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The Anti-Politics of Simone Weil

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.

  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.

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