• Print

The Anti-Politics of Simone Weil

Simone Weil
Simone Weil; drawing by David Levine

This essay is concerned with one particular aspect of Simone Weil’s thought: her approach to, and revulsion from, politics. She is thought of primarily as a religious thinker, perhaps a saint, but her concept of religion and of sanctity both sought to embrace the political domain, and despaired of doing so. I shall consider especially L’Enracinement, the most sustained and final exposition of her “political thought.” L’Enracinement was written in 1943, when she was with the Free French in London, shortly before her voluntary death.

T.S. Eliot ended his introduction to Arthur Wills’s translation of L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots)1 with the words:

This book belongs in that category of prolegomena to politics which politicians seldom read, and which most of them would be unlikely to understand or to know how to apply. Such books do not influence the contemporary conduct of affairs: for the men and women already engaged in this career and committed to the jargon of the market place, they always come too late. This is one of those books which ought to be studied by the young before their leisure has been lost and their capacity for thought destroyed in the life of the hustings and the legislative assembly; books the effects of which, we can only hope, will become apparent in the attitude of mind of another generation.

As it happens, these words call into question my own credentials for writing or speaking on this subject, or indeed on any subject. I am a politician. I participate in the life of the hustings and in the legislative assembly. My capacity for thought is thereby deemed to be destroyed. The existence of this discouraging handicap is confirmed by the fact that I have considerable difficulty in understanding The Need for Roots and cannot claim to know how to “apply it” or how much sense it makes even to talk about applying it.

The concept of “applying” Simone Weil’s thought in practical politics is I think contradictory to the main direction of that thought itself, which is that politics—and indeed social life generally—is the domain of the Beast, or of the devil, something to be suffered, something to be cried out against and struck back at, not something that can be set right. She is not entirely consistent in this. In Part One of The Need for Roots (“The Needs of the Soul”) she sketches the kind of reconstruction of French society which the Free French might carry out after the liberation. It is a rather disconcerting sketch. A France reconstructed on Weilian lines—or as I think pseudo-Weilian lines—would have had no political parties, no trade unions, no freedom of association. It would have had a rigid, primitive, and eccentric form of censorship—one which would permit Jacques Maritain to be punished for having said something misleading about Aristotle. It would be organized on hierarchical lines, although we are not told just what these lines would be. There would be liberty, or something so described, coming second after “order” and just before “obedience” among the needs of the soul, but the guarantees of liberty in no way indicated. “Liberty,” we are told, “consists in the ability to choose” but “when the possibilities of choice are so wide as to injure the commonweal, men cease to enjoy liberty.” The text bristles with peremptory and often cryptic affirmations.

The atmosphere she evokes is that of a state to be governed by a spiritual and moral elite, a rule of the saints. In practice an effort by mortal and fallible men to “apply” The Need for Roots would probably have resulted in something quite like Vichy France—the resemblance to which she acknowledged with characteristic courage and integrity—but minus collaboration with Nazis and with de Gaulle at the top instead of Pétain. This is the rather discouraging outcome of a hypothetical effort to apply in politics the thinking of a writer who was essentially nonpolitical, and even antipolitical.

As I have indicated, I think the programmatic parts of The Need for Roots are a kind of lapse: they seem to have been elicited from Simone Weil by the demands of the war effort, rather than shaped by the necessities of her own lonely thinking. She herself was unable to take seriously the idea of applying them. “It is no use asking ourselves whether we are or are not capable of applying [this method of political action]. The answer would always be no!” She did think they might influence political decisions, and that their influence would be benign. As far as her “method of political action” was concerned—as distinct from more personal and profound aspects of her thought to which I come later—I think she was wrong on both counts. I think politicians made no use of her method, and if they had made any it would probably have been bad. General de Gaulle—presumably the politician most intended to be influenced—thought that she was out of her mind.2 He was of course quite wrong, but the verdict does set rather clear limits to the possible influence of her method on the politics of post-Liberation France.3

Politics proceeds by associations of people, and Simone Weil had a deeprooted aversion from such associations. This is why I call her antipolitical. On this matter the key passage is the following, from the section on “Freedom of Opinion” in “Needs of the Soul”:

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.” And when the light of the intelligence grows dim, it is not very long before the love of good becomes lost.

The immediate, practical solution would be the abolition of political parties. Party strife, as it existed under the Third Republic, is intolerable. The single party, which is, moreover, its inevitable outcome, is the worst evil of all.

Elsewhere she speaks of “we” as positing an illegitimate middle term between the soul and God.

It is interesting to compare this absolute condemnation of “we” with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s distinction—in Section Three, “We,” of Hope Abandoned—between a false “we” and a true one. For Nadezhda Mandelstam, unlike Simone Weil, the ideas of “roots” and of a true “we” were positively linked:

The roots binding us together were cut in the twenties, and henceforth the tacit rule was “All is permitted,” the principle which Dostoyevski fought all his life. The peculiar feature of this [“Soviet”] society—after it had been gripped in an iron vise and reduced at breakneck speed to a state of what is called here “unanimity”—was the fact that it proved to consist of individuals working for their own self-advancement either singly or in small groups…. Such cliques are not proof of the existence of a sense of fellowship, since they consist of individualists who are out to achieve only their own aims. They refer to themselves as “we,” but in this context the pronoun indicates only a plurality devoid of any deeper sense or significance and always ready to fall apart the moment a more enticing aim catches the eye.

We witnessed the disintegration of a [pre-Revolutionary] society which was as imperfect as any other, but which concealed and curbed its wickedness and harbored small groups of people who were truly entitled to refer to themselves as “we.” I am quite convinced that without such a “we,” there can be no proper fulfillment of even the most ordinary “I,” that is, of the personality. To find its fulfillment, the “I” needs at least two complementary dimensions: “we” and—if it is fortunate—“you.” I think M [Osip Mandelstam] was lucky to have had a moment in his life when he was linked by the pronoun “we” with a group of others. His brief friendship with certain “companions, co-seekers, co-discoverers”…affected him for the rest of his life, helping to mold his personality. In “Conversation about Dante” he also says that time is the stuff of history and that, conversely, “the stuff of history is the joint tenure of time by people bound together as ‘we.”‘

The “we” approved by Nadezhda Mandelstam is an artistic or scientific “we”; the false “we” which she condemns is a particular political “we”—the “we” of Soviet opportunistic cliques. Yet her position does not necessarily condemn all political activity. Simone Weil’s position does carry such a condemnation. So rigorous an enemy of the first person plural as Simone Weil is necessarily an enemy of political involvement also. And if man is a political animal, as Aristotle thought, to be rigorously antipolitical is to be antihuman as well.

And indeed I think she is antihuman in the sense in which Swift, and to a lesser extent Albert Schweitzer, were antihuman (and Nadezhda Mandelstam is not)—combining great compassion for the suffering with a settled contempt for those of us who are up and around, but not up to much. Note her trust in intelligence and distrust of friendship.4

What she says, though acute and interesting, and no doubt true for herself, is not necessarily true for other people. Does the love of good depend on the light of the intelligence? It hardly seems so; we can all think of rather stupid people who are kind and honest, and of quite intelligent people who are mean and treacherous.5 Might not friendship conceivably be a more likely channel for the love of good than intelligence? And might not the impairment of friendship by the demands of intelligence be a greater evil than the impairment of the expression of intelligence by the demands of friendship?

Certainly a political mind has to work quite differently from this, and reverse the value system. Consider for example Edmund Burke, a man whose capacity for thought not even the life of the hustings and the legislative assembly could altogether destroy. Burke set a high value on friendship, and his conception of a group of friends working in concert for political ends was a stage in the development of the modern political party—and even though modern parties are not uniquely composed of friends, friendships still play quite an important part in them.

It was of intelligence, rather than friendship, that Burke was suspicious, and he was particularly sour about the loftier pretensions of intelligence, the flights of those who in his time were called philosophers—very much the same as what we mean by intellectuals. “Bears,” he wrote, “lick, cuddle and cherish their young but bears are not philosophers.” Nor did Burke regard limitations on the expression of intelligence as necessarily bad. “Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever but as in the exercise of all the virtues there is an economy of truth. It is a sort of temperance by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may tell it the longer.”6 Burke’s intellectual powers are far more formidable than those of all but a very few of those whom we class as intellectuals, but in this “economy of truth” passage he places himself firmly on the “political” side of the line which separates the politician from the pure intellectual. Simone Weil stands as firmly on the other side of that line: for her, Burke’s economy of truth is the sin against the light.

Simone Weil, the antipolitician, is a pure intellectual. Those intellectuals who seriously engage in politics (no matter what kind of politics) are impure intellectuals, necessarily committed to the Burkian economy, and doomed, according to Simone Weil, to the dimming both of their intellectual and of their moral sense. The political intellectual—who is of course the only politician now at all likely to know or want to know about Simone Weil—will necessarily feel reluctant to accept her view about his predicament. He will wish to claim that, even though he practices an economy of truth, he still brings into circulation more truth than, without him, would be in circulation in a vital domain of social life, and one which stands in need of as much truth as it can tolerate. But he will nonetheless be uncomfortably conscious of the force of Simone Weil’s observations.

The effect in politics of the pure intellectual, such as Simone Weil, is normally exerted through the impure intellectuals, the only kind that that domain will tolerate. Save in exceptional circumstances the pure intellectual can only, in consequence, be a small influence, indirect, filtered, and perhaps distorted. Even so it would often work as an antipolitical influence, dissociative rather than associative, tending at times to the liberation of an individual conscience and to the extinction of a politician who might, just possibly, have been useful in his chosen domain if he had not fallen victim to the vertigo of intellectual purity. There are however wider and more permanent aspects of her potential influence which I shall discuss later.

In relation to politics, as to so much else, Simone Weil is the outsider, the lonely stranger. Her observations are detached, aloof, unfriendly, often very penetrating, sometimes perverse. Her best political sayings are aphorisms in the classical French hit-and-run tradition. She is especially vigilant, as one would expect, on that suspect frontier between the life of the intellect and political action. In a few pithy remarks about Marx and about Lenin, she sees intellectual disasters transforming themselves into political ones: “Marx worked out the conclusions before the method. He insisted on making his method into an instrument for predicting a future in accordance with his desires.”7 As for Lenin he went in for “thinking with the object of refuting, the solution being given before the research.” “The stifling regime which weighs at present upon the Russian people was already implied in embryo in Lenin’s attitude towards his own process of thought. Long before it robbed the whole of Russia of liberty of thought the Bolshevik party had already taken it away from their own leader.”8

Her comments on Marx are I believe both pithy and true. Those on Lenin are brilliant, but illustrate the intellectual limitations of pure intellectuals. The idea that Lenin’s method of thought was imposed on him by the Bolshevik party will not stand examination. Lenin by his technique of “split, split and split again” ensured that his party agreed with him, not vice versa.

In putting the blame on the party, Simone Weil’s bias against the first person plural is visible again; in reality an unusually imperious first person singular had much more to do with the matter. The concept also shows the intellectual’s characteristic overemphasis on the importance of thought. The nature of Russian society as it existed before the First World War, and the disastrous impact on that society of that war, followed by collapse and foreign intervention, did much more to produce the stifling regime than did the exiled Lenin’s treatment of his thought processes.

Elsewhere indeed Simone Weil shows her awareness of such limitations of thought, and it would be useless to look for consistency in her writings on revolution. Immediately after the passage on Lenin, in her essay on “Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-criticism,” she contrasts Lenin unfavorably with Marx. “Marx fortunately went about the process of thinking in a different way.” But in the passage on Marx from which I have quoted—from an apparently later essay “On the Contradictions of Marxism”—she shows that Marx abused the process of thought in precisely the same way as Lenin did, by finding the solution first and then looking for arguments to buttress it, rather than means of testing it. This intellectual history is continuous; it is the history of the growth of a religion, not a science—and this Simone Weil saw—and it is because it was a religion that its fanatical and ruthless leaders were capable of taking over the bankrupt and devastated Russian Empire. Lenin’s attitude to his processes of thought was in fact a symptom of his capacity to fill that vacuum.

Simone Weil’s dissociative bent and her exaltation of the claims of the intellect do not, then, always stand her in good stead in her consideration of political processes. It is a different matter when she deals with the basic political bonding itself—in tribe, nation, state—and what might be called the original sin of that bonding—the notion of the inherent superiority of the entity constituted by it. In her consistent witness against that concept, in all its manifestations, lies the great and permanent value of Simone Weil’s political writing.

To love the little platoon to which we belong in society,” wrote Edmund Burke, “is the first, the germ as it were, of public affections.” Simone Weil was conscious of a counter-truth to this; that it is possible to love the little platoon too much, so much that wider or higher affections fail to germinate. Of Jewish origin herself, she was profoundly repelled by the concept of the chosen people. This repulsion is a fundamental and abiding element in her mind and character. It could both carry her to strange extremes and stop her dead in her tracks. At one time it made it possible for her to counsel the acceptance of an anti-Semitic state in France as a lesser evil than war; at another it made it impossible for her to accept baptism into the Catholic Church. Both that acceptance and that refusal are significant expressions of what I call her antipolitics; her radical rejection of all limited associations.

The “acceptance” is contained in two letters of the spring of 1938, one to Jean Posternak, the second to the writer Gaston Bergery, later a Vichy diplomat. In the letter to Posternak she wrote:

At the moment, there are two possibilities. One is war with Germany for the sake of Czechoslovakia. Public opinion is scarcely interested in that remote country, but the Quai d’Orsay resolutely prefers war to German hegemony in central Europe; and as for the Communist party, any Franco-German war suits its book…. What may prevent violent measures is the generally recognized weakness of the French army. The other possibility is an antidemocratic coup d’état supported by Daladier and the army and accompanied by a very violent outbreak of anti-Semitism (of which there are signs everywhere), and by brutal measures against the parties and organizations of the left. Of the two possibilities I prefer the latter, since it would be less murderous of French youth as a whole.9

In the letter to Bergery, developing the theme of German hegemony preferable to war, she added: “No doubt the superiority of German armed forces would lead France to adopt certain laws of exclusion, chiefly against Communists and Jews—which is, in my eyes and probably in the eyes of the majority of Frenchmen, nearly an indifferent matter in itself. One can quite well conceive that nothing essential would be affected.”10

Madame Pétrement makes the just comment:11 “She continued to think that nothing would be worse than a war. Moreover, her disinterestedness made her prefer, of the two evils, the one of which she personally would be the victim.”

Three further points need to be made here. The first is to notice the intellectual courage with which she recognizes the terrible alternatives: war or acceptance of German hegemony. Most intellectuals at the time wanted to think they could reject both war and German hegemony. The second point concerns the coldness, even the apparent callousness, with which she refers to the probable fate of a minority to which she herself belongs: it would have been impossible for Simone Weil to refer to the “exclusion” of a minority as “nearly an indifferent matter in itself” if she had not herself belonged to that minority.

The third point is that “the certain law of exclusion” which she envisaged would have most directly affected people like herself: middle-class Jewish intellectuals of left-wing views. That was the “little platoon” to which she could not help belonging, but which she tried to sacrifice, because she belonged to it, in favor of the wider loyalty to humanity as a whole. Hitler’s entry into Prague appears to have convinced her, however, that sacrifices of this kind could not in fact avert the greater evil of general war. Once the war was there she wanted to take the fullest possible part in its sacrifices, and did so, to the point of self-inflicted death by hunger. (L’Enracinement was written shortly before her death, and after her abandonment of the “lesser evil” concept.)

While Judaism repelled her, basically because of the concept of the chosen people, Catholicism strongly attracted her, because of the proclaimed universality of its message. But those who are drawn to Catholicism by that appeal are doomed to a degree of disillusionment when they encounter actual Catholics, in their local and national groupings, no more immune than others to tribal pride and prejudice. It was with French Catholics that Simone Weil had to do, and French Catholic traditions have been among the most exuberantly jingo in the world. The God of Charles Péguy for example was not out of tune with French Catholic opinion when he made his famous declaration:

Quand il n’y aura plus ces Français, dit Dieu, il n’y aura plus personne pour me comprendre.

For Péguy this was in part a joke, a tender in-joke, but nonetheless to be felt as conveying a truth. Simone Weil, who was not particularly good at jokes, could see nothing but blasphemy in this kind of cozy tribal Catholicism. She had not rejected the Jews as chosen people in order to accept the French, or any others, in that capacity. That seems easy enough: there are plenty of people who are opposed to nationalistic hubris, or think they are. But Simone Weil’s anti-nationalism was real, in a sense in which most people’s was not, and its reality reveals itself in the thoroughness, the consistency, and intellectual daring with which it finds expression. These qualities are at their most remarkable near the end of her life, when she was working for the Free French in England. There is an apparent paradox here, but it is a superficial one. Many, probably most, of those with whom she was working—and not least their chief—were nationalists, even ultra-nationalists. But Simone Weil was not there for nationalistic reasons. On the contrary she saw Nazi Germany as the supreme contemporary embodiment of triumphal nationalism.

That was what she was against, and if France had been the main contemporary carrier of that disease she would have been against France. To be against German nationalism meant being against French nationalism too. She argues this with great lucidity and coolness in the second part of The Need for Roots. On the Catholic bishops in France and Germany she writes:

Christians today don’t like raising the question of the respective rights over their heart enjoyed by God and their country. The German Bishops ended one of their most courageous protests by saying that they refused ever to have to make a choice between God and Germany. And why did they refuse to do this? Circumstances can always arise which make it necessary to choose between God and no matter what earthly object, and the choice must never be in doubt. But the French bishops would not have expressed themselves any differently. Joan of Arc’s popularity during the past quarter of a century was not an altogether healthy business; it was a convenient way of forgetting that there is a difference between France and God. Yet this lack of inward courage to challenge the accepted notion of patriotism didn’t make for greater energy in patriotic performance. Joan of Arc’s statue was occupying a prominent place in every church throughout the country, all through those terrible days when Frenchmen abandoned France to her fate.

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” If it is commanded to hate all that, using the word “hate” in a certain sense, it is certainly forbidden also to love one’s country, using the word “love” in a certain sense. For the proper object of love is goodness, and “God alone is good.”

“Our patriotism,” she wrote, “comes straight from the Romans”—a people whom she detested even to an extravagant degree. She saw them as a people who idolized themselves, adding: “It is this idolatry of self which they have bequeathed to us in the form of patriotism.”

When she condemns “our patriotism” she is referring to the prevalent form of patriotism in France, derived from Rome and encouraged in the schools. The “our” should be stressed: that first person plural again. She had her own form of patriotism; though she seldom gave it direct verbal expression, a love of France shines through many of her pages. It is a rather abstract love, of a great historic center of art and thought, rather than of a lot of people; an intellectual love, something rare but real, and in her case passionate. Her greatest fear for the France she loved was of falling victim to the form of patriotism which she despised.

Her comments in L’Enracinement on Hitler and racism, on collaborationism, and on colonialism are evidence of the depth to which these ideas permeated her mind. Hitler she sees as simply applying something handed on to him, in the form of the Roman idea of greatness as consisting in the capacity to triumph over other peoples. And “in so far as he simply reached out for the only form of greatness he had been told about,” he was, she says, “a better man than any of us.” Elsewhere he is seen as drawing part of his inspiration from the Old Testament: “He simply selected as his machine the notion of a chosen race, a race destined to make everything bow before it.” As for his doctrines of race: “We should be strangely simple if we believed that racialism is anything at all except a more romantic version of nationalism.”

Her observations on collaborators and collaboration fit exactly into the general pattern of her antinationalism, and show some of the lengths to which her intellectual courage could carry her. She saw—and it is one of her most piercing insights—how the traditional triumphant French nationalism, so prevalent among the French Right and among Catholics, could turn into collaborationism in the circumstances of 1940. “If France,” she wrote, “found herself on the side of the vanquished, they thought, it could only be because of some faulty deal, some mistake, some misunderstanding; her natural place was on the side of the victors; therefore, the easiest, the least arduous, least painful method of bringing about the indispensable rectification was to change sides. This state of mind was very prevalent in certain circles at Vichy in July, 1940.”

She had of course clearly ranged herself on the side of the Resistance and against collaboration. But she was impatient—as she showed in America—with those who too easily condemned collaborators from a distance, and she was uneasily aware of certain possibilities in the Resistance itself. These feelings find expression in the following very remarkable passage in L’Enracinement, rooted in her basic horror of the idea of a chosen people.

“There was once,” she wrote,

a nation which believed itself to be holy, with the direst consequences for its well-being; and in connection with this, it is strange to reflect that the Pharisees were the resisters in this nation, and the publicans the collaborators, and then to remind oneself what were Christ’s relations with each of these two national groups.

This would seem to oblige us to consider that our resistance would be a spiritually dangerous, even a spiritually harmful, position, if amid the motives which inspire it we did not manage to restrain the patriotic motive within the necessary bounds. It is precisely this danger that, in the extremely clumsy phraseology of our time, is meant by those who, sincerely or not, say they are afraid this [Free French] movement may turn into something Fascist; for Fascism is always intimately connected with a certain variety of patriotic feeling.

She was acutely aware that some attitudes which were common to traditional French nationalism, and also to the ultra-patriotic elements in the Resistance, found their most characteristic expression in a domineering attitude to colonial people. She saw—and her insight here is historically as well as psychologically true—how the same word which was designed to mask domination in the colonies could be turned to mask acceptance of domination in the metropolis:

Thus it is that a number of Frenchmen, having found it perfectly natural to talk about collaboration to the oppressed natives of the French colonies, went on making use of this word without any trouble in talking with their German masters.

The hopes of the Free French, at the time she was writing, were concentrated on recovering the French Empire, and using it as a base for the liberation of France. It is understandable therefore if there is a certain degree of hesitation in her reference to relations with the Empire for the duration of the war. Nonetheless, she clearly foresees that a liberated France may try to hold on to her Empire and thereby bring great troubles on both France and the peoples of the Empire. She saw an immediate need to head off that danger when she wrote:

It may be that France now has to choose between her attachment to her Empire and the need to have a soul of her own again; or, in more general terms, between having a soul of her own and the Roman or Corneille-esque conception of greatness.

If she chooses wrongly, if we ourselves force her to choose wrongly, which is only too likely, she will have neither the one nor the other, but only the most appalling adversity, which she will undergo with astonishment, without anybody being able to discover any reason for it. And all those who are now in a position to get up and speak or to wield a pen will be eternally responsible for having committed a crime.

There appears to be a challenge in those last words, addressed to the spokesmen of Free France including de Gaulle. As I mentioned he thought she was mad. Yet her advice was sane and sound, her prophecy as to what would happen if it were not taken proved absolutely true, like Cassandra’s.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy, in Simone Weil’s life and death, is that she died, of a kind of self-inflicted wound, just as the time was coming when her spirit and her voice would be most desperately needed. Obviously no single person could have averted the French decision to reconquer Indochina, or to hold Algeria by force, or the needless horrors which followed from these decisions, or the inheritance by America of France’s Indochina disaster, and the prolonged further aggravation of that disaster which followed. Yet any reader of Simone Weil knows with certainty that, if she had lived, her voice would have been lifted up against these things; and that the opposition to them would thereby have gained immensely in intensity, determination, and integrity.

Her capacity for dissociation would have served her well, when what people were pressed to join was a Gadarene rush. At a time when everybody in the West was being harangued about the dangers of communism, she would have seen those dangers—as she did see them, clearly, in the Thirties—but she would also have seen the dangers of anticommunism, and stressed them not only because they were nearer, but for the fundamental reason that, for us in the West, they were the dangers within us, the means for the moment of exalting our triumphant group feelings, and our tendency to see evil as something external to us.

She could never have fallen in, as Albert Camus and so many other gifted intellectuals did, with the convenient localization of slavery “over there” and liberty “over here.” She could not—as Solzhenitsyn to the grief of many of his admirers has done—have ever identified the “loss” of Indochina to the West with the “loss” of something called liberty to Indochina. Just possibly the fire and honesty of her witness might have helped to shorten the war, as Albert Schweitzer, for example, probably helped to bring nuclear testing to an end. We cannot know, and she herself would have been the last to exaggerate the capacity of anyone like herself to influence the action of the enormous beast, which is human society.

We are left with her example and her warnings. Few of us are likely to follow the example of this strange ascetic, and certainly no politician who claimed to follow it would be believed, and rightly so. Most of us, for obvious reasons, would sympathize with the advice given to her by her friend Dr. Louis Bercher:

“The basic thing here seemed to me to be the desire for purity. It is the source of all heresies, I told her. Remember the Cathars! Man is not pure but a ‘sinner.’ And the sinner must stink a bit, at the least.

“Simone didn’t deny this, but she didn’t give in to my point either.”12

But one does not need to be convinced by her mystical intuitions, or propose to imitate her life, in order to see that her warnings about nationalism, in all its multiform disguises, possess not only moral force but great practical shrewdness and permanent political value. She was a true prophet who foresaw the “appalling adversity” which certain tendencies present in the movement to which she adhered were capable of bringing on her country and on others.

That is the kind of insight of which practicing politicians in every country are in most need. Simone Weil’s contribution to politics is not in system or method, or even in analysis, but in her lucid sensitivity to the dangerous forces at work in all collective activities, and her refusal to localize these forces exclusively in some other nation, or among the adherents of some other faith or ideology. One may, as I do, feel that there is something inhuman about her. Yet it may be that what we feel to be inhuman in her is that which made her capable of turning away from those aspects of our own all-too-human attachments which put our neighbors, our environment, our world, our children, ourselves all in deadly danger.


Simone Weil's Politics November 10, 1977

  1. 1

    L’Enracinement was published in Paris in 1949. The English translation The Need for Roots was published in New York in 1952 and, in paperback, in 1953. The full titles are: L’Enracinement: Prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain; The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind

  2. 2

    “But she is mad,” the General is said to have exclaimed on being shown her “Project for a Formation of Front-Line Nurses.” See Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life (Pantheon, 1976), p. 514. Madame Pétrement adds: “there is no doubt that she never spoke with de Gaulle.” 

  3. 3

    See again Pétrement, pp. 503-504, for the examination of a claim that a paper by Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Rebellion,” the only paper of hers that de Gaulle could be persuaded to read from start to finish, led to the formation of the National Council of the Resistance. But Madame Pétrement shows that what Weil had in mind was something quite different—an international European Council, not a French national one. Also the National Council was intended to serve a purpose specifically rejected by Weil—the reconstitution of political parties in France. This is the only paper of hers for which it appears to have been claimed that it had “practical consequences.” If it did, they were certainly not consequences intended or desired by the author of the paper. 

  4. 4

    “Distrust,” not “dislike.” A school classmate of hers, Suzanne Aron, wrote of her, “She had a desperate desire for tenderness, communion, friendship, and she didn’t always discover the secret of how to obtain what she desired so deeply” (Pétrement, p. 23). It was perhaps not so much a matter of inability to make friends, as Mme Aron suggests, as of her settled habit of self-denial, pushed to its final logical consequences in the form of her death. Compare her reasons for refusing baptism, as given in a letter to the Dominican Father Perrin, in 1942. “There is a Catholic circle ready to give an eager welcome to whoever enters it. Well I don’t want to be adopted into a circle…. In saying I don’t want this, I am expressing myself badly, for I should like it very much; I should find it all delightful. But I feel that it is not permissible for me. I feel that it is necessary and ordained that I should be alone, a stranger and an exile in relation to every human circle without exception….” The full text of this letter, in English, is available in the collection of letters and essays under the title Waiting for God (Harper Colophon, 1973), pp. 52-57. See also the section on Friendship in the same volume, a notably abstract and exalted view of the subject. 

  5. 5

    It is fair to say that Simone Weil was consistent in her tendency to correlate decency and intelligence. Of the workers whom she met during her year of factory work she wrote, “I have always found, among these rough simple creatures, that generosity of heart and a skill with general ideas were directly proportioned to each other” (Pétrement, p. 232). It may be of course that those workers who lacked “skill with general ideas” could not easily communicate with Simone Weil. Nor does her own language imply much capacity to communicate with them. 

  6. 6

    First of the Letters on a Regicide Peace

  7. 7

    “On the Contradictions of Marxism,” an essay in Oppression and Liberty, edited by Arthur Wills (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958). The essay itself is undated but appears to be later than the essay on Lenin referred to below. 

  8. 8

    Essay on “Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-criticism,” also in Oppression and Liberty. It originally appeared in the periodical Critique Sociale, November 1933. 

  9. 9

    Pétrement, p. 326. 

  10. 10

    Pétrement, p. 327. 

  11. 11

    Specifically on the Posternak letter, but it is applicable to both letters. 

  12. 12

    Pétrement, p.419.