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A Conversation With Simone Weil
Elisabetta Rombi talks social justice and love with the revolutionary philosopher.
Simone Weil was one of the most remarkable thinkers of the past century: a philosopher, a mystic, and a political activist. Born in France in 1909, she grew up with a Christian outlook even though her parents were Jewish agnostics and her brother André a mathematician.
She was above all an outsider. Critical of institutions, she stated that “the task of the intellect requires complete freedom.” She never joined any party or church. She argued against Trotsky in print and in person, saying that elite communist bureaucrats could be as oppressive as the worst capitalists, and was one of the rare few who held her own with the Red Army founder. She came into contact not only with Plato and Kant, but also with Eastern culture, including the Bhagavad Gita, and learned Sanskrit as well as Greek. She taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls, considering school a political place, where one comes into contact with all social classes. She tried to offer her pupils “the necessary tools not to become victims of propaganda.” On leave from teaching, she worked in a factory to understand the workers’ condition. Although she professed herself a pacifist, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She died in 1943, when she was only thirty-four. Her most famous works were published posthumously.
Weil’s philosophy is difficult to grasp since it’s expressed in fragmentary way, but her deep engagement with the theory and practice of caritas (charity/love) in all its myriad forms functioned as a unifying force in her life and thought. Some of the other key concepts of her philosophy are good and evil, gravity, the void, grace, beauty, suffering, attention, and waiting for God. She’s concerned with respect for the individual, society, one’s roots, work, and dignity, and focused on the oppressed, on slavery. Today, when hidden forms of slavery are widely spread, her thought seems extraordinarily up-to-date. Simone Weil’s deep engagement, in an idiosyncratic, tough-minded way, with the theory and practice of compassion and generosity, led Albert Camus to call her “the only great spirit of our times.”
Weil’s words in the following story are taken from her own books. The dialogue is loosely based on my novel Living Is Not Enough.
At the break of dawn the village is wrapped in silence, a hamlet on a hill cocooned in sleep. At the edge of the village I find my bike and ride to our meeting place. Simone is waiting for me at the crossroads. I can see her tall, slim silhouette in the distance.
“Revolution,” she says as I arrive, turning to look at me: “It’s a word for which you kill, you die, you send masses to their deaths. But it doesn’t have any meaning.”
“It’s a word capable of giving us hope,” I answer.
“What we ask of revolution,” she goes on, “is the end of social oppression – of slavery. But experience has shown us that a revolutionary party can seize the bureaucratic and military systems without breaking them. Revolutionary movements gave us the illusion of power only by destroying the last vestiges of feudalism and establishing capitalism either in the shape of private enterprise or in the shape of the state, as happened in Russia.”
“But the revolution in Russia appeared to be a completely new beginning,” I say.
“Yes, ‘appeared’ to be. The truth is that the privileges the Party abolished already no longer had any social reality, they existed only through the exercise of traditions, while the real powers – I mean the great industry, the police, the army, the bureaucracy – not only were not destroyed by that revolution, but thanks to the revolution, they became even more powerful.”
“Is it true that when you were ten you considered yourself a Bolshevik?”
She smiles at me, amused: “I was born into an open-minded family.”
“You certainly grew up with a strong sensitivity for social justice.”
“My brother taught me to read when I was five, at the outbreak of the First World War. Each child adopted a soldier, and sent him gifts and letters. I soon received my exchange letter from the front. This destroyed the innocence of my childhood.”
“I guess it helped you develop a consciousness of others’ sorrows, which later led you to make unusually generous choices, such as in the war against Franco in Spain? I know you were there in theory as a news correspondent, but in actual fact you’d joined a group of activists.”
“As you certainly also know, everyone else in that group died. I was safe because of a wound I received from a fire, and was forced to leave.” We remount our bikes and start peddling, talking as we ride along.
“It wasn’t the only time you lived out your sympathy for the working class.”
Weil portrait © Woodrow Cowher 2017. Please visit www.woodrawspictures.com
“If you’re talking about my factory work, it was only normal to want to have that experience. It didn’t last long, as I was unwell. But I was to be forever marked by that experience. I was branded a slave. You may think it’s weird, but my strongest feeling was resignation. I got so used to feeling like a slave that I would find it normal if somebody had ordered me to get off the bus and walk. I am not proud to confess this, but I felt the submission of a beast of burden. It’s the sort of suffering which no labourer will talk about, for it’s too painful to even think about.”
“Did you get anything positive from the experience?”
“Well, I felt as though I were outside every abstract world, in contact with real life, side by side with real men and women, regardless of their being good or evil. They were authentic.”
“Your works say to me that without a vision of real life it’s impossible to act incisively.”
“Whenever something external prevents us from fulfilling our wishes, we soon look for imaginary satisfaction. This is loss of energy. Since we are made unreal by our imagination, which is a deteriorated form of energy, we badly need to become flesh.”
“You went to Germany in 1932. What struck you most there?”
“At the time, the German working class was the most organized in Europe. I was struck by their blind faith in Nazism. A violent hatred towards the establishment attracted them to it, without them realizing that National Socialism was strong exactly because it belonged to the class that oppressed them.”
“After that journey you wrote Considerations On The Causes Of Freedom And Social Oppression. What was the fundamental question in that work, would you say?”
“The puzzle I was trying to solve was understanding the link between social oppression and the improvements man had been able to reach in regards to his relationship with nature. It’s as if man cannot free himself from his natural needs without increasing the burden of social oppression to the same degree, as if human freedom were balancing on a mysterious scale…”
“How can the down-turn be avoided?”
“I don’t have any recipes, only intuitions. Nothing can impede man from feeling himself born to freedom. He can never accept his slavery because he is able to think.”
“Not always! Sometimes he can’t see beyond his slavery.”
“We don’t live in perfect freedom, but we must try to envision it, so that we may hope to reach a less imperfect freedom. We can reach for an ideal. The ideal is as unreachable as a dream; but unlike the dream, it has a relationship with reality. The most sacred need of our soul is for it to be protected against the power of falsehood and suggestion. The need for freedom necessitates our protection against propaganda and the power of suggestion. Whatever is going to influence public opinion should be submitted to the same guidelines that rule public actions.”
“But now we live in a global society where powerful people use advertising and propaganda in an overwhelming way. How can we protect ourselves?”
“Without factories, without weapons, without powerful mass media, you can do nothing against whoever possesses them. The weapons of power are oppressive, whereas the weapons of the weak are useless. And whenever oppressed people have gathered to exert some kind of influence – I mean, to form trade unions or political parties – they’ve reproduced within themselves all the faults of the regime they wanted to modify or destroy.”
“Nothing can be done, then?”
“The only chance left would be the constant cooperation of everyone to devolve power progressively. But that ideal’s clearly an absurdity! Not even in a dream can you imagine anything like that in a society based on rivalry and war! It’s clearly impossible that in such a society centralised power would start to devolve power. No tyrant in the world can be so wise. What can be done in such a world?” I’m out of breath, but Simone goes on: “Nothing! All you can do is try to loosen the mechanisms that are crushing us, and seize any opportunity to wake up some thought wherever you can. Anything giving a chance to the individual to enjoy a bit of freedom is worth being sought out. What can be more generous than a task that aims to create a future of freedom, overstepping the limit of one’s existence? Unfortunately, whoever embarks on such a mission will have to endure condemnation, solitude, misunderstanding, and the hostility of enemies and friends, all without any guarantee. No reward is pledged even for the most generous efforts. Yet none of these reasons will deflect the will of a steady soul once it has understood what to do.”
“But how can we achieve it?”
“First we need a critical analysis in various fields to identify what is right to human beings, and what can be used by the community as weapons against people. Whoever embarks on the critical analysis I’m talking about can escape the community vertigo, and sign a personal pact with the spirit of the universe, rejecting social idolatry.”
“Here it isn’t difficult to be eager to sign that pact,” I comment. We’re riding beside steep, vertical rocks, beyond which we can see the transparency of an incredible blue-green sea.
“The real presence of God lives in the beauty of the world.” Simone’s eyes are lit up. “But beauty is a trap designed to capture humanity. It’s a trick, an enigma that torments us with sorrow. We would like to be nourished by it, but we can only look at it, and even so, only at a distance. The agony of human life is that eating and looking at things are two different things. Perhaps all vices, all crimes, are in their essence, usually, or perhaps always, attempts to devour beauty – attempts to eat what cannot be eaten but must only be looked at. If in eating fruit Eve was the first to condemn humanity, then looking at fruit without eating it should be the deed of salvation.”
“Can you tell me what you mean by ‘passive acceptance, the action without acting’?”
“Yes. That concept is inspired by Eastern philosophy. It’s action that springs from a situation, giving voice to it, with nobody showing off. In other words, you act only because you are forced to do so – because it’s not possible to do otherwise.”
“I like the idea in your book The Need For Roots, of breaking up great factories in order to create small factories owned by their workers.”
“That would be a system which was neither capitalist nor socialist. Russian Communism did not destroy the proletarian condition. Rather, it made everyone proletarian!”
“I also like what you wrote on the education of young people – most of all, your idea of getting beyond the division between physical labour and intellectual work.”
“Modern culture was born in an environment oriented towards technology and fragmented into specializations, and so has been devoid of any contact with the real and the supernatural worlds. Such a culture, deprived of its treasure, has been used to educate the masses! They try to teach what’s left of this culture to the unlucky, and to the ones who are most anxious to learn, just as though they were feeding chickens with seeds. Amongst all the forms of uprootedness, being uprooted from culture is the worst, the most alarming.”
Weil portrait © Woodrow Cowher 2017. Please visit www.woodrawspictures.com
“It’s true that your life and thought have been marked by the search for truth, a constant study where you confronted difficult books from both the Western and Eastern traditions, involving various disciplines, and oblivious of contradictions –”
“Our life is in itself an impossibility. Each desire stands in contradiction to the conditions or consequences related to it. Each sentence implies its opposite. Every feeling is confused with the contrary. We are a contradiction because we are creatures – because we are in God and enormously different from God. The contradiction is our poverty, and the feeling of poverty is the feeling of truth.”
“I can see a strong connection between your thirst for justice and truth and your Christianity.”
She stops cycling to look at me directly: “I was raised a Christian, and I’ve always been faithful to it, so to speak.”
I object, “But your father was an atheist. Even if your family had Jewish origins, you didn’t have a religious upbringing!”
“Ever since my adolescence I thought we don’t have an answer to the question of the existence of God. The only way of avoiding a mistake – which is what should be avoided the most – was not to ask the question. So I didn’t ask. I neither affirmed nor denied.”
We leave our bicycles, and walk towards the sea. Our feet sink in the sand. There is nothing awkward in Simone. On the contrary, there is elegance in her every gesture. As if she has sensed my thoughts, she smiles, her large eyes shining. I think about her, a good-looking woman who has denied herself her own beauty, all her life hiding behind glasses, baggy dresses, and hats. She certainly considers vanity a form of idolatry.
Near the rocks that limit the beach there’s a strong scent of seaweed. Simone is silent for a while, then gazing at the horizon, she says: “The Christian way of life was to me the best perspective to consider the problems of the world. Since my childhood I had the notion of charity towards one’s neighbour, to which I gave the beautiful name ‘Justice’.”
“What’s the relationship between charity and justice, in your opinion?”
“The Gospels don’t make any distinction between them. We invented the distinction, and it’s not difficult to see why – because giving is therefore considered a good deed rather than a requirement of justice. But only the absolute identification of justice and love makes compassion and gratitude possible.”
“Yet you refused to become a member of the Church, in spite of Father Perrin’s invitation.”
“I was struck by his helpfulness, but I felt it necessary within myself to be by myself. There’s a Catholic environment that’s ready to accept anyone who comes in with warmth. But I didn’t want to live in a place where they use the word ‘us’, and be part of an ‘us’. I didn’t want to feel at home in any community, wherever it was. But ‘I didn’t want’ would not be the right words. On the contrary, I would have liked to; it would have been gratifying. Nevertheless, I felt I wasn’t allowed to do so. I felt that I was forced to be alone – a foreigner and outcast wherever I happened to be, in whichever community I was in, with no exceptions.”
“What do you mean by ‘obeying gravity’?”
“Obeying gravity is the worst sin; it dissolves freedom. During my frequent headaches I experienced the desire to make someone else suffer the same pain I was suffering. In great afflictions, the consequences of gravity are rather ridiculous, and a bit disgusting.”
“What then is the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion to you?”
“Virtue is keeping in ourselves the sorrow that one suffers – not spreading it around using either actions or imagination. So maybe one of the possible meanings is that the sorrow, shame, and death that one doesn’t want to impose on others fall back on oneself, without one wanting it.”
“Would you say then that God sends us heartache to save us?” I ask.
“Certainly not. Affliction is evil. But grief can be good. Some aches make one lose contact with the world, others make one make contact with it. Nevertheless, God doesn’t make us suffer as a test: he only allows the natural operation of pain according to its own mechanism. Otherwise he wouldn’t have withdrawn from creation to let us be, and so be willing not to be any longer. But God’s absence is the most extraordinary proof of perfect love. If one thinks that God could be close to us without destroying the self, one completely ignores everything about God.”
“But what do we really know about God?”
“About God we know nothing but one thing: God is not what we are.”
“How can we hold the supernatural in our souls, then?”
“We draw energy daily from everyday life. If this energy isn’t constantly renewed we lose our strength. Money, profession, honour, reputation, fame, power, or our beloved are sources of energy for us. If one of them has penetrated deeply into our soul, once we’re deprived of it, we die. However, there is an energy that is transcendental, which comes from above and penetrates us whenever we wish it to, transforming into action in our body and soul. This is the bread we should ask for. And we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of this authentic nourishment even for one day.”
“Why is this important?” I ask her as we head back to our bicycles.
“Everything in us is ruled by needs which force us to commit evil, except the energy from above. But you cannot accumulate a supply of it – you must ask for this bread every day. Whoever asks for bread doesn’t receive stones.”
“You’re reciting Jesus’ prayer: Give us each day our daily bread.”
“Prayer is nothing but attention in its purest form. When I discovered the intensity, the unlimited tenderness, of the Greek text of this prayer, I couldn’t help saying it to myself continuously! It won me over completely. I think it’s impossible to say the Lord’s prayer, paying full attention to every word, even just once, without a real change inside you.”
“But the pervading presence of evil in the world is so upsetting,” I tell her.
“If there were no evil, you would never renounce this world,” she answers simply. “Evil is the transfer of the degradation one has within oneself onto others. While suffering, an innocent person spreads the light of salvation upon the crime he is victim of: he is the visible image of the innocent God. The suffering innocent knows the truth about his persecutor, the criminal doesn’t. The evil that the innocent carries within belongs to his persecutor, but this evil is no longer emotional. If evil is the root of mystery, sorrow is the root of knowledge.”
“But why is it so difficult for people to truly discern human misery?”
“It’s difficult for the rich and powerful because they believe, in an almost invincible way, that they are worth something. It’s difficult for the poor because they believe, in an almost invincible way, that the rich and powerful are worth something.”
“What’s the true grandeur of humanity, then, if there is any?”
“Human grandeur consists of one’s attempt to create one’s life over and over again – in creating what one has been given, even in forging what one endures.”
“What then is our strength?”
“Nothing but our thoughts. Not as conscience, opinion; not in the way idealists claim. Thought is strength when it participates in material life.”
“As happened in your life…”
“One should accept the idea of being nameless, of being simply ‘human substance’. One should give up esteem, recognition. This only means being faithful to the truth. We are human substance. We have no rights. We should strip ourselves of any decoration, and bare ourselves.”
“What way of thinking can help do this?” We’ve arrived back at the crossroads.
“Death warns us that we are not gods. It is precisely for this reason that we find death so painful, until we completely understand it.”
“To understand it –” I can’t finish the sentence, as Simone goes on, “As soon as one finds a point of eternity in one’s soul, the only thing one should do is keep it safe, let it grow, like a seed.”
I accept her words as a personal gift. “Thank you,” I say, “for your company and for the ride. But finally, may I ask you something more personal? What do you think of friendship?”
“It’s a virtue,” she answers. Seeing my surprise, she continues, “One cannot look for friendship, nor can one dream of it or wish for it. One practices it.”
“How can we recognize true friendship, then?”
“A flawless sign to distinguish it, is not finding any opposition between friendship and internal solitude.”
Before leaving, she turns towards me, her eyes still shining, and she shouts out: “There is no greater sin than not being able to nourish oneself with light!”
© Elisabetta Rombi 2017
Elisabetta Rombi is a teacher of English literature, fiction writer and essayist. Parts of the novel mentioned were performed during the philosophical festival held in Cagliari in 2015.