Simone Weil (1909-1943) is an original and complex thinker. She can be classified as a twentieth century Christian Platonist and is studied by philosophers and theologians alike. They agree that understanding Weil’s philosophy is helped by understanding her life, and vice versa.
Weil was born in 1909 to a middle class Jewish French family. She was educated at Lyceé Henry IV and the École Normale Supérieure in philosophy where her fellow students included Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. She began teaching philosophy in 1931 (a student’s class notes were later published as Lectures on Philosophy, 1959).
Weil’s particular philosophical preoccupations compelled her to become involved in political activism – educating workers, engaging in factory and farm labour, joining the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and then the Free French forces in 1942 – which shaped and informed her philosophical development. Her lifestyle was characterised by a strict asceticism and she claimed to have had three vital contacts with Christianity (one of them a visit from Christ) although she was never recorded as being baptised. Weil died of tuberculosis in 1943, at the age of 34.
Simone Weil’s major works were published posthumously, including Waiting for God (1950), Gravity and Grace (1947), and The Need for Roots (1952). During her life she wrote mainly essays, the most famous of these being “The Iliad, Poem of Might” and “Human Personality”.
Although Weil’s writing ranged over issues from religion, literature, work and the organisation of factories, central to her thought is her theory of human affliction, the primary “uprooting of life”. Affliction, she argues, includes but is more profound than physical suffering because of its total and overwhelming impact upon the soul: it is unwillingly endured and robs life of inherent meaning, which is the same as saying that it negates the possibility of consolation. Although our natural response to affliction is one of dread, Weil thought it a privileged position of enlightenment, because for her, to understand affliction is to understand the human condition. The human condition is one of affliction because to be human is to be separated from God, which is to be subject to blind necessity This is because God created the world by withdrawing from it – his ultimate act of love.
Weil characterises the human condition as having two dimensions: the natural (gravity) and the supernatural (grace). As natural beings, our actions are principally governed by our needs (biological, psychological, intellectual, etc.). It is the relentless constancy of these needs and our attempts to fulfil them that inform the way in which we read the world and our attachment to it. “Reading” characterises our experience of the world as necessarily interpretive, and “attachment” characterises the self-centred quality of this “reading”, causing us to value some situations and individuals more than others. Attachment combines with contingency to produce our greatest happiness and greatest suffering. Weil refers to this as the force of “gravity” so as to draw on the analogous relationship that she sees between the operation of the human soul and the laws of gravity governing the natural world.
Given that human beings cannot escape the laws of gravity, their only recourse is to accept them; that is, to love blind necessity and the world’s beauty as love reveals it. Such love requires that one disengage from reading and attend to the world. Attention involves detaching oneself from what one desires or values and ultimately the function of desire itself, including one’s desire for God and eternal salvation. It is a “decreation” of the self on the model of God’s original decreation. It is, in essence, to love God as he loves us: indirectly or implicitly. Our capacity for attention is, according to Weil, a testament to the other defining feature of the human condition, namely grace.
Simone Weil believed that philosophy was best evaluated in terms of the actions and broader societal changes which it produces, hence her interest in ethical and political philosophy. She thought that the purpose of ethics and politics is to alleviate human affliction, whilst at the same time accepting that affliction is the unique occasion of profound insight. Weil acknowledged this contradiction – to eradicate that which is the occasion for grace – but thought it a sign of truth. She maintained that to do this we need to move away from talk of human rights to talk of obligations; that we need to organise work, so it becomes more meaningful; and that we need to love our neighbour, including the most afflicted and those seemingly most lacking in goodness. Hers is a radical philosophy indeed.