On September 3, 1943, the following headline appeared in a local English newspaper, The Kent Messenger: DEATH FROM STARVATION: FRENCH PROFESSOR’S CURIOUS SACRIFICE. The reference was to the death of Simone Weil, then attached to the Free French forces, on August 24, in an Ashford nursing home. The verdict of the Coroner’s Court was “that the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.” As her friend and biographer is able to show, the truth is more complicated than that; indeed, everything connected with Simone Weil, her life of study and teaching and political agitation, her beliefs in religion, philosophy, and politics, her mysticism, and the claim made, not unreasonably, by many for her sanctity, is enormously complicated and often hard to put together in a consistent way. In death as in life her personality is enigmatic. We are not ignorant of what she thought: the abundance of her writings and of her reported sayings and actions provides rich material for study; but at the end we are left with many questions difficult to answer.
Simone Pétrement has in her fine biography given us a great amount of information, much of it new, some of it the precious testimony of friends and witnesses (among these the biographer).1 With the study by the late Richard Rees2 and with the happy republishing of the Notebooks,3 and, we must hope, of such other important works as The Need for Roots, Gravity and Grace, and (perhaps the most revealing clue to her spiritual character) Waiting for God, and now Madame Pétrement’s testimony, we have in English perhaps enough material on which to found a judgment of her thought. There can be no question of a definitive judgment. She is too great (though the claim for greatness would be part of a disputable judgment) for this, and perhaps the inner conflicts of her thought and character cannot be systematically presented; and no matter how well one may know France and the French there remains something hard to come to terms with about the side of her which is so much that of a pupil of Alain at the Lycée Henri IV and a product of the Ecole Normale.
Simone Weil was born in 1909, the daughter of nonreligious Jewish parents. (She never sympathized with Judaism, didn’t much care for Jews, was ignorant of Jewish practice and belief, and entered a synagogue—an Ethiopian synagogue in New York—only once in her life. Here, I shall argue later, is the real obstacle to her conversion to Christianity.) She was, with her brother (a young Pascal in his mathematical talent), intellectually precocious, and was early encouraged by her mother to prefer intellectual tasks to playing with dolls. From her childhood she showed sympathy with the poor. When she was eleven years old she was missed in the house; she had gone to a meeting of the unemployed. She had, as it were, a talent for affliction from an early age; for most of her life she was racked by atrocious headaches, but she never ceased to seek out external causes of suffering. It wasn’t that she wanted to suffer but that the tasks she set herself in the world and the obligations she imposed upon herself were causes of bodily affliction and spiritual desolation.
Perhaps the most curious thing about her youth is that people were inclined to say that she was “a saint.” Sometimes this was said by pious people—an old nurse is noted as having said this when Simone was eight—but not always. This went on all her life. She wasn’t in the least a “good” little girl. She was imperious, self-willed, extravagant, ruffled the susceptibilities of others and hurt their feelings by assuming they were made of the same hard metal as herself. She didn’t in her childhood, adolescence, or early womanhood raise for herself, at least not with any seriousness, religious as distinct from philosophical questions about God; and she didn’t pray.
She was one of Alain’s most brilliant pupils at Henri IV. We are given an account of one of her essays for him. The subject is “The Fairy Tale of the Six Swans in Grimm.” The story is that the sister of six brothers turned into swans must make six nightshirts out of anemones and in this six-year task she must never break silence. Simone’s comment is: “To act is never difficult; we always act too much and scatter ourselves ceaselessly in disorderly deeds. To make six shirts from anemones and to keep silent: this is our only way of acquiring power…. The sole strength and sole virtue is to cease from acting.” It seems she is arguing that it was the sister’s silence, not the making of the shirts, that saved her brothers. This essay and others are remarkable pieces of writing for a girl of sixteen. Some of the ideas and ways of treating them are no doubt breathed into her by her teacher, but there seems to be a vein of originality. Her diploma dissertation was on “Science and Perception in Descartes.” It is highly original if slightly perverse—it looks as though the actual Cartesian text didn’t trouble her too much—but it seems not to have pleased her director, the great Brunschvicg, who gave it the lowest possible passing mark.
By the time she went as professor to the lycée at Le Puy, her first post after her agrégation, the external features of her character, of what had been made out of her temperamental endowment, are evident and don’t change much for the rest of her life. First, there is the will to live in poverty. At Le Puy she had the salary of a full professor but decided to use only the money she would have got had she been an inferior teacher without the agrégation. This is a pattern throughout her life. For a year, during 1934 and 1935, she did hard factory work, often to the point of utter exhaustion. In the last months of her life she tried to live on what she would have eaten had she lived under the German occupation—this was the (somewhat inadequate) ground for the coroner’s verdict.
Next, there is a physical fastidiousness that made her shrink from bodily contacts even with close relatives. Sometimes she impulsively kissed her friends and this for them was always memorable. She was fiercely virginal, yet fond of men’s company; this made for amusing mistakes on the part of men, who thought they could advance from bon camarade to something else. But she was no prude, admired the memoirs of the Cardinal de Retz, and the man too, though he was scarcely remarkable for the virtue of chastity. When a German girl asked her if she had a “friend” she was amused and not at all offended.
She wasn’t self-consciously Bohemian in her way of life, but she looked Bohemian and shabby, often untidy; but she was like this always because she was totally devoted to whatever it was in social life that preoccupied her at a given time, the condition of the unemployed, the Spanish Civil War, the work in a factory; and underneath the passionate commitment, often a commitment without hope, for she was too shrewd to suppose that the goals men in politics set themselves are ever reached, there was the growing awareness that she was fearfully and unutterably connected with that which is beyond the world: that she had the vocation of a mystic.
Her full conviction that this was her vocation didn’t perhaps come until 1938, when, as she told Father Perrin, the Dominican priest who became her friend, Christ came and took possession of her. She wrote: “in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” She was greatly astonished by this happening. “I had never read the mystics,” she wrote, “…God in his mercy had prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it should be evident to me that I had not invented this absolutely unexpected contact.”
One of the many moving photographs in the Pétrement biography is of a poem by George Herbert (“Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back / Guiltie of dust and sin”) copied out by Simone Weil. It is neat, clear, without affectation, not at all emancipated from the bad handwriting models of the nineteenth century; there is no hint of the great models of European handwriting, Carolingian minuscule or the Italian chancery hand; but it is moving in and through its limitations. There is the absence of aestheticism: it is plain that in copying out the text she is concerned only with the poem, anxious that it be easily read, that nothing come between the reader and Christ’s invitation to the sinner (“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. / So I did sit and eat”) to the heavenly banquet. It is the hand of a conscientious French school-mistress, a patient teacher, concerned not with herself but with what she has to communicate, without vanity but with a just confidence in herself as the custodian of a message committed to her.
She was a fine teacher, rigorous but kind, intensely concerned with the best possible standards in literature and philosophy, above all free of the aridity of the pedant. Her pupils protected her when she needed it from the attention of the school authorities. She was much loved by the children. She taught moral and political philosophy not so much through the classical texts (though Plato was always there; Aristotle she detested and never did justice to) as through works of literature (the Antigone of Sophocles, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov), for she believed that to go deeply into problems involved living with concrete examples; in this she is indeed Platonic, or rather Socratic, though she wouldn’t, I think, have been happy with this distinction. She was superbly educated in the French fashion and was in complete command of the body of Greek and Latin literature, of the entire canon of French literature, was well read in ancient philosophy and in European philosophy from Descartes to Kant, knew English and German literature well. This command of inner riches gives what she writes, and no doubt gave what she said, an extraordinary force and authority, even when her words are exaggerated or false.
It is harder to divest oneself of inner riches than of outward possessions; the rich man can sell all he has and give it to the poor. Those who find inner riches an obstruction to the growth of the spirit have the harder task of divesting the soul of all that makes it interesting and fetching to their fellows, of going away from the warm, rough world into other regions, into fire or ice or darkness. That she set herself this task from time to time is certain; and yet there is an obstinate fidelity to her vocation as teacher, both in practice—she was always teaching even when she had ceased to be a professional teacher, and she loved to teach workmen and neglected children—and in meditation; one of the most beautiful of her writings is a piece she wrote for the Catholic students at Montpellier: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”
Simone Pétrement has much to say about her life and ideas in the period when political and social action filled most of her time, about her reflections on factory work, on Germany just before Hitler came to power (these are extraordinary and in a different class from anything else written from the left at that time), on the role of the trade unions. Boris Souvarine, one of her greatest friends in the 1930s and a man for whom she had a deep affection, said of her: “She is the only brain the working-class movement has produced in many years.”
In the early 1930s almost no one distinguished Marx from Engels and Lenin. But she wrote that “Marx’s entire work is permeated with the spirit incompatible with the vulgar materialism of Engels and Lenin.” Such thoughts did not make the communists love her, and in return they had her contempt. She hated their idolatry of the Soviet Union, their strong-arm tactics against other parties on the left, the theatrical methods used to transform public meetings into orgiastic assemblies chanting the praises of Stalin and Thorez. She was, therefore, not surprised, as were the fellow travelers, by the great change of line after the German-Soviet pact in 1939. At a time when it was unfashionable she told all who were prepared to listen (not many) that “the writers in Russia who refuse to lie are sent to Siberia where one leaves them—let us be clear about this—they and their families, without any resources to live on.”
She hated capitalism, but she thought it better than a totalitarian socialism. Her great hope was that in the crisis of the Thirties and Forties the colonial peoples would free themselves from European control. For her the important thing in politics was to limit those evils that are not inseparable from the human condition. She thought there are many evils that are simply a part of the order of the world. But what seemed a brutal pessimism repelled many. In an article in Révolution prolétarienne in 1933 she wrote: “There is no difficulty whatever, once one has decided to act, in maintaining intact on the plane of action those very hopes that a critical examination has shown to be well-nigh unfounded; in that lies the very essence of courage.” Understandably, her comrades didn’t find this enlivening.
The nature of Simone Weil’s political commitment is brought out by the brief episode in the Spanish Civil War during which she served with Anarchist troops. She had no doubt about the general justice of the Republican cause but was skeptical about its purity and its prospects. But consequences didn’t matter to her: the moral imperative of the situation was all. On the front in Aragon, with the Durruti column, she wrote: “If they [i.e., the Franco troops] capture me, they will kill me…. But it is what we deserve. Our troops have shed a lot of blood. I am morally an accomplice.” An anecdote told her by the militia explains her sense that death would not have been undeserved. Durruti had lectured for an hour a fifteen-year-old Falangist who had fallen into the hands of the militia. He expounded the beauties of Anarchism and offered to spare the boy’s life if he would join the militia. The boy refused and so Durruti had him shot. Simone Weil comments: “Yet Durruti was in some ways an admirable man…[but] the death of this little hero never ceased to weigh on my conscience.”
A great puzzle over Simone Weil has always been, ever since her mystical writings and her correspondence with Father Perrin and Father Couturier were published, why she did not become a Christian. A part of this problem was for her the way in which Christianity was presented as a development of Judaism, whereas for her it was—an absurd thesis in fact—purely a development of the Greek spirit. All the other reasons against baptism she brought up from time to time—that Catholicism (this was the only church she ever considered) was involved in the idolatry of an institution, that the traditional Anathema sit delivered against the heretic limited intellectual freedom—are important enough. But they are always secondary to this, to her, enormous obstacle: the insistence that the Old Testament and the New are organically one. (It is a piece of beautiful historical irony that this was precisely the difficulty Charles Maurras had, though his preferred model of Catholicism was Roman and legal, rather than Greek.)
It is interesting to note how she tries to skirt around this obstacle, even, as it were, to walk through it. She sympathizes with the Gnostics, she anxiously inquires how far the second-century heretic Marcion, who thought the Old Testament had been fabricated by the dark rulers of the present age and that the New Testament had been polluted by the same daemonic forces, could be regarded as a permissible interpreter of the Christian theme. She is besotted with the Cathars, who have as well for her the irresistible charm of a minority defeated by the cruel world of the majority. It is extraordinary that Father Perrin should ever have considered her a suitable candidate for baptism. Later, Father Perrin, with Gustave Thibon, the French farmer and Catholic writer with whose family she lived for a time, working in the fields, saw what the problem was: “At the center of all her oppositions was her attitude to Israel, it was the key to all her resistance.”
She claimed to believe in the divinity of Christ and in his presence in the Eucharist; at the same time, she professed to hate that Judaism in which Jesus was immersed and which in all the synoptic Gospels is in his preaching simply taken for granted as the Word of God to Abraham and his posterity; and only as the Word of God to Israel in the first place has it any claim to be the Word of God to men. This is in fact clear enough in the Fourth Gospel, the one Simone loved because she thought it the most “Greek.” The Johannine writer, although his language has caused some to suspect affinities with Gnosticism, is in fact conducting a polemic against that Gnosticism which denied, as virtually all the schools of Christian Gnosticism did, the goodness of the physical world and the full humanity of Jesus.
Her chief charge against the Old Testament is that in its earlier parts Yahweh is shown as ordering the massacres of the inhabitants of Palestine displaced by the Jews and that the God of the Jews continued to be identified with this God of battles. She doesn’t seem ever to consider that there is here a soluble problem of exegesis and of historical criticism. There the words are on the page; and they are abominable. She seems insensitive to the ethical content of the Torah and doesn’t come to see, as she might very well have done had she devoted as much time to the study of the Old Testament as she did to the writings of the Greeks, that the moral ideas of Christianity, above all the two great commandments of the Law, love of God and love of neighbor, come from the Torah.
It is no wonder that she resisted baptism. Paul argues that the Gentiles may be likened to a wild olive shoot grafted onto the rich olive tree of Israel and nourished therefore by the tree’s root (Romans 11:17-24). The background and foundation of the New Testament is Jewish; the Greek elements are few—perhaps the Logos doctrine in the Fourth Gospel, though this may have come from the Hellenized Judaism of Egypt, from the circles that produced Philo; the spirit of Luke’s Gospel is perhaps touched with the Greek spirit, as compared with Mark and Matthew. About these points there is a sufficient consensus of the scholars to make it quite certain that Simone Weil is wrong when she writes that “the Gospels are the last marvelous expression of the Greek genius.” She reads the Gospels, especially the accounts of the Passion, as though she were reading the Iliad. She never gave to the Bible the passionate attention she gave to other works, to Homer, or to Thucydides’ history, or to the Bhagavad-Gita. This last she loved greatly, sometimes seeming to identify Krishna with Christ.
Simone Weil was so wonderfully intelligent that there is a puzzle here. Madame Pétrement doesn’t try to solve it, for she so closely identifies herself with her subject that she doesn’t see, or doesn’t bring out, that a puzzle exists. My own suggestion, though it may be quite wrong, is as follows.
Her education with Alain and at the Ecole Normale was one which was preoccupied with texts—Plato, Descartes, Racine, Kant, et al. There they lie in front of one, complex, finely articulated, but in the end available to the attentive reader, especially one who has mastered that great French discipline, explication de texte. They are not looked at historically and they are not seen to have many layers of meaning, layers that are not perhaps so logically harmonious as the surface may suggest. For example, Simone Weil, like virtually every educated Frenchman of that period, looked upon Descartes as a philosopher with a clear doctrine. There is no evidence that she had profited by Gilson’s detailed study of the text, a study which had shown how scholastic in its roots the work, for all its originality, is. Historical study gives us a different Descartes from the pellucid genius who has fascinated so many generations of Frenchmen. He is a more interesting thinker when historical study has worked him over, but also a more crabbed and confused one.
(In justice to her one ought to add that she had a marvelous sense of historical development. She was able, for example, to see with great precision the worlds of Homer and of Thucydides and to link them with the successor worlds of the Macedonian and Roman empires. Perhaps her historical sense is excessively dramatic: she hates the late Roman Republic and the Empire just as though they were contemporary tyrannies. Her moral judgments are as timeless and inflexible as Lord Acton’s.)
Simone Weil even found the most difficult and uncertain of the Greek texts, the Pythagorean fragments, understandable. She was very positive about what they meant, and even argued that what they meant was essentially the same as what Plato, the Greek Stoics, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, Saint John of the Cross, and the Cathars also meant. There is no agreement among scholars on what Pythagoras (about whom almost nothing is known for certain) and his followers maintained; and the suggestion that there is a single “truth” in the doctrines of all these individuals and schools is pure fantasy. Her view of Gnosticism is equally strange. If one compares what she has to say with what is established about the Gnostics in such a standard work as that of Hans Jonas4 it is clear that the complex phenomenon of Gnosticism simply escaped her.
The case of the Cathars is the most puzzling of all. Most of what we know about them we know through the reports of the Inquisition which, with the help of the secular arm, destroyed them. But it does seem plain that they held, with the Manichaeans and some of the Gnostics, Marcion, for instance, if we count him a Gnostic, that the world of nature was not God’s creation, that sexual love ought to be avoided, that the life of the body was an obstacle to spiritual perfection, and that the faithful were divided between the Perfect who eschewed sexual activity and the rest, the latter forming, as it were, the proletariat of the Cathar church. Simone Weil may at times have felt vague sympathies with some of these beliefs but she held none of them. Her feeling of solidarity with the Cathars seems to have been prompted not by intellectual sympathy but by her sympathy with the victims of the cruel Albigensian crusade, an event that was indeed like the slaughter of the indigenous peoples of Palestine recounted in the earlier books of the Bible.
What was it, then, that drew her in the later part of her short life to the Catholic Church, though she never crossed the threshold? It seems that it was the Liturgy, above all plainsong, which seemed to her so beautiful that it was almost a showing of the Divine glory in this world, the Liturgy, the sacramental system, the saints, and those religious men and women, Perrin, Thibon, and others, who seemed in their characters also to have a scintilla of the Divine glory. She didn’t see that what she took for the whole was a fragment, that taken to be a whole this fragment was another religion. What brought the fragment into a genuine whole was precisely faithfulness to that Biblical tradition she never understood or came to love.
It has seemed right to criticize one side of her thought in harsh terms, for writers who have interpreted her life and work have tended to avoid the hard questions about the consistency and truth of her ideas. She is so attractive, her literary gifts are so stunning, her mystical vocation so evident, that it may have seemed churlish to pay too much attention to what is extravagant in her. But when all this has been said, there remains one of the most remarkable women of our time, one who can be placed with Teresa of Avila and with the two Catherines, of Genoa and of Siena. Toward the end of her life, in New York, on the eve of her departure to England where her Passion was consummated, she wrote down what Madame Pétrement rightly calls “the terrible prayer”:
May all this [i.e., sensibility and intelligence, love as her love] be stripped away from me, devoured by God, transformed into Christ’s substance, and given for food to afflicted men whose body and soul lack every kind of nourishment. And let me be a paralytic—blind, deaf, witless, and utterly decrepit…. Father, since thou art the Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me to make them into things for your use, and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or else nothingness.
Either this is madness or it is obedience to a vocation few are called to. Simone Weil’s life and death compel us to face or to hide from such ultimate questions.
March 3, 1977
The translation is on the whole excellent, straightforward, and unaffected, like the subject of the book. There are some avoidable Gallicisms—”the Pentecostal holidays,” “pooled their cultivations,” provisoirement becomes “provisorily.” The worst thing about the text is that it reads as though no one had corrected the proofs. We have “Shumann” for “Schumann” and a host of other absurdities. ↩
Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait (Southern Illinois University Press, 1966). ↩
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. ↩
The Gnostic Religion, Second Revised Edition (Peter Smith, 1963). ↩