Simone Weil (February 3, 1909 – August 24, 1943) was a French philosopher and religious mystic. Although Jewish by birth, she was initially an atheist and later her religious thinking was primarily inspired by Christianity. She never officially converted, however, as she was sympathetic with other religions including Hinduism and Buddhism, which Christianity seemed to oppose. Her philosophical ideas were greatly influenced by Greek thought, particularly that of Plato. Throughout her life Weil was deeply concerned about the poor and suffering and much of her writings were devoted to social and political issues. She, herself, suffered from poor health, some of which was due to her rigorous asceticism and self-denial.
Simone Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909 to an agnostic family of Jewish origin. Her father was a distinguished doctor and she had one sibling, a brother who was three years her elder, and who was later to become the famous mathematician, André Weil (1906-1998). From a very early age Simone sympathized with the poor and oppressed. In fact, in 1915, when only six years old, she refused sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched along the Western Front.
In her youth Weil was a brilliant and precocious student who became proficient in ancient Greek by the age of twelve. Also at the age of twelve she began to experience intense headaches, which she would suffer continuously throughout her life. In her late teens, she became involved in the worker's movement and wrote political tracts, marched in demonstrations, and advocated worker's rights. During this period, she considered herself a Marxist, pacifist, and trade unionist. In 1928 Weil scored first in the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure. (Simone de Beauvoir, another well-known philosopher, scored second.) After passing her agregation in 1931, Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy. Teaching philosophy in high schools throughout Europe would remain her primary employment throughout her short life.
While teaching, Weil often took actions out of sympathy with the working class. When at Le Puy, she became involved in local political activity, supporting unemployed and striking workers despite criticism from the higher classes. She also wrote about social and economic issues, including Oppression and Liberty and numerous short articles for trade union journals. This work critiqued popular Marxist thought and offered an account of the limits of capitalism and socialism.
She participated in the French general strike of 1933, called to protest unemployment and wage labor cuts. The following year she took a 12-month leave of absence from her teaching position to work incognito as a laborer in two factories, one owned by Renault. Weil hoped that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class so as to put her thought into action and so produce greater solidarity among the classes. Unfortunately, her poor health and inadequate physical strength forced her to quit after some months. In 1935 she resumed teaching, but donated most of her income to political causes and charitable endeavors.
In 1936, despite her pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Second Spanish Republic side. After spilling hot oil on herself over a cooking fire, however, she was forced to leave Spain. Throughout the remainder of her life, she continued to write essays on labor and management issues and the devastating effects of war.
While in Assisi in the spring of 1937, Weil visited the church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had often prayed. While in the church, she underwent a profound religious experience, which forced her to her knees and led her to pray for the first time in her life. She had another, more powerful revelation a year later, and after 1938 her writings became more mystical and spiritual, while at the same time retaining a focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but declined to be baptized as an act of solidarity with those ‘outside’ the Church. (She explained this refusal in letters published in Waiting for God.) During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille, receiving spiritual direction from 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 religious study to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other traditions, as well, such as Greek philosophy, Stoicism, Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these traditions were valid paths to God, and so much of her reluctance to join the Catholic Church can be attributed to the Church’s refusal to recognize non-Christian traditions. In this, she can be said to be a forerunner in the ecumenical movement, which is very much alive today. At the same time, however, she 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 traveled first to the United States and then to London, where she joined the French Resistance. Her punishing work regime, however, soon took a heavy toll. In 1943 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and eat well. She refused special treatment, though, because of her long-standing commitment to solidarity with those who are suffering. Instead, she limited her food intake to what she believed were the rations of the residents of occupied France, who were dying of hunger. She was soon moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, where she continued to refuse food. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died on August 24, 1943 from starvation and pulmonary tuberculosis. She is buried in Ashford, New Cemetery. The majority of her writings were published after her death.
Although Simone Weil’s thought is unorthodox and so defies facile classification, her philosophical ideas align mostly with the tradition known as “Christian Hellenism,” which fuses Greek metaphysics with Christian theology. For while she held firmly to many of the basic tenets of classical Greek philosophy, she thought this “love of wisdom” finds its ultimate fulfillment in the soul’s ascent to God. For Weil the ancient thinkers, particularly Plato, were the precursors to Christian thought. In fact, she considered Plato to be the “father of mysticism.” According to Weil, the wisdom of Plato is ultimately attained, not through human reason alone, but by the soul’s ascent to God made possible only by the mystical experience of transcendence.
Given Weil’s interpretation of Plato and her defense of the world’s great religions, she is quite critical of the claims of positive science, which believes truths are attained solely through its own empirical methods and procedures. For Weil such a materialistic view of reality leads to the technical manipulation of power and the loss of spiritual values. Not that she was opposed to the scientific enterprise and the advances that are made through it. Rather she warns of the dangers of the contemporary attitudes toward science, which views the possible successes of science to be unlimited. It is imperative, Weil insists, that the limits of science be recognized in order to establish its proper task as well as to surpass it in the attainment of a more certain truth, namely the certainty of the eternal or infinite.
Moreover, her critique of science was also directed at the abstraction of science (and even certain forms of traditional metaphysics) insofar as scientists (and philosophers) failed to put their theoretical knowledge into practice. In this sense, Weil was a highly ethical and religious writer who thought the proper fulfillment of philosophy was in action. This is why even after her shift from atheism to faith she continued to write on and be actively engaged in social and political issues. Method, for her, could not be a purely abstract and disengaged one but must instead be applied to the actions of one’s life.
What marks off the "self" is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.
It is difficult to speak conclusively of Weil's religious thought since it exists only in the form of scattered aphorisms in her notebooks and in a handful of letters. But although these texts do not offer a very direct path to an understanding and evaluation of her religious ideas, certain generalizations can be made. First, Weil's religious thinking is better thought of as a ‘religious philosophy’ rather than a ‘theology’ because her thought is quite unorthodox in that she rarely considered (or at times opposed) the traditional teachings or dogma of organized religion(s). Despite (and perhaps because of) this fact, her thought and writings are deeply personal and religious. Some commentators, in fact, have called her a “secular saint” or “mystic.”
Her religious philosophy is both profound and complex as it draws from various religious sources. Although primarily Christian, she also draws deeply from Judaism, Stoicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Her unorthodoxy can be seen, however, in her rejection of certain books of the Old Testament, which she viewed to be too violent and so unworthy of the nature of God (such as the book of Joshua). Moreover, she rejected the historical nature of the Jews as the “chosen people,” which of course was hers by birth as well. (Her often scathing attacks on Judaism as an organized and historical religion have led some critics to view her thought as a kind of masochism. Her view is particularly problematic in that she was writing just prior to and during the Holocaust.)
Moreover, some scholars have labeled her religious thought as gnostic or Manichean because of her seemingly other worldliness in distinguishing between the pure goodness of God and spiritual nature and the evils of the body or material nature. And indeed, such criticism finds legitimacy not only in her support of the mathematical mysticism of the Pythagoreans and Platonists, but also in the often disparaging rhetoric she employs in speaking of the temporal world. Defenders of Weil, however, are quick to point out that this critique does not hold up in regard to her understanding of creation. For Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation of a demiurge but is rather an indirect expression of God's love. Although she recognizes this world as a place of evil, affliction, and the brutal mixture of chance and necessity, she nonetheless acknowledges the wealth of beauty and goodness, which this world reflects. In the end, like all great mystics, her disparagement of this world is perhaps best seen as a rejection of the transience and illusoriness of the earthly world in favor of a transcendent, mystic vision of an eternal and immutable reality.
One of Weil’s central ideas is her notion of absence. She believed that God created by an act of self-delimitation. In other words, because God is conceived as a kind of ultimate fullness, a perfect being, no creature could exist except where God was not. Withdrawal or absence, in other words, is a necessary condition for the possibility of our existence. There is, then, an original kenosis or self-emptying of God in his creating space for all those beings who are not God to exist. This initial kenosis of creation precedes the corrective kenosis of Christ's incarnation. For this reason, we are born into a kind of “fallen state” not only because of original sin, 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. Our very limitation as finite and temporal beings separates us from God by an infinite abyss.
This more Neoplatonic notion of creation responds to the problem of evil by explaining evil in terms of the absence, limit, or negation of what is good. Only God or the One is purely good and without evil, since He is without limitation (infinite). There is, then, a kind of necessity to evil in the created world due to our limitations and the absence of God. And yet, we are powerless in ourselves to fulfill that absence. Nonetheless, 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. Affliction is a physical and mental anguish that cuts so deep it scourges the very soul. For Weil only some souls are capable of truly experiencing this intense affliction; these are precisely those souls which are least deserving of it. For they are the ones who are most prone or open to spiritual realization.
War and oppression are often the most intense cases of affliction. Affliction is associated both with necessity and with chance. It is fraught with necessity because it is hardwired into existence by the very nature of the absence of God. Affliction is an existential condition, then, in that it imposes itself upon the sufferer with the full force of the inescapable. It is also subject to chance, however, inasmuch as chance, too, is an inescapable part of the nature of existence. The element of chance is essential to the unjust character of affliction. In other words, affliction does not necessarily (or even usually) follow from sin. Rather, like the randomness of nature it simply strikes whomever it will. Like gravity it weighs the soul down such that only grace can uplift it.
The man who has known pure joy, if only for a moment… is the only man for whom affliction is something devastating. At the same time he is the only man who has not deserved the punishment. But, after all, for him it is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God.
Since beneath the sea of affliction one finds the “pearl of the silence of God,” Weil emphasizes the need for “decreation.” Just as creation is what provides the space for our own existence, and so separation from God, decreation is necessary for our unity or contact with God. For Weil the sole power that we possess in ourselves is the ability to say ‘I’. We must sacrifice this power for the sake of God. We must give back what he gave to us. In this way, we destroy, destruct or uproot ourselves. One sees in this notion of decreation the influence on Weil of eastern thought. For the ego must be splintered or dissolved in order for one to experience a higher reality.
But although decreation is a necessary condition for our contact with God it is not a sufficient one. That is, it is not something we are ourselves can bring about. It requires God’s movement toward us or, in other words, grace. For Weil this meant that waiting was an essential element in the ascent of the soul toward God. She held that God is already waiting for us, such that we merely need to “turn around” and face him. At the same time, our inability to do this on our own means we too have to wait. That is, wait for God to traverse the infinite distance which separate us from Himself. It is this element of waiting which gives Weil’s thought an eschatological character to it.
Despite this need for waiting our very affliction can be the means with which to make contact with God. Weil uses the concept of metaxu, which she borrowed from Plato, in claiming that that which separates also connects (just as a wall, which separates two prisoners, can be used to tap messages). This idea of connecting distance was significant for Weil's understanding of the created realm. The material world and all its physical aspects can 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 indirectly to bring the mind into contact with reality. In this way, absence can be transformed into a kind of presence.
For Weil obligation has priority over rights. For unless a person understands that they have certain obligations in life, towards themselves, towards others, and towards society, the notion of right will have no power or value. At the same time, obligations have a transcendental origin. They come from a realm that imposes an imperative—this must is a light from the other world which shines on this world and provides it with direction and order. For Weil, then, obligation is a spiritual concept, which means that it transcends the world of competing interests and power games. It opens up a world where justice is possible and provides the foundation upon which all purely selfish and relative means find their true perspective.
Obligation has its analogy to the “Thou Shalt not…” of the Ten Commandments. It is the feeling of sacredness with regard to the holy. It is that which stops us from transgressing certain boundaries of ethical or spiritual behavior. It is that which, if profaned, inspires in us feelings and torments of guilt, and has its home in the conscience. For Weil, there is one obligation that supersedes all others. This is the obligation to respect and love the Other. It is recognizable in the feelings and emotions associated with harming something so essential to being human that if we violate it, we violate something sacred.
For Weil, without this supernatural world, we are left to a human world where power and force hold sway. The struggle for power is the motor of human history, she believes. It is the human condition. It is the source of human suffering and injustice. The world of spirit, for Weil, confronts this struggle for power. Obligations, therefore, provide a link to the spiritual realities that give life meaning and sustain the oppressed and sufferer with its healing power. Rights, on the other hand, are those relative ends which we strive for. They are not eternal in the way that obligations are, and instead rely on obligations to have legitimacy. That is, unless we have an obligation to respect what is essential and sacred in people, rights will lose their legitimacy.
Based on her analysis of obligation, Weil posits that there are certain spiritual needs of the human soul. Without the fulfillment of these needs, a human society will collapse and crush its citizens. For Weil the socio-cultural domain deserves respect. It is the sum of all human aspirations and wisdom. The flowering of human souls—past, present, and future—depends in many ways on the socio-cultural domain to thrive and grow.
Weil uses the analogy of a garden in which the human soul is like a plant that thrives or dies, depending on the type of environment in which it grows. Like a plant that responds to good soil, sunshine and nutrients, the human soul responds to a nurturing social structure, the light of the spirit, and the elements of the state. For Weil, the nutrients of the soul, what she calls its food, when present in a society, reflect overall health for both the individual and the society.
Even though Weil talks about societies and nations, she is emphatic in her denunciation of the notion that society or the nation is the most important entity in the spiritual life of an individual. She does not believe that the collective state has rights, which somehow outweigh those of the individual, nor does she believe that the mechanics of the social structure can by itself solve all the problems related to injustice. It is merely one of the means by which to strive for justice; it is not the end.
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