Reading Selections from An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Simone Weil by Eric O. SpringstedJune 10, 2010
A splendid read. Dr. Springsted’s analysis of Weil’s The Love of God and Affliction at the end here makes this an unforgettable article. I found it genuinely transformative.
One Of History’s Clearest Witnesses To A Life Of Light And Grace
The twentieth century has not lacked seriousness. That very seriousness, however, has not always provided very well for either the human spirit or body. Instead, we have been in the midst of a lightening storm of moral, social and religious clashes. The very things that we need to save us seem the very things that would destroy us. As a result we often wonder if there is any real spiritual bread when having sought for it we have gotten only stones and serpents instead; we withdraw then into our own private reveries, threatened by and suspicious of that which ought to draw us together. Yet the century’s seriousness has also produced some wonderful examples of genuine inspiration; we have not been without some of history’s clearest witnesses to a life of light and grace, and genuine compassion for others.
Simone Weil was one of those witnesses. Possessed of a rare and pure intensity of spirit, and an unusual combination of personal commitment and a high and clear intelligence, she has spoken clearly to those who have sought both justice in human affairs and light in matters of the spirit. Yet in a time of clashing moral commitments and spiritual ideals, it is not surprising to find that less than a beacon in the storm, she has functioned something more like a lightening rod attracting both positive and negative charges, attracting and focusing them.
The way she has done so, though, is highly unusual. The reactions to what she did in her life and what she wrote do not fall along a dividing line among already clearly demarcated positions, say between the religious and non-religious, or between liberal and conservative. In thinking on her life and thought, positive and negative come within those categories. For she has attracted the deep appreciation of many whose lives are lived outside the Christian church, and has divided that of those within it. T.S. Eliot described her as “at the same time more truly a lover of order and hierarchy than most who call themselves Conservative, and more truly a lover of the people than most those who call themselves Socialist.”
A Sense Of Moral Self
The radically different valences assigned to Simone Weil have to many thinkers touched by her bespoken a pure spirit, perhaps one of genius and insight, but one which is also sometimes confused and contradictory. There may be some of that, but, I think, it is much less than would serve to make us comfortable. She herself in the last months of her life seemed to be surprised at how coherent the various traces of her thought really were.
Writing to her parents, she claimed that she had discovered something solid and dense, something of pure gold, in her thinking. She worried deeply that it would be obscured because people would look at her, and not at that deposit of gold, somewhat like St. Augustine who complained of those students who when he pointed to the sky would look at his finger instead. If Weil was right, and I am more than inclined to think that she was, then the positive and negative charges that she has attracted may well be reflections of our confusions. That she has acted like a lightening rod may well be because she has put in balance the opposing valences that have made our moral and spiritual seriousness such a storm, and it is we who strike at it to restore our preferred imbalance. Because we are so serious, we assume that it she who has only half the truth.
That is to put it in such a way that borders nearly on the hagiographic, and Weil would have detested that. Therefore let me say somewhat more specifically and quickly just what it is that is important in her thought, and that, because it does run against the grain of much of the century’s orthodoxy, both attracts people to her and repels them at the same time. It is, I believe, the sense she has of what the moral self is. How we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as moral and spiritual beings lies so close to us that it is as nearly unrecognizable to us as water must be to the fish. That is, until we are faced with alternatives. It is at that point that we are often stunned and react sharply, as well we might; our very selves are at stake. Simone Weil’s distinctive contribution to religious, social and moral thought lies, I believe, in her sharp insights into what we take ourselves to be and the confusions and blindnesses and limitation therein. Her contribution also lies in the alternative she offers.
Simone Weil was born February 3, 1909. Her older brother, André, was destined to become one of the world’s greatest mathematicians of his generation. Her father, Bernard, was a physician and his profession put the Weil family in solid upper middle class comfort and respectability. Selma, her mother put her own considerable abilities untiringly in the service of the advancement of her children’s lives. The family background was Jewish, but as with so many Jewish families of the generation that lived between the time of the Dreyfus affair and the discovery of the Holocaust, it felt free to little notice of the fact, being as fully assimilated as one could be in French society. Weil herself never felt any particular kinship to her ancestry; indeed, she felt some hostility towards it, and is almost never generous when discussing Judaism or the Old Testament, excepting some books such as Genesis, Isaiah, and Job. She certainly felt that it did not define her, and reacted sharply whenever it was suggested that it did. Nobody but Simone Weil could tell Simone Weil who she was.
Her Brother And Adolescent Crisis
Simone was, I think, no less brilliant that her brother. But her genius was very different. André’s intelligence as a mathematician, as with most great mathematicians, manifested itself early and in the most apparent ways. In a family where intelligence was terrifically important, this caused Simone no small amount of anxiety. How that “inferiority” was felt by her, however, is actually an important clue to where her own capacities lay. For she says in a letter that is one of the rare places in all her writings where she talks extensively about herself that it was not the lack of visible successes that bothered her, “but what did grieve me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent kingdom to which only the truly great have access and wherein truth abides.”
What brought her out of what appears to be a serious adolescent crisis of identity was the thought that that kingdom was accessible not only by pure intelligence but could be entered also if one desires truth and concentrates one’s whole being on it. Under the name of truth. she adds, “I also included beauty, virtue, and every kind of goodness, so that for me it was a question of the relationship between grace and desire. The conviction that had come to me was that when one hungers for bread one does not receive stones.” That idea of moral concentration, the idea of “attention,” is central to her genius. For her it is what distinguishes the truly great from the merely talented; throughout her writings she applies it severely. Although at this point such a notion held no religious connotations for her — she said she saw the problem of God as insoluble and therefore left it alone — it would bloom in her religious thought.
To say, however, that she had no visible intellectual successes would be wrong. She was educated in the elite schools of the best French intellectual tradition. She studied at the Lycée Henri IV under the philosopher Alain, who gave her his deepest respect, and in his own emphasis on human action, the earliest shape to her own thinking. She was one of the first women to graduate from the prestigious École Normale Supériore, with the degree of agregée de philosophie, which was reserved for the top few graduates. But even there and in subsequent teaching positions in the French lycée system, to which her degree gave her access, it was her moral commitment that is remembered. Her moral intensity and active involvement in leftist causes earned her the nicknames of “The Red Virgin” and “The Categorical Imperative in Skirts.”
Simone de Beauvoir recounts her one meeting with Weil during their university days. De Beauvoir recounts that already at that time Weil had established a somewhat intimidating reputation. Coming upon Weil in a courtyard of the Sorbonne while Weil was holding forth on the need for revolution in order to feed the masses, de Beauvoir recalls that her own offering to the conversation was the philosopher’s opinion that what the people really needed was meaning in their lives. Weil frostily replied, quickly looking her over, that it was clear that she had not ever gone hungry, a remark that de Beauvoir recognized as putting her and her philosophy in its place as belonging to the petty bourgeoisie. (Yet, de Beauvoir adds, what was most impressive to her about Weil was not the intimidating moral severity, it was the story recounted of how when Weil read of an earthquake in China she had wept openly at the thought of the destruction. Here was a heart that beat across the world.) Weil was no less accommodating to those in authority such as the director of the Ecole and her thesis advisor, Leon Brunschivg, the great Pascal scholar, constantly posing challenges to their authority.
That sort of personality, of course, has consequences. She never did get along with Brunschivg and he did not appreciate much her diploma thesis on Descartes. It is perhaps because of this mutual antipathy that Weil never saw much on Pascal, although philosophically they seem to have much in common. When it came time to assign her to a teaching position the authorities deliberately put her in small provincial towns away from the great centers of the workers’ movements in which she was so deeply involved. But even there she could not be kept quiet. Living as thriftily as possible, she donated the additional pay to which her agregée entitled her to workers’ movements. When not in class, she taught night classes to workers, and associated freely with them, something that scandalized the bourgeois parents of her students whose educational ambitions for their children were clearly more aimed at social advancement than the “kingdom of truth.” In one of her more scandalous moves in the town of Le Puy, she even managed to lead a strike of the unemployed, a feat whose paradoxicalness seems not to have fazed her in the least.
Factory Work And Marx
But these are simply anecdotes, enlightening as they might be. Far more important to understanding her is the year she spent working in three factories in Paris in the year 1934-35. At that point Weil had written what she then considered a sort of masterpiece titled “Reflections concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression.” It was a masterful, yet sympathetic critique of Marx and an attempt to understand how dignity could be found in human labor.
Marx had given an analysis of the relations between human thought and dignity and the larger economic enterprise, she argued, that was truly formidable. Rather than individual thought shaping and controlling such an enterprise, he recognized that it was the other way around. Thought came out of and was conditioned by the “material conditions of existence.” In this sense, human thought was not free, and human beings were cogs in the larger economic enterprise. This insight Weil extended to modern technology, arguing that it was no longer capitalists that ran the economy, but technocrats. But even they were not really in charge. They, too, were simply part of the larger whole, a point that is hardly exhausted sixty years later.
But therein is a problem. If we are so determined by the material conditions of existence, how then could there be human dignity? How could humans have some charge of their destiny? Marx, she thought, gave no satisfactory solution; his analysis was so good it seemed that his own solutions ran contrary to what he had already established. Where there were possibilities, Weil contended, was in the recognition that human labor was always subject to necessity. If we cannot escape necessity human dignity can nevertheless be achieved if the human mind can come to recognize this necessity and can freely give itself to it, making the necessity its own, something not simply external. Practically this meant structuring labor so that workers could get some sense of the larger project, both within the factory and in the larger social whole. The project could then be morally theirs. The essay is insightful and particularly mature. But it was typical of Weil that she was not entirely satisfied with it. As a result, faithful to what Alain had taught her, she therefore sought to revise her thinking by actually coming into contact with the object of thought. Thus she entered the factories, to feel in her own being the structures that others only talked about.
Factory Work and Affliction
Her experience was not that of a spectator. Despite the family cushion readily available to her ( which her mother was ever ready to provide — sometimes even without Simone being aware of it ), she chose to live in a small flat in a working class section of Paris and only on the wages she had earned. She fully expected that this project would not be easy; she was not after all very sanguine about the conditions workers were subjected to in the depression of the 1930s. It does seem, though, that she initially believed that she would discover something of human dignity in a sort of workers’ stoicism and in their own inter-personal relations. The expectation was brutally destroyed. Now there is certainly a sense in which the experience was harder on her than it would be for most people. Weil was maladroit, and had a hard time keeping up with the piece work rate that was commonplace in factories of the time. ( Paying laborers by the number of pieces they produce — a unfair practice that is also obviously open to abuse by setting unrealistic expectations — is illegal in western nations today. [No one told me this and have worked for piece rate many times. DJ] ).
Physically it wreaked havoc on her health, which, since she also suffered from severe migraines, was not strong. More importantly, she came to recognize that labor in those conditions was universally humiliating, that it destroyed all sense of human dignity. She recognized that in the factory system the worker counted for nothing. Given her earlier analysis, that was not entirely surprising. What was surprising was the discovery that in the course of time, the worker came to count for nothing in his or her own eyes or anybody else’s for that matter. The humiliation went to the depths of the soul. So Weil discovered “affliction” (malheur), a condition to which one could not consent, a condition that in its very nature could never be ennobling. Affliction had the literal ability to kill the soul and everything that makes us human, even though the body continued on. This included any sense of rights, of initiative, of expectation of respect from others, of hope itself. This discovery shattered all her earlier optimism.
Farmwork and the Spanish Civil War
Weil, of course, was able to leave the factory and did so at the end of August, 1935. Brutalizing as the experience had been, it did not keep her from further attempts to learn by actual contact. She could never be content with watching from afar. Interspersed with teaching and sick leaves over the next three years, she also worked on a farm and, although a pacifist at the time, joined the anarchist-syndicalist elements in the Spanish Civil War. Again, she found even good causes tainted, as she learned not only of fascist butchery but that of her own comrades who executed a priest, as well as a fifteen year boy who refused to join them. A clumsy accident — she stepped into a pot of cooking oil — soon forced her back home, and probably saved her life, for shortly afterwards the militiamen with whom she served were decimated in battle. In a letter to Georges Bernanos, who also had written of the Spanish Civil War, she noted the results of her experience: “one sets out as a volunteer, with the idea of sacrifice, and finds oneself in a war which resembles a war of mercenaries, only with much more cruelty and with less human respect for the enemy.”
A Spiritual Turn
It was in the midst of these unsettling years that Weil’s life took a profound spiritual turn. That turn, and this is particularly important to understanding her, is not away from what she had already learned. It took place within it.
In the letter known as her “spiritual autobiography” Weil describes three “contacts” with Christianity that “really counted.” The first took place shortly after the factory experience. Taken by her parents to Portugal to recover, she recounts that one night while alone in a small, “wretched” fishing village she watched a procession take place among the villagers in honor of their patron saint. She, too, felt wretched, the discovery of affliction having burned itself into her, like the brand on the head of a slave.
It was 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 heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it…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.
The second she more briefly describes when she tells of how in 1937 while at Assisi, “I was compelled for the first time in my life to go down on my knees.” The third is more extensive, and the account is deeply related to the way that she would subsequently articulate Christian spirituality.
In 1938, Weil and her mother attended Holy Week services at Solesmes, a monastery known for a distinctive form of chant. At the outset, the intention seems to be primarily aesthetic. In the course of the week, she met a “young English Catholic” ( although it may have been actually an American Rhodes Scholar, Charles Bell ) who introduced her to the English metaphysical poets, especially George Herbert. She quickly memorized Herbert’s poem “Love” and recited it to herself regularly, particularly in the midst of a headache. “It was during one of these recitations that…Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
When dealing with Simone Weil, there is too often a tendency to peek at her life behind what she says, as if she were simply writing in code of her own life. She rarely is. What she says of this experience, however, is vitally important to understanding the nature of her spiritual writings in at least two ways. First, it says something about the nature of faith and the supernatural in Weil’s thinking. She makes it quite clear that she did not reason herself into faith. Indeed, she says that afterwards that “I still half refused, not my love but my intelligence.” But she was no less certain for that. For what she felt in the midst of her suffering was “the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” Faith was not an intellectual position for her, although it clearly had profound intellectual consequences. It responded to something that intellect had only glimmers of, and which shapes in time how we use our intellect. It was a capacity given by grace, given by God’s own possession, to read goodness and love, and to respond to it, just as we read the smile on a beloved face.
Second, affliction now appeared in a much different light. She suddenly recognized that love and goodness did not have to be defeated even by affliction, that even in the midst of soul destroying suffering God could be present. Indeed, as she came to outline in “The Love of God and Affliction,” in affliction God could be perfectly present, just as he was to the afflicted Christ on the Cross. If the discovery of affliction marked the end of a belief that humans by understanding the structure of necessity could consent to it and be ennobled, in the experience of Christ, Weil’s thinking about affliction was given a new cast. It could be a way of giving one’s total consent to God who never refuses his love to those who wait for it. Affliction could serve to erase the screen of the self that we erect, and cannot tear down by ourselves, between us and God. She notes: “The supernatural greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”
The Solesmes experience marks a clear transformation in Weil’s thinking. From here on she begins to produce, in addition to her social and political works, a vast corpus of spiritual and philosophical writings whose Christian emphasis is explicit. But in many ways it is also at that point that Weil’s own thinking and person becomes more recalcitrant to easy discussion. The conversion takes place at a time that she is already beginning to withdraw from much direct and organized political involvement. At the same time, her attempts at putting herself in contact with the world actually intensifies, but often in a way that puzzles us.
Soon after Hitler invaded Prague, Weil gave up the pacifism that she held with so many intellectuals of the decade. Soon after, disappointed that Paris was not defended, she was forced to flee (quite reluctantly) with her parents to Marseilles when the Nazis marched into the capital. It was in Marseilles that a whole series of new projects came to occupy her. She, like others, did what she could to undermine the Nazi effort, including distributing anti-Nazi literature and visiting the prison camps. She managed to get herself arrested, and quite typically gave no ground to the judge. It was also during this period that she again spent time working on a farm, this time that of the philosopher, Gustav Thibon. And again, she eschewed any comfort, choosing not to live with the family but in an old hut. But most important was a plan that she began to develop at this point for a corps of front-line nurses. Apparently inspired by old germanic sagas which told of young maidens who at the front of battle inspired the troops and gave them a visible reminder of the land and people for which they were fighting, Weil hoped to establish a corps of young women who would be parachuted into the front lines to care for the wounded in the midst of battle. Because it was so dangerous ( death was nearly inevitable ), but so freely done and solely for reasons of compassion, she believed that it would serve as a witness to what the Allies were fighting for. War, she knew, even when entered into for the best of motives, soon came to possess men’s souls making them blind. Such an action she hoped would tip the balance back again. And, of course, she meant to be one of those who put herself in harm’s way.
New York and London
It was in hope of putting this plan into action that Weil allowed herself to join her parents in leaving Marseilles for New York, for she hoped that from there she could get back to the war zone in France. After a brief period in New York, she managed through contacts with the Free French in London to get as far as London. There she was set to work on writing a number of analyses and reports that would address the problems that needed to be dealt with when a legitimate government was returned to France after the war.
Her output was tremendous, including the book, The Need for Roots, and involves a truly distinctive and new approach to political and social problems. Crucial to this approach were two elements. First was her insistence that social life be oriented around the moral category of obligations rather than rights as it had been since the French revolution. Second, was the idea that social life be rooted, rooted both in a past, but just as vitally, through labor, in the natural world of necessity itself. Her thought had come full circle, returning to the same issues that had occupied her at the beginning of her career. They were, however, now transformed in the light of faith. Yet, it was still action that preoccupied her, and all this work meant little to her without the nurses project.
But the project was not to be. DeGaulle thought it mad. Weil herself collapsed in the spring of 1943, suffering from tuberculosis, exacerbated by overwork. The prognosis for recovery was not dim, but in an era without penicillin and when tuberculosis was treated by rest and overeating, Weil proved an intractable patient. A person who had always seen in food something belonging to the moral order and who therefore had regularly and consciously eaten slightly, she simply refused to eat more than she thought people in occupied France were getting. (This was a fast, if we may use that word, she had begun before her collapse, although in all likelihood she knew before arriving in London that she had tuberculosis.) As a result her condition worsened, and she died on August 23, 1943 at Ashford, Kent.
Here we begin to see a sort of eccentricity — a life lived outside the center to which we are accustomed — that does attract and repel at the same time. It is underlined by her personal religious life after her conversion. On the one hand, it is highly attractive, beautiful in its attention and clarity. We see this not only in her writings, but in her practices.
While working on Gustave Thibon’s farm she says that she developed the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer each morning in Greek, with “absolute attention.” The effect, she says, is extraordinary: “The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or sometimes the third degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not the absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound.”
Moreover, she adds: “Sometimes during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is really present with me in person…” In New York, she regularly attended not only Mass but black churches in Harlem, finding both the people, the ones not in power, and their freedom quite to her taste. Yet, on the other hand, her faith was anything but exultant. She steadfastly refused baptism until on her death bed when it was performed by an unordained friend, and never even then actually participated in the eucharist that she had so steadfastly contemplated in Catholic churches. Her “spiritual autobiography” is actually written to explain why she could not enter the church.
The “spiritual autobiography” is one of a series of letters that Weil wrote to Father Perrin, a blind Dominican priest who became who close friend and confidant in Marseilles. Impressed by her incredible understanding of the universality of grace, it was under his pressing that she wrote the series of essays on the ancient Greeks that is so central to her thought. As she explains it to him, she is particularly fearful of the “social nature” of the church, a sort of group think that all too often substitutes for genuine focus on God. More exactly, she feels so attracted to it that it is a temptation she feels she has to resist, for it will alter her. How? She gives a number of reasons, including a sense that she would betray those outside the church (such as the ancient Greeks) from she had gained so much. The church’s refusal to accept such outsiders smacked of totalitarianism. But the crucial reason as she tells it is the feeling that God did not want her in the church. And for her obedience to God is the heart of the matter. She notes that even if her salvation were lying on the table, she would not pick it up unless commanded.
It is at this point that the unsettling parts of Weil’s person come through most clearly. There is at once a sort of pride combined with great diffidence, and, indeed, a certain sort of brutality towards the self. When thinking of Christ’s affliction on the Cross, she admits to “the sin of envy.” (But she knows it is a sin.) She refuses to do anything for herself. And for many of her readers this makes her more of a danger than a guide to be trusted. Her insistence in her writings that our selves need to be “decreated” in order to fully love God and neighbor seems not only perilous, but even, according to some, Manichaean and inhuman.
A Lightening Rod
What are we to make of this? There may well be a sense in which Weil may have been unhealthy, and in which her own experiments in life were less than sensible. Dwelling on that, however, can be terrifically shallow and miss her real importance, especially as that of a guide. Weil never recommended herself as a paradigm for others. Her refusal to join the church was not the result of an argument; it was a vocation to which she felt called and which she could not betray.
In her writings, she almost never uses “I” for the “I” has no place in spirituality. But that is a clue to where she is helpful. If she was sometimes less than careful about her own person, she was interested in truth and she was fully convinced that truth is not an abstraction but something that exists only in life itself. If “the problem of God” could not be solved by cool, distanced, speculation, it could bear fruit, she discovered, by committing one’s self to God.
Just as the truth about the factory could only be gained by contact, so the truth of life and God can only be gained by contact. And contact only comes when one does not keep herself at a safe distance, surveying the possibilities and deciding ahead of time whether they will be good for us or not. We have to be willing to be transformed by the truth of what we encounter; we cannot seek to control it to our own ends.
That is why Weil becomes a lightening rod attracting all the charges attaching to our notion of the human self. The modern sense of the self is something constituted by the notion of rights and personal development. Morally, we thus often see ourselves in terms of what we should expect from others, and of what we can and ought to do for ourselves. That, at its worst puts us awash in idolatrous religions of self-affirmation. Those are obvious and shallow. But even at our most refined our sense of human justice tends to be controlled by a metaphor of power development that leads us to believe that by increasing power and sharing it around we will find the human good, a sort of capitalist economy designed for the moral and spiritual self.
Just as we think we can help the poor by increasing the economy through additional material production and competition, by increasing wealth, so, too, we often believe that everyone can be morally prosperous by increasing the personal power of individuals. The empowered self is the one that has freedom and autonomy. And that is what it means to us to be fully human. That metaphor is not one of narrow selfishness, for justice is achieved when there is universal empowerment and self determination. When Weil refuses to use her powers and talents to maintain freedom and autonomy, when she refuses to develop them, it is clear why we begin to regard her as self-destructive. Her death seems a waste, not only of herself to herself, but of somebody who had so much to offer to the moral economy had she lived longer.
Why she thought differently, though, can be understood if we consider what the discovery of affliction revealed to her. Affliction was not simply a problem with a system, although the factory system of her time and many of the systems of the century are particularly effective at producing affliction. It was a universal possibility for the human soul. The human soul is fragile and can be destroyed. Oppression — the stifling of empowerment –and unfairness can leave us intact and noble; the problem in those cases is, a Weil thought in her earlier work, a matter of reforming the system. But affliction can seize the soul and undo it. How? As she makes clear in “The Love of God and Affliction” affliction, while including physical suffering, is chiefly a matter of social humiliation, a ceasing to count in anyone’s eyes, including one’s own. At that point, giving power to the powerless is not possible; there is nobody left inside to wield effective human power in the human world.
Power simply burns itself into the soul, making the soul more and more an object of other people’s actions, no longer the subject of one’s own. Our self is a self that acts among others and requires that they respect our actions; for the afflicted, they no longer direct their own actions. There is nothing to them that can focus human power into a coherent project. They do not affect us any longer. And since affliction has also an essential accidental quality to it (malheur is literally “bad fortune”) one who is afflicted can find no reason for this being so. The mind cannot understand and thus cannot find any way to accept this condition. The world then seems chaotic, purposeless and poisonous. Hope disappears and the afflicted inevitably begin to hate themselves. Thus even well meaning “empowerment” simply makes matters worse. The afflicted become tools of our pity and our own self image, our exercises of our own moral empowerment, and they recognize it.
The possibility of affliction and the impossibility of “empowerment” as a way of saving the soul from destruction thus signaled for Weil not only a practical problem with modern understandings of the person and of justice, they also signaled that the sense of well being and goodness we derive from empowerment is conceptually other than that of perfect goodness. It is an ersatz kingdom. In her notebooks, she claims that if it were not for affliction, we might believe ourselves in paradise. That she thought was a horrid possibility, for it was the possibility that we would continue to live for a goodness that was no more than the projection of the relief of our anxieties. But where is the alternative? Where is perfect love and justice?
The Afflicted Christ
It is God’s own love in the Cross of Christ. In “The Love of God and Affliction” Weil insists that we see the crucified Christ not as a martyr for truth, or even the king of glory executed out of jealous resentment. For her, Christ is purely and simply afflicted. But Christ does not let his condition change his love for the Father and the world he has created, even though it contains affliction. Even though abandoned, he accepts this as the Father’s will and loves even when there seems nothing to love. He is not filled with resentment. And in that, Weil suggests, is ultimately established a bond of perfect love between the abandoned Christ and the Father in heaven, between emptiness and fullness. In Christ’s love, God’s love is present in the world. That at least means that affliction is not an ultimate evil. But Christ is not simply an example of how we might get through suffering. By accepting emptiness he redeems affliction; by accepting the nothingness of our condition he gives life to a world. His self emptying is for life, not his own, but others. When love triumphs over power, and selflessness over autonomy, it is Christ’s love in us that is our soul.
Christ’s Crucifixion As Paradigm
If there is a single key to understanding Weil it is recognizing that Christ’s crucifixion provides the paradigm of perfect love and justice, and as such a very different sense of what it means to be human and to act as a human subject. Throughout her writings an analogy to Christ’s self emptying for the life of others needs always to be sought. These are some important, repeated examples: In creating a world, God renounces being all, in order that a world might exist. Similarly God’s love becomes incarnate in us when we pay “attention” to others, putting aside our interests and projections and letting them reveal themselves to us. That is the sole way of giving life back to the afflicted, for we in giving up our autonomy let them have life again. In waiting on them, we create room for them to act, a space that does not exist when human relations are those of power, even benign power. [Magnificent! DJ]
Additionally, the beauty of the world is revealed to us when technology is replaced by a science that pays attention to the order of the world governed by goodness. The paradigm even carries through to Weil’s later political thought. Replacing the concept of “rights” as the chief political category of justice with that of obligations — the duties we owe others — she seeks to make political justice a matter not of rationally balancing concentrations of power, whether personal or institutional, but of balancing them by direct human interaction. That interaction is a matter of seeking the consent of others, and never violating it. When she calls this sort of justice “impersonal” it is not because it is abstract, but because of what we take the “personal” normally to be. We therefore need to act “impersonally” in order to take person seriously. And she means us to take individual humans very seriously indeed.
That self emptying is what she means by “decreation.” Hopefully enough has been said to this point that the reader can gain some sense of what role those ideas play in her thought. But it may be helpful to add two biblical parallels. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that unless they hate their own father and mother, even his own life, who does not bear his own cross, they cannot be his disciples. But as he makes clear doing so is like making the calculations for erecting a building. Unless you do so, you are likely not to have the wherewithal to finish the project.
In that sense, self emptying is not an end in itself. It is the condition for some further work. And what is that work? In Colossians 3:10-11, St. Paul talks about “stripping off the old self” and “clothing yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” The new self, the self “hid in Christ in God” is that work.
Similarly “decreation” in Weil is not self destruction; it is the putting off an old self in order to be open to becoming a new one. In this she has certain parallels to other spiritual masters of the twentieth century such as Thomas Merton, although she is far less gentle with the old self. There have been few of any time who better understood than Weil its self deceptions and attempts to call the old “new” with little substantial change. But in Weil, like Paul and others, what is important is that the new self be in the image of its creator. For Weil that image is the image of the Christ who gave up his power to give life to others.