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Simone Weil (1909-1943)

 

French philosopher, activist, and religious searcher, whose death in 1943 was hastened by starvation. Simone Weil published during her lifetime only a few poems and articles. With her posthumous works - 16 volumes, edited by André A. Devaux and Florence de Lussy - Weil has earned a reputation as one of the most original thinkers of her era. T.S. Eliot described her as "a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints."

"What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war. Gasoline is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict." (in The Need for Roots, 1949)

Simone Weil was born in Paris in her parents' apartment on the Rue de Strasbourg. Later the family moved to a larger flat on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Simone was raised in an agnostic Jewish family. Her father, Bernard Weil, was an Alsace physician and her mother (née Salomea Reinherz), was Austro-Galician. Salomea - or Selma - came from a wealthy family of Jewish businessmen. She had wanted to become a doctor but her father forbad it. For her own amazing children she wanted the best education available. Weil's brother André solved mathematical problems beyond the doctoral level at the age of twelve; he became a distinguished mathematician. Selma Weil's solicitude had also an excessive side - she had a phobic dread of microbes and imposed on her children compulsive hand washing. Mme Weil ruled, that outside the immediate family, nobody else was allowed to kiss the children. Throughout her life, Simone avoided most forms of physical contact. She also had problems with food. At the age of six she refused to eat sugar, because it was not rationed to French soldiers in the war. In the late 1930s, possibly due to her malnutrition, she had mystical experiences.

In her early teens, Weil mastered Greek and several modern languages. With André, she sometimes communicated in ancient Greek. When after the Russian Revolution she was accused of being a Communist by a classmate, she answered: "Pas du tout! I am a Bolshevik." (The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas by Robert Zaretsky, 2021, p. 5) Weil studied at the Lycée Fénelon (1920-24) and Lycée Victor Duruy, Paris (1924-25), graduating with baccalauréat. She then continued her studies at the Lycée Henri IV (1925-28), where she was taught by the noted French philosopher Alain, pseudonym of Emile Auguste Chartier (1868-1951). He trained his students to think critically by assigning them topoi, take-home essay examinations. In 1928, Weil finished first in the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure; Simone de Beauvoir finished second. During the following years Weil attracted much attention with her uncompromising attitudes. Around the Left Bank of Paris, the myopic and awkward Weil was called the "Red Virgin." When de Beauvoir encountered her in a courtyard of the Sorbonne, Weil classified her just a high-minded little bourgeoisie. "I was angry," wrote de Beauvoir later in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1974). (Simone Weil by Palle Yourgrau, 2012, p. 40)

In 1931 Weil received her agrégation in philosophy. Though physically weak, she alternated stints of teaching philosophy with manual labour in factories and fields, in order to understand the real needs of the workers. She insisted that writing should be based on experience. "The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his cell," she once said. (Treasury of Spiritual Wisdom by compiled Andy Zubko, 2004, p. 379) Between the years 1931 and 1938, she was employed by various schools in Le Puy, Auxerre, Roanne, Bourges, and Saint-Quentin. "Whenever, in life, one is actively involved in something, or one suffers violently, one cannot think about oneself," Weil taught at the lycée for girls at Roanne. (Lectures on Philosophy by Simone Weil, 1978, p. 28)

Weil did not associate with her teacher colleagues but preferred the company of workers and sat with them in cafés. Her salary she shared with the unemployed. After participating in a protest march, she was forced to resign from Le Puy-en-Velay high school. In 1934-35 she was a "hopelessly inept" factory worker for Renault, Alsthom, and Carnaud. This hard period nearly crushed her emotionally and physically - she had abnormally small, feeble hands - as she confessed in her diary. In spite of her pacifist beliefs, she served in 1936 briefly as a volunteer with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The novelist Georges Bataille described her as "a Don Quixot". "'I knew her very well,' Trotsky wrote in a letter of July 30, 1936, to his comrade Victor Serge. 'I have had long discussions with her. For a period of time she was more or less in sympathy with our cause, but then she lost faith in the proletariat and in Marxism. It's possible that she will turn toward the left again. But is it worth the trouble to talk about this any longer?'" (The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit by Adolf Holl, 1998, p. 211) Armed with a rifle but nearsighted, she was a danger to everyone around her, including herself. A clumsy accident – she stuck her foot in a pot of boiling cooking oil and suffered a severe burn – forced her to leave the front, and she went to Portugal to recuperate. To the moral problem with which she had wrestled secretly, would she try to kill the enemy, and in the process, risk killing an innocent victim, she never found an answer.

After witnessing the horrors of war in Spain, Weil revealed in her journals her deepening disillusionment with ideologies. She saw that Communism led to the formation of a State dictatorship. "From human beings, no help can be expected," she wrote already in 1934. ('Weil, Simone' by Linda Mills Woolsey, in Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier, 1997, p. 888) Differing from the Marxist doctrine of "inevitable" workers' revolution, her conclusions were pessimistic: oppression does not engender revolt but rather submission. Sex was something she was afraid of. For a time Weil felt attraction to Anarchism and Syndicalism and she worked for the anarchist trade union movement La Révolution Prolétarianne. In the mid-1930s Weil became increasingly drawn to Christianity. However, she refused baptism into the Catholic Church. 

Upon returning to France, she obtained a teaching post at Saint-Quentin. Headaches continued to plague her. In 1938 she converted from Judaism to Christianity. Weil studied Greek poetry and Gregorian music, and in 1937 at the chapel of St. Francis of Assisi, in Asssisi, Italy, she had one of her mystical experiences. Occasionally she dressed in the clothes of a poor monk or a soldier. In 1940 the Vichy anti-Jewish laws required her dismissal from teaching. Weil wrote a letter to the Vichy Ministry of Education, in which she denied that she was a Jew.

Like many French intellectuals, Weil left behind her pacifist stance, as the realization grew, that France would be drawn into a war with Germany, once again. "Non-violence is only good if it is effective," she wrote in her notebook. (The Notebooks of Simone Weil, Volume 1, translated from the French by Arthur Wills, p. 96) During the first years of World War II Weil lived with her parents in Paris, Vichy, and Marseilles. She continued to write and worked at Gustave Thibon's vineyards in Saint-Marcel d'Ardéche.

Before leaving France, she gave to Thibon her notebooks and other papers, which formed the core of her posthumous works. In Marseilles she met Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, with whom she had long discussions, but refused finally his offer to baptize her into the Catholic faith. She fled from Nazi occupation with her parents to the United States. Her stay lasted only four months.

While in New York, she wrote Lettre à un religieux (Letter to a Priest) and Cahiers d'Amerique. In November 1942 she left New York for England, where she joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement in London. She wanted to be parachuted into France with a group of nurses. Weil died at the age of 34 of tuberculosis and self-neglect in Ashford on August 24, 1943. She refused food and medical treatment out of sympathy for the plight of the people of Occupied France. This act hastened her death, although it is debated whether her death was a result of actual suicide or mental illness. Weil also believed that one must "decreate" oneself to return to God.

"Two forces rule the universe: light and gravity."
(Simone Weil, in Gravity and Grace, 1947)
From 1940 Weil contributed to Les Cahiers du Sud. Her early essays were published in Alain's Libre Propos. Weil's writings from her first period (1931-36) explore contemporary problems. The later writings (1938-43) reflect her religious searching. In Gravity and Grace she argued that "attachement is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached." God, in creating the universe, effaced himself from it and surrendered it to its own law of gravity, or necessity.  "Necessity is everywhere, and the good nowhere," she wrote. Drawing a distinction between "la pesanteur" (gravity) and la "grâce" (grace)  she defined that the former stands for the cruel determinism of the world. In human beings the same thing manifests itself undeveloped, primitive forces, which pull the human soul down. Grace, a key concept in her philosophy, is the other aspect of the universal order, "necessity".  Gravity is in conflict with it. The supernatural grace is not governed by natural phenomena, it is the source of pure good.

Weil's political philosophy is best expressed in the L'enracinement (1949, The Need for Roots). The great problem of society is "déracinement" (uprootedness); its cure is a social order grounded in a "spiritual core" of physical labor. One can find from work beauty, poetry and spiritual inspiration. She wrote the book in 1943 at the request of the Free French organization as a guide to the reconstruction of post-war France. De Gaulle considered her work too theoretical and it was not published until 1949. Weil dedicated the first edition of the book to Albert Camus. Twenty-five years after her death, before traveling to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature, he visited her parent's home, "and spent some quiet moments of reflection in her room." (Simone Weil: Mystic of Passion and Compassion by Maria Clara Bingemer, 2015, p. 112)  Oppression et liberté (1955, Oppression and Liberty) takes as its issue the nature and possibility of individual freedom in various political and social systems. "We are in a period of transition; but a transition towards what?" Weil asked. She opted for liberalism rather than socialism.

For further reading: Simone Weil by Jacques Cabaud (1964); Simone Weil by Richard Rees (1966); Simone Weil: A Life by Simone Pétrement (1988, orig. French edition 1973); Simone Weil by Dorothy T. McFarland (1983); Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage by Robert Coles (1987); Simone Weil by Pat Little (1988); Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography by Gabriella Fiori (1989); Red Virgin: A Poem Of Simone Weil by Stephanie Strickland (1993); Simone Weil by Heiz Abosh (1994); Simone Weil: On Politics, Religion and Society by Christopher Frost and Rebecca Bell-Metereau (1998); Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray (2001); Simone Weil: Mystic of Passion and Compassion by Maria Clara Bingemer (2015); The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas by Robert Zaretsky (2021). See also: Rosa Luxemburg

Selected works:

  • L'Iliade ou le poème de la force, 1939-1940
    - The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force (translated by Mary McCarthy, 1956) / Simone Weil's The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force: A Critical Edition (translated by James P. Holoka, 2003) 
  • La Pesanteur et la grâce, 1947
    - Gravity and Grace (translated by Arthur Wills, 1952)
    - Painovoima ja armo (suom. Maija Lehtonen, 1957)
  • L'enracinement;  prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l'être humain, 1949
    - The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind (translated by Arthur Wills, 1952)
    - Juurtuminen (suom. Kaisa Kukkola, 2007)
  • L'attente de Dieu, 1950 (edited by J.M. Perrin)
    - Waiting for God (translated by Emma Craufurd, 1951) / Awaiting God: A New Translation of Attende de Dieu and Lettre à un Religieux (translated by Brad Jersak and Adit Gamble, 2012) 
  • La connaissance surnaturelle, 1950
    - First and Last Notebooks (translated by Richard Rees, 1970)
  • Cahiers, 1951-56 (3 vols.)
    - The Notebooks of Simone Weil (translated by Arthur Wills, 1976)
  • Intuitions pré-chrétiennes, 1951
    - Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks (translated by Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler, 1957)
  • La Condition ouvrière, 1951
  • Lettre à un religieux, 1951
    - Letter to a Priest (translated by A.F. Wills, 1954) / Awaiting God: A New Translation of Attende de Dieu and Lettre à un Religieux (translated by Brad Jersak and Adit Gamble, 2012) 
  • La Source grecque, 1953
  • Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l'oppression sociale, 1955
  • Oppression et liberté, 1955
    - Oppression and Liberty (translated by Arthur Wills and John Petrie, 1958)
  • Écrits de Londres et dernières lettres, 1957
  • Leçons de philosophie, 1959
    - Lectures on Philosophy (translated by H. Price,  with an introd. by Peter Winch, 1978)
  • Écrits politiques et historiques, 1960
  • Pensées sans ordre concernant l'amour de Dieu, 1962
  • Selected Essays, 1934-43, 1962 (chosen and translated by Richard Rees)
  • Seventy Letters. Some Hitherto Untranslated Texts from Published and Unpublished Sources 1965 (translated by Richard Rees)
  • Sur la science, 1966
    - On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God (translated by Richard Rees, 1968)
  • Gateway to God, 1974 (edited by David Raper, Malcolm Muggeridge and Vernon Sproxton)
  • The Simone Weil Reader, 1977 (edited by George A. Panichas)
  • Two Moral Essays, 1981 (edited by Ronald Hathaway)
  • Simone Weil, An Anthology, 1986 (translated by Siân Miles)
  • Formative Writings, 1929-41, 1987 (eds. Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness)
  • Œuvres Complètes, 1989-2006 (6 vols., edited by André A. Devaux and Florence de Lussy)
  • Simone Weil on Colonialism, 2003 (edited and translated by J.P. Little)
  • Late Philosophical Writings, 2015 (translated by Eric O. Springsted and Lawrence E. Schmidt)
  • Love in the Void: Where God Fnds Us, 2018 (edited by Laurie Brands Gagne)
  • Correspondance 1942: "quel est donc ton tourment?" 2018 (Simone Weil, Joë Bousquet; réunie, présentée et annotée par Florence de Lussy & Michel Narcy).


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