Simone Weil (3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943) was a French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist.
Weil’s life was marked by an exceptional compassion for the suffering of others; at the age of six, for instance, she refused to eat sugar after she heard that soldiers fighting in World War I had to go without. She died from tuberculosis during World War II, possibly exacerbated by malnutrition after refusing to eat more than the minimal rations that she believed were available to soldiers at the time.
After her graduation from formal education, Weil became a teacher. She taught intermittently throughout the 1930s, taking several breaks due to poor health and to devote herself to political activism, work that would see her assisting in the trade union movement, taking the side of the Anarchists known as the Durruti Column in the Spanish Civil War, and spending more than a year working as a labourer, mostly in auto factories, so she could better understand the working class.
Taking a path that was unusual among twentieth-century left-leaning intellectuals, she became more religious and inclined towards mysticism as her life progressed. Weil wrote throughout her life, though most of her writings did not attract much attention until after her death. In the 1950s and 1960s, her work became famous on continental Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. Her thought has continued to be the subject of extensive scholarship across a wide range of fields. A meta study from the University of Calgary found that between 1995 and 2012 over 2,500 new scholarly works had been published about her. Although sometimes described as odd, humourless, and irritating, she inspired great affection in many of those who knew her. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”.
According to her friend and biographer, Simone Pétrement, Weil decided early in life that she would need to adopt masculine qualities and sacrifice opportunities to have love affairs in order to fully pursue her vocation to improve social conditions for the disadvantaged. From her late teenage years, Weil would generally disguise her “fragile beauty” by adopting a masculine appearance, hardly ever using makeup and often wearing men’s clothes.
Weil was a precocious student, proficient in Ancient Greek by age 12. She later learned Sanskrit after reading the Bhagavad Gita. Like the Renaissance thinker Pico della Mirandola, her interests in other religions were universal and she attempted to understand each religious tradition as an expression of transcendent wisdom.
In 1919, at 10 years of age, she declared herself a Bolshevik. In her late teens, she became involved in the workers’ movement. She wrote political tracts, marched in demonstrations, and advocated workers’ rights. At this time, she was a Marxist, pacifist, and trade unionist. While teaching in Le Puy, she became involved in local political activity, supporting the unemployed and striking workers despite criticism by some. Weil had never formally joined the Communist party, and in her twenties she became increasingly critical of Marxism. According to Pétrement, she was one of the first to identify a new form of oppression not anticipated by Marx, where élite bureaucrats could make life just as miserable for ordinary people as did the most exploitative capitalists.
In 1932, Weil visited Germany to help communist activists there. At the time, the German Marxists were considered to be the strongest and best organised communists in Western Europe, but Weil considered them no match for the then up-and-coming fascists. When she returned to France, her political friends in France dismissed her fears, thinking Germany would continue to be controlled by the centrists or those to the left. They were wrong. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Weil spent much of her time trying to help German communists fleeing his regime. In 1936, despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side.
Weil was born into a secular household and raised in “complete agnosticism”. As a teenager, she considered the existence of God for herself and decided nothing could be known either way. In her Spiritual Autobiography however, Weil records that she always had a Christian outlook, taking to heart from her earliest childhood the idea of loving one’s neighbour. Weil became attracted to the Christian faith beginning in 1935, the first of three pivotal experiences for her being when she was moved by the beauty of villagers singing hymns during an outdoor service that she stumbled across during a holiday to Portugal.
While in Assisi in the spring of 1937, Weil experienced a religious ecstasy in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli—the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed. She was led to pray for the first time in her life as Cunningham relates:
“Below the town is the beautiful church and convent of San Damiano where Saint Clare once lived. Near that spot is the place purported to be where Saint Francis composed the larger part of his “Canticle of Brother Sun”. Below the town in the valley is the ugliest church in the entire environs: the massive baroque basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, finished in the seventeenth century and rebuilt in the nineteenth century, which houses a rare treasure: a tiny Romanesque chapel that stood in the days of Saint Francis—the “Little Portion” where he would gather his brethren. It was in that tiny chapel that the great mystic Simone Weil first felt compelled to kneel down and pray.”
She had another, more powerful, revelation a year later while reciting George Herbert’s poem Love III, after which “Christ himself came down and took possession of me”, and, from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual, while retaining their focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but declined to be baptized; preferring to remain outside due to “the love of those things that are outside Christianity”. During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille, receiving spiritual direction from a Dominican friar. Around this time, she met the French Catholic author Gustave Thibon, who later edited some of her work.
Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions—especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries; Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita); and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation, writing that:
“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.”
She was, nevertheless, opposed to religious syncretism, claiming that it effaced the particularity of the individual traditions:
“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.”
In 1942, Weil traveled to the United States of America with her family. She had been reluctant to leave France, but agreed to do so as she wanted to see her parents to safety and knew they would not leave without her. She was also encouraged by the fact that it would be relatively easy for her to reach Britain from the United States, where she could join the French Resistance. She had hopes of being sent back to France as a covert agent. Weil lived briefly in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, and is remembered to have attended daily Mass at Corpus Christi Church there, where the Columbia student and Trappist monk Thomas Merton had been received into the Catholic Church. She then went to London, where she finally joined the French Resistance.
In 1943, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and eat well. However, she refused special treatment because of her long-standing political idealism and her detachment from material things. Instead, she limited her food intake to what she believed residents of German-occupied France ate. She most likely ate even less, as she refused food on most occasions. Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, England. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34.
During her lifetime, Weil was only known to relatively narrow circles; even in France her essays were mostly read only by those interested in radical politics. Yet during the first decade after her death, Weil rapidly became famous, attracting attention throughout the West. For the 3rd quarter of the twentieth century, she was widely regarded as the most influential person in the world on new work concerning religious and spiritual matters. Her philosophical, social and political thought also became popular, although not to the same degree as her religious work.
As well as influencing fields of study, Weil deeply affected the personal lives of numerous individuals, Pope Paul VI for example said that Weil was one of his three greatest influences. Weil’s popularity began to decline in the late sixties and seventies. However more of her work was gradually published, leading to many thousands of new secondary works by Weil scholars; some of whom focused on achieving a deeper understanding of her religious, philosophical and political work. Others broadened the scope of Weil scholarship to investigate her applicability to fields like classical studies, cultural studies, education and even technical fields like ergonomics.
Many commentators who have assessed Weil as a person were highly positive; many described her as a saint, some even as the greatest saint of the twentieth century, including T. S. Eliot, Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, and Robert Coles. Weil biographer Gabriella Fiori writes that Weil was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.” In 1951 Albert Camus wrote that she was “the only great spirit of our times.” Foolish though she may have appeared at times—dropping a suitcase full of French resistance papers all over the sidewalk and scrambling to gather them up—her deep engagement with both the theory and practice of caritas, in all its myriad forms, functions as the unifying force of her life and thought. Gustave Thibon, the French philosopher and close friend, recounts their last meeting, not long before her death: “I will only say that I had the impression of being in the presence of an absolutely transparent soul which was ready to be reabsorbed into original light”. Weil’s first English biographer, Richard Rees, offers several possible explanations for her death, citing her compassion for the suffering of her countrymen in Occupied France and her love for and close imitation of Christ. Rees sums up by saying: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”
Excerpts from her writings:
“The man who has known pure joy, if only for a moment, is the only man for whom affliction is something devastating. At the same time he is the only man who has not deserved the punishment. But, after all, for him it is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God.”
“The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it.”
“One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world. Most people hardly ever realize this, because it is rare that the very same man thinks and puts his thought into action.”
“All sins are attempts to fill voids.”
“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
“Love is not consolation. It is light.”
“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached. ”
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
“Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling. ”
“All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.”
“Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”
“Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.”
“Everything beautiful has a mark of eternity.”
“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”
“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”
“Whether the mask is labeled fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat, our great adversary remains the apparatus—the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us across the frontier of the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this apparatus and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.”
“Do not allow yourself to be imprisoned by any affection. Keep your solitude. The day, if it ever comes, when you are given true affection, there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse. It is even by this infallible sigh that you will recognize it.”
“Every sin is an attempt to fly from emptiness.”
“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”
“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”
“True definition of science: the study of the beauty of the world.”
“Humility is attentive patience. Compassion directed toward oneself is true humility.”
“He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.”
“We must not wish for the disappearance of our troubles but for the grace to transform them.”
“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.”
“The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell.”
“In struggling against anguish one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish.”
“A mind enclosed in language is in prison.”
“It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms. ”
“Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction.”
“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”
“A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless. ”
“The world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. … Every separation is a link.”
“Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction.”
“We cannot take a step toward the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us.”
“The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth, movements of the heart, and pity are not sufficient.”
“Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.”
“Liberty, taking the word in its concrete sense, consists in the ability to choose.”
“To give up our imaginary position as the center, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence.”
“Stars and blossoming fruit trees: Utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity.”
“There are two atheisms of which one is a purification of the notion of God.”
“To die for God is not a proof of faith in God. To die for an unknown and repulsive convict who is a victim of injustice, that is a proof of faith in God.”
“An imaginary divinity has been given to man so that he may strip himself of it.”
“The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few steps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merely turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.”
“God created through love and for love. God did not create anything except love itself, and the means to love. He created love in all its forms. He created beings capable of love from all possible distances. Because no other could do it, he himself went to the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This infinite distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this agony beyond all others, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion.”
“The beauty of this world is Christ’s tender smile coming to us through matter.”
“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.’ To remit debts is to renounce our own personality. It means renouncing everything that goes to make up our ego, without any exception. It means knowing that in the ego there is nothing whatever, no psychological element, that external circumstances could not do away with. It means accepting that truth. It means being happy that things should be so.”
“There are those people who try to elevate their souls like someone who continually jumps from a standing position in the hope that forcing oneself to jump all day— and higher every day— they would no longer fall back down, but rise to heaven. Thus occupied, they no longer look to heaven. We cannot even take one step toward heaven. The vertical direction is forbidden to us. But if we look to heaven long-term, God descends and lifts us up. God lifts us up easily. As Aeschylus says, ‘That which is divine is without effort.’ There is an ease in salvation more difficult for us than all efforts. In one of Grimm’s accounts, there is a competition of strength between a giant and a little tailor. The giant throws a stone so high that it takes a very long time before falling back down. The little tailor throws a bird that never comes back down. That which does not have wings always comes back down in the end.”
“The form that the love of religion takes in the soul differs a great deal according to the circumstances of out lives. Some circumstances prevent the very birth of this love; others kill it before it has been able to grow very strong. In affliction some men, in spite of themselves, develop a hatred and contempt for religions because the cruelty, pride, or corruption of certain of its ministers have made them suffer. There are others who have been reared from their earliest youth in surroundings impregnated with a spirit of this sort. We must conclude that in such cases, by God’s mercy, the love of our neighbor and the love of the beauty of the world, if they are sufficiently strong and pure, will be enough to raise the soul to any height.”
“I had never read any of the mystics, because I have never felt called to read them. In reading, as in other things, I always attempt practical obedience. There is nothing more favorable to intellectual progress, for as far as possible I do not read anything except for that which I am hungry in the moment, when I am hungry for it, and then I do not read … I eat. God mercifully prevented me from reading the mystics, so that it would be evident to me that I had not fabricated this absolutely unexpected contact.”
“In any case, when I imagine baptism as the next concrete act toward my entry into the Church, no thought troubles me more than separating myself from the immense and afflicted mass of unbelievers. I have the essential need — and I think I can say the vocation — to mingle with people and various human cultures by taking on the same ‘color’ as them, at least to the degree that my conscience does not oppose it. I would disappear among them until they show me who they really are, without disguising themselves from me, because I desire to know them to the point that I love them just as they are.”
“God rewards the soul that focuses on Him with attention and love, and God rewards that soul by exercising a rigorous compulsion on it, mathematically proportional to this attention and love. We must abandon ourselves to this pressure, and run to the precise point where it leads, and not a single step further, not even in the direction of what is good. At the same time, we must continue to focus on God, with ever more love and attention, and in this way obtain an even greater compulsion — to become an object of a compulsion that possesses for itself a perpetually growing portion of the soul. Once God’s compulsion possesses the whole soul, one has reached the state of perfection. But no matter what degree we reach, we must not accomplish anything beyond what we are irresistibly pressured (compelled) to do, not even in the way of good.”
“When I think of the Crucifixion, I commit the sin of envy.”
“Never, in any case, is any effort of true attention lost. It is always completely effective on the spiritual plane, and therefore also, in addition, on the inferior plane of the intelligence, for all spiritual light enlightens the intelligence.”
“There are four evidences of divine mercy here below. The favors of God to beings capable of contemplation (these states exist and form part of their experience as creatures). The radiance of these beings, and their compassion, which is the divine compassion in them. The beauty of the world. The fourth evidence is the complete absence of mercy here below.”
“But we can be nearly sure that those whose love for God has caused their pure loves here below to disappear are false friends of God. Our neighbour, our friends, religious ceremonies and the beauty of the world do not fall in rank to unreal things after direct contact between God and the soul. On the contrary, only then do these things become real. Previously, they were half-dreams. Previously, they had no reality.”
“The entire virtue of religious practices can be conceived from the Buddhist tradition concerning the recitation of the name of the Lord. It is said that the Buddha made a vow to raise up to himself all those who recite his name with the desire to be saved by him, into the Land of Purity; and that because of this vow the recitation of the name of the Lord really has the virtue of transforming the soul. Religion is nothing else but this promise of God. Every religious practice, every rite, every liturgy is a form of the recitation of the name of the Lord, and must in principle really have virtue, the virtue of saving anyone devoted to it with desire. Every religion pronounces the name of the Lord in its own language. Most often, it is better for people to name God in their own native language rather than in a foreign language. Apart from exceptions, the soul is incapable of completely abandoning itself in the moment if it must impose on itself even a minor effort in searching for words in a strange language, even when they know it well.”
“The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible. Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul.”
“You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.”
“The sum of the particular intentions of God is the universe itself.”