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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.