In her long essay “The Great Beast,” written in 1939, Simone Weil tried to understand what she called “the permanence and variability of national characteristics.” She was intent on showing that Hitlerism was indeed different from many other kinds of nationalist imperialism, but was by no means something new in the world’s history. She insisted that Rome, a long-standing bête noire of hers, had anticipated the Nazis, and in fact was far more successful as a conqueror: a relatively larger number of people were subdued absolutely for a much longer time. Yet she was quick to point out that nations change, often unaccountably. She judged medieval Romans “completely unlike” the ancient Romans. The latter had, in her eyes, perfected a ruthless military machine, harnessed to a “centralized state.” The former were “incapable of unity, order, or administration”; the various city-states to which they owed allegiance squabbled, but not in a vengeful or even, it seems, murderous way. Machiavelli mentions that in one of Florence’s campaigns not a single soldier was killed.
As for Mlle Weil’s native land, she scoffs at the expression “eternal France”; sometimes it has had more than a touch of Roman hauteur (“the state as sole fount of authority and object of devotion”) and sometimes it has been ruled quite differently. She considered Napoleon another of history’s Roman consuls; whereas upon occasion France has been among the more peaceful nations.
How does a nation maintain a certain notion of itself over a given span of time—so that policies pursued by one government with or without the consent of a particular citizenry become policies believed in, accepted quite eagerly or casually by succeeding generations of men and women? With respect to Rome’s lengthy tenure of military and political supremacy, Simone Weil observes, in partial explanation: “It is only from the conviction that she is chosen from all eternity for sovereign mastery over others that a nation can draw the force to behave in this way.” She knows that a sustained “conviction” has to be passed down from parents to children. Myths are developed, and in one way or another they are transmitted; in the remote past by word of mouth, more recently through books, and in our time over radio and television as well.
The Nazis had their explicit propaganda, aimed at “public enlightenment”; for Mlle Weil the renowned Virgil was not much more than a Goebbels who could write narrative poetry. She declares his “Thou, Roman, bethink thee to rule the people imperially” to be “the best formulation” of an empire’s need for a myth of “universal dominion.” Successive generations of Romans heard those words, and others like them; and soon enough were willing to participate in the vicious, senseless, arbitrary practices Weil documents at considerable length in her essay—which is meant to show that Hitler was not a barbarian: “Would to heaven he were!” she exclaims. The distinction she draws between the assaults of barbarians and those of …