BORN: 1909, Paris, France
DIED: 1943, Kent, England
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties toward Mankind (1949)
Oppression and Liberty (1955)
A French political activist and religious mystic, Simone Weil was a renowned and enigmatic Christian thinker. Her ambivalence toward the Catholic Church and her life of rigorous self-discipline and self-denial have become as well known and as much a part of her influence as her written works, most of which were collected from her notebooks and published after her death. Often paradoxical and contradictory, Weil's writings convey her intense compassion for the suffering of others, her disdain of nihilism (the belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence), and her longing to be united with God.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Beginnings of Activism Simone Adolphine Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909, the daughter of a prosperous doctor and his wife. Her childhood was marked by intellectual precociousness and a sensitivity to human suffering. At the age of five, for example, she refused to eat sugar because none could be supplied to the soldiers at the front during World War I; at the age of six, she was able to quote passages of seventeenth-century French dramatist Jean Racine from memory. Although she earned her high school degree at fifteen, she felt extremely inferior to her brother, who was a mathematical prodigy. Consequently, she seriously considered suicide and nearly suffered a nervous breakdown early in her life. Between 1925 and 1928, Weil studied at the Henri IV Lycée under the philosopher Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier), whose influence intensified Weil's self-questioning search for truth.
Following the completion of her École Normale studies in 1931, Weil taught philosophy for several years in various provincial girls' schools. These were years of severe economic depression and great political upheaval in Europe, and Weil's interest in the common worker and her passionate concern for social justice led her to devote all of her time outside of teaching to political activism in the French trade-union (syndicalist) movement. She taught classes for workingmen, took part in meetings and demonstrations, and wrote for a variety of leftist periodicals that supported a workers' revolution and the establishment of a communist society.
At first Weil shared her comrades' belief that a workers' revolution was in the near future. Soon, however, both her experience with the revolutionary movement and her observation of the international political situation led her to the following conclusions: What had developed in the 1930s was different from anything Karl Marx (author of the foundational text of the communist movement, The Communist Manifesto, 1848) had expected, there were no signs of the working-class revolution, and a new oppressive class was emerging—the managerial bureaucracy. Though Weil was an admirer of Marx himself, she became a critic of Marxism. In the last half of 1934, she wrote a lengthy essay, Oppression and Liberty (1955), in which she summed up the inadequacies of Marxism, attempted her own analysis of social oppression, and outlined a theoretical picture of a free society.
Experiences in Factories and the Spanish Civil War Between 1934 and 1935, Weil's intense sympathy for the working class led her to take a leave of absence from teaching to spend eight months as an anonymous worker in three Paris factories. This experience reinforced her conviction that political revolution without a total transformation of the methods of production—which depended on the subordination of the worker both to the machine and to managerial bureaucracy—would do nothing to alleviate working-class oppression.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936, Weil, hoping that a genuine working-class revolution was under way in Spain, went immediately to Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War was a conflict between the ultra-nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco and the Republican forces. Many foreigners, including large number of artists and writers, volunteered to serve on the side of the Republicans. Weil was accepted into a militia unit, but she had to be hospitalized after only a week when her foot and ankle were badly burned in a camp accident. Her experiences in Spain further disillusioned her; she observed so much brutality on both sides of the conflict that she concluded that violence for any purpose could never be justified.
After Weil returned to France, ill health kept her from returning to teaching. Her burn was slow to heal, she was anemic, and her debilitating migraine headaches became worse. She spent the last of the 1930s reflecting and writing about war and peace, at the same time beginning to formulate her thoughts on the nature of force, on the human spirit's tragic subjection to it, and on mankind's temptation to worship it. These reflections found expression in early 1940 in two essays, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and “The Great Beast,” which was a long essay on the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Conversion Experience In 1937, Weil underwent a spiritual conversion, complete with mystical experiences. For instance, at the chapel of St. Francis in Assisi, Weil was so overwhelmed by the presence of “something stronger than [herself]” that she was forced to her knees. She memorized George Herbert's poem “Love,” and used it as a meditation when she had migraines. Because she had previously believed that God did not directly reveal himself to individuals, Weil was convinced that her mystical encounters were authentic. This religious transformation led to a change in Weil's political views: She turned from political and social action to a search for spiritual truth.
Time in Marseilles during World War II Following the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, Weil and her parents fled to the south of France, residingin Marseilles from September 1940 until May 1942. Marseilles was located in a part of the country that remained “free” under a provisional government approved by the Germans and based in the city of Vichy. During the time she spent in Marseilles, Weil was productive in her writing. She wrote essays on problems in modern science, a number of essays on religious subjects, and her Marseilles Notebooks. Though reluctant to leave France, Weil was persuaded to accompany her parents to New York in May 1942. Before she left, she gave her notebooks to Gustave Thibon, a noted Catholic philosopher and writer, urging him to use her ideas in his own writing.
Once in New York, Weil hoped to interest the U.S. government in a plan she had to organize a corps of nurses who would go into battle with the soldiers in order to give immediate aid, thereby saving lives that would otherwise be lost due to shock and loss of blood. Weil's proposal was turned down, and after five months in New York City, she traveled to London to work for the French Resistance, which fought back against the German forces in occupied France. Believing she was called by God to experience the perils of war, she asked to be parachuted into France to disrupt the war effort; instead, she was given a desk job and asked to develop her own ideas about how France should be reconstructed after the war. The result was The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind (1949), a treatise on both the causes of modern man's loss of roots in the sacred and her suggestions for a solution.
Reported Suicide Limiting her food to the amount that the French were allowed during rationing, Weil was overcome by stress and malnourishment, and in April 1943 she was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Even in the hospital, she was either unwilling or unable to eat more than meager amounts. She died in a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, on August 24, 1943, at the age of thirty-four. The local newspaper described her death as a “voluntary suicide.” The story that she died because of her solidarity with the starving French captured the popular imagination, and Weil was widely seen as a kind of crazy secular saint, admirable but ludicrous in her intensity and impractical idealism. As her writings were published and translated in the 1950s and 1960s, this image gave way to serious study of her work.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Weil's famous contemporaries include:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945): German Lutheran theologian and founder of the Confessing Church, he participated in the German Resistance movement and was centrally involved in Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970): A French general and leader of the Free French Forces, de Gaulle founded the French Fifth Republic and became its first president.
Edith Stein (1891–1942): A Carmelite nun and German philosopher, she became a martyr of the Catholic Church upon losing her life at Auschwitz.
Anne Frank (1929–1945): Frank was a German-Jewish teenager who kept a journal while her family was in hiding during the Holocaust.
John Dos Passos (1896–1970): This American's bitter novels attacked the hypocrisy and materialism of the United States between the two world wars.
Works in Literary Context
Weil's writing reflects the paradoxes of her life: Profound faith with intellectual skepticism, deep compassion for the suffering of others with a disregard for her own suffering, and a logical mind with a mystical spirit. Even though Weil's theories were not consistent and did not adhere to the conventions of traditional philosophical argument, they contain several recurring concepts essential to understanding much of her work.
Destruction of Self One of Weil's most basic concepts was that the self must be destroyed in imitation of Christ's self-sacrifice. Weil did not see the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrifice that relieved mankind of its burden of sin, but rather as an inspirational model that the believer should follow. The experiences of abandonment and self-sacrifice, the ache of the absence of God, were, for Weil, necessary preludes to redemption by God's love.
Weil considered The Iliad to be the perfect example of pacifism because it presented the absolute futility of the Trojan War. In her essay on Homer's epic, Weil concluded that violence degrades both the victim and the victor; violence makes people selfless “things.” To Weil, a soul destroyed externally was the ultimate sin because then the soul could not be sacrificed to God. This sacrifice was the key to atonement and redemption.
Manichaeism Another fundamental belief found in Weil's writing is related to Manichaeism, an ancient religious doctrine based on the separation of matter and spirit and of good and evil. Weil expressed this duality as the tension between “gravity” and “grace.” The physical universe is drawn downward by gravity; Weil considered these physical laws inherently evil because God is absent in the physical world. Since God is absent, man cannot be near to God. The only hope for mankind is to wait for a visit from God, who will uplift man's soul to himself. This is grace.
Universal Faith Weil also believed that some elements of Christian faith, including the possibility of redemption, exist in all religions. Moreover, they existed in myths long before the birth of Christ. Weil's studies revealed these elements in many ancient religions, illustrated, for example, by ancient Greek writers such as Sophocles, Plato, and Homer. In fact, within Platonic philosophy, Greek tragedy, Hindu Upanishads, and ancient Egyptian and Chaldean writings, she believed she had found the basis for an ideal society: a truly Christian civilization that would be hierarchical yet non-oppressive.
Influences Weil published only magazine articles and poems during her lifetime. The bulk of her work was collected from her notebooks by J. M. Perrin and G. Thibon and published after her death. Nevertheless, Weil's limited writings have affected everyone from philosophers to filmmakers. Albert Camus, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, spent an hour meditating in the deceased Weil's room before boarding the plane for Stockholm. Iris Murdoch's writings are marked by Weil's intellectualism. Even writer Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola are reported to have turned to Weil for inspiration when working on the script for The Godfather III.
Works in Critical Context
Weil wrote on both her secular thoughts and spiritual beliefs. Her works were intellectual and enthusiastic, eliciting mixed reviews from critics who focused on hermental instability or praised her philosophical insight and literary prowess.
Genius and Madness At the time of Weil's death, she was generally regarded as a crazed fanatic who exaggerated her interests in human salvation; however, she eventually earned a favorable reputation as one of the most original thinkers of her era. Eminent figures like Charles de Gaulle, who, as the leader of the Free French knew Weil slightly, considered her mad. Others who knew and respected her honored her genius. French existentialist playwright Gabriel Marcel admired her greatly, and T. S. Eliot described her as “a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” Had Weil been better appreciated in her time, she might have contributed much more than she did posthumously to political and social thought. She had visions and awakenings that prevented her from being taken seriously, but she also had premonitions and theories that might be regarded today as uncanny in their foreshadowing.
Other critics have decided that while, as scholar Jean Amery says, “the prestige of her death has shielded her from criticism,” Weil's work must be examined in global terms. Weil has been harshly criticized for being a Jewish anti-Semite and for what critics have called misguided political suggestions. She denied the presence of any divine revelation in the Jewish religion, but found it in many other faiths besides Christianity. She advocated sacrificing Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the 1930s, writing in her 1943 notebook that the French ought to have used Gandhi-like passive resistance against the Nazis.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by other writers who have examined the intersection of politics and religion:
The Human Condition (1958), a philosophical work by Hannah Arendt. This work examines activities in realms most important to her “labor, work, action”in the context of society, politics, and the public and private sectors.
Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), a philosophical work by Giorgio Agamben. This work is an exhaustive study by the Italian philosopher focusing on the place of the individual in society.
Working (1974), a book by Studs Terkel. In this collection, the social historian examines the work blue collar workers and investigates how such work gives or does not give their lives meaning.
The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind According to a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, The Need for Rootsexamines “politics in the widest Aristotelian understanding of the term, and the treatment is of exceptional originality and breadth of human sympathy.” Weil wrote the volume at the request of the French in London, who were curious about her thoughts on the potential of France's reconstruction after World War II. Or, as Jenny Turner in the New Statesman remarked, Weil specifically wrote the piece for General de Gaulle, and “it was intended to provide a philosophical foundation for the Fifth Republic.” However, as the Times Literary Supplement reported, “the [book] is of equal interest and appeal … no matter what country.” Indeed, Weil's words seem to have been portentous: “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.”
S. M. Fitzgerald of the New Republic judged that the intended audience or target would not benefit from her thought: “[Weil's] thinking is sometimes idiosyncratic in the extreme, displaying a lack of objectivity that seems almost willful, and some of her outbursts are so emotional as to be almost altogether untrustworthy.” In general, as the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement said, the “provocation to agree with her, and more often to disagree, is … strong.” Although dissent and controversy surround her work, most critics concede that Weil demonstrated penetrating insight and unquestionable integrity in all of her writings.
Responses to Literature
- Research people who have gone on hunger strikes as a form of protest. Choose one individual whose story intrigues you. Prepare a speech that you would give on behalf of that individual, stating his/her cause and including comparisons to Weil's situation.
- Some critics relate Weil's religious writing to the work of Blaise Pascal and Ludwig Wittgenstein. What commonalities does Weil have with these two writers? Are there any contemporary figures whose religious writing compares to that of Weil's?
- Define “radical humanism.” Create a timeline of individuals whom you think have demonstrated radical humanism. Each person on your timeline should have a picture of him or her and a short description of what makes this person's actions an example of radical humanism.
Cohen, Arthur A., ed. Arguments and Doctrines: A Reader of Jewish Thinking in the Aftermath of the Holocaust. New York: Harper, 1970.
Milosz, Czeslaw. Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
Petrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. New York: Schocken Publishing, 1976.
Rosenfeld, Sidney, and Stella P. Rosenfeld, eds. Radical Humanism: Selected Essays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 23. Detroit: Gale, 1987.
Weil, Simone.The Notebooks of Simone Weil. London: Routledge, 1984.
Fitzgerald, S. M. New Republic (August 18, 1952): 18; (July 2, 1977): 33–37.
Times Literary Supplement (July 28, 1989): 821; (July 13, 1990): 747; (August 23, 1991): 7.
Turner, Jenny. New Statesman (August 28, 1987):24; (September 4, 1987).
The American Weil Society Colloquy at the University of Notre Dame. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.nd.edu/~weilaws.
Thomas, Brian. Introducing Simone Weil through the Internet. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.rivertext.com/weil.html.
———. Rivertext: Simone Weil in the Godfather. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.rivertext.com/weil1c.html.
The French thinker, political activist, and religious mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) was known for the intensity of her commitments and the breadth and depth of her analysis of numerous aspects of modern civilization.
Simone Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909, the second child of an assimilated Jewish family. She received a superb education in the French lycées and the Ecole Normale Supérieure. A brilliant and unusual student, she was admired by some of her teachers and held in awe by some of her peers, while others mocked her for her radical political opinions and the intensity of her convictions. Her political activism and life-long interest in work and in the working class began in her student years.
Following the completion of her Ecole Normale studies in 1931 she taught philosophy for several years in various provincial girls' Iycées. These were years of severe economic depression and great political upheaval in Europe, and Weil's interest in the worker and her passionate concern for social justice led her to devote all of her time outside of teaching to political activism in the French trade-union (syndicalist) movement. She taught classes for workingmen, took part in meetings and demonstrations, and wrote for a variety of leftist periodicals.
At first she shared her comrades' belief in the imminence of a proletarian revolution; soon, however, both her experience within the revolutionary Left and her observation of the international political situation led her to conclude that what had developed in the 1930s was different from anything Marx had expected, that there were no premonitory signs of the proletarian revolution, and that a new oppressive class was emerging—the managerial bureaucracy. Though she was an admirer of Marx, she became a trenchant critic of Marxism, which she accused of being a dogma rather than a scientific method of social analysis. In the last half of 1934 she wrote a lengthy essay called "Oppression and Liberty" in which she summed up the inadequacies of Marxism, attempted her own analysis of the mechanism of social oppression, and sketched a theoretical picture of a free society.
Experiences in Factories and the Spanish Civil War
In 1934-1935 Weil's intense sympathy for the workers and her desire to know first-hand what the working-class condition was like led her to take a leave of absence from teaching to spend eight months as an anonymous worker in three Paris factories. A modern worker's experience, she concluded, far from being a hard but joyous contact with "real life, " was entirely comparable to that of the slaves of antiquity. This experience also reinforced her conviction that political revolution without a total transformation of the methods of production—methods that depended on the subordination of the worker both to the machine and to the managerial bureaucracy—would do nothing to alleviate working-class oppression.
Although her experience with the organized Left disillusioned her with political activism, when the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 Weil, hoping that a genuine working-class revolution was under way in Spain, went immediately to Barcelona. She made her way to the front and was accepted into a militia unit, but after only a week her foot and ankle were badly burned in a camp accident, and she returned to Barcelona, where she was hospitalized. Her experience in Spain further disillusioned her; her observations in the several weeks she remained there convinced her that the atmosphere created by civil war was fatal to the ideals for which the war was being fought.
After Weil returned to France, ill health kept her from returning to teaching; her burn was slow to heal, she was anemic, and the debilitating migraine headaches from which she had suffered for years became worse. She spent the last years of the 1930s reflecting and writing on war and peace and beginning to formulate her thoughts on the nature of force, on the human spirit's tragic subjection to it, and on mankind's temptation to worship it. These reflections found expression in two remarkable essays, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, " and "The Great Beast, " a long essay on the origins of Hitlerism, both of which were written early in 1940.
The late 1930s also brought a significant new dimension to Weil's thinking. Though an agnostic from childhood, she found herself in situations—contemplating the beauty of St. Francis' little chapel in Assisi, listening to a Gregorian chant at a Benedictine monastery during Holy Week, reciting George Herbert's poem "Love" as an object of concentration to help her endure the climax of an excruciating headache—in which she suddenly felt overwhelmed by the presence of God. After these experiences she began to regard Plato, whom she had always loved, as a mystic and began to search for what she called the "mystical core" in other religions. She came to believe that a non-oppressive society must be based on a common conviction that every human being is deserving of respect because he has an eternal destiny. Her longstanding belief in the radical equality of human beings (based on the Cartesian teaching that every human being is capable of knowing as much as the greatest genius if only he exercises his mind properly) was now given a supernatural sanction.
World War II Flight to England
Following the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, Weil and her parents fled to the unoccupied south of France, residing in Marseilles from September 1940 until May 1942. During this period Weil read extensively in Greek, Hindu, and other texts and thought and wrote a great deal. She believed she had found a truly Christian civilization, a model of the type of the hierarchical but non-oppressive society she was beginning to formulate as an ideal, in the 11th-and 12th-century cities of the Languedoc, where for more than 100 years Catholicism existed side by side with a form of Gnosticism known as Catharism.
Though she was strongly drawn toward Catholicism, Weil also found many elements of the Catharist faith attractive; as a result of this, some commentators have judged her to be a Manichean and a Gnostic—essentially, a heretic— who rejected the material realm as evil and sought escape from it and from the body into a realm of pure spirit. In fairness to Weil it should be pointed out that there is a great deal in her writing about the beauty of the world and the necessity of loving it as God's creation, even when it brings pain and death. Moreover, there is nothing Manichean in her belief in the humanity and divinity of Christ and in his presence in the Eucharist. Though she desired the sacraments she was never baptized, feeling that it was her vocation to remain a Christian outside the Church.
During the time she spent in Marseilles she was phenomenally productive. In addition to the essays on the Languedoc (see "A Medieval Epic Poem" and "The Romanesque Renaissance" in Selected Essays), she wrote essays on problems in modern science (see On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God), a large number of essays on religious subjects (see Waiting for God and Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks), and her Marseilles Notebooks. She also spent several weeks as a hired laborer working the vineyards of the Rhone valley during the grape harvest.
Though reluctant to leave France, Weil was persuaded to accompany her parents to New York in May 1942. She hoped once in New York to be able to interest the United States government in a plan she had conceived to organize a corps of nurses who would go into battle with the soldiers in order to give immediate first aid and thus save lives that would otherwise be lost because of shock and loss of blood. Needless to say, Weil wanted to be one of these nurses. Her proposal was turned down, and after five months in New York City she made her way to London to work for the French Resistance. Desperately wanting to be exposed to the risks and suffering of war—she felt she was called by God to do so—she begged to be parachuted into France as a saboteur; however, she was given a desk job reviewing reports of Resistance committees in France. Told to draw up her own ideas on how France should be reconstructed after the war, she wrote The Need for Roots, an extremely condensed summary of her thinking on the causes of the modern loss of rootedness in the sacred and suggestions for its possible cure.
Stress and malnourishment (she refused, out of solidarity with the French living on short rations under the German occupation, to eat more than the amount of food that would have been available to her in France) took their toll on her health, and in April 1943 she was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Even in the hospital, however, she was unwilling or unable to eat more than meager amounts. In July digestive problems caused her to eat even less than before, and she went downhill rapidly. She died in a sanitarium in Ashford, Kent, on August 24, 1943, at the age of 34. The Ashford newspaper, which carried a story on her death, described it as a suicide. When her books began to be published and translated after her death, this story of her supposed suicide out of sympathy with the starving French captured the popular imagination, and she was widely seen as a kind of crazy secular saint, admirable but ludicrous in her intense seriousness and impossible and impractical idealism. As more of her large body of writings was published and translated in the 1950s and 1960s, this image began to give way to a serious study of her work and to a recognition of her as one of the most lucid, challenging minds of the 20th century.
The major biography of Weil is Simone Petrement's Simone Weil: A Life (1976). Shorter but also valuable are Jacques Cabaud's Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love (1964) and Richard Rees's Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait (1966). Dorothy Tuck McFarland's Simone Weil (1983) is a study of her writings. Robert Cole wrote a reflective account of Weil's faith in Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987).
Coles, Robert, Simone Weil: a modern pilgrimage, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Fiori, Gabriella, Simone Weil, an intellectual biography, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck, Simone Weil, New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1983.
McLellan, David, Utopian pessimist: the life and thought of Simone Weil, New York: Poseidon Press, 1990.
Nevin, Thomas R., Simone Weil: portrait of a self-exiled Jew, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Petrement, Simone, Simone Weil: a life, New York: Schocken Books, 1988.
Rees, Richard, Simone Weil: a sketch for a portrait, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978, 1966.
Simone Weil, interpretations of a life, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. □
French philosopher, mystic, and social critic Simone Weil (1909–1943) was born in Paris on February 3 and died in Ashford, Kent, in England on August 24. Though raised in a prosperous bourgeois family and classically educated at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Weil sympathized from an early age with the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and the afflicted.
Before the age of twenty Weil identified herself as an anarcho-syndicalist. She was attracted to the philosophy of Marx but refused to join the communist party. Her earliest sustained social analysis, "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression," provided a critique of Marxism that Albert Camus (1913–1960) judged the most profound of the twentieth century. This critique focused on what Weil thought was the inadequacy of Marx's optimistic view that technological progress would lead inevitably to the liberation of the proletariat. For her, technological development gave humanity more control over nature only at the expense of greater dependency on what she called the collectivity. The collectivity includes the bureaucratic structure of the state (political and legal authority, including the government and the police) as well as the private corporations that produce the goods and services of the economy.
Weil argued that labor is not in itself the cause of oppression. For her, genuine human freedom meant freedom from the illusions that, in industrial society, take the form of ideologies and myths, of which the idea of progress is the preeminent example. In order to be free of the tyranny of illusion, human beings must come to know themselves as limited beings. Their finitude is revealed through methodical, thoughtful engagement with necessity; in other words, through work. Work is therefore a good that is not to be eliminated but ought to be the spiritual center of civilization. Weil argued that the problem with modern technology is that methods (mechanical or bureaucratic) are built into machines or organizations, thereby eliminating the need for thinking. A method, once developed, can be applied indefinitely, without ever being understood by the person who applies it. Generally, there is method in the motions of work, but none in the minds of the workers who tend automatic machines. They are reduced to slavery; they have lost their freedom.
This analysis formed the basis of Weil's critique of the industrial system that, in her view, dedicated itself to the maximization of the productivity of the worker rather than the maximization of freedom in the work process. In her two years of factory work (1934–1935), she saw that workers usually cannot understand the techniques they apply and this fact undermined their thinking relationship to reality. Due to the division and coordination of labor which in turn is a function of the techniques of production, there is a virtually complete divorce between thought and action. The manual laborers on a production line are not free, are dehumanized and reduced to slaves, not because they perform physically laborious tasks but because their tasks are so structured as to exclude the possibility of thought. Mental workers, those who make up the essential bureaucratic structure by which the activity of the workers is brought into coordinated relation, may be as enslaved as the manual laborers themselves because their thinking is ordinarily divorced from any direct action or work, and does not involve a dialogue with those whose lives they order. They too have lost touch with necessity.
Weil's critique of modern industry led her to analyze modern science as itself having become a thoughtless collective enterprise that relies on specialization for its advancement. No single mind can grasp even a sub-discipline of physics or chemistry. Researchers take over not only the results but the methods developed by their predecessors without understanding them or their relation to the whole. Weil concluded that the scientist can be crushed by science in much the same way that the workers are crushed by their work.
Toward the end of her life when her most profound religious thinking and social analysis was done, Weil contrasted modern (or, as she called it, classical) science, developed after Galileo and Newton between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, with ancient Greek science. She concluded that modern science had emancipated the study of nature, first understood on the analogy of work (that is, in terms of energy), from the idea of the good, and then from the idea of necessity. In the 1940s, Weil predicted that the incomparable technical achievements of science would become divorced from any ordering principle and destroy human scale, as complexity was piled on complexity and society became uprooted.
Weil died prematurely in England at the age of 34. The significance of her posthumously published writings on religion as well the social and political crises of her times are only beginning to be appreciated for their depth and originality.
LAWRENCE E. SCHMIDT
SEE ALSO Freedom;Humanization and Dehumanization;Marxism.
McLellan, David. (1990). Utopian Pessimist. New York: Poseidon Press. A biography by the renowned scholar of Marxism that emphasizes her links to the labor movement in France between the wars.
Pétrement, Simone. (1976). Simone Weil: A Life. New York: Pantheon Books. A carefully documented biography by a dear personal friend and renowned scholar of ancient Gnosticism.
Weil, Simone. (1968). "Classical Science and After." In her On Science, Necessity and the Love of God. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Written in Marseille in 1941, this essay takes up the critique of classical (modern) science adumbrated in "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression."
Weil, Simone. (1971). The Need for Roots. New York: Harper Colophon. Written at the end of 1942 for De Gaulle who was leading the Free French in London, this report outlines Weil's proposal for the reconstruction of France after Hitler's defeat.
Weil, Simone. (2001). "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression." In her Oppression and Liberty. Translated by Arthur Wills and John Petrie. New York: Routledge. Written in 1933–1934 before her year of factory work, this lengthy essay outlines Weil's reasons for rejecting the liberal and Marxist optimism about the liberating potential of technological progress.
WEIL, SIMONE (1909–1943), essayist and religious mystic. Born in Paris of secularized Jewish parents, Simone Weil was part of a family whose outstanding trait was intellectual precocity. As a student at France's École Normale, a school noted for its lofty intellectualism and academic rigor, she scored highest on a nationwide entrance examination and in 1931 graduated with the highest rank. The most remarkable quality of this woman, beyond her surpassing intellectual brilliance, was her disposition to extend herself physically in following her sympathies. She also suffered from excruciating headaches, which added to the frailty and exhaustion that came from nervous disability and undernourishment.
From 1931 to 1934, Weil taught school in several French towns and engaged in political activity in behalf of unemployed and striking workers. This political activity, together with her eccentricities of dress and manner, did not make for a successful teaching career. Weil's growing concern with Marxism led her to take a job in a Paris factory, which she stayed with only four months. In 1936 she went to Spain to join Loyalist frontline troops as a battalion cook, but colossal ineptitude for this work, plus a growing conviction that neither side wore the mantle of righteousness, led to her withdrawal from this venture as well.
Beginning in 1937, after several mystical experiences, she became a Christian, relating that in one of these experiences "Christ himself came down and he took me." After this experience her writing was largely concerned with religion. Weil did not write any books. What we know about her thought comes from her letters, journal, and essays, which may account for the lack of a coherent and developed statement of her religious views. The closest she came to a formal religious affirmation was to the Roman Catholic church but, curiously, she refused its baptism, partly on the grounds that Christianity claimed the Old Testament as the foundation of its truth. She rejected this because she felt that the Old Testament contained too much of war and was too tribal to sustain the Catholic claim to universality.
As a thinker in religion Weil is especially significant for her insights into the effect of mass material culture on the human spirit, especially in terms of the vitiating of freedom and the fragmenting of the idea of community. She died in England during World War II from what is now presumed to have been anorexia nervosa.
The best statement of sources on Weil is "Simone Weil's Bibliography: Some Reflections on Publishing and Criticism" by George Abbott White in his Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life (Amherst, Mass., 1981). See also John Hellman's Simone Weil (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1982).
William D. Miller (1987)
French-Jewish writer, a radical in her social and political thinking, but drawn toward Catholicism (pseudonym Emile Novis); b. Paris, 1909; d. Ashford, England, Aug. 24, 1943. Weil was the daughter of a physician of the Parisian bourgeois milieu. Her childhood was happy, but World War I sharpened precociously her sensitivity to the miseries of man. The genius of her brother, Andrew ("his childhood was comparable to that of Pascal") stimulated her passion for the truth. She was attracted from her ninth year to Bolshevism, became an anarchist, and helped Trotsky. Simone was a student of Alain (Emile Chartier, 1868–1951), entered the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and earned the agrégée in philosophy. Weil taught at Le Puy, Roanne, Bourges, and then, obtaining leave, became a worker, and took part in the social movements and strikes of 1936. After that she involved herself with anarchists in the civil war in Spain.
Her position was strictly agnostic and anticlerical in 1938, when, on a visit to Solesmes, "Christ took hold of her." From then on she believed in His love and divinity and discovered the meaning of the Passion. Anti-Semitic decrees brought her to Provence where she met Father J.M. Perrin and worked as an agricultural laborer while a guest of G. Thibon. Then she discovered the relation of prayer to God and the Eucharist, but, beset by tormenting intellectual problems, did not enter the Church. She remained "waiting for God."
With her parents, she went to the U. S. to join her brother in the summer of 1942. She then returned to Free France and went to London in November. She obstinately shared the privations of the war and died the following August in a state of exhaustion.
Weil had an ardent compassion for the unfortunate, a great desire for the truth, and an eagerness to search out the will of God. Spiritually, she was torn by the conflict she felt between the attraction of Christ, of the Eucharist, and of the Gospel, on the one hand; and, on the other, the social, philosophical, and historical objections that oppressed her. In these the major lacunae in her knowledge are evident.
Bibliography: j. m. perrin and g. thibon, Simone Weil as We Knew Her, tr. e. craufurd (London 1953). g. fiori, Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography, tr. j. r. berrigan (Athens, Ga. 1989). r. h. bell, Simone Weil: The Way of Justice as Compassion (Lanham, Md. 1998). m. vetÖ The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil, tr. j. dargan (Albany, N.Y. 1994).
[j. m. perrin]
WEIL, SIMONE (1909–1943), French philosopher. Simone Weil was one of those rare thinkers whose life and thought were inseparable. Born into an upper-class Paris family (her brother was André *Weil), she lived most of her adult life in circumstances of physical deprivation. In 1934, wishing to share the experiences of the poor, she gave up teaching philosophy to become a factory worker. The fruit of this experience was La Condition Ouvrière, published posthumously in 1951. In 1936 she joined the Republicans in the Civil War in Spain, and in 1940, after the Nazi invasion, she worked as a farm laborer in southern France. In 1942, she left the U.S., where she had immigrated with her family, intending to return to France and join the Resistance. She never got further than England where, weakened by the hardships of her earlier life, she permitted herself to die of starvation. Most of Simone Weil's writings, published posthumously, consist of fragments from her notebooks, letters, articles, and memoranda, and can perhaps best be regarded as the testimony of a life of relentless dedication to the search for absolute truth and social justice. She was a mystic in the tradition of the 14th-century German theologians Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, both of whom influenced her thought. Although she never actually converted to Catholicism, she experienced a mystical encounter with Jesus in 1938. Her main reason for not converting was that she found it impossible to accept the unchristian historical role of the Church. On the other hand, her attitude towards Judaism was one of total and blinding rejection. She considered it a racial, nationalistic, and cruel religion, and attributed all the evil in Christianity, such as the Inquisition and the killing of heretics, to its Jewish sources.
Published selections of her writings include: Cahiers (3 vols., 1951–56; Notebooks, 2 vols., 1956); La pesanteur et la grâce (1946; Gravity and Grace, 1952); L'Enracinement (1949; The Need for Roots, 1952); Attente de Dieu (1950; Waiting on God, 1951); and Lettre à un religieux (1951; Letter to a Priest, 1953).
J. Cabaud, Simone Weil (Eng., 1964); R. Rees, Simone Weil; a Sketch for a Portrait (1966); G. Kempfer, La Philosophie mystique de Simone Weil (1960); I.R. Malan, L' Enracinement de Simone Weil (1961).
[Myriam M. Malinovich]
In all religions (and outside them) the awareness of God is possible and has left its mark. The mark of truth is goodness.