Simone Weil, a short-lived genius

by frankbeswick

Simone Weil died young, but left a legacy of philosophical and mystical writings that have influenced many thinkers.

The Jewish community has produced many distinguished scholars in a wide variety of fields, and Simone Weil was a fine representative of this great tradition. She was a scholar of accomplishment in the fields of philosophy and religion, with expertise in more than one world religion, and she was herself the beneficiary of a mystical experience. She was also a woman of great moral sensitivity, a dedicated anti-fascist who was planning to enter occupied France to work with the resistance when she prematurely fell terminally ill.

Photo courtesy of pinwhalestock, of Pixabay

Life and Death

In 1943 a young worker for the Free French government based in London shut her eyes for the last time, as Tuberculosis, a deadly killer at that time, claimed another victim, and thus passed a woman who packed writing, teaching and activism into a short life, rather as a meteor briefly lights the sky before burning out. There were doubts about her death, for the coroner believed that she died of self-starvation, as she was refusing to eat, in solidarity with victims of hunger caused by Nazi oppression, but this is disputed by those witnesses who say that she did eat but had lost appetite due to her illness.

Simone was from her Parisian childhood a person of great sensitivity to the sufferings of others and was deeply hurt by her father's absence in the First World War. She was also someone of prodigious intellect, an intelligence that could only be satisfied by deep scholarship. By the age of ten she had declared herself a Marxist, though her Marxism eventually was to fade when she was among the first to observe a new kind of oppression, the tyranny of elite bureaucrats who were just as cruel as capitalists were. But by twelve years old she had taught herself classical Greek so as to read ancient Greek literature in the original language. 

Early in life she decided that the commitment of marriage was incompatible with her commitment to helping the working class,so she chose celibacy, and she deterred suitors by often wearing men's clothes and rejecting cosmetics. But she was personally loving, though she eschewed physical contact with anyone. At this stage she was still an agnostic. Up to the nineteen thirties she had never prayed, but this was to change radically. 

Having qualified in Philosophy at a Grande Ecole, where she came first in her exam, narrowly beating Simone De Beauvoir, she went to teach in Lyons, but she continued with her leftwing activism. However, the fact that she was in the South meant that she was away from the area that fell to the Nazis. This saved her from the concentration camps. 

Political Life

From her youthful years she demonstrated with the Communists against the oppression of the working classes,but refrained from joining the Communist party. During this period she became aware of the possibility that state bureaucrats could be oppressors as well as capitalists were. She debated with the exiled Trotsky, a powerful debater, but she was the one person who could routinely get the better of him. During the early 1930s she visited Germany and became aware that something evil was sprouting there and warned that the Nazi evil was powerful. 

She then volunteered for action in the Spanish civil war,but was turned down by the communists on grounds that her severe myopia would disqualify her for combat. Still determined to fight Fascism, she joined an anarchist group, who were unimpressed with her combat skiĺls. But she became disillusioned by the group when its leader executed a fifteen year old boy prisoner. Her sensitive nature rebelled against cruelty. Shortly afterwards her military career ended when she was badly burned in a cooking accident,and her parents, who had foĺlowed her to Spain, took the opportunity to withdraw her to recuperate in Assisi. Shortly after she left the anarchist group was slaughtered in action, with all the women being killed. After recuperation she did some work helping refugees from Naziism.

Politically she was progressing from the far left, and as a consequence she began to publish articles that were critical of both capitalism and socialism. This was to align her to Catholic social thought, which repudiated extreme positions, though she was unaware that this was the direction in which she was travelling. She was, though, conscious that she had a Christian soul, as she saw love as being integral to her being, a position that alienated her from Marxism.

Religion

Unlike most on the left, she steadily became increasingly interested in religion,but not just Christianity,but ancient Greek mystery cults and Hinduism,for the study of which she learned Sanskrit, as she was keen on reading the Upanishads, Hindu mystical writings. What was unique in her approach was that she believed that she should approach each religion as though it were true, in order to appreciate it fully. This attitude was linked to her view that most religions carry some elements of divine revelation in them, as they all contain some sparks of divine truth in them. At this stage she refused to be baptised,as she believed that in doing so she would cut herself off from what is good in non-Christian religions. But while she keenly studied world religions she insisted that each religion should be respected and so she rejected religious syncretism, which tries to blur the distinct character of each religion and produce a shallow unity in which all faiths are regarded as fundamentally identical. This was not a path to truth.

However, as the 1930s progressed she seemed to find herself more at home with Christians, Catholics in particular, than among other religions. This was a reflection of the journey that her soul was making. 

Mysticism

Nineteen thirty eight, when she was twenty nine, was the year when her experiences came to fruition. On holiday in Portugal she came upon a Catholic procession, and she was struck by the beauty of the singing. She then realised that beauty was the gateway to the divine and came to see that beauty is the face that God shows the world. Later,on a visit to Assisi in Italy, visiting the little church of St Francis she had a compulsion to pray for the first time. 

Other mystical experiences followed. She deeply loved reciting the Lord's prayer in Greek, for the great beauty of the language, which mediated the transcendent holiness of God to her. However she was profoundly impressed by a young English Catholic man, whom she met in Britain, because of the aura of holiness that she sensed around him after he had taken the Eucharist. She knew that she was in the presence of holiness. But greatest of all was her profound mystical experience when she said that Christ himself had come down and taken possession of her. She saw no visual apparition, but was conscious of being completely filled with Christ's love.

Final Years.

War  came when she was thirty. At this time Simone was in Lyons and she managed to get her family to join her. After nineteen forty the family were feeling fearful,  as they were Jews, so in early 1942 they sailed to America with Simone accompanying them, as they would not go without her. But she intended to return and join the Free French based in London. Her intention was to return to France as a resistance fighter,but her physical limitations scuppered that plan. She was too short sighted to be trusted with a gun. Instead she managed to be selected for training as a clandestine radio operator, but soon after that she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitorium in Kent, where in nineteen forty three she died. There are rumours that she was baptized prior to death.

Ideas.

What was her intellectual legacy? She believed that an account of a person without an account their beliefs is stunted, and devoid of the most interesting part of their life. She was a woman with a rich and vibrant intellectual life, so while an account of her thought is necessary, a full account is beyond the scope of this article.

She left a rich body of writing, but I consider her mysticism very significant. Regarding beauty as the gateway to God, the smile on the face of Christ, is very significant, as it challenges the cold materialist and reductionist philosophy promulgated by the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and still powerful today. Yes, she is saying,the world has a gateway to knowledge of God. The true, the good and the beautiful are parts of this gateway.and perhaps more than other thinkers she saw and expressed the significance of the beautiful, which is the doorway to the divine.

But she also made a contribution to the Philosophy of Religion, with a cogent account of a Christian response to the problem of what God allows evil. It is thus. As God is an infinite being no other beings can exist where God is, so to create a world God must withdraw somewhat to create a space where the created world can be, an act of kenosis, Greek for emptying. This World must be imperfect, and so evil,which is a product of imperfections, can find a space. Evil is not willed by God, but the possibility of it is an unavoidable product of creation.

She uses the metaphor of a wall. It forms a barrier to communication, but persons on each side can tap out messages. This is so with creation, it is a barrier between humans and God, but human artifice can produce ways of directing the human mind, however inadequate they may be, to cross the barrier. In addition God himself has crossed the abyss between himself and humans by the incarnation, becoming man in Christ Jesus, showing us what God is and humans should be.

Ever political, during her brief period in Britain she produced some writings which tried to sketch out a political future for France after the horrors of Naziism had been defeated. It was a France where social justice thrived, but she did not live to see it.

 

 

 

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Updated: 12/03/2022, frankbeswick
 
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Veronica on 12/04/2022

I had never heard of her so this should be an interesting read ! Ty . xx

frankbeswick on 12/03/2022

I do not know the reason that she was called Adolphine. It may be due to a desire to name a child after a beloved relative. This practice is very common, for example my middle name is Cyril,after my father.

I think that during wartime people had to be less particular .about burial sites, so they were more likely to be buried near to where they died.

That a member of the royal family unveiled the plaque speaks of Simone's importance?

DerdriuMarriner on 12/03/2022

The Simone Weil grave is one of those whose information is available through the Find a Grave site.

Might patients at the Ashford sanitorium in Kent automatically be expected to be buried in the Bybrook Cemetery?

Find a Grave also says that Bybrook Cemetery has a plaque commemorating 19 second world war casualties. Their memory was evidently important enough that the memorial plaque was unveiled by The Rt. Hon. Countess Mountbatten of Burma Nov. 11, 1999.

It would be interesting to know why Simone had the middle name Adolphine ("noble wolf") since I find no middle names for her brother André or for her niece Sylvie.

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