Simone Weil’s Selected Essays, 1934-1943

Simone Weil is one of the most impressive and interesting 20th century intellectuals, and sadly, until very recently, one of the most overlooked. She was born into a prosperous agnostic Jewish family in Paris in 1909, achieved fluency in Ancient Greek before she became a teenager, and later attended the prestigious École normale supérieure, where she won first place in the “General Philosophy and Logic” examination, beating out Simone de Beauvoir. In her youth she was a socialist, even a radical: she arranged for Leon Trotsky to stay at her parents’ apartment in 1933 and later travelled to Spain to fight on behalf of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, she worked for the French Resistance. And yet her thinking also took on, from a very early age, a spiritual dimension, Christian and mystical, and her reputation today is most secure among the faithful, who regard Weil as an elegant and articulate exponent of Christian morality, as well as a living embodiment of the all-encompassing love and compassion Christianity puts forth as its ideal.

Her Selected Essays demonstrate a profound grappling with ancient history, epic poetry, and various religious traditions, but more impressive still is her grasping after an ideal, a moral ideal rarely nowadays discussed. In “The Power of Words,” which are extended letters sent to the novelist George Bernanos repurposed here as essays, Weil recounts her experiences in Spain during the Civil War, where even on her own side she witnessed atrocities that mocked the very cause she thought they had been fighting for. She describes, for example, the 24-hour imprisonment of a child, a 15-year-old Falangist, who is simply shot dead when he refuses to convert his beliefs. In another incident,

Two anarchists once told me how they and some comrades captured two priests. They killed one of them on the spot with a revolver, in front of the other, and then told the survivor that he could go. When he was twenty yards away they shot him down. The man who told me this story was much surprised when I didn’t laugh.

This early and visceral education in the evils of war contrasts painfully with the very ideals that had led her to join the fray in the first place. “The very purpose of the whole struggle is soon lost in an atmosphere of this sort. For the purpose can only be defined in terms of the public good, of the welfare of men – and men have become valueless.”

Weil’s survey of history brings her to a painful and contrarian conclusion: that we have the Greeks to thank for our spiritual development, and our worship of Rome is merely the worship of unbridled power, disguised to us by centuries of distance that have blunted the painful impact of Rome’s military successes. She accuses Rome of being an empty bureaucracy, with a high degree of military and technological development but nothing new to offer, either artistically or spiritually, which might redeem her conquests of expansion and subordination. “Spiritual life at Rome was hardly anything more than an expression of the will to power.” In this collection’s longest essay, “The Great Beast,” she makes a direct parallel between ancient Rome, which menaced the known world, and Hitler’s Third Reich, which she claims operates out of the same crude ambition for power and territorial expansion, untroubled by any restraint of ethics or religion.

In a general way, the Romans enjoyed that tough, unshakeable, impenetrable collective self-satisfaction which makes it possible to commit crimes with a perfectly untroubled conscience. When conscience is impermeable by truth there must be a degradation of heart and mind which obscures and weakens thought; and that is why the only Roman contribution to the history of science is the murder of Archimedes.

Need it even be said that Hitler’s Germany was also remarkable for its “collective self-satisfaction” and untroubled conscience, even as it committed murder on an industrial scale?

More insightful, however, is not what Weil deplores but what she venerates: the individual human soul, infinitely vulnerable and infinitely valuable. The cultivation of that soul is, in her estimation, a rare and delicate thing, easily trammelled by the demands of the collective or extinguished by violence. Greece, for Weil, represents the apex of human spiritual development, where concern for the varieties of human experience was central to the self-understanding of its citizens. Since then, she argues, the civilizations worthy of that name have been rare indeed.

By a sort of miracle, in a given country, at certain times, there arise forms of social life which do not kill by constraint that delicate and fragile thing which is the medium that favours the development of the soul. It requires a social life that is not too centralized, and laws to control arbitrariness, and, in so far as authority is necessarily arbitrary, a willingness to obey which allows of submission without humiliation.

A social order of the kind Weil here describes, sounding her most Burkean, is indeed rare, vulnerable to collapse from within and conquest from without. In “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” she expands on this thought by enumerating a list of human needs. I ask you, as you read them, to keep in mind our contemporary West, and grade it as to its adequacy or inadequacy:

The human soul has need of disciplined participation in a common task of public value, and it has need of personal initiative within this participation.

The human soul has need of security and also of risk. The fear of violence and of hunger or of any other extreme evil is a sickness of the soul. The boredom produced by a complete absence of risk is also a sickness of the soul.

The human soul needs above all to be rooted in several natural environments and to make contact wth the universe through them.

Examples of natural human environments are: a man’s country, and places where his language is spoken, and places with a culture or a historical past which he shares, and his professional milieu, and his neighborhood.

Everything which has the effect of uprooting a man or of preventing him from becoming rooted is criminal.

Aside from perhaps physical security – an essential but hardly sufficient condition for human flourishing – the contemporary West, it seems to me, makes no efforts whatsoever towards offering any of the above necessities to its citizens and, on the contrary, goes to great and Weil would say “criminal” efforts to actively uproot some and prevent others from establishing roots.