February 3, 1909 - August 24, 1943
Philosopher, Mystic and Social Activist
From Paris, France
Served in Kent, England
Death: Starved herself in solidarity with the poor in France during the rationing of WWII
"Everything beautiful has a mark of eternity."
Susan Sontag called her "one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit", TS Eliot a "genius akin to that of the saints." One hundred years after her birth, Simone Weil remains a conundrum: her work for the French resistance and writings on the needs of mankind sit alongside hints of antisemitism and authoritarianism in her works. The real Simone Weil remains elusive behind her guises: anarcho-syndicalist, Marxist, Catholic, contrary martyr.
In her biography, Weil is an unintentionally comic figure: dressing as a monk, putting anarchist comrades at risk with her clumsiness, renouncing Sanskrit studies to work in a car factory – she can look like a picture-book of laughable acts of 20th-century intellectuals. Born in France in 1909 to a middle-class Jewish family, Weil early on identified as Marxist. During the Spanish civil war, she volunteered with the Republicans, but the horrors she witnessed led her to see anarchists as the victims of Spain, and turned her attention to anarcho-syndicalism in France. By 1938 she had converted to Catholicism, and moved to England in 1942 to work for the French Resistance, where she died a year later, aged 34.
Despite her renunciation of Communism, her socialism is evident in The Need for Roots, her most political work. Advocating syndicalism as a refuge from authoritarianism and populism, Weil argues that collectives must not become ideological parties – something she came to despise after Spain, despite her evidently political writing.
In The Need For Roots, instead of using the language of rights, Weil talks of needs. There is, she argued, an eternal obligation to not deny another human food. Similarly, we're obliged not to deny others "food" or "needs" like equality and liberty, or the ability to choose. The "roots" of the title refer to "roots" of nourishment that enable humans to fully grow. Her idea of an obligation to enable others to develop is not dissimilar from the idea of "capability" in later writers like Amartya Sen, but Weil's vision of a "free" or "rooted" society is more prescriptive, imbued with her own ascetic leanings.
Theology was where Weil's mind excelled. In Gravity And Grace, Weil argues that creation occurs where God has withdrawn from the world: creation is a kind of "silence of God", where God no longer is. Weil's emphasis on the importance of "affliction" – suffering of the soul – is perhaps the strangest part of her writing for atheists like myself to understand. For Weil, affliction "is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard."
Weil claimed to deplore racism and colonialism: during the Vichy years she worked for Vietnamese incarcerated in France, and in The Need For Roots she argues against the "terrible uprootedness which European colonial methods always produce." This makes her lack of concern for the plight of Jewish people under Nazism more puzzling. Her dismissal of Judaism begins in her theology: Weil almost totally repudiated the Old Testament, claiming western civilisation's downfall came from the twin elevation of Roman and Jewish culture. Similarly, Sontag notes how Weil sees Hitler as "no worse than Napoleon", and Nazism no worse than other forms of nationalism.
But perhaps the thing Weil disapproved of most was herself – her humourless self-sacrifice is often infuriating. Incapable of grasping that no one suffering under Nazism benefitted from her refusing medical treatment whilst exiled, this caused her death from tuberculosis in 1943. But this childlike – or childish – insistence against compromise also leads to some of her best writing: few thinkers match Weil's genuine shock whenever she encounters hypocrisy.
Perhaps Weil is worth reading today precisely because her tone is so alien, yet her concerns still so contemporary. Though prissy, sanctimonious and prejudiced, Weil's writing still has something to teach us about disconnection in modern society, and how we can begin to reconnect.
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