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SIMONE WEIL.

Born: 1909, Paris, France

Died: 1943, Ashford, Kent, England

Major Works: (in translation): Waiting for God (1951), Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks (1957), The Need for Roots (1952), The Notebooks of Simone Weil (1956), Oppression and Liberty (1958)

Major Ideas

Thought is inextricably linked to action.

The person is a creation of natural and social forces and can be "decreated" by them.

Pure goodness for which the human aspires is found by God's direct descent and through the mediation of natural and social structures.

The suffering of Christ is the paradigm action for goodness.

Simone Weil was the second child born into a well-off family of Jewish lineage, although none of the family took much note of this heritage. While she did not share the prodigious mathematical gifts of her brother Andre, Simone Weil from an early age showed not only a rare intelligence but numerous personal qualities that marked even her adult life. She had a rare sort of moral courage and sense of moral purity that often led her on a harsh and demanding quest for "truth, beauty, virtue and every kind of goodness," even when that quest appeared headed toward her own hurt. She also showed a rare and deep compassion for others that could lead her to shed tears over the news of an earthquake halfway across the globe.

Her early schooling was eclectic, but in 1925 she enrolled in the Lycee Henri IV and came under the influence of the eminent philosopher Emile Chartier (Main). He contributed greatly to Weil's topical, unsystematic style. His ideas concerning the bodily conditions of thinking were also to heavily influence her thought.

This intellectual influence is quite evident even in her first important essay, her diploma thesis at the Ecole Normale Superieure, "Science and Perception in Descartes." In this thesis, she sought to undertake a sort of Cartesian meditation. Unlike Descartes, however, who located the human essence metaphysically in thought, Weil regarded the ability to act as primary. It was from this ability to act, especially when countered by other agents and forces, that Weil sought to find the basis of thought, which she claimed to have discovered in a sort of elementary "geometry" inherent in human action. By reflection on this geometry, she argued, we can give method, that is, reason, to our projects in the world. Human work that takes into consideration the opposing forces of the world not only grasps the reality of the world but exhibits humanity at its highest.

Weil's intent in this thesis was twofold. On the one hand, she was trying to find a way by which human thought could be employed in such a way that the world as thought is not lost in clouds of abstraction. On the other hand, she was also trying to avoid describing the human thinker abstractly, either by locating the human in a transcendental subject or by regarding thought itself as a priori. Unfortunately, this early attempt was flawed to the degree that it itself began with a subject divorced from the very real and formative social influences of human thought.

Two years later, in her "Lectures on Philosophy" (actually a set of complete notes taken by one of her philosophy students), she takes the role of language far more seriously, and suggests that distinctively human thought arises when through language we order the world that we are given; it is then, by means of that order, that we grasp necessity.

These philosophical investigations were reflected in Weil's own involvement in French leftist politics. While teaching philosophy in a number of lycees, Weil was active in the syndicalist labor movement, which sought to remove production from large enterprises and put it in the hands of smaller groups of workers. Her activities on behalf of the syndicalists included teaching night courses (many of them on Marx) for the unemployed, and even marching with them against city, hail, an action not looked upon favorably by the bourgeois school authorities. In addition, in 1932-33 she traveled to prewar Nazi Germany and sent back to France a series of ten articles of haunting prophecy describing workers' conditions there. In 1936, she joined the anarchist cause in the Spanish Civil War, until a clumsy accident forced her evacuation.

Both her philosophical and political interests came together in an important monograph she wrote in 1934 titled "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression." A masterful and yet sympathetic critique of Marx, it charged him with failing to see the real implications of his own analyses Wed argued that Marx should not have had much hope in the idea of revolution, for even on his own materialistic basis all effective change depends on being able to wield power; by definition then the weak can never overpower the strong Revolutions by the weak in the past, she argued have only served to confirm a change that had already taken place The Marxists of her own day had failed to see that a revolution of the weak was especially ludicrous as the economic system had become so strong that individuals could no longer control it, including the so-called capitalists. Rather, the system controlled them; it was managed by "technicians of management," who were coming to have the most real power in the con temporary world. But even in their cases, it was really the enterprise that was all-important and all-consuming. It subjected everybody in the end to its force: This was oppression.

Not only had contemporary Marxists failed to see this, by preaching a revolution whereby human beings would be freed from having to labor, they also failed to see that the problem of oppression was actually a question of means and ends having been reversed. For oppression results when human beings, instead of using the forces of their own enterprises are used by them.

Given that human beings cannot escape necessity entirely, Weil argued, dignity and freedom are not marked by freedom from necessity but by a different relationship between workers and their material than is usually found in modern societies. Human dignity and freedom could be achieved, she thought, by organizing work in such a way that the human mind could grasp not only the physical necessity of labor but also the logical necessity of its processes. If so organized, humans could both consent to their labors and find meaning in them, and thus find dignity and freedom. This recognition of necessity and consent to it was what marked the difference between human beings and beasts of burdens.

Despite calling "Reflections" her masterpiece, Weil obviously was not satisfied with it, since in order to come into closer contact with the object of her reflections she took a leave of absence from teaching in 1934-35 to work in a number of Paris factories as a common laborer.

Hoping to find the camaraderie of workers joined in a common enterprise and the real significance of labor, she instead found the phenomenon she called "affliction" (le malheur). Affliction, as she described it, consisted not merely of physical pain but, more importantly, is the destruction of individual workers as persons. Previously she had suggested that the human person is, in effect, a focus of power, including social power. Now she realized that when extreme force, especially the social forces inherent in the factory system, was turned on a person, that person could cease to exist, even if physical life continued. She had discovered a kind of case, unfortunately all too common in human societies, especially in modern ones, where there is no possibility of consenting to necessity to gain dignity; affliction by its very nature is degrading and not ennobling. This experience of affliction wiped out the last vestiges of a metaphysical subject behind an individual's specific acts and history.

The factory year left her, in her own words, "in pieces, body and soul." However, during the next couple of years she had three unexpected religious experiences that began a new phase in her life and thought. One was particularly important. In 1938, while attending Holy Week services at the abbey of Solesmes to hear the Gregorian chant, she met a young Englishman who taught her George Herbert's poem "Love." She constantly recited this to herself during the week, particularly while suffering from the migraines that continued to plague her all her life. At one point during such a recital, despite her suffering, she had a mystical experience of being possessed by Christ; she knew in its purity the goodness for which she had aspired so long. What was especially important about this experience was that by it she came to imagine how suffering and affliction need not be insuperable obstacles to pure goodness. She realized that in Christ's Passion, seemingly useless affliction might actually put the human being into contact with pure goodness.

After this experience, a period followed marked by Weil's important and unique religious writings, particularly during the years 1940--42 in Marseilles, to which she had fled with her parents from German-occupied Paris. One very important essay is "The Love of God and Affliction," in which she clearly defines affliction and then goes on to argue that Jesus himself was afflicted. What distinguished Jesus' affliction, undeserved and inexplicable as it was even to him, was that he both consented to it as the Father's will and that he continued to love and hope when there was nothing to love or to hope for. Thus, Weil argues, a perfect bond was formed between Jesus and the Father, a bond that affliction is used to create, for affliction effectively strips away all limited motives and false goods. Thus affliction, which is unwanted and inexplicable, is not an insuperable barrier to love and goodness, and can through God's love purify love.

Weil used this analysis of Christ's cross as a means to describe both creation and human spirituality. God created, she argued, not by an act of power but by an act of withdrawal and powerlessness. Ceasing to be all, God allowed something else to exist. But he did not exactly abandon creation for, she goes on to say, this withdrawal was accomplished by the Son's abandonment (which is historically seen in the cross) to the crushing forces of necessity that govern the world. By doing so, he gave creation a goodness and purpose it did not otherwise have. Necessity, while distant from good, can, in Plato's phrase, be persuaded to goodness. Using a musical analogy, she claimed that creation and all the forces of necessity that make it up can be seen as the nodes, as it were, on a vibrating string, which binds God in the fullness of being to God at the pole of perfect nothingness and which harmonizes all existence.

In an analogous manner, human beings find perfect goodness not by acts of power and attempts at individual self-creation but by "decreation," that is, by ceasing to exercise power and domination. By accepting necessity, which obeys God and which sets their limits, they can be joined to perfect goodness and recreated in God's image. Weil shows this nowhere so clearly as in her "Forms of the Implicit Love of God." Here she argues that the ability to pay "attention," that is, to remove ones self from central stage when dealing with others or the natural world by letting them exist in their right and not simply as something useful to us is a form of both love for God and love by God, even when we are not explicitly aware of it. By paying attention to what exists outside ourselves, we begin to divest ourselves of self-interest and protection, thus "decreating" the empirical ego. It is at this point that we may be recreated in God's image.

Despite this seemingly mystical turn in her thinking, Weil formally remained outside the Church. She firmly resisted baptism until she received this sacrament shortly before her death at the nonordained hand of a friend. Much of her resistance was due to her belief that baptism would separate her from all who were outside the Church. Her concerns were not theological in either a narrow academic or ecclesiastical sense. This is confirmed by the fact that she continued to write and think on political questions. But from this point on, political and social analyses were never far from her religious concerns.

This dual focus on the political and the religious appears clearly in her last writings in London while working for the Free French. In 1942, she left Marseilles for New York, a place she did not like at all, and she felt that she had deserted the war effort. For six months she attempted to get back to France in order to institute a project for front-line nurses, which she thought would show that the Allies were fighting for something morally different from the goals of the Nazis. She managed to get as far as London, where she was set to work on writing numerous reports on the problems facing a legitimate government after the war.

While apparently on diverse subjects, these writings show a marked consistency and a mature synthesis of her earlier thinking. In them, she set out to provide an alternative to the poles of Marxism and liberalism between which so much of Western political and ethical thinking oscillated. She was especially critical of liberal ideas of the person and personal "rights." Liberalism had provided a legal form of fairness, but it had hardly seen the real depths of justice for which human beings thirst, particularly the afflicted. Furthermore, the liberal emphasis on the right of the individual to protect and enhance an empirical personality not only prevented people from seeing these depths but also allowed them to be easily manipulated by national and economic structures, since people falsely came to believe that their social participation was a matter of simple choice.

Weil therefore sought to reenvision the relationship between persons and societies. In this she was aided by her theory of the metaxu (intermediaries) derived from her religious thought and her reading of Plato. By this theory, she dismissed both Marxist and capitalist visions of inexorable progression into an ever-better future and, instead, she tried to describe how nations and cultures could be of help to human beings seeking unshakable goodness--in short, how societies might be one of the nodes between the fullness of being and nothingness and be used as such by humans. She had two especially important elements in this redescription. The first was that of basing political and ethical thinking on obligations rather than rights. All human beings have an eternal obligation to respect other human beings. This respect she argued, was shown by providing not only for the essential material needs but also for the various needs of soul. Chief among these needs, she claimed was a "need for roots."

The idea of rootedness" is the second crucial element in Weil's proposal. Much of what makes up each human being is due to his and her cultural and social relationships: his or her "roots." This is just as true of moral strength and moral expectations as it is of food preferences. Weil meant by her remarks to describe how transcendent goodness can permeate limited, concrete life. The problem as such was one of trying to see how a culture or society can itself become rooted in the absolute good and there find the nourishment necessary for those who live within it. Weil thought such nourishment comes from a culture's having ordered its diverse elements around certain transcendent insights, transmitting them by moral habit and education.

When a society has no roots in anything of depth, it can hardly provide the necessary spiritual or moral nourishment, she argued. Particularly problematic is the modern nation-state, which has tried to set itself up as deserving ultimate allegiance; it tends to uproot persons from traditions that have grown from far better inspirations than those that give rise to national sovereignty and power. In Weil's redescription of how a society might become rooted, she points to ways by which the West might recover and interpret its most healthy traditions, especially those that have eschewed the adulation of power. Not only was Weil interested in such recoveries in the political realm, she was also interested in how the West might reconceive both the relations between science and religion and the spiritual place of physical labor.

Weil died in 1943, nine months after arriving in England. Although her death was called a suicide by the attending physician, it is evident that her death was in fact the consequence of overexertion while suffering from tuberculosis and refusing to eat any more food than she thought the people in occupied France were getting. Even while facing death, she had maintained her moral resolve.

At the time of her death, Weil was little known outside certain limited French circles, having published very little during her lifetime. However, after the war an impressive amount of material began to appear as the numerous manuscripts she had carefully entrusted to friends and family were published in various collections. The projected Oeuvres completes, currently being published, will run to fifteen volumes.

Further Reading

Blum, Lawrence, and Victor Seidler. A Truer Liberty: Simone Weil and Marxism. New York: Routledge, 1989. Perhaps the best work on Weil's political thought, with the particular merit of providing her historical context. Not much discussion of The Need for Roots.

Little, Patricia. Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. A well-balanced and accurate introduction to Weil s thought as a whole.

Petrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. The "official" biography, condensed from two volumes in French. It is written by a close friend of Weil, herself a philosopher, which allows her to comment insightfully on Weil's thought.

Springsted, Eric 0. Christus Mediator: Platonic Mediation in the Thought of Simone Weil. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983. An examination of Weil's religious and philosophical thought, concentrating on its Christian platonism and Weil's theory of the metaxu.

____. Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1986. A presentation of Weil's unique and demanding views on suffering, and their implications for contemporary thought and spirituality.

Winch, Peter. Simone Weil: The Just Balance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. A subtle and close reading of the development of Weil's philosophical thought, with helpful comparisons to Wittgenstein, by an eminent contemporary philosopher.
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Author:SPRINGSTED, ERIC O.
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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