She was frail, opinionated, stubborn, short-sighted, and prone to get sick. Coming from an urban, intellectual family, she also excelled among the best alumni in French public education at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. But Simone Weil was hearing a different drummer and did not seem interested in keeping pace with the meritocratic convention of her time.
Born in 1909, Weil broke the conventions of her time and society in gender role, education, class, and religion. The daughter of secular Jews of Alsatian origin, Weil was an aloof student who, like Jean Paul-Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir (first and second in the competitive examination to become a professor in France —or agrégation— one year before Weil), studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and passed her exams with the same ease.
Though things would not go conventionally to Weil if she could prevent life from becoming a predictive life story based on the comfort guaranteed by French education to well-placed students. As a contemporary of Hannah Arendt (born in 1906), Weil did not only develop her thinking around the philosophy of action and the place of humanism in a highly specialized, technified, and more and more automatized world but didn’t settle with looking at the world from the ivory tower of conventional academicism.
To Simone Weil, action did not go well with mere theorization, so after her studies and securing her examination to become a professor, she struggled to find a life purpose amid the tormented European early twentieth century. A personal pursuit of meaning collided with a sense of obligation bigger than her capacities or limited physical stamina.
When everything around you goes awry
Reflecting on the human condition was not a task to remain a purely theoretical endeavor. Whereas Simone’s older brother André would become a reputed mathematician, Simone wanted to know things firsthand, protest perceived injustices, help those in need, participate in a society that was clustering around strong men brandishing revolutionary or reactionary ideologies. The cult of personality would leave a deadly toll in the first half of the twentieth century.
The generational trauma of the Dantesque carnage of the Great War was feeding mass ideologies promising redemption and a better world through sacrifices that appeared to share the same precondition —a call to sacrificing liberal democracy and personal freedom as the first step towards models of perfect societies ready to put ends before means.
Like Blaise Pascal before her, physical weakness did not deter Simone Weil from participating in society. However, unlike the mathematician and moralist from the seventeenth century, Weil engaged personally in any of her concerns and interests, as if mere theoretical speculation or second-hand experience could not be enough within modern society, where stratification seemed to happen through work, education, and other modern institutions, a process of bureaucratization theorized by German sociologist Max Weber and, later in the century, by Michel Foucault, who coined the term biopolitics.
As a young idealist, she joined the French Communist Party and was convinced the internationalist proposal of radical democracy represented by sympathizers of Leon Trotsky could make a difference in the weak and rather sclerotic Western European parliaments, but not in the way Trotsky anticipated: to the young French professor, German communists were dismissing the rise of Nationalsocialism among the popular classes to their disadvantage.
Genealogy of oppression and liberty
The words “oppression” and “liberty” seemed to have different meanings depending on the political factions instrumentalizing them. Still, both Nationalsocialism and Soviet Communism would represent (Simone Weil understood) a similar risk to humanism: they were ready to sacrifice individual liberties to achieve their idealized social models; hence both models —statist/totalitarian capitalism and Communism— had generated a body of élite bureaucrats in charge of eliminating public dissent and open discourse by effectively neutralizing opposition.
The risks that bureaucratic Communism seemed to arise were on par with those already theorized by Marxism. Dehumanization was taking place at work as artisans and farmers’ meaningful, self-fulfilling work gave way to industrial labor division. But alienation was not a theory to Simone Weil: frustrated by the living conditions she saw outside the professional circles of Paris, she decided to leave her teaching position to work as a laborer in three Parisian metal factories: Alsthom; J.J. Carnaud et Forges de Basse-Indre; and the Renault car factory.
Weil’s descriptions of meaningless industrial work, divided into tasks and devoid of creative work or gentle movements to the point of alienation, expressed a deep concern for the long-term mental and physical health of individuals that needed to imitate the dreary, coordinated, predictive executions of machines.
“Monotony is the most beautiful or the most atrocious thing. The most beautiful if it is a reflection of eternity — the most atrocious if it is the sign of unvarying perpetuity. It is time surpassed or time sterilized.”
“To strive from necessity and not for some good — driven not drawn — in order to maintain our existence just as it is — that is always slavery.
In this sense, the slavery of manual workers is irreducible.
Effort without finality.
It is terrible — or the most beautiful thing of all — if it is finality without an end. The beautiful alone enables us to be satisfied by that which is.
Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem. They need some light from eternity.”
Sentient beings emulating a machine’s movement
Those able to perform best in such conditions seemed to bend to the needs of machines surrounding them. In contrast, it seemed impossible to help the movements needed to perform precise tasks with the gentle, natural body gestures that usually go along with more meaningful occupations.
“All series of movements that participate in the beautiful and are performed without degrading contain brief stoppings, quick as lightning, that constitute the secret of rhythm and give the observer the impression of slowness even in extreme rapidity (…). It is natural and it is fitting for us to stop when we are doing something, even for the space of a split second, to become conscious of it, like God in the Book of Genesis.”
But this spark of life issued from human introspection is what the factory aims at completely suppressing because “the movements of the machine can reach the required speed only if the gestures encased in a second follow each other in an uninterrupted way almost like the ticking of a clock, with no trace or indication that something has finished and that something else begins.”
How not denounce the working conditions in factories when she had experienced the abuses? Her essay La condition ouvrière (1937) would address some challenging questions around the status of humanism in modern bureaucratic regimes that seemed to reduce the individual to a cog in the big machine of inertia:
“Ultimately, the exhaustion made me forget why I had ever come to the factory to begin with. What became almost invincible was the powerful temptation of which this life is made: to think no more, the only way not to suffer. It’s only on Saturday afternoon and Sunday that memories return to me, glimmers of thought that remind me that I am also a thinking being… one day of work without the weekend’s rest —and this could easily come to pass— and I would become nothing more than a beast, docile and resigned.”
When nobody defended a liberal, moderate Republic
The industrial worker, still mystified by the external perception of his necessities and alienation and non-politicized (like Jack London’s descriptions of manual work in Oakland, Jacob Riis’ social photojournalism in turn-of-the-century New York’s tenements, or Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie Modern Times), is not an external subject representing “the other half” of society, but the author herself talking about what she had experienced first hand.
Constantly sick, she managed to engage in the Spanish Civil War beyond local political activism and the predictable blame to the non-interventionist attitude the French and British governments had taken on the conflict despite the flagrant involvement in the conflict of powerful actors interested in dismantling the Spanish Second Republic in favor of: either a fascistoid dictatorship (Germany and Italy on the side of Francisco Franco); or a USSR-sponsored communist regime (George Orwell will explain in Hommage to Catalonia the realpolitik practiced by Soviet agents on the Republican side to truncate any of the libertarian aspirations of local and international Philo-anarchists).
But Weil will soon be overwhelmed by the reality of the war from the perspective of idealist pacifism, whose naïveté became apparent when she saw the consequences of open warfare. Close to the Trotskyist groups of the poorly coordinated faction loyalist to the Second Spanish Republic, Simone Weil struggled to be taken seriously by commanders, finally joining the commandos of the largest anarchist column in the Spanish Civil War, the Durruti Column (Catalan anarchists).
Men in modern war as functionaries of horror
Weak and with poor vision, she expressed her frustration when Durruti collaborators paternalized her, insisting on acting in risky missions. Concerned about her physical health and mental exhaustion, her parents tried to convince her to leave Spain. Her humanism confronted her political convictions when she was a testimony of the capture and execution of a fifteen-year-old Falangist. Still, it was an accident with boiling water in which her foot was burned that allowed her parents to convince her to travel to Assisi to recover.
“My own feeling was that when once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder. As soon as men know that they can kill without fear of punishment or blame, they kill; or at least they encourage killers with approving smiles. If anyone happens to feel a slight distaste to begin with, he keeps quiet and he soon begins to suppress it for fear of seeming unmanly. People get carried away by a sort of intoxication which is irresistible without a fortitude of soul which I am bound to consider exceptional since I have met with it nowhere…”
There, sometime later, in arguably the town’s ugliest church, the baroque basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels rebuilt in the nineteenth century, Simone Weil visited the small Romanesque chapel conserved inside from the days of Saint Francis. Where Francis of Assisi had gathered his followers, Simone Weil knelt down and prayed for the first time.
Though she declared herself a Catholic from then on, Weil kept her interest in sacred texts from other religious traditions beyond the Abrahamic world, from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita to the main Mahayana texts from Buddhism.
The real opium of the people in contemporary societies
Simone Weil’s approach to mysticism did have a direct relationship with the world. Manual labor was “time entering into de body,” and only understanding others (feeling their struggle, being a part of society) the new bureaucratic institutions would not be able to deprive individuals of the “poetry” and meaning anybody needed to carry a fulfilled existence.
Otherwise, the real “opium of the people” (revolutionary thought, reactionary nationalism, war) would become a dangerous substitution of humanism, tailored for those most desperate of society —among them, the dispossessed and uprooted who had left the countryside to work in cities.
Returning to France, she taught philosophy and Greek to secondary students in Picardy, but her mind was elsewhere. Her health deteriorated again, taking six months of sick leave in January 1938. The echoes of industrial-scale war and mass propaganda tested in Spain had already taken root in Central Europe.
Her mystical episodes in a church in Portugal, in Assisi, and in Solesmes (Loire) kept her more engaged in the troubles of her time than ever. Like later Albert Camus, the quest for truth and meaning led Weil to vindicate love and comprehension among people with different existences and world views as an antidote to nihilism and the straw man of nation, class, or religion crusades.
World War II was approaching when she wrote The Iliad or the Poem of Force and Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism.
The Rebel forging ahead
During the first year of the war, Weil read the Bhagavad Gita. The ethical dilemmas about cultural obligation, war duties, and the obligation to pay respect to enemies that prince Arjuna goes through in the Gita resonated with an independent woman of Jewish origin that was about to be dispossessed from her fundamental rights along with the rest of French Jews by the puppet regime of Vichy, once the Third Reich had secured the occupation of Northern France (including Paris).
In 1940 she fled with her family to Marseille; there, she joined the Resistance while, at night, she read about Catharism and the early Gnostics. She tried to persuade her parents to settle in rural Southern France, but as the conflict advanced, her brother persuaded the family to try to reach the United States; her idea, though, was to join the French Resistance in Britain.
In London, she faced the same paternalizing attitude she had seen in Spain among those in charge of her safety, being relegated to office work instead of her desire to reenter France as a clandestine wireless operator. Hard work and the emotional toll of war and exile played a role in her health aggravation. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1943, she refused to eat more than what she thought French residents of the German-occupied territories (Paris included) did.
Before dying in the summer of 1943, Weil finished L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots) an essay that inspired Albert Camus to the point of urging Gallimard to publish it. Camus, who had abandoned his initial nihilism to embrace a humanism that would later crystalize in his controversial essay The Rebel, considered it “impossible to imagine the rebirth of Europe without taking into consideration the suggestions outlined in it by Simone Weil.”
Coming back from the abyss
The Need for Roots seems to advance the inevitable: European civilization crossing the limits of innocence in the no-return events of World War II —the Shoah; and the use of nuclear bombs against the Japanese population (both events highlighted by Camus in an editorial for the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, Combat, on August 8, 1945).
Weil was writing his essay from the desperate moments of 1942 and 1943; the United States had entered the war after the Pearl Harbor attack, but the war was not yet decided, and little was known about the mass horror taking place in German concentration camps and the Soviet gulag.
From that moment prior to any human rights universal declaration, Weil was already working for a humanist reconciliation of a Europe that would face a complex reconstruction, not only material but especially spiritual. Hence her insistence in the obligations of any human being towards civilization:
“A man alone in the universe, she says, would have obligations but no rights.”
Weil spent her last energies cultivating a sense of duty towards others, towards humanity, in a moment of carnage and demonization of those perceived as The Other.
She was 34 years old, but her writings contained the fruitful musings of ageless wisdom, as Camus would defend in a moment where engaged intellectuals —such as Jean-Paul Sartre— minimized any publicized wrongdoing attributed to hermetic Stalinism because they were small faults in the big order of things.
The shadow of Weil through Camus
Written in 1943, The Need for Roots appeared in French in 1949 and in English in 1952. Albert Camus, who had insisted in the book’s publishing, died in a car accident on January 4, 1960, too early to receive the credit and consideration he deserved among Parisian intellectuals, who had considered him (some of them, to this day) a thinker for students of secondary education, a mere street philosopher.
A few days after Christmas of 1973, Éditions du Seuil published in Paris the first edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Nobody remembered then how, back in the fifties, everybody had sided with Sartre in his quarrel with Camus regarding The Rebel, which Sartre had considered the work of a petit-bourgeois.
Back in the ‘1950s, Camus was openly denouncing Soviet atrocities, while Les Temps Modernes, the journal led by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, had begun moving silently to the center-left after Merleau-Ponty’s resignation. Sartre was still endorsing official Communism back then despite expressing some reservations in private.
In 1956, even Khrushchev acknowledged Stalin’s carnage with the population he had paternalized. Some Western intellectuals came to denounce him later than the Soviet leaders of their time.
The Soviet Central Committee’s 1956 resolution, titled On Overcoming the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences, bore more criticisms towards the regime’s excesses than what most Parisian leftist intellectuals had been capable of stating publicly.