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12 July 2023

Simone Weil’s great awakening

How the French activist and thinker forged a radical new philosophy for an age of war and ideological conflict.

By Wolfram Eilenberger

“Simone Weil, as I have come to understand, is the only great mind of our time… I would be content if I could be said to have done my part, with the modest means at my disposal, to disseminate her work and bring it to people’s attention; a body of work whose full effect remains to be assessed.”

What Albert Camus described in a 1951 letter to Weil’s mother has lost none of its urgency: the 20th-century French philosopher and activist remains one of the great pioneers of the present. And the task of disseminating her canon and her influence is still, almost unbelievably, only just beginning. Ignored by the major continental currents of the postwar period, Weil has, since her death in a sanatorium in Kent in 1943, had a quiet afterlife out of all proportion with the intellectual depth, visionary force and thematic range of her work.

Weil was born in Paris in 1909 to a modestly affluent family: her father, Bernard, was a medical doctor. Physically fragile, she stood out from her peers from an early age owing to her intellectual gifts (by the age of 12 she had nearly mastered ancient Greek) as well as her heightened moral sensibilities. Hers was a sceptical disposition, one that clashed with the age of extremes she was thrown into as a child and young adult, a time of unchained passions, dogmas, and industrial slaughter. By the age of 22, she had graduated in philosophy at France’s elite institution, the École Normale Supérieure, where in the course on logic she finished top of her year (Simone de Beauvoir finished second), and by the age of 30 had participated in the Spanish Civil War and witnessed the outbreak of two world wars.

[See also: The plain-speaking philosophers]

Weil’s position on issues relating to pacificism and military engagement, drawing on ancient texts such as the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture from the first millennium BCE, is a major reason for her contemporary importance. In the winter of 1936-37, as her contemporaries Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre pleaded for French troops to be dispatched to fight for the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, the pacifist Weil – just back from Barcelona, wounded and traumatised by the conflict – composed one of the most powerful anti-war reflections of the 20th century. Titled “Let’s Not Start the Trojan War All Over Again”, the essay contained the core of Weil’s personal philosophy.

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Convinced that the cruellest conflicts of history were distinguished by having neither definable reasons nor goals, Weil examined the word-bound nature of the battles that defined her age: “As curious as it might sound, illuminating the concepts, discrediting the originally empty ones, establishing the use of other words through precise investigations is a task that might save human lives.”

Just as the Greeks went to war for Helen, a wildly over-imagined woman whom they had never seen in real life, in Weil’s own ideologically divided age it was “words adorned with capital letters that play the role of Helen. If we take one of these blood- and tear-drenched words and try to hold on to it, we find that it has no content… any terms from our political and social vocabulary may be used as an example: Nation, Security, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism…”

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What makes Weil’s pacifism pertinent today, apart from its obvious relevance to Russia’s war on Ukraine, is the uncompromising way in which she applied the same scrutiny of concepts and ideas to the left-wing groups in which she herself moved. This was especially with respect to the vague and universally legitimating talk of “the system”.

“It is plainly easier to kill and even to die,” she wrote, “than to ask the only genuinely simple questions such as this: do the laws, the conventions that govern economic life at present form a system?” This remains a vital question. What would become of the credibility of the texts written by activists – left or right – denouncing “the system” if they were subjected to the same serious self-examination that Weil brought to her own work and those of her comrades?

[See also: Only philosophy can beat AI]

There was nothing that Simone Weil despised more fiercely than seeking refuge in grand terminology that promised salvation. She was made aware of the potential consequences of such complacency during her few weeks in the Spanish Civil War, specifically among what were supposed to be her “own ranks”, be it the ideological tribalism within the “republican forces” or the increasing dehumanisation of the enemy – manifest in the execution of prisoners.

Weil volunteered to fight in Spain (although she never faced real combat) not because she believed in the cause of Spanish freedom from Franco, but because she experienced the visceral need to stand by those who were helplessly exposed to the horrors of war.

Yet for her, the primary duty of the philosophical person, and particularly a politically active one, remained rigorous self-examination – guided by the conviction that true moral enlightenment was only to be found beyond the spheres of man-made languages.

Weil was convinced that in the depths of our existence, it is not concepts and arguments that define us as moral beings, but concrete experiences. This is what explains her commitment as an anti-Stalinist trade unionist, a factory worker in Paris, a refugee aid worker in Marseille, a volunteer in Spain, a fiery anti-colonialist, and then a member of the French Resistance. More significantly, for Weil, we are beings moved to action not, in the first instance, by concepts but by forces beyond ourselves: experiences of suffering, love, profound insight or disturbance, whose origins Weil did not shy away from calling transcendent, even divine.

Weil believed that true awakening can be achieved only when we find within ourselves the necessary stillness, the necessary weakness, to move on from the world of conceptual thought.

Another central aspect of Weil’s philosophy was her diagnosis of profound kinships that connected – and continues to connect – far-right and left-wing thought. In her visionary 1933 article, “Prospects – Are We Heading for a Proletarian Revolution?”, she argued – a good 15 years before Hannah Arendt, and to the general outrage of the French left – that there existed considerable similarities between Nazism and Stalinism, warning against the establishment of a total surveillance state based on a technologised bureaucracy. In the last months of her life in 1943 she laid bare the messianic life-lies of institutionalised Marxism in her notebooks (cahiers):

“Totalitarianism is a substitute for Christianity.”

“Not religion, revolution is the opium of the people.”

“The greatest error of the Marxists and the whole 19th century consisted in believing that if one only walked straight ahead one would rise into the air.”

But perhaps more controversially for our own times, in her notebooks Weil also revealed the similarities that can arise between the oppressive discourses of fascism and the emancipatory discourses of liberation movements. “Socialism,” she wrote, “consists in imputing good to the conquered, and racialism in imputing good to the conquerors. But the revolutionary wing of socialism makes use of those who, though lowly born, are by nature and by vocation conquerors. Thus it ends up by having the same form of ethics.”

For Weil, the defeated, the oppressed and the marginalised – the people to whom she devoted her life and work to the point of self-sacrifice – were first and foremost only that: defeated, oppressed, marginalised, and in need of active solidarity. Nothing else. But Weil argued that of even greater danger than being seen as ennobled – morally or otherwise – simply because of such victimhood, is a politics that views individuals primarily as members of a group, essentialising their identity and epistemic status a posteriori.

Under the oppressive totalitarian conditions of the 1930s and 1940s in which Weil honed her thinking, she warned against the use of the word “we”, as well as any discourse in which the interests of “society” (which Weil also called the “Great Beast”) are mobilised for the ultimate legitimation of any kind of political measures. Weil saw this as just one more form of infantilising idolatry:

“For in society the individual is infinitely small… The Great Beast is the only object of idolatry, the only substitute for God, the only imitation of an object which is infinitely far from me and which is myself.”

[See also: The Red Christian]

Writing in early 1933, Weil argued that a truly democratic body politic must aim for nothing but “the subordination of society to the individual”. But towards the end of her life, she came to believe that any emancipatory thought worthy of the name was to be found beyond the poles of the individual and the collective: “One must not be I, but still less must one be We.”

Weil deplored the existentialism of Sartre and Beauvoir, which idealised authenticity, rootless self-creation and total freedom of choice as the core of the human condition. For her, their philosophy portended a looming era of narcissistic ego-fixation and fetishised self-empowerment.

[See also: Paul Johnson: From radical to reactionary]

Weil deplored the existentialism of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, pictured here in Rio de Janeiro, 1960. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

The true achievement of emancipation, Weil thought, lay in liberation not of the self but from the self. Reflective self-empowerment should make way for a pre-reflective alertness to the beauty and vulnerability of life. This leads to an active care for the world we share with other beings – it made no difference to her whether it was named “nature” or “God”.

This mystical programme, what Weil called “decreation”, involved humans renouncing their autonomy and power out of love for God. This conscious effort to overcome the illusions of the “I”, and its all-too-human will to transform the world, may be accused of being politically naive. But as a present-day impulse it is no more hopeless, and certainly considerably more humane, than contemporary proposals for escaping our ecological and economic darkness.

We need only think of the highly calculated promises of salvation presented with hideous self-certainty by the proponents of effective altruism, with their utilitarian moral offsets on a global scale. It is misguided to believe that pure arguments and calculated sacrifices alone will help us face our planetary challenges. In Weil’s view, we need transformative experiences that arise when we become attentive to the natural beauty and interconnection that lies outside of ourselves. Weil calls such revelatory forms of attention “praying”:

“At its highest stage attention is the same as prayer. It assumes faith and love. It is associated with a freedom other than that of choice, which occurs at the level of the will – grace. Being so attentive that one no longer has a choice.”

[See also: Philosophy, the Sartre blend: uncovering the birth of existentialism]

Weil’s work demands greater attention from all those who are interested in what a workable philosophy of the future might look like. It is a way of thinking that dares to seek a path beyond the sham alternatives of “I” or “we”, a way of thinking freed from the self-blinding careerism and over-specialisation of academic philosophy. It is a discipline that allows space for experiences and insights beyond purely conceptual investigations.

Finally, and this is the greatest challenge for the Western mind today, it is a way of thinking that dares to speak of transcendence: an openness to the presence of God or the gods, a willingness to accept (moral) truths which are not of human origin and which therefore need to be witnessed and acknowledged rather than consensually agreed upon. Such thinking would mean nothing less than a visionary return to what it means to exist philosophically.

This may be a reason for the neglect of Weil’s work and influence for over 70 years. Correctly understood, it was not because Weil did not write a single academic specialist article in her lifetime. Nor that she was a “mere” woman. Nor that as a radical left-winger she became the harshest critic of left dogmatic history. It was not even the fact that, as an unbaptised Catholic of Jewish origin, she fell between all established categories and reception networks.

It was simply that for Weil the path of philosophy was one of clarifying self-transformation and everyday presence of mind. That she most impressively embodied what the specialist industry of academic philosophy, revolving in ever-decreasing, ever more reproachful circles, is not, and plainly has no intention of being in future: a courageous and uncompromising pursuit of wisdom; feeling for a way out of self-induced immaturity in a dark time.

It is all still true: Simone Weil is the embodiment of a philosophical awakening whose full effects remain to be assessed.

Translated by Shaun Whiteside. Wolfram Eilenberger’s “The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil and the Salvation of Philosophy” will be published in August by Allen Lane

[See also: Hegel against the machines]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation