August 23, 2002, will be the fifty-ninth anniversary of the death of Simone Weil, a French Jew revered by many Christians as an uncanonized saint. Exegetes of diverse faiths (and none) have written at length about her mystical meditations. André Gide declared her “the most spiritual writer of this [twentieth] century.” Albert Camus called her “the only great spirit of our time.”
While she lived she published very little: a few articles on political and social questions mostly in trade union papers; a few essays on literary themes, including one on The Iliad in the Marseilles journal Cahiers du Sud in the winter of 1940–41. The bulk of her work, the religious writing, was left in the form of manuscripts, notes on a theme—often in the form of aperçu rather than argument—and letters. The theologian Gustave Thibon collected and published some of these after the Second World War, thus bringing her to the notice of intellectuals throughout the European world and launching her international reputation. Numerous collections are now available, in many languages, and volumes on her life and work proliferate. First they trickled and then they poured from the university presses of Europe and America. The Reader’s Catalog from The New York Review of Books currently lists eighty-nine titles under “Simone Weil.” Amazon.com has forty-three books for sale, by her or about her, published since 1987, of which about one-third have appeared in the last year or are about to appear, and these are in the English language only. Dozens of references to her are to be found in many a language any week of the year in publications dealing with religion, philosophy, literature, politics, sociology, twentieth-century history, classical Greece.
According to Francine du Plessix Gray in a recent biography of Weil, Pope Paul VI claimed her as one of the three—with Pascal and Bernanos—most important influences on his intellectual development. It may be that the only reason she is not and is never likely to be Saint Simone is that she was never baptized. She refused baptism a number of times, the last as she lay dying. She regarded herself, however, as a true Christian, too true, by her own understanding, to become a member of the Catholic Church (the only existing church to which she felt drawn). She felt she could be “faithful to Christ” without being a member of the Church; perhaps even more so because she was outside it. “A few sheep should remain outside the fold to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different.”
Simone Adolphine Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909, the second child and only daughter of Bernard and Selma Weil. Her father was a well-to-do physician. He and his wife belonged to that large international class of cultivated, bourgeois Jews who were left-wing in their politics and considered themselves heirs of the Enlightenment rather than of Mosaic Law, or survivors of the Inquisition and the ghetto. Marx and Freud were their prophets. If they were not observant of their ancestral faith in their daily lives, they were still generally inclined to acknowledge its traditions and to turn up dutifully once a year to their parents’ or grandparents’ Passover dinners.
Perhaps the only thing typically (though of course not exclusively) Jewish about the upbringing of the Weil children was its intellectual climate. What such parents expected of a son and—perhaps to a lesser extent—of a daughter, was that he, and she if at all possible, be a genius. It seemed they would not be disappointed in the case of the boy. Early on, André showed himself to be a talented mathematician. His sister had no such distinction. She saw this as a fault and a failing, and was deeply envious of André. His gifts made her feel so inferior that at the age of fourteen (she was to confess in later years) she fell into despair. Hope revived in her, however, when the thought came to her that there was another way to qualify for entry into the paradise of genius.
At fourteen I fell into one of those fits of bottomless despair that come with adolescence, and I seriously thought of dying because of the mediocrity of my natural faculties. The exceptional gifts of my brother, who had a childhood and youth comparable to those of Pascal, brought my own inferiority home to me. I did not mind having no visible successes, but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides. I preferred to die rather than live without that truth. After months of inward darkness, I suddenly had the everlasting conviction that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural faculties, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment. He thus becomes a genius too, even though for lack of talent his genius cannot be visible from outside.
It seems this conviction and desire did indeed last her the rest of her life. Towards the end, when she came to believe she had the truth in her grasp, she was certain it was her key to the kingdom: that through long “concentration of attention” she had become one of the elect. Her particular, inconspicuous genius had its special task: to invent a new saintliness and for that it had to be a superior sort of genius.
Today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent… . A new type of sanctity … is almost equivalent to a new revelation of the universe and of human destiny… . More genius is needed [to invent it] than was needed by Archimedes to invent mechanics and physics. A new saintliness is a still more marvellous invention.
She was welcomed to the heights after her death. T. S. Eliot said of her explicitly: “We must expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of a saint.”
It was a hard climb, but Weil had both natural and circumstantial advantages to start her off. As an adolescent she was intelligent enough, and strove hard enough, to do well at the excellent schools her parents sent her to. In June 1925 she took her baccalauréat and later that year entered the Lycée Henri IV, where for three years she studied under Emile-August Chartier, better known by his pen-name Alain. She learned Greek, revelled in Homer, took Plato to her heart. She went on to be trained as a teacher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, having come top in the entrance exam, just ahead of Simone de Beauvoir.
She now had reason to take pride in her own abilities and achievements and did not seem lacking in self-confidence. Quite the opposite, she expressed her opinions with a vehemence that was often taken for arrogance. In her student days she was earnestly and ardently committed to atheism, Marxism, pacifism, and trade unionism. Earnestness and ardor were to characterize all intellectual commitments throughout her short life. Her beliefs changed, but not the intensity with which she held them and pressed them on others. She was argumentative, quibbling, cutting, and boring, as well as overbearing and unable to concede even an inch to an opposing view. Nor was this leavened by any sense of humor; her manner was often abrupt and discourteous.
Yet, she was in private miserably unsure of herself. And though she wanted people to understand that she was right, she did not want them to think she was vain. As a child she had pretty features, fine dark eyes, soft waving hair, but in her later teens she sabotaged her looks. From her student days onward, she dressed in long, wide skirts and shapeless coats of drab color, a woollen cap or beret in winter, and flat shoes. Whether to deny herself the vanity of preening or because she was too absorbed in thought (or for some other reason), she neglected her body. She seldom washed or brushed her teeth (opining that “too much washing” had gone on in her childhood home). Her hair went uncombed. Her eyesight was poor and her eyes distorted by the thick lenses of her glasses. Even as she pinned a person down with words, her aspect conveyed the message: “keep your distance.” It was understood among her relations, friends, and acquaintances that she disliked physical contact. This, she said, was because of her own “disgustingness.” A kiss revolted her. She did not want to attract sexually or be attracted. She spoke plainly of her “total sexlessness.” Yet her choice of drabness and inconspicuousness was not made without a sigh: “For other people, in a sense I do not exist. I am the color of dead leaves, like certain unnoticed insects.”
Weil’s career as a teacher of philosophy began in 1931, and for the most part was a failure. She had her own theories of pedagogy, pet methods, and on the whole colleagues and superiors did not like them. She was “transferred” from her first job at a girls’ school in Le Puy after she had marched in a demonstration with the unemployed. But the loss of her position did not make her one of them. The state was obliged to re-employ her.
While waiting for another post, she visited Germany “to observe the political situation.” This was 1932, after Hitler’s National Socialists had won more than a third of the votes in the general election. What she learnt about Nazism left her in no doubt that it was an evil movement, but she believed she understood the nature of its appeal. She wrote, with a touch of appalled fascination: “If there were twenty or so young Germans in front of me at this minute, singing Nazi songs in chorus, part of me would immediately become Nazi.”
She could not have failed to be aware that Hitler and his movement were intensely anti-Semitic, but she made no special mention of it. She did, however, record some antagonistic views of her own about the Jews: “Look, here is evil! … A people chosen for moral blindness, chosen to be the murderers of Christ… . The Jews, this handful of uprooted people, have caused the uprooting of the whole planet.” She declared that the Old Testament was “a tissue of horrors”—though she excepted Job, most of the Psalms, the Song of Solomon, “the second Isaiah,” Daniel, and some of the Prophets. She refused to identify Jehovah with the Trinitarian “God the Father.” Jehovah, to her mind, was an evil god who “made the same promises to Israel as the Devil did to Christ,” and who, “having taken the Jews out of Pharaoh’s hands, succeeded to Pharaoh’s rights.”
Having to deal with these opinions in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Weil’s defenders have tried to point to her sympathy for all human suffering—for which the evidence is her own claim. According to her,
Contact with the affliction of other people, those who are indifferent or unknown to me as much as the others, perhaps even more so, including those of the most remote ages of antiquity, causes me such atrocious pain and so utterly rends my soul that as a result the love of God becomes almost impossible for me for a while.
This feeling for others, especially unknown others, was, she averred, the source of her own deepest suffering. It seems she could feel, as many humanitarians do, more for distant and anonymous people en masse than for particular individuals. She confessed to grudging people known to her the distinction of suffering: “With any human being taken individually, I always find reasons for concluding that sorrow and misfortune do not suit him, either because he seems too mediocre for anything so great, or on the contrary, too precious to be destroyed.” She herself did not fall into either of these categories. Neither self-contempt (“succumbing every day to laziness and inertia compels me to despise myself”) nor humility (“the root of love … it has an irresistible power over God”) inhibited her yearning to belong to the ranks of the pitiable. She watched for an opportunity to share their lot.
Her next teaching posts were at Auxerre and Rouen, where again she practiced her “controversial” methods, again marched with protesters, and so was yet again euphemistically dismissed, this time “given a year’s leave from teaching.” She decided to work and live as a manual laborer. Workers were not only “more real” but also “more beautiful than the bourgeoisie.” Taken on at a factory, she resolved to support herself entirely on her wages, but when she could not find somewhere to live at a rent she could afford, her parents helped her— though she refused to let them make her comfortable, preferring to keep her rooms cold, uncleaned, and almost bare of furniture. She wanted them to understand and appreciate that she cared nothing for material things. Her first employer was an electrical appliance manufacturer. Clumsy and slow, she was sacked after three months. Next she took a job as a packer, but did the work too badly to be kept on longer than three weeks.
She would not eat enough to keep healthy and felt constantly unwell. She suffered from chronic sinusitis. Headaches, which had plagued her from the age of puberty, were becoming more frequent, persistent, and severe. Pain and weakness kept her off work for weeks, then she joined a Renault production line. Soon she was again exhausted “physically and spiritually,” and her parents took her to Portugal for a rest.
Weil felt she had been spiritually transformed by her “year of factory work.” The experience had brought human suffering home to her, so that it “entered her soul” permanently. She said her deepest suffering was now for the downtrodden, the poor, the exploited, the wretched of the industrialized world. She had been made to “regard [herself] as a slave,” not just while she was at work on the production line, where her cack-handedness and habit of daydreaming provoked foremen to treat her with rough impatience, but permanently, for the rest of her life. From that time on, she said, she always expected to be spoken to brutally, and if addressed in any other way, she “felt there must be some mistake.” Yet her own humiliation, headaches, sinusitis, and weariness did not distress her as severely as the empathetic anguish with which she was filled.
It was at this point that Christianity began seriously to interest Weil, but she was still some months away from the moment of her conversion. She returned to teaching when she felt strong enough, this time with a little more success. A school in Bourges appreciated her methods. She earned a good salary—too good in her view. It is said that she gave “most of it” away.
Unwilling to give up her dream of living and working with the poor, she went in the spring of 1936 into the country to taste the peasant life and try her hand at farm labor. She found she had as little aptitude for the drudgery of the farm as of the factory. And she was soon called away by a more urgent appeal to her heart. In July, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and her sympathy with Marxism, especially its development as syndicalism—an ideology that had engaged her passions since her student days— sent her irresistibly to the field of conflict. Still a pacifist in sentiment, she was armed only with press accreditation from a trade union publication. She attached herself to an anarchist-syndicalist fighting group in Aragon. As a noncombatant without any practical skills, there was not much she could do. She undertook to mind the campfire and help with the cooking, but, awkward as she was, succeeded only in knocking over a pan of boiling oil and severely scalding one of her legs. Her parents came to Spain to find her, took her out of the hospital, and looked after her themselves in a hotel until she was well enough to go back to France.
On returning to France she applied for and was granted sick leave from teaching and sought rest abroad again, this time in the quieter resorts of Switzerland and Italy. She spent most of her days writing articles on social and political questions and thinking about philosophical-religious ideas. In the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, she knelt where St. Francis had knelt to pray. She had long felt an affinity with this saint, whose background and ideals were not unlike her own. He too had been a child of affluent urban parents, and he too had felt drawn away from ease and comfort to a life of self-abnegation and poverty.
Back home, she took up her last teaching post. She worked through part of the winter of 1937–38, but in the cold of January retreated to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes. Feeling low-spirited and hopeless, and sick with almost continuous headaches, she resolved to kill herself, but not immediately. She would “live conditionally, for a trial period.”
Then she heard the monks’ Gregorian chants, and the beauty of the music won her wholly to Christianity. It was “an experience of mystical revelation.” At Solesmes, an English Catholic introduced her to the works of the Metaphysical poets Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw, and in them she found more comfort and inspiration. She had found faith without losing her suffering and that was how she wanted it to be. God, she wrote, was in the suffering itself, and she would not be without it: “God’s love for us is the very substance of this bitterness and this mutilation.” She composed a terrible prayer, begging for affliction in the extreme.
May all this [sensitivity, intelligence, love] be stripped away from me, devoured by God, transformed into Christ’s substance, and given for food to the afflicted men whose body and soul lack every kind of nourishment. And let me be paralytic—blind, deaf, witless and utterly decrepit… . Father, since thou art the Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me and make them into things for your use, and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or else nothingness.
Politics no longer absorbed her, though she did not, could not, ignore the political stormclouds gathering over Europe. Dreadful things were happening, just as they had happened before, but they were not more to be noticed than the state of her own soul. In the light of unfolding events, she modified her political opinions. She became critical of Marxism (“revolution, not religion, is the opium of the people”) and perceived that Stalinism had much in common with Nazism. When the Germans seized Czechoslovakia, she gave up her longheld belief in pacifism.
The occupation of Prague was carried out in mid-March 1939. Weil was resting in Geneva at the time, under the care of her parents. In that same month her brother André left Europe for America with his wife Eveline. (He was to become a Professor of Mathematics at Princeton.) When war was declared in the following September, Dr. and Mrs. Weil returned with their daughter to Paris, but after France fell to Germany, they moved, like many other prudent Jewish families, to the unoccupied part of the country under the Vichy regime.
They lived in Marseilles. Weil wanted to stay in France, or at least in French territory. She applied to the government for a post in Algeria, but anti-Jewish statutes had been enacted, and she was abruptly reminded that Jews were forbidden employment in the state education service.
Now for the first time in her life she had to confront the fact of her own Jewishness. It was made to matter to her. Also for the first time in her life she was put in the position of a victim not by her own choosing. It was mild victimization in light of what was befalling many of the Jews of Europe, but here she was, classed involuntarily among the Untermenschen, her choice frustrated, her professional career halted.
Rejection on the grounds that she was Jewish could not have come to her as a bolt from the blue, but as a bolt it struck her. She winced under it, smarted from its unfairness. Yet in the light of her temperament, her history, and her idealism, might one not fairly ask: why did she not see this hardship as a gift? Was this not her opportunity to come out strong? She who had for so long thought of herself as the champion of the oppressed, the comforter of the afflicted, who felt only for them and not for herself and desired so ardently to share in their lot, to bear their anguish with them, was now almost inescapably one of them. She had the words to protest; she had the courage to endure; she had the intellect to perceive, analyze, understand, clarify the issue; and she had the will, a positive ardor, to suffer in the cause of suffering humanity. Compassion was her calling. So what might be expected of her now? At the very least, perhaps just to start with, she could publish a denunciation of the Vichy government and its craven collaboration with the Nazis in their policy of persecution and genocide. Had not the Jews a claim, at least as great as any other oppressed people if not at this moment greater, on those who routinely published protests against oppression and injustice? Now, would-be saint and martyr, now is your hour!
She did not seize it. She wrote to the government, and, yes, it was a letter of protest. She reasoned with them sharply against what she felt to be an injustice—one inflicted on Professor Simone Weil personally. Not one word did she say about the evil of anti-Semitism, not one word on behalf of the Jews who were being stripped of all they possessed, torn from their families, deported, imprisoned, starved, enslaved, tortured, and massacred. The letter was entirely and exclusively a complaint that the authorities had classed her as a Jew. She argued that to call her Jewish was an unfounded, unreasonable allegation.
I do not know the definition of the word, “Jew”; that subject was not included in my education. The Statute, it is true, defines a Jew as “a person who has three or more Jewish grandparents.” But this simply carries the difficulty two generations back. Does this word designate a religion? I have never been in a synagogue, and have never witnessed a Jewish ceremony. As for my grandparents—I remember that my paternal grandmother used to go to the synagogue, and I think I have heard that my paternal grandfather did likewise. On the other hand, I know definitely that both my maternal grandparents were free-thinkers. Thus if it is a matter of religion, it would appear that I have only two Jewish grandparents, and so am not a Jew according to the Statute. But perhaps the word designates a race? In that case, I have no reason to believe that I have any link, maternal or paternal, to the people who inhabited Palestine two thousand years ago… . I myself, who profess no religion and never have, have certainly inherited nothing from the Jewish religion… . I would say that if there were a religious tradition which I regard as my patrimony, it is the Catholic tradition. In short, mine is the Christian, French, Greek tradition. The Hebraic tradition is alien to me, and no Statute can make it otherwise.
The ministry of education was unpersuaded, and she remained banned from teaching. She left France in October 1942 with her parents, but not without a pang. Her antipathy to nationalism and patriotism changed. What she called “tearing up her roots” felt “like treason.”
After a brief stay in a refugee camp in Casablanca, she and her parents went to New York. Weil attended mass daily. She read about the war and regretted, ever more as the months went by, that she was being of no use in it. Eventually she wrote to a former fellow student, Maurice Schumann, who was running one of the offices of the Free French in London, and asked him to give her a job. He agreed to employ her, and she sailed for England in a Swedish ship.
The clerical work she had to do was uninteresting, and she did not deceive herself that it was of much help to her country. She still daydreamed of performing heroic deeds. She composed a carefully reasoned recommendation that a special unit of women be formed to give first aid and spiritual comfort to men wounded on the battlefield while they awaited transport to hospital. She saw herself as a leader of these courageous women, angels of gentle mercy and down-to-earth paragons of deft efficiency. But she was already near the end of her sad life.
She had no strong wish to go on living. On the contrary, she believed that death was the moment at which she would be united with God, a consummation she devoutly wished.
Our existence is made up only of His waiting for our own acceptance not to exist. He is perpetually begging from us that existence which He gives. He gives it to us in order to beg it from us.
We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say I. This is what we should yield up to God, and that is what we should destroy.
Suicide, however, was not the way because “The self is not annihilated by committing suicide.” She simply did little to keep herself alive. She ate hardly anything and dressed so poorly in the wet freezing weather that the landlady of the upmarket Holland Park house in which she rented a pleasant bedsitter thought she must be very poor and offered her a smaller, cheaper room under the roof-beams. In truth, her parents saw to it that she had the means to live well; she simply chose not to. She gladly moved into the austere little garret where she shivered and coughed away her last winter. She would not heat the room because she said she could not bear to be comfortable while her French compatriots were suffering. She ate less and less “because in France they are going hungry.” In April 1943, she was hospitalized. Tuberculosis and inanition were diagnosed, but she refused treatment and still would not eat enough food to gain strength.
Somehow she survived until sultry August. Then she said that she would like to go into the country, and since her parents, whom until then she had kept ignorant of her illness, would pay whatever it cost, she was borne away to a private nursing home at Ashford in Kent. A week later, she died of starvation.
In the 1950s, Simone Weil’s posthumous reputation began to grow and has not stopped growing. Catholics and Protestants, mystics of esoteric faiths and cults, New Age pundits, students of Greek philosophy, academics, idealists, and dogmatists continue to find inspiration and validation in what they believe she thought or stood for. In 1968, student rioters in Western Europe, indulging themselves incontinently in declarations and gestures of compassion, lauded her as a defector from her own class to the ranks of the workers. In the same era she was esteemed by Eastern European dissidents as an anti-Communist of purified Marxist ideals. The Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz translated some of Weil’s work in 1958. Later, while Poland was still under Communism, he wrote an essay titled “The Importance of Simone Weil.” “France,” he wrote, “offered a rare gift to the contemporary world in the person of Simone Weil.”
Milosz saw in Weil’s commitment to a non-orthodox Christianity an example for a commitment of his own to a non-orthodox Marxism. He himself was still an admirer of Marx however much he disliked the Communist regime under which he had lived. Marx, he declared in the same essay, was “a seeker of pure truth” wanting “to liberate man from the pressures of group ethics.” He unfortunately fell into the error of opposing “class-dominated ethics with the new ethics of professional revolutionaries,” which was also “group ethics.” This “paved the way” for a form of domination by the new great beast: Stalinist totalitarianism.
Marxists do not generally admire Christian mystics. Catholics do not generally revere crusaders against the “pressures of group ethics.” Yet numbers of both revere and admire Simone Weil. What is it about her that finds a sympathetic response in devotees of such different creeds? Did she manifest or express some vital aspect of twentieth-century Zeitgeist that continues to haunt us? I think she did. Milosz comes close to putting his finger on it when he points out in his essay that she was, “at least by temperament,” a Cathar—Weil herself had declared that her religious beliefs were closest to these medieval dualistic heretics.
To her, as to them, the human soul was a moral battlefield where good and evil were locked in a time-long conflict. Like Gnostic thinkers, such as the Marcionites of the second century, she denounced the god of the Jews as a lesser and evil god, and sought to be reunited in spirit with the true but absent God, the God who is goodness itself, the Platonic ideal or essence of goodness.
Some Gnostic sects so abominated the moral law of Jehovah that they inverted the values of good and evil as explicitly as does Milton’s Satan when he proclaims “Evil be thou my Good.” To the orthodox Christian doctrine of redemption from sin, these Gnostics opposed a doctrine of redemption by sin. Some believed that the tiny spiritual spark of divinity which is all that mortals have of goodness in their vile material bodies could be reunited with the remote god only if they eschewed what the Bible called good and conscientiously committed what it called sin. Their religious rites were orgies of unrestrained libertinism (according to the disgusted church fathers who wrote about them). Others, equally libertine, did not declare evil to be good and good evil but maintained that by sinning they were “consuming”’ sin, using it up, so that the world would be purged of it.
It was not with either of these that Weil expressed sympathy, but with the Cathars’ form of dualism. They are supposed to have believed—supposed, as the only record of their beliefs is that collected by their inquisitorial persecutors—that purity could be attained only by abstention from fleshly pleasures. The body, being evil, must be denied its loathsome material satisfactions. When a Cathar felt he was coming close to the end of his life, he could choose to be a martyr by undergoing a purification rite called the Endura and then fasting to death. It was common for the most devout Cathars to die of starvation. Weil’s mind and spirit concurred.
It is here, in her affinity for the spiritual extremity of the Cathars, that we must seek the quality that makes Weil attractive to so many. Ours is an age in which intellectuals, artists, philosophers, mystics, rebels, and multitudes of the indefinably discontented feel themselves to be heroic antagonists of this world and its evil gods, “wrestling”—to use words attributed to St. Paul—“not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against the spirit of wickedness in high places.” One way or another they yearn to destroy and strive to overturn what has been established. In films, plays, novels, poems, academic theses, tracts, and speeches, sin is praised and customary virtue denigrated. In this so many resemble the old Gnostics— usually without knowing it—that it would not be untrue to call ours a Gnostic age. The still-admired Jean-Paul Sartre, Weil’s contemporary and compatriot, styled the playwright Jean Genet a saint because he was a thief. In the last few years we have seen mass murderers and even cannibals presented as tragic heroes not only in fiction but in real life.
In Simone Weil no one sees a figure who is “tragic” in that way, though tragic in other ways her life may have been. She did not deliberately sin; she longed to be “pure.” She spoke and wrote fervently about being compassionate and humble. But was she saintly? Leslie Fiedler among many others thought so. Simone Weil, he wrote, “has come to seem more and more a special exemplar of sanctity for our time—the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint.”
Let us consider this. Here was a well-provided-for, well-educated young woman who freely chose to regard herself as a slave and to starve herself to death while war raged, hungry children helplessly wasted away in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, the living skeletons of actual slaves dropped into the dust at Bergen-Belsen, and human bodies were consumed night and day in the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The young woman in question was a thinker and writer respected even in her own time by intellectuals and leaders of opinion, but she said nothing about these atrocities. She let herself die in 1943 when millions of her fellow Jews were being murdered in the name of the “final solution of the Jewish question,” and she who claimed to feel a deep sympathy with the afflicted and even a longing to bear their suffering for them protested only against being classed as one of them. If Fiedler is right that Simone Weil epitomizes the moral ideals of our time, then we are morally adrift in an era of darkness.
Simone Weil was a moral and political philosopher, teacher, activist, and mystic that searched for truth and ways to overcome the injustices of the world. Her philosophical pursuits began in her youth as she studied at the best schools in Paris and continued until her untimely death. Weil focused her philosophical inquires on social and political injustices and religious inquiry. She wrote mainly in essays and her thought can be characterized as a combination of Marx and Plato that centered on the goal of alleviating oppression and suffering
Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909. She was often ill as a child, yet showed great intellectual potential. Weil worshipped her brother André and much of her success can be attributed to her desire to follow her brother’s example. Weil’s parents, Bernard and Selma Weil, were both Jewish, but did not practice any religion.
Weil’s parents encouraged their daughter toward what Selma referred to as “the manly virtues.” Weil excelled in all subjects that maintained her interest and attended the Lycée Henri IV in order to prepare for the entrance exam for the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure. Weil was accepted by the Ecole Normale in 1928 and excelled in her studies. She completed several essays in which she explored her Marxist beliefs in relation to power, work, equality, and the working class.
After graduation Weil received a teaching position at Le Puy. While teaching, Weil became involved in the local political activity, joining the unemployed and striking workers. Although members of the middle class criticized her involvement with the workers, Weil was undeterred. She continued to write about her views concerning the democratic and capitalist societies, but strayed from her previous Marxist beliefs. During this time, Weil wrote Oppression and Liberty and numerous short articles for trade union journals. In these works Weil critiques popular Marxist thought and provides a pessimistic account of the limits of capitalism and socialism. In 1934 she was forced to stop teaching because of her unorthodox methods and began working in a Paris factory. Factory work was very satisfying for Weil as she believed that her experience was allowing her to connect with the working class. Unfortunately, she could not continue to work in the factories because of her lack of physical strength and poor health.
By 1936 Weil had returned to teaching, but was not as enthusiastic as she had been at her previous positions. That same year she went to Spain to join the anarchist militia in the Spanish Civil War. She did not want to fight, but instead she desired to share in more experiences of the working class. She was injured as she cooked at the front lines and returned to France with her health depleted to the point that she never held a regular position again.
After her experience at war, Weil began to focus her attention on religion. She developed an obsession with discovering more about God and his will for her life. She had her first mystical experience at the Solesmes Monastery as she listened to the monks chant. She later had another mystical experience in which she stated that “Christ himself came down and He took me” as she read George Herbert’s poem, “Love bade me welcome while my Soul drew back.” After these religious experiences Weil spent the rest of her life trying to discover God’s will for her life and articulate the intellectual consequences of her experiences.
Weil’s thoughts on religion are found in her essays, journal entries, and letters that were later combined in the book Waiting on God. In her writing, Weil relates her beliefs in Christianity to her beloved Greek Philosophy, especially that of Plato. Her religious writing are also filled with her need for sacrifice and martyrdom through an ascetic lifestyle that subsequently led to her untimely death. Although her religious beliefs are scattered throughout her writings, her thoughts on religion form a mystical interpretation of Christianity, which has in recent years received recognition and respect.
Weil was forced to flee to America with her family in 1942 to escape Hitler’s invading army. Although she enjoyed her stay in America, she could not endure the guilt she experienced for not suffering along with her compatriots in France. After seven months in America, Weil left for England to join the Free French. She was only allowed to do paperwork for the Free French and she completed her work with excessive enthusiasm. In this time, Weil also completed The Need for Roots in which she addressed the economic conditions of the working class because of the two world wars and speculated on France’s potential.
Weil Died in 1943 at Grosvenor Sanatorium in England at the age of thirty-four. She had begun to eat only what the French official ration allowed. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis and continued to limit her food intake thinking that the food she did not eat would somehow go to her compatriots in France. Upon her death, it was ruled that she had committed suicide by starving herself “while the balance of her mind was disturbed.” This ruling is often contested, as many believe that Weil’s death was a result of her martyrdom taken to its logical end.
At the time of her death, Weil had published only a few articles and was not widely recognized. Her odd life has generated much confusion and speculation in relation to her beliefs. Although her work has often been misrepresented, she has since been recognized as one of the greatest spiritual thinker and activists of the twentieth century. Weil’s writing is often fragmented and difficult to follow, yet when considered in its entirety her beliefs create a seamless whole that is reflected in the remarkable life of this complex woman.
No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving
some good outside himself towards which his thought
turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope.