Simone Adolphine Weil
3 February 1909
|Died||24 August 1943 (aged 34)|
|Education||École Normale Supérieure, University of Paris (B.A., M.A.)|
Christian socialism (late)
|Political philosophy, moral philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science|
|Decreation (renouncing the gift of free will as a form of acceptance of everything that is independent of one's particular desires; making "something created pass into the uncreated"), uprootedness (déracinement), patriotism of compassion, abolition of political parties, the unjust character of affliction (malheur), compassion must act in the area of metaxy|
Simone Adolphine Weil ( VAY, French: [sim?n v?j] ; 3 February 1909 - 24 August 1943) was a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist. The mathematician André Weil was her brother.
After her graduation from formal education, Weil became a teacher. She taught intermittently throughout the 1930s, taking several breaks due to poor health and to devote herself to political activism, work that would see her assisting in the trade union movement, taking the side of the anarchists known as the Durruti Column in the Spanish Civil War, and spending more than a year working as a labourer, mostly in auto factories, so she could better understand the working class.
Taking a path that was unusual among 20th-century left-leaning intellectuals, she became more religious and inclined towards mysticism as her life progressed. Weil wrote throughout her life, although most of her writings did not attract much attention until after her death. In the 1950s and 1960s, her work became famous in continental Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. Her thought has continued to be the subject of extensive scholarship across a wide range of fields. A meta study from the University of Calgary found that between 1995 and 2012 over 2,500 new scholarly works had been published about her. Albert Camus described her as "the only great spirit of our times".
Weil was born in her parents' apartment in Paris on 3 February 1909, the daughter of Bernard Weil (1872-1955), a medical doctor from agnostic Alsatian Jews, who moved to Paris after the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Her mother, Salomea "Selma" Reinherz 1879-1965), was born into a Jewish family in Rostov-on-Don and raised in Belgium. According to Osmo Pekonen, "the family name Weil came to be when many Levis in the Napoleonic era changed their names this way, by anagram." Weil was a healthy baby for her first six months, but then suffered a severe attack of appendicitis; thereafter, she struggled with poor health throughout her life. She was the younger of her parents' two children: her brother was mathematician André Weil (1906-1998), with whom she would always enjoy a close relationship. Their parents were fairly affluent and raised their children in an attentive and supportive atmosphere.
Weil was distressed by her father's having to leave home for several years after being drafted to serve in the First World War. Eva Fogelman, Robert Coles, and several other scholars believe that this experience may have contributed to the exceptionally strong altruism which Weil displayed throughout her life. From her childhood home, Weil acquired an obsession with cleanliness; in her later life she would sometimes speak of her "disgustingness" and think that others would see her this way, even though in her youth she had been considered highly attractive. Weil was generally highly affectionate, but she almost always avoided any form of physical contact, even with female friends.
According to her friend and biographer, Simone Pétrement, Weil decided early in life that she would need to adopt masculine qualities and sacrifice opportunities for love affairs in order to fully pursue her vocation to improve social conditions for the disadvantaged. From her late teenage years, Weil would generally disguise her "fragile beauty" by adopting a masculine appearance, hardly ever using makeup and often wearing men's clothes.
Weil was a precocious student, proficient in Ancient Greek by age 12. She later learned Sanskrit so that she could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Like the Renaissance thinker Pico della Mirandola, her interests in other religions were universal and she attempted to understand each religious tradition as an expression of transcendent wisdom.
As a teenager, Weil studied at the Lycée Henri IV under the tutelage of her admired teacher Émile Chartier, more commonly known as "Alain". Her first attempt at the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure in June 1927 ended in failure, due to her low marks in history. In 1928 she was successful in gaining admission. She finished first in the exam for the certificate of "General Philosophy and Logic"; Simone de Beauvoir finished second. During these years, Weil attracted much attention with her radical opinions. She was called the "Red virgin", and even "The Martian" by her admired mentor.
At the École Normale Supérieure, she studied philosophy, earning her DES (diplôme d'études supérieures, roughly equivalent to an MA) in 1931 with a thesis under the title "Science et perfection dans Descartes" ("Science and Perfection in Descartes"). She received her agrégation that same year. Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy and teaching was her primary employment during her short life.
She often became involved in political action out of sympathy with the working class. In 1915, when she was only six years old, she refused sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched along the Western Front. In 1919, at 10 years of age, she declared herself a Bolshevik. In her late teens, she became involved in the workers' movement. She wrote political tracts, marched in demonstrations, and advocated workers' rights. At this time, she was a Marxist, pacifist, and trade unionist. While teaching in Le Puy, she became involved in local political activity, supporting the unemployed and striking workers despite criticism. Weil had never formally joined the French Communist Party, and in her twenties she became increasingly critical of Marxism. According to Pétrement, she was one of the first to identify a new form of oppression not anticipated by Marx, where élite bureaucrats could make life just as miserable for ordinary people as did the most exploitative capitalists.
In 1932, Weil visited Germany to help Marxist activists who were at the time considered to be the strongest and best organised communists in Western Europe, but Weil considered them no match for the then up-and-coming fascists. When she returned to France, her political friends in France dismissed her fears, thinking Germany would continue to be controlled by the centrists or those to the left. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Weil spent much of her time trying to help German communists fleeing his regime. Weil would sometimes publish articles about social and economic issues, including "Oppression and Liberty" and numerous short articles for trade union journals. This work criticised popular Marxist thought and gave a pessimistic account of the limits of both capitalism and socialism. Leon Trotsky himself personally responded to several of her articles, attacking both her ideas and her as a person. However, according to Pétrement, he was influenced by some of Weil's ideas.
Weil participated in the French general strike of 1933, called to protest against unemployment and wage cuts. The following year, she took a 12-month leave of absence from her teaching position to work incognito as a labourer in two factories, one owned by Renault, believing that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class. In 1935, she resumed teaching and donated most of her income to political causes and charitable endeavours.
In 1936, despite her professed pacifism, she travelled to the Spanish Civil War to join the Republican faction. She identified as an anarchist, and sought out the anti-fascist commander Julián Gorkin, asking to be sent on a mission as a covert agent, to rescue the prisoner Joaquín Maurín. Gorkin refused, saying she would almost certainly be sacrificing herself for nothing, as it would be most unlikely she could pass as a Spaniard. Weil replied that she had "every right" to sacrifice herself if she chose, but after arguing for more than an hour, she was unable to convince Gorkin to give her the assignment. Instead she joined the anarchist Durruti Column of the French-speaking Sébastien Faure Century, which specialised in high-risk "commando"-style engagements. As she was extremely short-sighted, Weil was a very poor shot, and her comrades tried to avoid taking her on missions, though she did sometimes insist. Her only direct participation in combat was to shoot with her rifle at a bomber during an air raid; in a second raid, she tried to man the group's heavy machine gun, but her comrades prevented her, as they thought it would be best for someone less clumsy and near-sighted to use the weapon. After being with the group for a few weeks, she burnt herself over a cooking fire. She was forced to leave the unit, and was met by her parents who had followed her to Spain. They helped her leave the country, to recuperate in Assisi. About a month after her departure, Weil's unit was nearly wiped out at an engagement in Perdiguera in October 1936, with every woman in the group being killed.
Weil was distressed by the Republican killings in eastern Spain, particularly when a fifteen-year old Falangist was executed after he had been taken prisoner and Durruti had spent an hour trying to get him to change his political position before giving him until the next day to decide.
During her stay in the Aragon front, Weil sent some chronicles to the French publication Le Libertaire, and on returning to Paris Weil continued to write essays on labour, on management, war and peace.
Weil was born into a secular household and raised in "complete agnosticism". As a teenager, she considered the existence of God for herself and decided nothing could be known either way. In her Spiritual Autobiography however, Weil records that she always had a Christian outlook, taking to heart from her earliest childhood the idea of loving one's neighbour. Weil became attracted to the Christian faith beginning in 1935, the first of three pivotal experiences for her being when she was moved by the beauty of villagers singing hymns in a procession she stumbled across while on holiday to Portugal (in Póvoa de Varzim). While in Assisi in the spring of 1937, Weil experienced a religious ecstasy in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli--the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed. She was led to pray for the first time in her life as Lawrence A. Cunningham relates:
Below the town is the beautiful church and convent of San Damiano where Saint Clare once lived. Near that spot is the place purported to be where Saint Francis composed the larger part of his "Canticle of Brother Sun". Below the town in the valley is the ugliest church in the entire environs: the massive baroque basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, finished in the seventeenth century and rebuilt in the nineteenth century, which houses a rare treasure: a tiny Romanesque chapel that stood in the days of Saint Francis--the "Little Portion" where he would gather his brethren. It was in that tiny chapel that the great mystic Simone Weil first felt compelled to kneel down and pray.
Weil had another, more powerful, revelation a year later while reciting George Herbert's poem Love III, after which "Christ himself came down and took possession of me", and, from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual, while retaining their focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but declined to be baptized at that time, preferring to remain outside due to "the love of those things that are outside Christianity". During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille, receiving spiritual direction from Joseph-Marie Perrin, a Dominican Friar. Around this time, she met the French Catholic author Gustave Thibon, who later edited some of her work.
Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was interested in other religious traditions--especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries; Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita); and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation, writing:
Greece, Egypt, ancient India, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflection of this beauty in art and science...these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ's hands as his captive. I think I might even say more.
Nevertheless, Weil was opposed to religious syncretism, claiming that it effaced the particularity of the individual traditions:
Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else ... A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention.
In 1942, Weil travelled to the United States with her family. She had been reluctant to leave France, but agreed to do so as she wanted to see her parents to safety and knew they would not leave without her. She was also encouraged by the fact that it would be relatively easy for her to reach Britain from the United States, where she could join the French Resistance. She had hopes of being sent back to France as a covert agent.
Older biographies suggest Weil made no further progress in achieving her desire to return to France as an agent--she was limited to desk work in London, although this did give her time to write one of her largest and best known works: The Need for Roots. Yet there is now evidence that Weil was recruited by the Special Operations Executive, with a view to sending her back to France as a clandestine wireless operator. In May 1943, plans were underway to send her to Thame Park in Oxfordshire for training, but were cancelled soon after, as her failing health became known.
The rigorous work routine she assumed soon took a heavy toll. In 1943, Weil was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and eat well. However, she refused special treatment because of her long-standing political idealism and her detachment from material things. Instead, she limited her food intake to what she believed residents of German-occupied France ate. She most likely ate even less, as she refused food on most occasions. It is probable that she was baptized during this period. Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent.
After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. The coroner's report said that "the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed".
The exact cause of her death remains a subject of debate. Some claim that her refusal to eat came from her desire to express some form of solidarity toward the victims of the war. Others think that Weil's self-starvation occurred after her study of Arthur Schopenhauer. In his chapters on Christian saintly asceticism and salvation, Schopenhauer had described self-starvation as a preferred method of self-denial. However, Simone Pétrement, one of Weil's first and most significant biographers, regards the coroner's report as simply mistaken. Basing her opinion on letters written by the personnel of the sanatorium at which Simone Weil was treated, Pétrement affirms that Weil asked for food on different occasions while she was hospitalized and even ate a little bit a few days before her death; according to her, it is in fact Weil's poor health condition that eventually made her unable to eat.
Weil's first English biographer, Richard Rees, offers several possible explanations for her death, citing her compassion for the suffering of her countrymen in occupied France and her love for and close imitation of Christ. Rees sums up by saying: "As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love."
While Gravity and Grace (French: La Pesanteur et la grâce) is one of the books most associated with Simone Weil, the work was not one she wrote to be published as a book. Rather, the work consists of various passages selected from Weil's notebooks and arranged topically by Gustave Thibon, who knew and befriended her. Weil had in fact given to Thibon some of her notebooks, written before May 1942, but not with any idea or request to publish them. Hence, the resulting work, in its selections, organization and editing, is much influenced by Mr. Thibon, a devout Catholic. (See Thibon's Introduction to Gravity and Grace (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952).)
T. S. Eliot's preface to The Need for Roots suggests that Weil might be regarded as a modern-day Marcionite, due to her virtually wholesale rejection of the Old Testament and her overall distaste for the Judaism that was technically hers by birth. Her niece, Sylvie Weil, and biographer Thomas R. Nevin have sought, on the contrary, to demonstrate that Weil did not reject Judaism and was heavily influenced by its precepts.
Absence is the key image for her metaphysics, cosmology, cosmogony, and theodicy. She believed that God created by an act of self-delimitation--in other words, because God is conceived as a kind of utter fullness, a perfect being, no creature could exist except where God was not. Thus creation occurred only when God withdrew in part. This idea mirrors tzimtzum, a central notion in the Jewish mystical creation narrative.
This is, for Weil, an original kenosis ("emptiness") preceding the corrective kenosis of Christ's incarnation (cf. Athanasius). We are thus born in a sort of damned position not owing to original sin as such, but because to be created at all we had to be precisely what God is not, i.e., we had to be the opposite of what is holy. (See Apophatic theology.)
This notion of creation is a cornerstone of her theodicy, for if creation is conceived this way (as necessarily containing evil within itself), then there is no problem of the entrance of evil into a perfect world. Nor does this constitute a delimitation of God's omnipotence, if it is not that God could not create a perfect world, but that the act which we refer towards by saying "create" in its very essence implies the impossibility of perfection.
However, this notion of the necessity of evil does not mean that we are simply, originally, and continually doomed; on the contrary, Weil tells us that "Evil is the form which God's mercy takes in this world". Weil believed that evil, and its consequence, affliction, served the role of driving us out of ourselves and towards God--"The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it."
Weil's concept of affliction (malheur) goes beyond simple suffering, though it certainly includes it. Only some souls are capable of experiencing the full depth of affliction; the same souls that are also most able to experience spiritual joy. Affliction is a sort of suffering "plus", which transcends both body and mind; such physical and mental anguish scourges the very soul.
War and oppression were the most intense cases of affliction within her reach; to experience it, she turned to the life of a factory worker, while to understand it she turned to Homer's Iliad. (Her essay "The Iliad or the Poem of Force", first translated by Mary McCarthy, is a piece of Homeric literary criticism.) Affliction was associated both with necessity and with chance--it was fraught with necessity because it was hard-wired into existence itself, and thus imposed itself upon the sufferer with the full force of the inescapable, but it was also subject to chance inasmuch as chance, too, is an inescapable part of the nature of existence. The element of chance was essential to the unjust character of affliction; in other words, my affliction should not usually--let alone always--follow from my sin, as per traditional Christian theodicy, but should be visited upon me for no special reason.
The better we are able to conceive of the fullness of joy, the purer and more intense will be our suffering in affliction and our compassion for others. ...
Suffering and enjoyment as sources of knowledge. The serpent offered knowledge to Adam and Eve. The sirens offered knowledge to Ulysses. These stories teach that the soul is lost through seeking knowledge in pleasure. Why? Pleasure is perhaps innocent on condition that we do not seek knowledge in it. It is permissible to seek that only in suffering.-- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (chpt 16 'Affliction')
The concept of metaxu, which Weil borrowed from Plato, is that which both separates and connects (e.g., as a wall separates two prisoners but can be used to tap messages). This idea of connecting distance was of the first importance for Weil's understanding of the created realm. The world as a whole, along with any of its components, including our physical bodies, is to be regarded as serving the same function for us in relation to God that a blind man's stick serves for him in relation to the world about him. They do not afford direct insight, but can be used experimentally to bring the mind into practical contact with reality. This metaphor allows any absence to be interpreted as a presence, and is a further component in Weil's theodicy.
For Weil, "The beautiful is the experiential proof that the incarnation is possible". The beauty which is inherent in the form of the world (this inherency is proven, for her, in geometry, and expressed in all good art) is the proof that the world points to something beyond itself; it establishes the essentially telic character of all that exists. Her concept of beauty extends throughout the universe:
"[W]e must have faith that the universe is beautiful on all levels...and that it has a fullness of beauty in relation to the bodily and psychic structure of each of the thinking beings that actually do exist and of all those that are possible. It is this very agreement of an infinity of perfect beauties that gives a transcendent character to the beauty of the world...He (Christ) is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe".
She also wrote that "The beauty of this world is Christ's tender smile coming to us through matter".
Beauty also served a soteriological function for Weil: "Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul." It constitutes, then, another way in which the divine reality behind the world invades our lives. Where affliction conquers us with brute force, beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.
As Simone Weil explains in her book Waiting for God, attention consists of suspending or emptying one's thought, such that one is ready to receive--to be penetrated by--the object to which one turns one's gaze, be that object one's neighbor, or ultimately, God. As Weil explains, one can love God by praying to God, and attention is the very "substance of prayer": when one prays, one empties oneself, fixes one's whole gaze towards God, and becomes ready to receive God. Similarly, for Weil, people can love their neighbors by emptying themselves, becoming ready to receive their neighbor in all his or her naked truth, asking their neighbor: "What are you going through?"
In Waiting for God, Simone Weil explains that the three forms of implicit love of God are (1) love of neighbor (2) love of the beauty of the world and (3) love of religious ceremonies. As Weil writes, by loving these three objects (neighbor, world's beauty, and religious ceremonies), one indirectly loves God before "God comes in person to take the hand of his future bride," since prior to God's arrival, one's soul cannot yet directly love God as the object. Love of neighbor occurs (i) when the strong treat the weak as equals, (ii) when people give personal attention to those that otherwise seem invisible, anonymous, or non-existent, and (iii) when we look at and listen to the afflicted as they are, without explicitly thinking about God--i.e., Weil writes, when "God in us" loves the afflicted, rather than we loving them in God. Second, Weil explains, love of the world's beauty occurs when humans imitate God's love for the cosmos: just as God creatively renounced his command over the world--letting it be ruled by human autonomy and matter's "blind necessity"--humans give up their imaginary command over the world, seeing the world no longer as if they were the world's center. Finally, Weil explains, love of religious ceremonies occurs as an implicit love of God, when religious practices are pure. Weil writes that purity in religion is seen when "faith and love do not fail," and most absolutely, in the Eucharist.
According to Lissa McCullough, Weil would likely have been "intensely displeased" by the attention paid to her life rather than her works. She believed it was her writings that embodied the best of her, not her actions and definitely not her personality. Weil had similar views about others, saying that if one looks at the lives of great figures in separation from their works, it "necessarily ends up revealing their pettiness above all", as it's in their works that they have put the best of themselves.
Weil's most famous works were published posthumously.
In the decades since her death, her writings have been assembled, annotated, criticized, discussed, disputed, and praised. Along with some twenty volumes of her works, publishers have issued more than thirty biographies, including Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage by Robert Coles, Harvard's Pulitzer-winning professor, who calls Weil 'a giant of reflection.'
Weil's book The Need for Roots was written in early 1943, immediately before her death later that year. She was in London working for the French Resistance and trying to convince its leader, Charles de Gaulle, to form a contingent of nurses who would serve at the front lines.
The Need for Roots has an ambitious plan. It sets out to address the past and to set out a road map for the future of France after World War II. She painstakingly analyzes the spiritual and ethical milieu that led to France's defeat by the German army, and then addresses these issues with the prospect of eventual French victory.
During her lifetime, Weil was only known to relatively narrow circles and even in France her essays were mostly read only by those interested in radical politics. During the first decade after her death, Weil rapidly became famous, attracting attention throughout the West. For the third quarter of the 20th century, she was widely regarded as the most influential person in the world on new work concerning religious and spiritual matters. Her philosophical, social and political thought also became popular, although not to the same degree as her religious work.
As well as influencing fields of study, Weil deeply affected the personal lives of numerous individuals. Pope Paul VI said that Weil was one of his three greatest influences. Weil's popularity began to decline in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, more of her work was gradually published, leading to many thousands of new secondary works by Weil scholars, some of whom focused on achieving a deeper understanding of her religious, philosophical and political work. Others broadened the scope of Weil scholarship to investigate her applicability to fields like classical studies, cultural studies, education and even technical fields like ergonomics.
Many commentators who have assessed Weil as a person were highly positive; many described her as a saint, some even as the greatest saint of the twentieth century, including T. S. Eliot, Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, and Robert Coles. After they met at age 18, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world." Weil biographer Gabriella Fiori writes that Weil was "a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range." Maurice Schumann said that since her death there was "hardly a day when the thought of her life did not positively his own and serve as a moral guide." In 1951, Albert Camus wrote that she was "the only great spirit of our times." Foolish though she may have appeared at times--dropping a suitcase full of French resistance papers all over the sidewalk and scrambling to gather them up--her deep engagement with both the theory and practice of caritas, in all its myriad forms, functions as the unifying force of her life and thought. Gustave Thibon, the French philosopher and close friend, recounts their last meeting, not long before her death: "I will only say that I had the impression of being in the presence of an absolutely transparent soul which was ready to be reabsorbed into original light."
Weil has however been criticised even by those who otherwise deeply admired her, such as Eliot, for being excessively prone to divide the world into good and evil, and for her sometimes intemperate judgments. Weil was a harsh critic of the influence of Judaism on Western civilisation, and an even harsher critic of the Roman empire, in which she refused to see any value at all. On the other hand, according to Eliot, she held up the Cathars as exemplars of goodness, despite there being in his view little concrete evidence on which to base such an assessment. According to Pétrement she idolised Lawrence of Arabia, considering him to be a Saint. A few critics have taken an overall negative view. Several Jewish writers, including Susan Sontag, accused her of antisemitism, although this was far from a universal shared perspective. A small minority of commentators have judged her to be psychologically unbalanced or sexually obsessed. General Charles de Gaulle, her ultimate boss while she worked for the French Resistance, considered her "insane", although even he was influenced by her and repeated some of her sayings for years after her death.
Weil was the subject of a 2010 documentary by Julia Haslett, An encounter with Simone Weil. Haslett noted that Weil had become "a little-known figure, practically forgotten in her native France, and rarely taught in universities or secondary schools". (Weil's work has continued to be the subject of ongoing scholarship, with a metastudy finding that over 2500 new scholarly works had been published about her between 1995 and 2012.) Weil was also the subject of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's La Passion de Simone (2008), written with librettist Amin Maalouf. Of the piece, music critic Olivia Giovetti wrote:
"Framing her soprano soloist as Simone's imaginary sister (Literal? Metaphorical? Does it matter?), the narrative arc becomes a struggle to understand the dichotomy of Simone. Wrapped in this dramatic mystery, Saariaho's musical textures, haunting and moribund, create a meditative state. To go back to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, if that work, written for his time, serves to reinforce the (then-revolutionary) system of the Protestant church, then "La Passion de Simone," written for our time, questions the mystery of faith to reinforce the inexplicable experience of being human."