The French thinker, political activist, and religious mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) was known for the intensity of her commitments and the breadth and depth of her analysis of numerous aspects of modern civilization.
Simone Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909, the second child of an assimilated Jewish family. She received a superb education in the French lycées and the Ecole Normale Supérieure. A brilliant and unusual student, she was admired by some of her teachers and held in awe by some of her peers, while others mocked her for her radical political opinions and the intensity of her convictions. Her political activism and life-long interest in work and in the working class began in her student years.
Following the completion of her Ecole Normale studies in 1931 she taught philosophy for several years in various provincial girls' Iycées. These were years of severe economic depression and great political upheaval in Europe, and Weil's interest in the worker and her passionate concern for social justice led her to devote all of her time outside of teaching to political activism in the French trade-union (syndicalist) movement. She taught classes for workingmen, took part in meetings and demonstrations, and wrote for a variety of leftist periodicals.
At first she shared her comrades' belief in the imminence of a proletarian revolution; soon, however, both her experience within the revolutionary Left and her observation of the international political situation led her to conclude that what had developed in the 1930s was different from anything Marx had expected, that there were no premonitory signs of the proletarian revolution, and that a new oppressive class was emerging—the managerial bureaucracy. Though she was an admirer of Marx, she became a trenchant critic of Marxism, which she accused of being a dogma rather than a scientific method of social analysis. In the last half of 1934 she wrote a lengthy essay called "Oppression and Liberty" in which she summed up the inadequacies of Marxism, attempted her own analysis of the mechanism of social oppression, and sketched a theoretical picture of a free society.
Experiences in Factories and the Spanish Civil War
In 1934-1935 Weil's intense sympathy for the workers and her desire to know first-hand what the working-class condition was like led her to take a leave of absence from teaching to spend eight months as an anonymous worker in three Paris factories. A modern worker's experience, she concluded, far from being a hard but joyous contact with "real life, " was entirely comparable to that of the slaves of antiquity. This experience also reinforced her conviction that political revolution without a total transformation of the methods of production—methods that depended on the subordination of the worker both to the machine and to the managerial bureaucracy—would do nothing to alleviate working-class oppression.
Although her experience with the organized Left disillusioned her with political activism, when the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 Weil, hoping that a genuine working-class revolution was under way in Spain, went immediately to Barcelona. She made her way to the front and was accepted into a militia unit, but after only a week her foot and ankle were badly burned in a camp accident, and she returned to Barcelona, where she was hospitalized. Her experience in Spain further disillusioned her; her observations in the several weeks she remained there convinced her that the atmosphere created by civil war was fatal to the ideals for which the war was being fought.
After Weil returned to France, ill health kept her from returning to teaching; her burn was slow to heal, she was anemic, and the debilitating migraine headaches from which she had suffered for years became worse. She spent the last years of the 1930s reflecting and writing on war and peace and beginning to formulate her thoughts on the nature of force, on the human spirit's tragic subjection to it, and on mankind's temptation to worship it. These reflections found expression in two remarkable essays, "The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, " and "The Great Beast, " a long essay on the origins of Hitlerism, both of which were written early in 1940.
The late 1930s also brought a significant new dimension to Weil's thinking. Though an agnostic from childhood, she found herself in situations—contemplating the beauty of St. Francis' little chapel in Assisi, listening to a Gregorian chant at a Benedictine monastery during Holy Week, reciting George Herbert's poem "Love" as an object of concentration to help her endure the climax of an excruciating headache—in which she suddenly felt overwhelmed by the presence of God. After these experiences she began to regard Plato, whom she had always loved, as a mystic and began to search for what she called the "mystical core" in other religions. She came to believe that a non-oppressive society must be based on a common conviction that every human being is deserving of respect because he has an eternal destiny. Her longstanding belief in the radical equality of human beings (based on the Cartesian teaching that every human being is capable of knowing as much as the greatest genius if only he exercises his mind properly) was now given a supernatural sanction.
World War II Flight to England
Following the German occupation of Paris in June 1940, Weil and her parents fled to the unoccupied south of France, residing in Marseilles from September 1940 until May 1942. During this period Weil read extensively in Greek, Hindu, and other texts and thought and wrote a great deal. She believed she had found a truly Christian civilization, a model of the type of the hierarchical but non-oppressive society she was beginning to formulate as an ideal, in the 11th-and 12th-century cities of the Languedoc, where for more than 100 years Catholicism existed side by side with a form of Gnosticism known as Catharism.
Though she was strongly drawn toward Catholicism, Weil also found many elements of the Catharist faith attractive; as a result of this, some commentators have judged her to be a Manichean and a Gnostic—essentially, a heretic— who rejected the material realm as evil and sought escape from it and from the body into a realm of pure spirit. In fairness to Weil it should be pointed out that there is a great deal in her writing about the beauty of the world and the necessity of loving it as God's creation, even when it brings pain and death. Moreover, there is nothing Manichean in her belief in the humanity and divinity of Christ and in his presence in the Eucharist. Though she desired the sacraments she was never baptized, feeling that it was her vocation to remain a Christian outside the Church.
During the time she spent in Marseilles she was phenomenally productive. In addition to the essays on the Languedoc (see "A Medieval Epic Poem" and "The Romanesque Renaissance" in Selected Essays), she wrote essays on problems in modern science (see On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God), a large number of essays on religious subjects (see Waiting for God and Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks), and her Marseilles Notebooks. She also spent several weeks as a hired laborer working the vineyards of the Rhone valley during the grape harvest.
Though reluctant to leave France, Weil was persuaded to accompany her parents to New York in May 1942. She hoped once in New York to be able to interest the United States government in a plan she had conceived to organize a corps of nurses who would go into battle with the soldiers in order to give immediate first aid and thus save lives that would otherwise be lost because of shock and loss of blood. Needless to say, Weil wanted to be one of these nurses. Her proposal was turned down, and after five months in New York City she made her way to London to work for the French Resistance. Desperately wanting to be exposed to the risks and suffering of war—she felt she was called by God to do so—she begged to be parachuted into France as a saboteur; however, she was given a desk job reviewing reports of Resistance committees in France. Told to draw up her own ideas on how France should be reconstructed after the war, she wrote The Need for Roots, an extremely condensed summary of her thinking on the causes of the modern loss of rootedness in the sacred and suggestions for its possible cure.
Stress and malnourishment (she refused, out of solidarity with the French living on short rations under the German occupation, to eat more than the amount of food that would have been available to her in France) took their toll on her health, and in April 1943 she was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Even in the hospital, however, she was unwilling or unable to eat more than meager amounts. In July digestive problems caused her to eat even less than before, and she went downhill rapidly. She died in a sanitarium in Ashford, Kent, on August 24, 1943, at the age of 34. The Ashford newspaper, which carried a story on her death, described it as a suicide. When her books began to be published and translated after her death, this story of her supposed suicide out of sympathy with the starving French captured the popular imagination, and she was widely seen as a kind of crazy secular saint, admirable but ludicrous in her intense seriousness and impossible and impractical idealism. As more of her large body of writings was published and translated in the 1950s and 1960s, this image began to give way to a serious study of her work and to a recognition of her as one of the most lucid, challenging minds of the 20th century.
Further Reading on Simone Weil
The major biography of Weil is Simone Petrement's Simone Weil: A Life (1976). Shorter but also valuable are Jacques Cabaud's Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love (1964) and Richard Rees's Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait (1966). Dorothy Tuck McFarland's Simone Weil (1983) is a study of her writings. Robert Cole wrote a reflective account of Weil's faith in Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987).
Additional Biography Sources
Coles, Robert, Simone Weil: a modern pilgrimage, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Fiori, Gabriella, Simone Weil, an intellectual biography, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck, Simone Weil, New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1983.
McLellan, David, Utopian pessimist: the life and thought of Simone Weil, New York: Poseidon Press, 1990.
Nevin, Thomas R., Simone Weil: portrait of a self-exiled Jew, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Petrement, Simone, Simone Weil: a life, New York: Schocken Books, 1988.
Rees, Richard, Simone Weil: a sketch for a portrait, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978, 1966.
Simone Weil, interpretations of a life, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.