Published February 3, 2022
Simone Weil may be best remembered for how she died. The 20th-century French philosopher whose profound writings would influence the likes of T. S. Eliot, Albert Camus, Pope Paul VI, Flannery O’Connor, Iris Murdoch, and more, was lost to the world at the age of 34. The immediate cause of her death was cardiac failure due to tuberculous. But Weil refused special treatment for her malady, or even adequate food or water, because she wished to live in solidarity with the residents of German-occupied France who, she reasoned, were free to eat far less. It was a death that tragically imaged the life she had led: shorn of comfort, Weil desired not only to understand the sufferings of the dispossessed with her majestic intellect, or to fight for them through her social and political activism. She wished to suffer alongside them, quite literally.
A good number of biographies have been penned about Weil since her death in 1943, a few quite recently. Now, wishing to cull from her work ideas most relevant to our times, intellectual historian Robert Zaretsky has written yet another: The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. The five ideas Zaretsky draws out in as many chapters are: the force of affliction; paying attention; the varieties of resistance; finding roots; and the good, the bad, and the Godly. The first three chapters are strong, as Zaretsky’s deftly situates Weil in historical, literary, and philosophical context. In the third chapter on resistance, the best of the book, we find, for instance, a riveting account of how Weil’s engagement in both the Spanish Civil War and World War II dramatically transformed her from a committed pacifist to one who would in time declare that the inaction of pacifists up and against Hitler’s violent advance betrayed “a propensity to treason.”
Weil began her activist life as a philosophy student inspired by a Marxist analysis of capitalism. But for her, Zaretsky explains, capitalists themselves were not free of the slave-like affliction they imposed on their laborers: both were turned into unthinking things subject to the remorseless nature of mechanizing, industrializing, and bureaucratizing force inherent in the modern economic system. She regarded the pursuit of power as a defining feature of human life, a pursuit that subjected both powerful and powerless to an inhumane fate. Zaretsky explains what he takes to be Weil’s Hobbesian outlook thus: “Those who hold power are never secure; faced by rivals seeking to take it and the oppressed seeking to resist it, the powerful live in a constant state of insecurity.” But Weil was also an early and prescient exponent of the way in which Marxism and communism would ineluctably fail as well: they too were imprisoned in the selfsame pursuit of power.
Like Orwell (though, Zaretsky points out, before him), Weil’s analysis of the slavish working conditions of the poor grew out of her own experience voluntarily working alongside them, and later serving them. But, as compared to Orwell, Zaretsky tells us, Weil’s account is the far more spiritual. It was her experience in the factory, after all, that first opened Weil up to the person and passion of Christ (from out from the decisive agnosticism of her youth). She writes in her Spiritual Autobiography that the grueling experience in the factory marked her as akin to a slave. Still suffering from this degradation in which she is finally able to grasp the true affliction of lifelong laborers, she comes upon some fishermen’s wives singing ancient Christian hymns. She writes that she was compelled then and there to believe that “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.” Ironically, it is a kind of Nietzschean insight into Christianity—as the religion of the slaves—that draws Weil into it.
If few could understand the depth of affliction laborers suffered because they had not personally experienced it, Weil believed a few literary works captured such strife, perhaps because they were themselves inspired: The Book of Job, King Lear, and perhaps her favorite, the Iliad (which she later wrote, albeit anachronistically, was “bathed in Christian light”). Zaretsky not only works to recount Weil’s profound meditations on these works but, by knowing them well himself, illuminates places in which Weil took interpretative liberties in order to make use of them for her own social and political commentary.
Weil’s meditation on the Iliad, for instance, though not explicitly social commentary, subtly shows how the epic clearly mirrors the violent German occupation that, as she wrote, haunted her own city of Paris and many others. “For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document. For others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.” The worthwhile task Zaretsky has given himself is to reveal the relevance of Weil’s thought today. Such an analysis would have been far richer had he followed Weil more closely and not limited his own political examples to those displayed by the right. (Ethno-nationalism and Trumpism are repeatedly mentioned as authoritarian impulses today, but for instance, dogmatic policing of speech on the left is not.)
The chapter on attention follows nicely from the one on affliction, as readers are introduced to the profound way in which Weil sought to “attend” to other human beings. Hers was not a social or political program, but a spiritual one with social and political consequences. After all, it is ultimately “only God who can pay attention to afflicted man.” Attention—the “rarest and purest form of generosity”—is at her program’s very center, as it accords other human beings the kind of respect, even reverence, each is due. It is not to cast another as an equal to oneself, but to “mak[e] a place for others by placing one’s own self in a subordinate position,” Zaretsky explains. For Weil, to pay attention was not to use one’s effort to understand the other with more intensity but rather to lose oneself so that one might receive with docility the good of the other that was already there. “Complete attention is like unconsciousness,” she declared, a falling away from concern with the self as the center of one’s universe. As with people, so with insights. Zaretsky summarizes: “To attend means not to seek, but to wait; not to concentrate, but instead to dilate our minds.” The goal was to see the world not as I would like it to be (with myself and my desires at the center), but to see the world as it really is.
Though Weil, with the post-moderns, understands that each person “reads” the world according to his or her position in it, Weil would never suggest that by doing so one is “creating” a different reality. Rather, following Plato most closely, she argues that each must pursue and “consent” to the objective good that is already always there. Plato, for her, “the father of Western mysticism,” was with the other ancient Greeks, as Zaretsky puts it in his fifth chapter on her spiritual life, “the true bridge between Weil’s preconversion and postconversion lives.” She returned again and again to his illuminating myth of the cave to describe what she believed was the truth about the universe: the transcendent realities of the good (which were one and the same as the true, the just, and the beautiful), were more real than our own reality. And so every effort ought to be made to know and pursue the good as an eternal standard, one that ought to inform our civil law, to determine our obligations, and to limit our freedom. It’s no wonder that in letters to her parents Weil referred to herself as Antigone, the figure created by Sophocles who died so she would not have to surrender to legal positivism.
As Zaretsky observes, Weil was not only among the harshest of critics of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. She was a critic of liberalism—and its imperialism—too. It is undoubtedly this full-throated critique of the modern political landscape, in addition to her deep and searching spiritual writings, that made Pope Paul VI (and other Catholics) devoted readers of her thought, even if, due to her own despair at leaving unbelievers (and heretics) outside, she herself would never fully cross the Church’s threshold. As a French philosopher, she occupied a unique position from which to critique the trifecta of Nazism, communism, and liberalism as the abstract universalism of the French Revolution may be ground zero for them all. Though she had written her graduate thesis on Descartes and studied Kant and Rousseau closely (and profited deeply in doing so), modern philosophies and their adherents—whether left or right—inspired, to her mind, the greatest threat to Europe: “uprootedness.” This atomizing scourge on the local traditions and anchoring place of peoples was the subject of her final and deeply profound book, The Need for Roots. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” she writes. “The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.” This destruction is what modernity had wrought.
Zaretsky observes in his fourth chapter the distance Weil had travelled in her short life: “moving beyond a critique of society that is materialist and, in her peculiar way, Marxist . . .Weil is now offering a moral, political, and yes, spiritual perspective, one that manages to be both more radical and more conservative than her previous position.” Citing the late and great conservative Roger Scruton’s final book for this insight, Zaretsky compares Weil with quintessential conservative thinker, Edmund Burke. Both wished for persons to attend to natural limits, cautioned against hasty revolution built upon autonomous Reason, and thought human beings’ happiness and freedom would be most secured not by abstract rights but by heeding the obligations of ordinary life. Likewise, Zaretsky is right to draw a quick comparison between Weil and communitarians for whom “the true self is an ‘embedded self.’”
Zaretsky wonders aloud at Weil’s manifest scorn for Aristotle, especially as he, and not Weil’s beloved Plato, resisted abstraction for rootedness. (Though Zaretsky does not say so, Weil was disgusted by Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s defense of slavery. This perhaps influenced her lack of attention to his thought which, Zaretsky notes, shares an obvious affinity with hers.) But Zaretsky then moves too quickly to compare the “vital needs” upon which Weil’s develops her theory of obligations to the ten “central capabilities” of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who claims Aristotle as her inspiration. Weil, who five years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, had penned her own “Draft for a Statement of Obligations”—and in her final book explicitly laments the rights-centric views of the UDHR’s chief author, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain—argues more fully at the start of that book that obligations, based on human needs, take priority to rights. But while some of these needs match onto Nussbaum’s “capabilities,” Weil’s focus on the needs of the soul (which include “order,” “obedience,” “hierarchism,” and even “punishment”) push well beyond Nussbaum’s liberalism.
Weil’s theory of obligations as properly underlying rights is rich indeed, and especially pertinent to the abortion debate that is now raging as ever in our country. Though Zaretsky does not make this argument in his book, he insightfully does so in a New York Times article that predates the book’s publication. In addition to taking care to lambast Trump in the article, Zaretsky specifically calls attention to how Weil’s approach might be a “third way” between “right to life” and “right to choose” claims. Zaretsky suggests: “Such an approach might invite a woman seeking an abortion to fully attend to a situation which does not implicate her alone.” One wonders why this astute example—which better reveals how Weil’s thought rides above the usual divides than any other in the book—did not make the cut.
At 160 pages, Zaretsky’s is a slim biography, and so one gets what one might expect from a talented and learned writer who wishes to dip his pen ever so slightly into a subject of such profound depth. Zaretsky’s crystalline and animating prose brings to life his subject’s many eccentricities and allows him to showcase the breadth of her thought. But in seeking to illuminate Weil through similitudes to other thinkers, past and present, Zaretsky sometimes moves on from Weil too soon, and so only begins to mine the riches of Weil’s transformative thought for our times.
Admirably, in several places, Zaretsky reflects upon his own personal inadequacy in treating satisfactorily—or, more difficult still, living according to the wisdom of—his sagacious subject. At one point, he writes, “[Weil’s] ability to plumb the human condition runs so deep that it risks losing those of us who remain near the surface of things.” At other times, especially in discussing her Christian faith, Zaretsky retreats too easily from what the complexity of Weil’s thought demands to situate himself comfortably in his liberal milieu. In the book’s Epilogue, for instance, after he has spilt much ink throughout the book on her Christian faith, he suggests Weil might be considered a “secular saint.” Certainly, her life testifies to sanctity, but secular is not a word to describe Weil, unless by it he meant that she situated herself deeply in the world. Still, Zaretsky successfully makes his case that Weil is a thinker we need more of in our trying times.
Erika Bachiochi is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Her new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, was published by Notre Dame Press in 2021.