Simone Weil


Simone Weil

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Simone Weil
Full nameSimone Weil
Born3 February 1909
Paris, France
Died24 August 1943 (aged 34)
Ashford, Kent, England.
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern Philosophy
SchoolChristian philosophy, Gnosticism, Platonism
Main interestsMetaphysics, Cosmology, Ethics, Political Philosophy

Simone Weil (French pronunciation: [simɔn vɛj]; 3 February 1909 in Paris, France – 24 August 1943 in Ashford, Kent, England), was a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist.



[edit] Biography

Weil was born in Paris to Alsatian agnostic Jewish parents who fled the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. She grew up in comfortable circumstances, as her father was a doctor. Her only sibling was André Weil, who would go on to become one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. She suffered throughout her life from severe headaches, sinusitis, and poor physical coordination, and spared no scrutiny to these in her philosophical writings. Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle, introversion, and eccentricity limited her ability to mix with others, but not to teach and participate in political movements of her time. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Weil biographer Gabriella Fiori writes that Weil was "a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range."[1]

[edit] Intellectual life

Weil was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by the age of 12. She later learned Sanskrit after reading the Bhagavad Gita. Like the Renaissance thinker, Pico della Mirandola, her interests in other religions were universalist, and she attempted to understand each religious tradition as expressive of transcendent wisdom.

In her teens she studied at the Lycée Henri IV under the tutelage of her admired teacher Émile Chartier, more commonly known as "Alain".[2] In 1928, Weil finished first in the entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure; Simone de Beauvoir, her more long-lived and famous peer, finished second.[3] During these years Weil attracted much attention with her radical opinions. She was called the "Red virgin"[4], and even "The Martian" by her admired mentor.[5]

At the École Normale Supérieure she studied philosophy, receiving her Agrégation diploma in 1931.[6] Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy and teaching was her primary employment during her short life.

Most of the writing for which she is known was published posthumously.

[edit] Political activism

Weil often took actions 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 by some. 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 gave a pessimistic account of the limits of both capitalism and socialism.

She participated in the French general strike of 1933, called to protest unemployment and wage 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, believing that this experience would allow her to connect with the working class. Her poor health and inadequate physical strength forced her to quit after some months. In 1935 she resumed teaching, and 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 Republican side. She identified herself as an anarchist[7] and joined the Sébastien Faure Century, the French-speaking section of the anarchist militia. However, her clumsiness repeatedly put her comrades at risk. After burning herself over a cooking fire, she left Spain to recuperate in Assisi. She continued to write essays on labor and management issues, as well as war and peace.

[edit] Encounter with mysticism

While in Assisi in the spring of 1937, she experienced a religious ecstasy in the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed, which led her to pray for the first time in her life. She had another, more powerful, revelation a year later 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; 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 curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly 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 others were valid paths to God.[citation needed] She was, nevertheless, 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.

[edit] Last years

In 1942, she traveled to the USA, living briefly in New York City, in Harlem, amongst the poor. She is remembered to have attended daily Mass at Corpus Christi Church there, where the Columbia student and future Trappist monk Thomas Merton was later to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. Long believed not to have sought baptism, there is now evidence, including a claim from a priest who knew her, that she was baptized shortly before her death. After New York, she went to London, where she joined the French Resistance. The punishing work regime she assumed soon took a heavy toll; in 1943 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and eat well. However, she refused special treatment because of her long-standing political idealism and activism and her detachment from material things. Instead, she limited her food intake to what she believed residents of the parts of France occupied by the Germans ate. She most likely ate even less, as she refused food on most occasions.[citation needed] Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, England.

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."[8]

To this day, the causes of her death remains a subject of debate for many. 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 Schopenhauer [9] (in his chapters on Christian saintly asceticism and salvation, he had described self–starvation as a preferred method of self–denial). However, Simone Pétrement [10], one of Weil's first and most significant biographers, considers that the coroner's report was simply mistaken. Basing herself 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.

[edit] Philosophy

Weil's philosophy contained elements of both spirituality and politics; she at once enjoyed an intensely personal spiritual drive, while her social philosophy emphasized the relationships between individuals and groups. This intersection of thought developed in her an interest in healing social rifts of the proletariat and providing for the physical and psychological needs of humanity.

[edit] Lectures on Philosophy

Lectures on Philosophy is a compilation of the lectures which Weil composed for her lycée students. Focussing on the materialist philosophical project, she deals with truth not logically or scientifically but psychologically or phenomenologically. In the Lectures she discusses the conditions necessary for an experience of truth or reality to emerge for the human subject, or for an object or concept etc. to emerge as real within human experience.[citation needed]

However, she does not advocate a general theory of human "truth-production", justified by empirical observation.[11] As distinguished from the writings of William James, the Lectures describe the problem of truth as deeply personal, to be approached through introspection. Weil combines her background with idealist philosophy with an appreciation of the limits of foundationalism and produced writings such as the following:

Any proof of the syllogism would be absurd. The syllogism is, to put it briefly, nothing but a rule of language to avoid contradiction: at bottom the principle of non-contradiction is a principle of grammar.

— Simone Weil , LP, p. 78


We are forced to accept the postulates and axioms precisely because we are unable to give an account of them. What one can do is try to explain why they seem obvious to us.

— Simone Weil ,[verification needed]


One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world. Most people hardly ever realize this, because it is rare that the very same man thinks and puts his thought into action...

— Simone Weil , LP, p. 72-3

The Lectures go on to explore further the disjunction between planning and execution, which is brought about by the division of labor between designer (e.g.architect) and worker (e.g. bricklayer) – a division which leads to many societal difficulties and draws on Weil's encounters with the philosophy of Marx.[original research?]

Putting thought into action is further described in this way:

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.

—Simone Weil , ibid.

For Weil, both self and world are constituted only through informed action upon the world.

[edit] Theology

[edit] Mysticism in Gravity and Grace

While Gravity and Grace is one of the books most associated with Simone Weil, the work as such 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 Gustav Thibon, who knew and befriended her. Weil had in fact given some of her notebooks, written before May 1942, to Thibon, 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 devoted 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 Simone Weil might be regarded as a modern-day Marcionite,[12] due to her virtually wholesale rejection of the Old Testament and her overall distaste for the Judaism which was technically hers by birth;[who?] others have identified her as a gnostic for similar reasons, as well as for her mystical theologization of geometry and Platonist philosophy.[who?] However, it has been pointed out[who?] that this analysis falls apart when it comes to the creation of the world, for Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation of a demiurge, but as a direct expression of God's love—despite the fact that she also recognizes it as a place of evil, affliction, and the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy.

It is difficult to speak conclusively of Weil's theology, since it exists only in the form of scattered aphorisms in her notebooks, and in a handful of letters. Neither of these formats provides a very direct path to understanding or evaluating her beliefs, nevertheless, it is possible to make certain generalizations.[original research?]

[edit] Absence

Absence is the key image for her metaphysics, cosmology, cosmogeny, 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 is, for Weil, an original kenosis 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.

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."[13] 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."[14]

More specifically, affliction drives us to what Weil referred to as "decreation"--which is not death, but rather closer to "extinction" (nirvana) in the Buddhist tradition—the willed dissolution of the subjective ego in attaining realization of the true nature of the universe.[verification needed]

[edit] Affliction

Weil's concept of affliction ("malheur") goes beyond simple suffering, though it certainly includes it. Only some souls are capable of truly experiencing affliction; these are precisely those souls which are least deserving of it—that are most prone or open to spiritual realization. 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 uniquely powerful piece of Homeric literary criticism, and of persistent interest to students of ancient literature.) 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 man who has known pure joy, if only for a 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.

— Simone Weil , Gravity and Grace

[edit] Metaxu: "Every separation is a link"

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, are 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.

[edit] Beauty

For Weil, "The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible." For Weil, 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.

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.

[edit] Works

"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.' " [15]

[edit] The Need for Roots

Written during WWII, Simone Weil’s book The Need for Roots was written right before her death. She was in London working for the French Resistance and trying to convince the leader of the French Resistance, Charles de Gaulle, to form a contingent of nurses that 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 WWII. She painstakingly analyzes the spiritual and ethical milieu that led up to France’s defeat by the German army, and then addresses these issues with the prospect of eventual French victory.

What marks her work is the concreteness of her analysis. This means that she does not clothe her plan in theoretical language but puts it a concrete form.

[edit] Obligations versus rights

There are several key themes in the work. The first is the precedence that obligation has over rights. For Weil, unless a person understands that they have certain obligations in life, towards themselves, towards others, and towards society, notions 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, this is a spiritual concept — this means that it transcends the world of competing interests and power games. It opens up a world where justice is possibility and a promise and provides the foundation upon which any 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 a holy shrine. This something in a human being is what makes them who they are and what they are.

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. In her analysis, there is no human answer to this struggle for power, nor is it possible to stop the struggle with any form of ideology, such as Marxism or capitalism or any other form of human-made political system.

The world of spirit, for Weil, confronts this struggle for power. Spirituality is not a way out, an unearthly and utopian dream — instead, she believes that there are techniques that enable humans to become spiritual. These techniques are the ones that the great mystics of every religious tradition have recognized and practiced. For her, the mystical practices of Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint John of the Cross are especially telling. For Weil, they are manuals for dealing with the pain and suffering of concrete life while maintaining a link to the transcendent world of God.

Obligations, therefore, provide a link to the spiritual realities that give life meaning and sustain the oppressed and sufferer with its healing power. But obligation is also that power that calls to each of us from the face of another. For Weil, this aspect of the other is that which is inviolable in each and every human being. As she states in one of her essays, it is that part of each of us that expects the good to be done to us. It is that which cries out for justice when it is violated.

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 the human in people, rights can not have any legitimacy.

[edit] Spirituality and politics

Another aspect of this question is the awareness that Weil brings to social and political problems of why spirituality is necessary. It might be a truism that true change in a society cannot occur unless there is a subjective change as well. There is an example of this in alcohol or drug treatment programs. Unless the person wants to change, all the counseling and the support groups will not make a person change.

For Weil, on the social level, this is true of societies as well. In her analysis of history and revolutions, she showed that every revolution ultimately replaced one form of oppression with another. For her, this showed that the reality of history is struggle for power. This is why she believed that for true change, a spiritual awakening must occur in individual conscience.

Take an example: why, with all the money thrown at poverty in the US, is there still poverty? For Weil, the answer to this question is that the programs and money were directed at the wrong problems. Because they were programs by those who had for those who did not have, the misrelation in power continued — in many ways, the rich instituted programs that would continue to benefit them and maintain their hold on power.

Perhaps this in and of itself justifies the notion that living with the poor and oppressed changes one’s consciousness. Of course, a simple or superficial identification with the poor will not be an authentic experience. But a continued and extended opening up of oneself to the pain and suffering of the poor and oppressed — putting oneself into their condition and seeking that condition would seem to work a change in the spirit.

Perhaps this is why Weil commends the mystical practices of the saints — this rigorous and methodical emptying of oneself does not come easily — it is too easy to believe that one is there while still holding on to the escape route in the back of one’s mind. It demands something like a spiritual practice to seek out all those ways we have of deluding ourselves and lying to ourselves. Weil never says that it is simply a matter of living with the poor — there is a constant reminder in her writings that this experience must permeate one’s entire spirit and being. In her words, one must become a slave to understand what a slave endures.

[edit] Can we guarantee obligations?

How does a social organization guarantee that the obligations that individual members owe to each other are carried out? How does a social organization nurture and help bring to birth this awareness of one’s obligations to others?

These are some of the problems that Weil realizes she must answer if she is to provide a realistic and workable solution to the problem of injustice in the world. As mentioned earlier, change must come from inside for people to really change. But how do you make someone change? The answer is that you do not, instead you must provide a social structure that meets certain needs and anchors them in a fertile and nurturing soil. Thus the metaphor of rootedness in her work.

Based on her analysis of obligation, Weil therefore posits that there are certain spiritual needs of the human soul. Without these, a human society will die and its dying will crush and destroy human souls. For her, every socio-cultural entity 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 a socio-cultural entity to thrive and grow.

She uses the analogy of a garden. This is not hyperbole — in a very real way, Weil believes, 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 soul and the society.

It is important to note Weil’s emphasis at the start on the individual. All elements of a socio-cultural entity begin and end with the individual. Now, the individual has both material and spiritual aspects. Weil does not buy into the notion that man is only a soul or only a body. Both aspects of a human have needs and these needs must be met or the individual is in jeopardy of dying.

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 collectivities have rights which somehow outweigh those of the individual, nor does she believe that these can solve problems in and of themselves related to injustice. They are merely the means to attaining justice, not the ends.

[edit] The Spiritual Needs of the Soul

The soul needs food just as the body needs food, according to Weil. This food comes in the form of meeting the obligations that encourage the soul to grow and mature. These needs include the following.


The need for order reflects Weil’s overall belief that the universe follows a rigid course of cause and effect. This order, however, relates to the ability of all members of a society to keep the obligations that they must observe for a free and just society to exist. This order is a balancing of obligations and needs. Without this balance, the society becomes sick and ultimately may die.

Unlike things in the natural world, however, where there are opposites and extremes one must maintain a mean, the true nature of order allows all spiritual needs to be met and satisfied. With natural needs and desires, there are polar opposites, but with spiritual needs, they all need to be present for true freedom and justice to exist.


Liberty relates to the ability and freedom to make choices. The need for individual choice is weighed against the rules of society, thereby limiting our choices. Liberty and choice relate to maturity — mature individuals grow up understanding their own liberty depends on the liberty of others and the ability of society to control the negative actions of others. The rules that are imposed should accord with conscience. And though the realm of action may be restricted, for people of goodwill and conscience, they are second nature and accord well with the liberty of all members of a society.


Obedience comes about through the free consent of all members of the society that are affected. There is obedience to rules and to those who enforce the rules and exercise authority over others. When these are obeyed through a free and open consent, there is not servility but obedience. Consent is the heart of obedience — since obedience out of fear of punishment or hope of reward breeds servility. She notes that in her own time, men are starved for obedience — yet there are those [read Hitler] who have exploited that fact and enslaved men instead.


What each person needs to feel useful and indispensable in their social life. Many people want to know the worth of their work; therefore, they want to know what the big picture is, how their work fits into the larger personal, social and related dimensions. People need to know the part that they play in every great or small undertaking. Closely related to responsibility is the need for initiative — the possibility to show your leadership.


Each individual deserves respect simply as a human being. Societies where opportunities depend on natural talents and expertise produce some inequalities. Society must ensure that these inequalities do not impinge on this need for equality. One way to obviate this is to provide stiffer penalties for those in positions of authority and power than for those without this status.


Veneration of superiors as symbols, of what? “That realm situated above all men and whose expression in this world is made up of the obligations owed by each man to his fellowmen.” The superiors should acknowledge this as the source of their authority, not their personal powers. “The effect of true hierarchism is to bring each one to fit himself morally into the place he occupies.” Reader's comment on this point: It is important to point out the distinction that Weil makes between legitimate and illegitimate hierarchies... She stresses (The Need for Roots, Study for a Declaration of Obligations towards Human Beings) that the aspiration to equality (and to obedience) is never violated as long as the person finds himself operating as part of a legitimate hierarchy. Also the fact that in almost any society, particularly in the most complex (but also in simpler ones), the same individual is apt to occupy different positions within a wide spectrum of hierarchies involved throughout the completion of the different tasks one is called upon to participate in as part of a specific community... I have often stated that many people today show scorn for hierarchies in general as a result of the fact that few legitimate hierarchies have survived in our day and age, so that the idea itself of a hierarchy bears a sour ring to it -a charge of paternalism. The task then for us would be to try to distinguish clearly between what might constitute a legitimate hierarchy in each instance and what should not be considered such. The existence of political parties as a means of securing "democracy" can then be shown to indulge catastrophically in creating illegitimate hierarchies and, consequently, to do great harm to our ability to fulfill our aspiration towards obedience and equality. Sylvia Valls


This has to do with the respect due to each human being as part of his social environment. It is recognition of his role in and activities as part of a greater social purpose — this links individuals to a past and to the actions of those who went before him or her. Oppression rubs out true honor and the traditions and past accomplishments of men and women are extinguished. They lose their “social prestige.” Conquering rubs out these traditions and this memory, thereby desecrating the memory of those who have gone before and denying members of the conquered society and relationship to the heroism and traditions of their past. Instead, they are made to honor and venerate the heroes and heroines of the conquering nation. Modern societies have a warped sense of honor — while they honor certain types of heroes such as aviators, millionaires, and others like them. But the heroism of miners and others are left unacknowledged.


There are two types of punishment: disciplinary and penal. Disciplinary punishment puts people back on track after making a mistake, much as we do for children. Failings against which it would be too exhausting to fight if there were no social support. Penal punishment welds a man back into society again after he or she makes/commits a crime of their own accord. This is best done with consent on his part — “the only way of showing respect for somebody who has placed himself outside the law is to reinstate him inside the law by subjecting him to the punishment ordained by the law.” But punishment as fear is wrong. Punishment must be an honor. “It must not only wipe out the stigma of the crime, but must be regarded as a supplementary form of education, compelling a higher devotion to the public good. The severity of the punishment must be in keeping with the kind of obligation which has been violated, and not with the interests of public security.” This last comment shows Weil’s concern that crimes committed by those with more public authority and power should be punished more severely in many cases than those committing “lesser” crimes.


By security she means that a person is free from fear and terror. Importantly, she does not mean something analogous to "safety" or "protection from harm."


For Weil, risk is a danger that provokes a deliberate reaction in someone, but not beyond her capacity. The absence of risk dissolves a person's courage which in turn makes her more susceptible to fear.

Freedom of Opinion

The big thing to note here is her emphasis on the individual. Only individuals have opinions. This is important, because she opposes this idea to the idea that associations or corporations have opinions as well. This is seen in some countries, particularly the United States of America, where companies and political parties are said to have the right of freedom of speech.

Weil also asserts that individuals should be responsible for their words. They should not be simply allowed to express any shocking opinion, unless they are willing either to admit that they don’t stand behind their words or that they do; in the most egregious situations, individuals could be penalized for making outrageous statements that spurred others to perform immoral acts.


For Weil, truth is one of the most important needs of the soul. She says that all people should be nurtured in truth and be protected from sources of untruth, such as newspapers, false media accounts, and propaganda. Her main focus seems to be on the laborers again. She notes that a laborer who spends 8 hours a day working must not be expected to be able to have to distinguish between what is true and false in the papers or other media. They must expect that what they see, hear, or read is invariably true. To ensure truth in the media, she suggests setting up special courts to which those who believe that someone is spreading falsehoods can present their case, their evidence, and at which a determination on the evidence can be made. For Weil, the dissemination of lies and falsehoods is a crime as dangerous as any other, if not worse than others because it attacks the human soul’s “most sacred need — protection against suggestion and falsehood.”

[edit] Uprootedness

The concept of uprootedness and the need for roots is basic to Weil’s entire book. Why this metaphor? Is it a metaphor? In some passages she seems to speak quite literally — as though humans and their social environments are plants and gardens that can be grown and planted through effort.

As the title of the book suggests, there is a need for roots — that is, humans need roots to grow. Roots provide the stability and nourishment of a plant. The deeper they go, the more the plant can withstand bad weather and shocks to its system and the more extensive its root system the more nourishment it can receive to grow and remain healthy.

So let’s become clear about what the soil is and what the plant is. The soil is the social structure that humans create to protect themselves from harm, catastrophes such as starvation, protection from animals, from the elements, and finally protection from each other. The roots are from the plant that symbolizes us humans.

Just as plants need good roots and soil to root in, they also need sun. For Weil, the sun to humans is the world of the spirit. It provides light so the nutrients can work properly, just as photosynthesis creates energy from the nutrients using the energy of the sun.

Now, let’s explain the logic of this metaphor. The plants in the soil are human beings. The soil is the social and cultural structures that human beings have built up over the millennia. In most cases, they are evolving and in time we see more recent shoots sprout and grow from older plants. The laws governing the growth of these plants are similar to the laws that govern nature. They are just as rigid, just ineluctable as the law of gravity. The laws that govern the actions of humans in society mirror the laws of the natural world. That is, just as we find a struggle for existence and survival in nature, so also we find a similar struggle within human social structures. This, for Weil is the struggle for power.

In outline, this struggle is unique to human beings. It rests on the necessity of wrestling from the natural world a place that humans can survive in — a human environment which humans have created. At a certain level of human social organization, humans are at peace with other. They have little strife among themselves — the main battle is to find food and shelter and weather the natural elements. We can see examples of this in some tribes in the Amazon.

As societies become more structured and humans begin to develop technical skills and more control of their natural environment, a division of labor occurs — That is, the work that is needed to build cities, grow food for larger populations, pave roads, carry out religious rites—this division of labor means that you must have those who give orders and those who follow orders. This arrangement of worker and manager is necessary for any extended and complex social activity. To conceive, plan, and carry out any great project, there must be those who give orders and those who take orders.

The struggle for power is not, Weil asserts, between the workers and the managers, as Marx and others had theorized. The struggle is between those who have the power. They fight and vie with each other for more and more power, more and more control of the undertakings and the direction that a society will take, as well as all the material and psychological rewards that come from power.

For Weil, this struggle is inevitable. There is no way to get around it, since human beings must continue — for their survival — to provide for themselves and to maintenance the social structure that is the main instrument of their continued existence. Weil sounds a very pessimistic note on this state of affairs — at the end of one of her essays, she notes that we are born slaves.

This pessimism is only brightened for Weil by the illumination provided by the spiritual reality that she came more and more to experience in her life. It is the spiritual world, with its revelation of obligations and ethical insights that enables societies to soften and re-route the immense pain and suffering caused by the struggle for power. Through the power of the spiritual, human beings can see that their final destiny does not merely end on earth, and that perhaps there will be a final reckoning for the actions that one has performed in this life in a life after death. She found this concept in many religions, from Mesoamerica to Egypt to Greece to China to Druid England.

Societies embed these spiritual insights and beliefs into their practices, rituals, and symbols. The spiritual insights of past generations are stored in memory and passed down from generation to generation. The customs, traditions, sacred writings and religion of a society are the embodiment of this spiritual treasury. As generation follows generation, individuals in the present can communicate with the past and the past communicate with the present through this accumulated spiritual wealth. In this way, a medium of continuity across time and space is created and the wisdom of the past can inform and perhaps direct the activities and behavior of the present as individuals plan and move into the future.

We have already seen what spiritual needs the individual has to have to remain free and just. A society that meets and provides these needs is a spiritually rooted one. This society will provide the material and spiritual needs of each member of the society. Weil finds these societies as part of the natural development of human life on earth. They are ordained by God as the creator and source of life. They are precious and should be honored and venerated for their beauty, but above for their ability to sustain human life in its material needs, if not more so with their spiritual journeys and desires.

Once a society begins to lose the ability to provide and meet these needs, it starts to die. Once individuals begin to lose their contact with the soil that nourishes and the sun that illuminates each person’s days, they decay from the inside out. Like a tree that has a sickness, the pith and meat of the tree soften and eventually cannot support the weight of the plant and it topples.

Why or how does this happen? The answer to this question is complex. But for now we can say that, for Weil, most societies do not die natural deaths. They are killed by conquerors and invaders who uproot civilizations, not only not leaving buildings and temples standing but also destroying those spiritual roots that had perhaps sustained the civilization for hundreds if not thousands of years.

This is an immense crime in Weil’s eyes. Through her study of history she had come to love the wonder and beauty of several civilizations. That they were no longer existent, beat into dust by empires, hurt her sense of spiritual balance. Yet, her moral outrage emanated more from a deep despair for she knew that as beautiful as art, architecture, poetry, and religion are, they are nothing compared to the beauty of a human being. Above the death of every civilization she heard a mournful dirge of immense pain and affliction which was the combined voices of each individual who had been hacked, burned, raped, and sodomized — whose human dignity and beauty had been profaned by the merciless and bloody boot of empire and desire for power.

It was this affliction which was caused by a human being treating another human like a piece of garbage which she ultimately saw as her own spiritual vocation in life. But above that, it was the vision of a world wherein humans have the responsibility and mission to alleviate as much of this affliction as possible — to create just and free societies where the cries of the orphans and the widows would be heard that drove her to use all of her spiritual and intellectual and physical resources to bring to birth a manifesto that would lay out the blueprint for rebirth and regeneration. This rebirth would serve as the basis for the rise of a civilization to equal those great ones of history…

In one of her essays, Weil says that the oppressed cannot voice their affliction, cannot cry out due to the weight of the pain they suffer. Her work — her words and her life—is an attempt to give voice to this affliction. This aspect of her work puts it on the level of the ancient Jewish prophets, those men and women who stood up against injustice in the name of God and gave voice to the widows and the orphans, those who are crushed beneath the unending struggle for power.

Note the eccentricity of several of the prophets: Ezekiel is said to have used dung to bake his bread, Isaiah to have lain on his side for months at a time. And then we recall Hosea, whom God told to marry a prostitute who continued to leave him, get impregnated, and yet God would tell him to take her back — numerous times. With this in mind, perhaps we can make room for a frail, sickly, young French Jew, who spent her life’s fire fighting for workers, the despised, the marginalized, and died by starving herself because she could not forget that men, women and children in her homeland were dying for want of food.

Causes of Uprootedness So the question becomes what causes uprootedness in the modern world. In her analysis of uprootedness, she begins with the alienation of the workers from their work and societies, goes on to discuss farmers, and finally takes on nations as a whole. As she confronts each situation, her analysis is clothed in mundane particulars. Yet, her analysis has the ring of authenticity because it combines not only the brilliance of intellectual analytical skills but also the emotional experience of having lived with the workers and seen and understood what their needs — material and spiritual — were.

For Weil, there are several main causes for uprootedness. We have already mentioned invasions; she also mentions money and education. These can cause uprootedness by undermining the foundation of why we act and what motivates us to act. Instead of obligations being fundamental to a society. For example, with money it is the desire to make money (or the tendency to see all things important as coming from or in terms of money) that causes uprootedness to take place.

Education can cause uprootedness by severing the culture of the elite from the rest of the people. Weil notes the effects of the Renaissance, for example, in dissociating the people from their folk culture and having the cultures of antiquity, especially of Rome imposed by the intelligentsia onto the masses of individuals. For Weil, the Renaissance brought to birth the cult of technical science, which brings with it pragmatism and specialization, and severs the mind and soul from any relationship with the world of spirit. Her example of this is the child in school who can parrot the fact that the earth revolves around the sun but no longer looks to heaven for inspiration or reverence or awe.

Uprootedness is a disease that causes further uprootedness wherever it goes. Her examples of those who are uprooted include foreign invaders, French colonialists, America (because it is the land of immigrants), British marauders, and the Spanish. Uprootedness can have several outcomes, but the most dangerous is a kind of spiritual lethargy which resembles slavery and a form of activity that spawns and feeds on further uprooting others.

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] Primary sources

[edit] Works in French

  • Simone Weil, Oeuvres Completes. (Paris: Gallimard, 1989-2006, 6 vols.)
  • La Pesanteur et la Grace (1947)
  • L'Enracinement (1949)
  • Attente de Dieu (1950)
  • Lettre à un religieux (1951)
  • Les Intuitions Pré-chrétiennes (Paris: Les Editions de la Colombe, 1951)
  • La Source Greque (Paris: Libraire Gallimard,1952)
  • Oppression et Liberté (1955)
  • Note sur la suppression générale des partis politiques (Paris: Climats, 2006)

[edit] Works in English translation

  • Formative Writings: 1929-1941. (1987). Dorothy Tuck McFarland & Wilhelmina Van Ness, eds. University of Massachusetts Press.
  • The Iliad or the Poem of Force. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Mary McCarthy trans.
  • Intimations of Christianity Among the Greeks. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1957. Elisabeth Chas Geissbuhler trans.
  • Letter to a Priest. G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1954.
  • The Need for Roots. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952. Arthur Wills trans., preface by T.S. Eliot
  • The Notebooks of Simone Weil (1984) Routledge paperback: ISBN 0-7100-8522-2, 2004 hardcover: ISBN 0-415-32771-7
  • On Science, Necessity, & The Love of God. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Richard Rees trans.
  • Oppression and Liberty. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1958.
  • Simone Weil's The Iliad or Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. James P. Holoka, ed. & trans. Peter Lang, 2005.
  • Simone Weil: An Anthology. Sian Miles, editor. Virago Press, 1986.
  • Simone Weil: First and Last Notebooks. London: Oxford University Press, 1970. Richard Rees trans.
  • Simone Weil: Lectures on Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1959. Intro. by Peter Winch, trans. by Hugh Price.
  • The Simone Weil Reader: A Legendary Spiritual Odyssey of Our Time. George A. Panichas, editor. David McKay Co., 1981.
  • Simone Weil—Selected Essays: 1934-1943. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. Richard Rees trans.
  • Simone Weil: Seventy Letters. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. Richard Rees trans.
  • Two Moral Essays by Simone Weil—Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations & Human Personality. Ronald Hathaway, ed. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Richard Rhees trans.
  • Waiting on God. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1951. Emma Craufurd trans.

[edit] Secondary sources

  • Bell, Richard H. (1998) Simone Weil. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • -----, editor. (1993) Simone Weil's Philosophy of Culture: Readings Toward a Divine Humanity. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521432634
  • Davies, Grahame (2007) Everything Must Change. Seren. ISBN 9-781854-1145518
  • Dietz, Mary. (1988). Between the Human and the Divine: The Political Thought of Simone Weil.Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Doering, E. Jane, ed. (2004) The Christian Platonism Of Simone Weil. University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Morgan, Vance G. (2005) "Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love". University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0-268-03486-9
  • Plant, Stephen (2007) 'Simone Weil: a Brief Introduction', Orbis, ISBN 978-1-57075-753-2
  • -----, (2007) 'The SPCK Introduction to Simone Weil', SPCK, ISBN 978-0-281-05938-6
  • Radzins, Inese Astra (2006) Thinking Nothing: Simone Weil's Cosmology. ProQuest/UMI.
  • Rhees, Rush (2000) Discussions of Simone Weil. State University of New York Press.
  • Veto, Miklos (1994) The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil, Joan Dargan, trans. State University of New York Press.
  • Winch, Peter (1989) Simone Weil: 'The Just Balance' . Cambridge University Press.
  • Athanasios Moulakis (1998) Simone Weil and the Politics of Self-Denial. Translated from the German by Ruth Hein Publisher: University of Missouri Press Pub. ISBN 9780826211620[1]

[edit] Biographies

  • Cabaud, Jacques. (1964). Simone Weil. Channel Press.
  • Robert Coles (1989) Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. Addison-Wesley. ISBN-X. 2001 ed., Skylight Paths Publishing.
  • Fiori, Gabriella (1989) Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography. translated by Joseph R. Berrigan. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-82031-1022
  • -----, (1991) Simone Weil. Una donna assoluta, La Tartaruga; Saggistica. ISBN 8-87738-07-56
  • -----, (1993) Simone Weil. Une Femme Absolue Diffuseur-SODIS. ISBN 2-866451-481
  • Finch, Henry Leroy (1999) Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace. Continuum International Publishing.
  • Gray, Francine Du Plessix (2001) Simone Weil. Viking Press.
  • McLellan, David (1990) Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. New York: Poseidon Press. ISBN-X
  • Nevin, Thomas R. (1991). Simone Weil: Portrait of a Self-Exiled Jew. Chapel Hill.
  • Perrin, J.B. & Thibon, G. (1953). Simone Weil as We Knew Her. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Petrement, Simone (1976) Simone Weil: A Life. New York: Schocken Books. 1988 edition.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth (1957) Simone Weil
  • Terry, Megan (1973). Approaching Simone: A Play. The Feminist Press.
  • White, George A., editor (1981). Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life. University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Winch, Peter (1989) Simone Weil, the Just Balance, Cambridge
  • Simone Weil: A Saint for Our Time? Magazine article by Jillian Becker; New Criterion, Vol. 20, March 2002.

[edit] Audio recordings

  • Cayley, David (2002). Enlightened by Love: The Thought of Simone Weil. CBC Audio

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ The Lonely Pilgrimage of Simone Weil, The Washington Post
  2. ^ Hellman, John (1982). Simone Weil: An Introduction to her Thought. Wilrid Laurier University Press. 
  3. ^ Simone Weil
  4. ^ Books and Writers
  5. ^ Alain, "Journal" (unpublished). Cited in Petrement, Weil, 1:6
  6. ^ Agrégation list by year
  7. ^ McLellan, David (1990). Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. Poseidon Press. , p121
  8. ^ McLellan, David (1990). Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. Poseidon Press. , Inquest verdict quoted on p266
  9. ^ McLellan, David (1990). Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. Poseidon Press., p. 30
  10. ^ Pétrement, Simone (1988). Simone Weil: A life. Schocken, 592 pp.
  11. ^ citation to James needed
  12. ^ T. S. Eliot, "Preface" to Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, x.
  13. ^ Gravity and Grace, Metaxu, page 132
  14. ^ Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.
  15. ^ Alonzo L. McDonald, from the forward Wrestling with God, An Introduction to Simone Weil by The Trinity Forum c. 2008

[edit] External links

Books online

Websites devoted to Weil


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