This was a talk given at Meditatio House in October 2014.
I’m not a Weil scholar, nor do I have a background in philosophy, I’m just an avid reader of her work.
In this talk, I’ll present some of her writing but encourage you to read her work for yourself.
I can’t really express how much she has touched my life. Her writing is the lens through which I view the world. Reading her for the first time it was like recognising an image that I had seen before, an image that resonated within me.
So I’m going to talk about Weil from my perspective, from my experience of her writing. I’ll give a brief bio of her life and although her short life and work took on a breath-taking range, I’ll highlight an aspect of her thought that is most relevant to this community, WCCM and to Christian meditation; namely that of suffering and attention as ways to ‘love thy neighbour’.
Simone Weil in her life time was a philosopher, teacher, labour activist, Christian mystic, factory worker, farmer, writer. Reading Simone is like being exposed to a tornado, being hit on the head and drinking a cool clear glass of water all at the same time. I think writers and thinkers of genius aren’t necessarily giving us completely original thought, as if there anything new left to be said. But they can give us a different perspective, or prod us to think more deeply about things and in that way say something new to us. I think there are two things about Weil’s writing that mark out her work for me.
Firstly, the wholeness of her vision- she was able to see relationships and make connections between things. Although very much a Christian thinker, her thinking was inspired by Ancient Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and myths, amongst others. Her writings covered politics, art, philosophy, science, classics, mythology, religion; she was also proficient in ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit thanks to a privileged upbringing and education as well as an insatiable thirst for learning. Some of the central concepts she developed in her writing include attention, affliction, necessity, force, metaxu, beauty, oppression, and the mysticism of labour.
The first thing that struck me when I initially read her was the link she made in her writing between politics, ethics, philosophy and spirituality. A totality and interconnectedness between these dimensions in her thought, in what she was concerned with, in the way she lived her life, that I had never seen before. And that is actually quite rare in modern Western liberal thought which operates in specialisations and divisions between religion and politics, art and life,
Secondly, her writing style: the form and expression she gave to her thinking. Though a person of incredible genius, and the product of an elite education, she favoured clarity of prose that at the same time expressed profound thought, coupled with striking images used as analogy. She wanted to reach as many people as possible and did not think that deep thought was the domain of the educated privileged. When she was working in a factory, she wrote about the Greek tragedy Antigone and its relevance to the workers. She wanted to popularise classical texts without vulgarising them, and believed they had something to say, in fact, more to say, to the workers than to the educated elite who had access to them.
Simone Weil was born in 1909 into a wealthy agnostic Jewish family. She had a life of privilege going to the elite school ENS in Paris before becoming qualified as a philosophy teacher in the 1930’s. However, she took several breaks in her teaching due to poor health but also due to her involvement in political activism, primarily in the trade union movement, teaching classes on the weekends in French and political economy to workers and participating in demonstrations and strikes. Then at age 25 she took a year off teaching to live and work as a factory worker, surviving on the salary she got working in a number of factories, including the Renault car factory and Alsthom Electrical Works, in order to get direct experience of the working conditions for factory workers in France. She saw with growing concern the rapid industrialization of factories in France as being a place for workers’ oppression and exploitation.
Her decision to become a factory worker came from her desire to experience for herself the conditions of the workers. Despite her active involvement with trade unions and political groups, she felt that only through directly experiencing the conditions as a worker herself, could she understand and thereby propose solutions to improve workers’ conditions:
Only, when I think about the major Bolshevik leaders pretending to create a free working class and yet none of them- definitely not Trotsky, and neither I think, Lenin – without a doubt have not stepped foot into a factory and therefore have the least idea of the real conditions which determine the servitude or freedom of the workers- politics seems to me like a sinister farce.
In a letter to one of her former students she stated that it was a “contact with real life” she was searching for. In joining the factories as one of the workers, she wrote that, “I have the feeling, above all, of escaping a world of abstractions and finding myself in the middle of real people- good or bad, but with a real goodness or badness”. As one biographer of Simone Weil put it, “Her whole effort was that of a student, in the old root sense of that word: she had an insatiable, unyielding zeal for testing, for finding out”. Her time in the factory was also a spiritual experience, where she came to develop a mysticism of work, of physical labour as sacrament, where she states that poetry and beauty was made for the workers and those engaged in physical labour.
In 1932, Weil visited Germany to see the situation for herself and 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 saw that the fascists were gaining traction, and that alarmingly the communists and unionists were being rather slack about it. When she returned to France, her political friends dismissed her fears thinking Germany would never fall to the fascists. Of course, they were wrong. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Weil spent time trying to help German communists flee his regime, including housing some of them in her family’s apartment in Paris. This was despite her growing disillusionment and disagreements with the communists and the trade union movement. In fact, Trotsky briefly stayed at her family’s apartment as a safehouse, and once during a discussion and said to her in exasperation “But you disagree with me almost on every point. Why have you invited me here?!”
In 1936 she joined the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, joining the anarchist militia. However she only stayed a few months due to her clumsiness, where she burnt herself over a cooking fire. A month after she left her whole unit were all nearly killed. Her time in that war was enough though for her to witness the brutalities committed on both sides, and to produce writings on the nature of war. In some of her letters to friends she described how war “revealed the presence of death in every moment”, and how she felt within herself a capacity to kill.
After leaving the war, she went to work for a few months on a potato farm and vineyard. She also took trips to Italy and Portugal, where she was to have a couple of mystical experiences. In a letter to a priest published in the book Waiting for God, she wrote:
After my year in the factory, before going back to teaching, I had been taken by my parents to Portugal, and while there I left them to go alone to a little village. I was, as it were, in pieces, soul and body. That contact with affliction had killed my youth. Until then I had not had any experience of affliction, unless we count my own, which, as it was my own, seemed to me, to have little importance, and which moreover was only a partial affliction, being biological and not social. I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and first-hand experience of it. As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue. What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave. In this state of mind then, and in a wretched condition physically, I entered the little Portuguese village, which, alas, was very wretched too, on the very day of the festival of its patron saint. I was alone. It was the evening and there was a full moon over the sea. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, making a tour of all the ships, carrying candles and singing what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it. I have never heard anything so poignant unless it were the song of the boatmen on the Volga. There, the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.
Despite these mystical experiences which led her to fervently believe that she was Catholic, she refused to be baptised in the Church for several reasons she gave in that same letter.
In 1942, she was able to escape to the United States with her family as the Germans occupied Paris (The day that the Germans came in to Paris, her family was able to take the last train out of Paris to the South, Marseille and from there to Casablanca before arriving in New York). After a few months she left the U.S. to go back to Europe; not being able to stand the thought of deserting her country to its fate, she wanted to go back and help. We can only imagine the anguish her parents must have felt as they said goodbye to their daughter, as well as the courageous folly of this young Jewish woman voluntarily returning to Europe during the war to join the Free French Alliance in London. It was to be the last time her parents would see her. I remember reading in a biography on her, her parents said that when she said goodbye to them in New York before taking the ship to London, “If I had two lives, I would give you one of them. But I only have one, so I have to go”
In London, she volunteered herself to be sent to any mission back to France, of course got told that her obvious Jewish appearance made it impossible and instead got assigned a desk job. She was told to write what French society would look like after the war, to aid the reconstruction of the country- the outcome for this was published after her death as the book The Need for Roots. In 1943, while still in London she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She finally died from cardiac failure in a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent. She was 34 years old. Apart from some articles on social and economic issues mainly for trade union journals, most of her writing was collected and published after her death, including her notebooks, essays, letters and a play. Many of her friends were surprised at the mystical and religious dimension of her writing because she never talked about it to anyone apart from a few people such as the priest Father Perrin and the philosopher Gustave Thibon.
You could say the central preoccupation for Simone was the question of suffering.
Simone herself suffered from debilitating migraines that had no known cause all her life- she described this pain as being everyday ‘without stop’. In her biography, friends talked about how she would have to stop in mid-conversation due to a migraine coming on. Her frailties were exacerbated by her time at the factory, an experience that she never quite physically recovered from. No doubt all of these experiences of pain as well as witnessing the pain of others informed her own writing on suffering, in particular her essay on The Love of God and Affliction published in Waiting for God.
Weil explores the nature of a kind of suffering that she takes to be different from what we usually mean by it. To paraphrase, there is a level of suffering possible in the world that completely annihilates the self, that affects all aspects of the person- physical, mental and social – what she calls ‘affliction’ (malheureux). Affliction includes at once suffering physical pain, distress of the soul, and social degradation.
If we suffer and can still ask ‘why me?’ then although we may be suffering very deeply, we are not in that state of affliction, because to believe that you deserve answers, that you deserve justice and that you are entitled not to suffer means that there is still a self somewhere intact. A lot can be painfully suffered through but without ultimately questioning the belief that, ‘I don’t deserve this’, or ‘I should not be suffering’. The person that affliction strikes no longer has this belief. Furthermore, the afflicted person often goes unrecognised, or unacknowledged. In affliction:
A state of mind is brought about, as acute as that of a condemned man who is forced to look for hours at the guillotine that is going to cut off his head. Human beings can live for twenty or fifty years in this acute state. We pass quite close to them without realizing it. What man is capable of discerning such souls unless Christ himself looks through his eyes? We only notice that they have rather a strange way of behaving and we censure this behavior.
Afflicted people’s lives and deaths pass away without notice. No memorials will be built for them. It is to become less than human. It is to become a thing. Weil likens the afflicted to the equivalent of the slave in Roman times and says that even persecuted persons are not suffering at this level of affliction, because they have some social recognition, are still recognised as existing, albeit existing to be annihilated:
The martyrs who entered the arena, singing as they went to face the wild beasts, were not afflicted. Christ was afflicted. He did not die like a martyr. He died like a common criminal, confused with thieves, only a little more ridiculous. For affliction is ridiculous.
She then goes on to say: “Affliction constrained Christ…to believe he was forsaken by the Father”.
To be in a state of affliction is to bend and break under a force that is bigger than you, helpless before it and realising that you are nothing – whether it’s an economic, political, psychological or social force. However, economic privilege ensures that a person never has to reach that kind of affliction because not only can money buy a certain level of physical comfort, but also social recognition (as a human being who should not suffer), if not power. So physical suffering has a special place in affliction, because of its ability to nail our thoughts down:
Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of physical pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death. Here below, physical pain, and that alone, has the power to chain down our thoughts; on condition that we count as physical pain certain phenomena that, though difficult to describe, are bodily and exactly equivalent to it. Fear of physical pain is a notable example.
As I read Weil’s writing about the afflicted, I think of: modern slavery of exploited labourers, the homeless, prisoners/tortured persons, trafficked humans, but also the extremely addicted, the institutionalised mentally ill. I think of people who had to experience colonisation and these days who live under the devastating ideology of neoliberalism and the free market.
I think that afflicted persons both far from us and near to us are actually quite numerous, but go unrecognised, whether it is because of a lack of media attention and awareness, because of our willing ignorance or by the fact that affliction leaves the other almost mute. Quote from Simone:
As for those who have been struck by one of those blows that leave a being struggling on the ground like a half crushed worm, they have no words to express what is happening to them. Among the people they meet, those who have never had contact with affliction in its true sense can have no idea of what it is, even though they may have suffered a great deal. Affliction is something specific and impossible to describe in any other terms, as sounds are to anyone who is deaf and dumb. And as for those who have themselves been mutilated by affliction, they are in no state to help anyone at all, and they are almost incapable of even wishing to do so. Thus compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility. When it is really found we have a more astounding miracle than walking on water, healing the sick, or even raising the dead.
So if according to Weil, real compassion for the afflicted is an “impossibility”, and that when it exists it is an “astounding miracle”, how are we to give compassion to a person in a state of extreme suffering that we don’t understand, cannot even imagine?
Although requiring close to a ‘miracle’, Weil believes that it is possible to give compassion to the afflicted by developing what she calls ‘attention’. The act of ‘attention’ is a concentrated, unwavering focus of energy on an object. It is marked by an ardent waiting with desire. It is not an act of will where we go in search of knowledge. In fact, if we do search, Weil contends that we will end up finding false truths rather than truth, because we do not have the ability to discern the difference between them. Instead, we can only wait with earnest attention for truth, like God, to come to us. Attention therefore is an emptying out of the self and a waiting for the object of our attention to penetrate us.
This self-emptying kind of attention then can bridge the gap between ourselves and the other in extreme affliction. For Weil, this attention becomes absolutely necessary in relieving the suffering of another, in fact it is the only way and for this reason, it is crucial that we aim to develop our capacity for attention:
In the first legend of the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host), it is said that the Grail belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a King three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, “What are you going through?”To love our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: what are you going through? It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.
Weil links lack of attention with evil because it is essentially a refusal to see- a turning away from truth. This is particularly true when we are talking about looking at extreme suffering, something which we naturally turn away from. Attention then becomes a way of seeing when it is turned on the other; it is a capacity to see the other’s distinctiveness and specificity. This is particularly needed in affliction where the nature of it is that the afflicted suffers anonymously and without recognition, and where they are seen as no more than a thing by others. What people who are suffering need most is for someone to acknowledge their specific pain, to see them beyond a category: Quote
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
Weil shows remarkable perceptiveness in her analysis of the difficulty of attention, and our need to turn away from it. She says that there is something in our soul that has a violent repugnance for true attention. Therefore it requires effort on our part but also supernatural grace. It is a mark of our time and a common theme of our age that this lack of attention manifests as escapism and rampant addiction. For Weil, she says that “We live two thirds of our lives in imagination”. This may seem extreme, but not really when we think about every time we put expectations, projections, desires on situations or people, rather than seeing what is actually there. Furthermore, in imagination and fantasy, everything revolves around us, we are at the centre. For Weil then, imagination is a turn away from the real:
We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the centre, 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. A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense and psychological impressions. It is a transformation analogous to that which takes place in the dusk of evening on a road, where we suddenly discern as a tree what we had at first seen as a stooping man, or where we suddenly recognise as a rustling of leaves that we thought at first was whispering voices. We see the same colours, we hear the same sounds, but not in the same way. To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the centre of the world, to discern that all points in the world are equally centres…
Living in unreality also affects our relationship to God. She says that in fixing our gaze towards God in attention, the ‘I’ feels condemned to death. And it does not want to die, so it fabricates falsehoods in order to divert our attention. She says that one of these are the false gods that are given to the name of God. We might believe that we are thinking about God when what we really love is certain people who have talked to us about him, or a certain social atmosphere, or certain ways of living, or a certain calm of soul, comfort, or consolation. Therefore, we should not seek God.
It is not for man to seek, or even to believe in, God. He has only to refuse his love to everything which is not God. This refusal does not presuppose any belief. It is enough to recognize, what is obvious to any mind, that all the goods of this world, past, present or future, real or imaginary, are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying the desire which burns perpetually within us for an infinite and perfect good. All men know this, and more than once in their lives they recognize it for a moment, but then they immediately begin deceiving themselves again so as not to know it any longer, because they feel that if they knew it they could not go on living. And their feeling is true, for that knowledge kills, but it inflicts a death which leads to a resurrection. But they do not know that beforehand; all they forsee is death; they must either choose truth and death or falsehood and life. If one makes the first choice and holds to it, if one persists indefinitely in refusing to devote the whole of one’s love to things unworthy of it, which means everything in this world without exception, that is enough. It is not a matter of self-questioning or searching. A man only has to persist in this refusal, and one day or another God will come to him.
So this is in a sense a via negativa way to God, through a refusal of everything that is not God, and instead orientating our attention towards him with all the intensity of which one is capable, bringing it back when it has wandered. Weil says this is by far the hardest thing to do, but it is the only thing we can do, until across “the infinity of space and time, the love of God comes to possess us”. We only have the power to consent to receive him or to refuse him when he comes. Quote “We can only consent to give up our own feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone.”
Attention as love
So attention then is indispensable to love, is the way to love; love of God, and love of neighbour. Attention can also bring into light and question what we usually understand or practice as love in human relationships. In our personal relationships, Weil argues that most of the time we desire others as objects to satisfy our psychological and physical cravings. Driven by ego needs deeply similar to hunger, we are caught in what Weil terms as “cannibal love.”
It’s worthwhile here to read an extensive quote from Alexander Irwin, who commented on this aspect of Weil’s thought, because it really illuminates her thinking on this:
Hunger in the form of psychological cannibalism is the binding agent in our intimate interpersonal relationships. The driving force in our love relations is not disinterested valuation of the other’s beauty, nor moral commitment to her welfare. The force in love is the rage of our own hunger to use the other as a means to fill (or at least conceal) our psychological voids, and to enhance our power. The overflowing, giddy energy we experience during the brief flourishing of a new romance is the empirical demonstration that in love we metabolize the other being. He quotes Weil, “We love as cannibals,”… “Beloved beings…provide us with comfort, energy, a stimulant. They have the same effect on us as a good meal after an exhausting day of work. We love them, then, as food.”
Irwin goes on to say: “Weil is offering more than the banal observation that we sometimes behave selfishly toward those we love. In love, cannibalism is not an exception, an occasional cloud drifting across the otherwise tranquil sky. It is the sky, the very structure and substance of the relationship. And this is so not because we moderns are an especially sinful and depraved segment of historical humanity (although Weil thinks this is also true), but simply because human selves, doing what we do naturally — that is, positing ourselves as the center of the universe — cannot love in any other way. It is less a question of individual guilt than of a structural aspect of human selfhood as such. The exploitative, assimilative mode of relationship flows inevitably from the configuration of the self. Psychological like physical hunger is an expression less of individuality than of a trans-personal necessity. We need energy (psychic and physical) to live. We obtain that energy from the most convenient source. Approaching another human being we may claim to love and respect, we are in reality vampires in search of a meal. He quotes Weil, “We love someone,”…”that is to say, we love to drink his blood.”
The antidote for this cannibal love, according to Weil, is to get our energy from a supernatural source, God, instead of using others. This means re-orientating our desire towards God. Perhaps this is the meaning of conversion: turning away towards God. Instead of using other people as a means to fulfil our needs, or making people in our lives the ends; God is both the means and the end. But this involves staying hungry, loving and desiring emptiness which we experience as a void:
We have to fix our will on the void—to will the void. For the good which we can neither picture nor define is a void for us. But this void is fuller than all fullnesses. If we get as far as this we shall come through all right, for God fills the void. It has nothing to do with an intellectual process in the present-day sense. The intelligence has nothing to discover, it has only to clear the ground. It is only good for servile tasks.
In terms of love towards others in our personal relationships, Simone Weil’s conception really makes me think of love as restraint. As a holding back of our own expectations, projections and desires in order to allow space for the other, so that she can be. With attention, we can remove ourselves from the centre and give space to the other, in order to truly see and therefore love.
This is contrary to what is usually called love in our culture. Love is usually paraded as excess, as sentimentality, or as a warm abstract feeling that just is there. Often times it just hides the manipulation of others to fulfil our own ego needs. Weil reminds me that love is effort, a disciplining action, and an ethical project towards the other that can only be achieved through attention. She reminds me of the real cost (but also the real worth) of love.
It reminds me of the concept of seduction in Islamic traditional thought. Seduction is forbidden, that is, the manipulation and coercion of another person’s desire because this is thought to lead to a loss of self-control, not only on the individual level but also on the social level. This is contrary to our Western liberal society where seduction is not merely permitted, but it is positively valued as a sign of individual freedom. We see a violation occurring only if it touches property rights or those of the body. And it could be argued that our economy thrives on the consumer being seduced and the subsequent loss of self-control.
I’m also reminded of that event in one of the gospels, Jesus at his tomb. Where Mary first mistakes him for a gardener, then finally recognises Jesus and says ‘teacher’. Jesus replies ‘do not touch me’. I see it as a call to restraint of our possessiveness in our closest human relationships, as well as in our relationship with God.
Weil takes seriously the damage that we do to one another when we act out of our own hunger and ego needs. She takes seriously the enormous difficulty and effort it takes to truly love someone, for love to be real. She also takes seriously our capacity for delusion, our capacity for distraction and lying to ourselves, what she calls imagination and day dreaming – in short to turn away from reality:
I believe that the root of evil, in everybody perhaps, but certainly in those whom affliction has touched and above all if the affliction is biological, is day-dreaming. It is the sole consolation, the unique resource of the afflicted; the only solace to help them bear the fearful burden of time; and a very innocent one, besides being indispensable. So how could it be possible to renounce it? It has only one disadvantage, which is that it is unreal. To renounce it for the love of truth is really to abandon all one’s possessions in a mad excess of love and to follow him who is the personification of Truth. It is really to bear the cross…it is necessary to recognize day-dreaming for what it is. And even while one is sustained by it one must never forget for a moment that in all its forms– those that seem most inoffensive by their childishness, those that seem most respectable by their seriousness and their connection with art or love or friendship– in all its forms without exception, it is falsehood. It excludes love. Love is real.
Her relevance today
It is startling how relevant her thought is still so relevant today for our world, that is quite broken. She combined a life of contemplation, thought, and action and I see the WCCM and Christian meditation as providing the practical steps for Weil’s vision. It provides the practice necessary in order to live the vision, meditation as a way of stripping away, challenging the ego and being still before God. I see the WCCM as resurrecting the practices and thought of the early Christian monastics, the Desert Fathers and the Rule of St Benedict, who all advocated a praxis of spirituality, which usually included ascetic practices of working on the self. Meditation and prayer, meditation as prayer is a fundamental practice in this regard, and in delving into these traditions, it is reassuring to know that for centuries people have been struggling with the same things, that we are not exceptional, and that in fact what we are struggling with is what it means to be human.
What needs to be done in our own everyday practice, in living an ethical and spiritual life can be summarised in this last quote by Weil – so typical of Weil, it is at once an ethical position, a spiritual orientation, a moral vision with political and practical implications as well as an aesthetic sensibility. According to Weil, we need:
“To contemplate what cannot be contemplated (the affliction of another), without running away…and to contemplate the desirable without approaching- that is what is beautiful”
Question for discussion
- What is your experience of meditation as love? How does meditation relate to love of your neighbour for you?