Simone Weil was a French political, social and religious philosopher. She instinctively empathised with the sufferings of others and sought to actively work for the benefit of others. She was sympathetic to the ideals of Communism but became an ardent critic of Communist excesses. She abhorred war and for a time was a pacificist, but she volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and served the French resistance. Brought up an agnostic by her Jewish parents, she had mystical experiences which drew her close to Christianity. Yet, despite her closeness to Christianity, she did not formally join a church as she felt other major religions were an equally valid path to the truth and God.
Simone Weil was born 3 February 1909 in Paris, France. Her parents were relatively affluent, non-practising Jews from the Alsace region – which was formerly part of Germany. Her family suffered from a degree of antisemitism and the feeling Alsace was apart from mainstream France.
When she was born she was quite weak and the doctors feared she might not live. But she did recover only to come down with a severe case of appendicitis when she was six months old. As a child she was a precious student, reading widely and gaining an interest in religion and politics from an early age. Like her parents, she had a phobia of microbes and she retained an obsession with cleanliness and trying to avoid touching people for the rest of her life.
Weil had an instinctive concern for the well-being of others and felt a need to sacrifice her personal interests so she could better serve others. For example, during the First World War, she refused the sugar ration, when she heard of the plight of soldiers in the trenches. On another occasion on returning to Paris, Simone and her brother Andre took it upon themselves to refuse socks to harden themselves to the cold. Her mother described her as “Indomitable, impossible to control, with an indescribable stubbornness that neither I nor her father can make a dent in.”
Weil both identified with the sufferings of others, but also took it upon her self to cultivate her own privations and once she had set her mind on something she rarely yielded.
From an early age, Weil was drawn to radical politics. In 1919, aged only 10, she declared herself a Bolshevik and she wanted to join a march for the unemployed but was stopped by her parents. She had an instinctive dislike of oppression, war and inequality. However, as she threw herself into left-wing politics, she showed an independent streak by becoming increasingly critical of Marxism and Communist Russia. Whilst many left-wing activists idolised Communist leaders like Trotsky and Lenin, but Weil saw that Marxism could easily lead to capitalist oppression being replaced by a new form of oppression – by elite Communist bureaucrats controlling the state.
Weil went to one of the top Paris schools – The Lycee Fenelon where in subjects like French and literature, she excelled – displaying a precious awareness beyond her age. In June 1925, she passed her baccalaureate and in 1928, she gained entrance to Paris most prestigious graduate schools École Normale Supérieure. She finished 1st in the General philosophy and logic. Contemporary Simone de Beauvoir finished second.
As a teenager, she made an inner commitment to avoid love affairs and dedicate herself to her mission of serving the poor. Despite being quite attractive, she was uncomfortable with the idea of cultivating feminine beauty – preferring to dress in plain clothes and portray a more masculine image. Her student friends often remarked she stood out from other people in her class. She could appear both aloof yet with an acute sensitivity and willingness to throw herself into causes for the upliftment of others. Despite periods of insecurity, she had a resolute commitment that all human beings had the ability to attain the truth. She hated even the smallest white lie and was committed to following the truth. Her tendency to see things in black and white could cause friction as her friends felt a sense of judgement. Simone de Beauvoir met Weil as a student and remembers with some discomfort Weil looking her up and down and saying to her “It’s easy to see you’ve never gone hungry” Yet despite being annoyed at this exchange she later expressed great admiration for Weil.
After graduation, Weil took work as a teacher, where she combined her teaching with political agitation. She criticised the government in their lack of support for the unemployed and as a result, she came into conflict with school authorities and frequently changed schools. She also had an unorthodox teaching style which often ignored the curriculum. She was remembered by her students as a stand-out teacher who put her time entirely at their disposal and often volunteering to teach extra lessons for free. The stresses of the time may have contributed to the onset of severe migraines which started in 1930 and lasted the rest of her life
In 1932, concerned at the state of European politics, she visited Germany and met members of the German Communist Party. Although they were well organised she felt that they were no match for the fascists and she feared for their future. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, she helped many German Communists to flee political persecution.
In 1933, French workers went on a general strike, and Weil offered her enthusiastic support. She even left her teaching job to gain employment in a car factory for a year. She didn’t want to be just an academic socialist but actually experience life as a member of the working class so she could fully empathise with the people. Her experiences as a worker made her aware of the soulless limitations of modern industry
“A modern factory reaches perhaps almost the limit of horror. Everybody in it is constantly harassed and kept on edge by the interference of extraneous wills while the soul is left in cold and desolate misery. What man needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.” Human Personality (1943)
In December of 1933, she also looked after Leon Trotsky when he came to Paris for his meetings with members of the French Communist Party. Despite being willing to go out of her way to support him, she also confronted him about the failing of Marxism. Trotsky became highly critical of Weil – both politically and personally. He wrote several articles responding to her views.
In 1935, her interest in religion became more personal when she was moved by a religious procession of Portuguese villagers singing simple religious songs. She felt moved by the devotion and simplicity of the local people and for the first time, she felt like a Christian. Speaking of the incident later she said:
“There I suddenly had the certitude that Christianity is the religion of slaves par excellence, that slaves cannot adhere to it, and I too along with the others.”
In 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was a key moment in the ideological divide between democratic socialism and fascism in Europe. In Spain, the Republican government were overthrown by Franco’s fascist coup. Although she abhorred war and adhered to pacificism, she felt this war was a test for European democracy. She went to Spain and volunteered for the Popular Front. She joined an anarchist group called the Durruti Column. She was enthusiastic and willing to volunteer for any dangerous assignment, however, her very poor eyesight meant she was very ineffective in using a gun and her lack of practical sense meant she was distrusted by her fellow combatants. As an idealist, Weil hoped the war would be a battle between the forces of good and evil and she was very upset when she learned her own side were executing captured soldiers from the Fascist side. After burning herself on a stove, she was forced out of her platoon and with her parents, she went to Assisi in Italy to recuperate.
Mystical experience in Assisi
Whilst staying in Assisi, Weil had a mystical experience in the Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli – the church where St Francis of Assisi used to pray. Her strong awareness of a divine presence encouraged her to start investigating the spiritual practises related to Christianity. She recounts this time.
“In 1937 I had two marvellous days at Assisi. There, alone in the little twelfth century Romanesque chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, an incomparable marvel of purity where Saint Francis often used to pray, something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.”
For the first time, she kneeled and prayed and she began reading more religious texts. Ideologically, she was not enamoured of the Old Testament and the God of judgement, but she was attracted to the teachings of Jesus Christ, especially the sentiment to ‘Love one neighbour as yourself’. Despite being attracted to the spirit of Catholocism, she did not formally join as she did not agree with Catholic teachings that the Catholic Church was the only one true faith. From her exploration of Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, she felt that each religion could be true in its own right. She believed all religions could lead to the same transcendent Reality and the consciousness was the same, even if the outer form was different. Weil did not believe in an amalgamation of religion, feeling that it was better a person follow a particular religious path wholeheartedly, but to her, there was no competition, just different paths.
“Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else … A “synthesis” of religion implies a lower quality of attention.” – Notebooks of Simone Weil, volume 1
In 1938, she had another significant spiritual experience whilst reciting a poem by Christian writer George Herbert on Love. She recalled that she felt:
“Christ himself came down and took possession of me”
Whilst she felt an inner connection to Christ, she also felt that studying the philosophy and religion of India, Greece and Egypt had prepared her to understand the real meaning of Christianity.
“Greece, Egypt, ancient India, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflection of this beauty in art and science…these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands as his captive. I think I might even say more.”
At the outbreak of the Second World War, she was living in Paris. She disavowed her pacifism feeling Hitler had to be fought. The family fled to Marseille, where she was active in the French Resistance, contributing to a resistance magazine under the pseudonym Emile Novis. She also sought to get better treatment for refugees through forging ration cards. Despite the outer turmoil, she continued to delve deeper into spirituality and mysticism. She became acquainted with the French Catholic author Gustave Thibon and received spiritual instruction from a Dominican friar.
“God’s love for us is not the reason for which we should love him. God’s love for us is the reason for us to love ourselves.” Love (1947)
She was attracted to the Christian philosophy which saw suffering and trials as a way to bring souls closer to God. In her own experience, she voluntarily sacrificed her personal comfort for others. Initially, this was motivated by a sense of political and social action, but in her later years, she saw suffering in more spiritual terms.
“Suffering and enjoyment as sources of knowledge. The serpent offered knowledge to Adam and Eve. The sirens offered knowledge to Ulysses. These stories teach that the soul is lost through seeking knowledge in pleasure. Why? Pleasure is perhaps innocent on condition that we do not seek knowledge in it. It is permissible to seek that only in suffering.”
— Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (ch. 16 ‘Affliction’)
Although she became more interested in spirituality, she never lost interest in outer action. Even in her last year, she wrote the book “The need for Roots” which laid out ideas for the moral, spiritual and practical regeneration of France. In particular, she attempts to deal with the sense of alienation and “uprootedness” that many French felt due to the rapid change of society. She hoped to convince General Charles de Gaulle, but De Gaulle had misgivings about Weil. De Gaulle once described a plan of Weil’s to parachute nurses into occupied France as ‘mad.’
Last years with the Free French
In 1942, she escaped Vichy France with her family to the United States. She hoped from the US to return to Britain and become an agent for the French resistance. When she arrived in London, she began writing articles for the Free French. She also applied for training to become an agent for Special Operations Executive, however, her health was failing and she was diagnosed with tuberculosis so she was confined to rest. Despite her poor health, she wished to maintain solidarity with those in occupied France and she limited her diet even more than strict British rations. However, her health quickly deteriorated and she was taken to a hospital in Ashford Kent. In August of 1943, she died from Cardiac Failure. Her restriction of diet most likely contributed to her poor health, though her health problems also made it hard to eat.
Legacy of Weil
Weil influenced a generation of French thinkers and writers. She was admired for her idealism, empathy and lack of dogma. Her unconventional beliefs were an unusual combination of self-critical socialism and valuing the importance of religion, whilst avoiding the dogma of one particular religion. Some considered her a saint for her sense of self-sacrifice and willingness to serve others whatever her cost. Her strong opinions also made many enemies. She was criticised by fellow socialists who felt she went too far in her criticism of Marxism.
“Simone Weil, I maintain this now, is the only great spirit of our times and I hope that those who realize this have enough modesty to not try to appropriate her overwhelming witnessing.”
– Albert Camus (1951)
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Simone Weil”, Oxford, UK – www.biographyonline.net. Published 31st July 2014. Last updated 5 March 2020.
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