutionary government of France introduced a law forcing all clergy to sign an oath of loyalty which restricted, and in some cases abolished, certain rights of the church over the state.

Edme was one of many who refused to sign the oath was forced to escape the authorities by joining the refugee army, called the Army of Condé, in the German Rhineland. As an ex-soldier he was no stranger to armed conflict and seems to have stayed with the army until it was disbanded in 1801. In 1803 Edme got a job as a headmaster in Bordeaux and then as Professor of Philosophy at the new university of France in Orléans from 1809 to 1815.

Through the Champeaux family Simone de Beauvoir has a lot of important family connections to the old duchy of Burgundy. Her direct ancestor, Georges de Champeaux, Seigneur de Préfontaine (1701-1788) was grandson of a member of the Milletot family. Other members of that family filled many legal and official positions at the Burgundian court for several generations.

A couple of generations further back and the Champeaux’s married into another well-connected Burgundian family, the Clugnys. Perhaps the most significant of Simone’s Clugny ancestors was the wife of her ancestor Jacques de Clugny, Seigneur de Meneserre (c.1450-1512). Her name was Countess Adrienne de Bourgogne-Nevers. To genealogists she is called a “gateway ancestor” because she belonged to a family whose ancestry is well established and links to royal and imperial families that can be traced back hundreds of years. As her name suggests the Countess was a member of the royal Burgundian dynasty herself. Although born illegitimate Adrienne was legitimated in 1463, less than a year before her father’s death.

The royal dynasty of Burgundy from which Simone de Beauvoir descends through Countess Adrienne is referred to as the House of Valois-Burgundy because the male line stems from the royal French dynasty of Valois. King Jean II de Valois of France (1319-1364) granted the duchy of Burgundy to one of his sons, Prince Philippe, who married the widow of the previous Duke of Burgundy in 1369. He became Prince Philippe II “the Bold”, first Valois Duke of Burgundy. Countess Adrienne (technically a princess after her legitimisation) is one of his great-grandchildren.

Simone de Beauvoir’s unbroken line of French ancestry reaches even further back through the Valois kings of France, all the way back to the dynastic founder King Hughes de Capet (d.996), and even further back than that to the Emperor Charlemagne, King of the Franks (742-814). It is even probable that Simone’s unbroken French DNA can go way, way back to the Merovingian kings of France and their dynastic founder Marcomir de Toxandrie, Chief of the Salian Franks, who died in 281. Even I can’t prove my own unbroken British ancestry that far back!

Where did Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical heritage come from? I’d like to think that it was a mixture of her bourgeois ancestry which gave her the social ability to express her thoughts freely, and her character which attracted male thinkers to her without criticism of her gender. Female philosophers were rare in those days, and females who expressed their thoughts ever rarer.

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