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SIMONE WElL AND THE INTELLECT OF GRACE. By Henry Leroy Finch. Edited by Martin Andic, with a Foreword by Annie Finch. New York: Continuum, 1999. Pp. xii + 177. $29.95.

In recent years, two developments have emerged in publishing of works by and about Weil, the French social philosopher, spiritual writer, and political activist: contributors have shifted from the hagiographic mode with its mistaken characterization of Weil's contribution; and Weil scholars are effectively locating her in a larger discourse. For many years Well commentators wrote of her as a woman who achieved distinctiveness for either her astute socioeconomic analysis of modernity or her purity of spirit and the beauty of her expression of Christian spirituality; others offered the idea that Weil radically shifted her sights and efforts from the political to the mystical. These attempts to come to an understanding of a complex thinker wrongly divide her biography and thought:. Finch never did this and to his merit held these elements of her short life together with unusual clarity. Particularly characteristic of F.'s approach to Weil is his recognition of her significance with respect to other modern philosophers (e.g., Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger) and in the current efforts to discover parallels between different faith traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism) and movement politics (ecology).

In May 2000 the American Weil Society celebrated its 20th year of annual meetings. It was as a founding member of the Society and a frequent contributor to its meetings that many of these essays were first presented. When F. died in the summer of 1997 he had been working on their publication and entrusted the final selection and editing to Martin Andic. Having been involved with the Society since its inception and having listened to many of these pieces, I am impressed with the editor's discernment regarding the volume's scope and content.

A. has organized twelve essays into three parts representing categories of Weil's contribution: religious and ethical epistemology; commentary on her political-cultural thinking; and facets of her spiritual journey and the merit of her contemplative reflections. Each cluster indicates how well F. understood the depth of Weil's thought. Although she died in her mid-thirties during the Second World War, her daunting capacity to "read" her culture, critique the prevailing theories of polity and economic inequity, and search for spiritual truth continue to attest to her exceptional intellect and religious witness. F. found her example compelling and dedicated much of his professional life to the study of her thought.

Three essays illustrate something of the importance of F.'s encounter with Weil's contribution and how helpful A.'s organization of the book is to both the seasoned and novice reader of Weil's works. Each essay is derived from one of the three sections.

The first, "Intellect as Grace" (Chapter 3), refers to F.'s phrase, the "epistemology of grace." Truth is the core concern in this theory of knowledge, unquestionably the point of departure in all Weil's thought and action. Attention and loving action are fundamental to the quest for truth, but God's initiative is requisite in turning each of us away from the shadows that we take as reality. F. explores the shape of the epistemological search for truth, acknowledging the Platonic roots of Weil's thinking but develops his essay to reflect her attachment to Christianity and the understanding of meaning in this world as dependent upon the supernatural. In effect, Weil provides three levels of reality, distinguishing the human imaginary from the natural world of necessity and the "impossibility" of supernatural truth. Knowing on the human level of existence is illusory and connected to false aspirations (power and prestige). Necessity, the second level, entails obstacles that cannot be removed or mitigated (e.g., death); limits and obedience are thematic here. Finally, the third level attests to the supernatural realm which is Good and True and from which we receive glimpses of the Good and True through grace. F.'s discussion of this intricate arrangement indicates that Weil's recasting of Platonic notions of the real and illusory has to be appreciated in the light of the technological and scientific excesses of modernity. Weil wrote of the need for a new genius, not tied to naturally gifted persons or to an elect class of thinkers; the new genius sees reality by effort, a veritable apprenticeship in attention. It is a seeing that cannot be efficacious so long as it is hasty, derivative, or dependent upon false motive or assumptions that the means is an end.

In the second cluster of chapters, a rich offering of F.'s studies of the subject is provided which invites the reader to discover parallels with T. E. Lawrence, Marx, and Heidegger. I am impressed with the selection on "Marx, Oppression, and Liberty" (Chapter 6). The assumption that Well shifted her concerns away from economic injustices and the viability of Marx's theories is mistaken, according to F. However, in her later writings, Weil pressed the question of the historical destiny of the proletariat as inevitable victors and criticized Marx's failure to elaborate a theory of oppression that identified the ruthless transformation of persons into things and the consequences for solidarity and revolution. Oppression, according to Weil, destroys the soul and adds to the flight from the real. F. here asserts that history does not offer evidence that the fruits of triumph will be shared by other than the professional class of emancipators. In this fine essay, F. encourages us to meet an astute critic of the optimistic Marx and shows us that a model for a renewed social order based upon freedom of thought and spiritual labors, rather than class war and radical redistribution of property, provide a modicum of hope. F. understands the radicality of Weil's thought and avoids reducing it to an ideological rationale for liberalism, socialism, or conservatism.

In the last set of chapters that reflect: the editor's focus, spiritual and religious traditions are clustered with concerns that F. had for humanism and multifaith conversation. The reader will find the chapter entitled "The Life and Death of Simone Weil" illuminating. Building on Weil's wellknown letter to Father Perrin written as she was leaving her homeland and identified as her "spiritual autobiography," F. examines three features of that communication. In doing so, he notes that Weil had unusual self-understanding (a striking quality when we realize the relative youth of the correspondent). In effect, F.'s analysis answers some of the confusion about Well's decisions regarding Catholicism and religious identity. He reviews the content of the letter indicating that Weil's choice to remain an "outsider" and to refuse baptism was neither casual nor reactive. The distinction between the collective "we" and the individual goes to the heart of the matter and the intimacy of the spiritual moment. Finally, F. comments on Weil's prayer and her inscription of what many critics find to be an horrific self-abnegating prayer and concludes his balanced discussion with a reminder that Weil could not advance a contemplative practice devoid of practical engagement in the world of necessity.

This book of essays is a must for those who have yet to read the writings of the subject, as well as for those who have a long-standing involvement in Weil's thought. F. conveys his appreciation of her brilliance and accessibility. He is ever the teacher, clarifying elusive points and suggesting places of ambiguity that require further thought.

CLARE B. FISCHER Starr King School for Ministry, GTU, Berkeley
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000

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