Reasons for reading Simone Weil today

Reasons for reading Simone Weil today Simone Weil
Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century

by Eric O. Springsted (University of Notre Dame Press, US$35.00 pb/£25.00 pb)

The Subversive Simone Weil: A life in five ideas

by Robert Zaretsky (University of Chicago Press, US$20.00 hb/£16.00 hb)

Frank Litton

What theologians, philosophers, public intellectuals who hold centre-stage today will still be highly regarded and their work studied 80 or so years from today? If the same question was asked 80 years ago, in the 1940s, the names Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus would surely be high on the list.

For those interested in Catholicism and its intersection with politics, Jacques Maritain would be a leader.

Few, I reckon, would have placed a bet on Simone Weil. While she made a deep impression on her pupils (she was graduate of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure) and her political associates, her publications were scattered in political journals outside the mainstream. She died young, at the age of 34, in 1943.

Yet, today she commands more attention from students of religion and politics than any of the above. Studies of her work continue to appear. These two books are the latest example.

Dissatisfaction with ourselves and our lot is the human condition. The self-help industry flourishes. We are taught to focus on ‘me’ and learn how to love ourselves, find confidence, banish anxiety, become assertive…The social context of our lives fades into the background. Against this trend, Weil teaches the importance of attention. Rather than find ourselves, we should lose ourselves, stepping out of our own light, escaping egoistical fantasies and attending to the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be.

The world Weil found was deeply unjust. She sided with the workers in capitalism’s war against them. Theorising about the condition of the working class and how it could be righted was not enough, or rather the truth could only be found in close attention to the world of the worker.


Accordingly, she worked at different times on a trawler, in a car factory and as a farm hand. While she failed as a worker, disabled by her clumsiness and blinding migraines, her understanding was enriched; for example, her essay Liberty and Oppression, displays a realism missing from socialist accounts with their utopias.

She exemplifies what it is to be a thinker, engaged with the problems of the world and committed to their solution.

Weil’s family were non-observant Jews. Together with her parents, she fled Paris as the Nazis invaded France.

After many vicissitudes, she found her way to London, where she worked for the French government-in-exile. Asked by Charles de Gaulle to write a report to guide the rebuilding of French society when the war was won and peace restored, she composed The Need for Roots. Prelude to a declaration of duties towards mankind, which was published in 1949.

The turmoil that roils western democracies makes this work all the more relevant. The web of associations that drew citizens together and linked them to their governments unravels. As one commentator puts it, we are moving from ‘party democracy’ to ‘audience democracy’, becoming spectators of the political game rather than participants, confident our interests are represented. The sense of a shared world that transcends the conflicting interests that divide us fades.

We are taught to think of politics in terms of human rights. Weil proposes that we think of them in terms of obligations. The emphasis on human rights encourages us to think of the social order as a cost we must pay, the price of the benefits it brings us, chief of which is autonomy.

We criticise the order when the price is too high, its restrictions on our freedom to choose too great. To change the emphasis to obligations encourages thoughts of solidarity. So, we criticise the order when it fails to sustain that solidarity. We find solidarity in the sense of belonging that comes with roots.

Nations provide roots. But not all forms of nationalism nourish roots; some are grounded in hatred and so pervert solidarity.

As a student, she had no particular interest in religion. As her life progressed, she grew closer and closer to Catholicism.

Her interest did not begin in philosophy but with attention. On a visit to Portugal, she observed peasant women perform the rituals of celebration of their patron saint’s day and was deeply moved.


A visit to the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes followed and close attention to the liturgy brought her a mystical experience. She confessed that she “had never foreseen the possibility of a real contact, person to person, here below between a human being and God”.

Now she was interested in Catholicism and her keen philosophical mind explored the mysteries of faith, of an incarnate God who died on a cross. Her reflections on these, infused with her Platonism, inspire.

Though drawn to the Church, she never took the final step to join it. While she accepted the faith found in the tradition it carried forward, she refused to accept an institution she supposed would coerce her intellect. An institution that hurled anathemas, was anathema to her.


Our highly individualistic culture frustrates our need for belonging and solidarity; its bigoted secularism denies the human thirst for transcendence. Those who would defend these basic needs from inside a framework that responds to them cannot gather an audience. They listen to Weil, who comes to them from the ‘outside’, from a perspective not unlike their own.

Both books have much to commend them. Dr Zaretsky’s is the better introduction. He writes with clarity and sympathy of her life and thought, recognising her contribution while not endorsing all her positions. Dr Springsted explores her thought while bringing it into conversation with other philosophers. His discussion of her religious reflections is particularly valuable.