The Revelations of Simone Weil

Simone Weil, French philosopher, here in 1936 during the Spanish civil war when she was in the Durruti Column. (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Disagreements about reality often lie at the heart of ideological division. And those questions—What is reality? How do we access it?—consumed Simone Weil (1909–43), the French theologian, philosopher, mystic, and activist who is rightly considered among the most important thinkers of the 20th century. 

Some may associate theology with cloisters, and mysticism with escapism. Many may associate philosophy with classrooms. Simone Weil combusts these associations. She refused to advance ideas that she had not lived or, more specifically, that she had not substantiated with her own body in the coarse complexity of the real world. She remained tenaciously committed to reality—its pain, its unpalatability, its contradictions—for all of her short and remarkable life. “She didn’t only make very strong comments, she went out and did them, which absolutely astounded people,” one scholar said recently

In recent days, many have been similarly astounded by the example of Alexei Navalny returning to Russia in 2021, into the hands of those who’d poisoned him and who would eventually kill him. Freedom in Russia was no mere idea for Navalny. It was a hope that he carried back to his country in his own body, the novichok barely out of his bloodstream. 

Much of our own politics has become the opposite: disembodied. Reductive answers to intractable questions are the bread and butter of the internet. Never has it been easier to assert, with utter conviction, ideas that are simply untethered from the irreconcilable qualities of reality. This can lead to profound dishonesty—to lies about the world as it really is. Often those making the strongest claims have the least to lose. Their own bodies aren’t on the line. 

But Weil, by contrast, embodied paradoxes, evading simple political or ideological definitions. She was, in the apt words of a recent biographer, “an anarchist who espoused conservative ideals, a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, [and] a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery.”

An intellectual prodigy with particular gifts in mathematics, logic, and languages, Weil received an elite education in Paris in the wake of World War I and qualified as a professor of philosophy in 1931, at the age of 22. With an uncommonly sophisticated grasp of philosophy and classical literature, academia might have seemed an ideal home for Weil. But she found the confines of classrooms and the mere exploration of ideas intolerably disconnected from the real world, where she witnessed the ravages of poverty and unemployment, the residue of one world war, and the tremors of another.

“I have the essential need, and I think I can say, vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook,” she wrote in a letter at the end of her life. 

Allying herself with the poor meant, for Weil, experiencing their affliction firsthand. She left her teaching job in 1934 and spent a year working in industrial factories around Paris. It was a brutalizing experience, exacerbating the migraines from which she’d suffered for years and, more deeply, shattering her psychologically.  

“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,” she wrote.

Yet she continued seeking ground-level reality. Despite her pacifist instincts, when civil war erupted in Spain in 1936, Weil insisted on going to the front to fight alongside the Republican anarchists. There she witnessed firsthand the brutal violence of war. Just as importantly, Weil experienced the deep moral confusion that results from war. She discovered that in its “deliberate destruction, its non-stop massacre in the firing-line,” war shrouded reality in a thick fog, contorting the perceptions—and the bodies—of those involved. 

Of the Spanish conflict, Weil wrote that those on the political right would argue that they “must continue until the forces of order are triumphant and anarchy is crushed,” while those on the left would insist “with equal indignation that the fight must continue until the people’s freedom and well-being are assured and the oppressors and exploiters crushed.”

Key for Weil is that “both of them forget that during the long months of civil war an almost identical regime has grown up on both sides. Each of them has unconsciously lost sight of his ideal and replaced it with an entity without substance.” These “entities without substance,” these disembodied ideals, were disconnected from reality. They, and the people whom they bound, suffered as a result.

But for Weil, accessing reality and embodying ideals is both extremely difficult and emphatically not political. Accessing reality is about God, whom Weil came to understand not as an abstract theological entity, but as a stable “reality outside the world” and the “sole foundation of good.”

“Those minds whose attention and love are turned toward that reality are the sole intermediary through which good can descend from there and come among men,” she wrote.

Attention here is not an abstract meditative practice, and by Weil’s own definition, it is nearly impossible. It involves an emptying of one’s own egotism, fear, power, and presumption. 

“Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object,” she wrote. “Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.”

Thus conceived, attention is an imitatio Christi: It emulates Christ in his self-sacrificing love. When God created the world, he restricted himself to make space for creation. When Christ died on the cross, he emptied himself for the sake of humankind. To pay attention is to, as far as humanly possible, retreat from the self to make space for the other person, idea, or desire, perhaps most especially when that “other” is someone or something we’d rather not confront: our ideological enemy, our political foe, or verifiable events that don’t conform to our understanding of the world.

This act isn’t a mere human achievement, Weil believed, but a capacity given by God, through grace. God’s grace, then, is the first reality to embrace. It opens our eyes to the paradoxical qualities of our world, while refusing God’s grace closes our eyes and advances our own thoughts in reality’s place.

“All wrong translations, all absurdities … all faulty connection of ideas … all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth,” she wrote.

In other words, true attention protects us from idols of our own making. True attention also allowed Weil to see with lucidity the murderous similarities between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Two years before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, Weil was already writing about the false distinction between fascism and communism. She’d witnessed it in Berlin in 1932, where she’d often see Nazis arguing with communists and “after a time it always became clear to both disputants that they were defending exactly the same programme; and this made their heads swim.”

Fascists and communists could not discern the falsity of their positions, nor could they see the irony that they prioritized the defeat of an enemy idea over the integrity of their own idea. 

“The anti-fascist position is this: Anything other than fascism; anything, including fascism, so long as it is labelled communism,” she wrote. “And the anti-communist position: Anything rather than communism; anything, including communism, so long as it is labelled fascism.”

During Holy Week and Easter of 1938, Weil had a mystical experience. It occurred less as a journey into a distant plane of being, and more as a totalizing, painstaking encounter with God’s love within her bodily suffering. “I was suffering from splitting headaches; each sound hurt me like a blow,” she wrote. Yet she insisted on intently listening to the Gregorian chant of each liturgical service of Holy Week, during which, she wrote, she experienced a personal visitation from Christ. 

“In this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face,” she wrote.

It’s for this reason that Weil could take seriously the Christian doctrine of God’s entry into creation. Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion don’t merely signal sacrificial love to the world, a remote reality waving to our concrete one. Rather, they bring that love into the world: into bleeding flesh, into shelled out buildings, into Nazi-occupied France. Christ fulfills a longing for the good, without denying the horror that surrounds us. 

The tension between absolute good and grinding evil—and often, their close proximity—tormented Weil for all of her short life. She could find no easy resolution to it. This painful conflict was the price of her commitment to self-abnegating attention, and it cost her huge pain, bodily and spiritually. 

The only reconciliation was Christ, who on the Cross brought two paradoxical realities into an indissoluble relationship: magnificent love and excruciating suffering. For Weil, Christ’s body, brutally nailed to the cross, is the greatest antithesis to the disembodied idea. It is an undeniable, carnal reality, and it is the very essence of love.

In our time, intangible notions of reality threaten to overtake much of our discourse. Perhaps we perceive in our societal ills the machinations of a coordinated and evil deep state. Perhaps we perceive rigidly dichotomous categories, in which some are intractable oppressors and others are intractable victims. We often sink into false reality with relief, unchallenged by the daunting, endlessly complex qualities of the real world. 

Weil implores us instead to interrogate, deeply, the quality of our perception. Does it do justice to the reality that is actually there, waiting to be encountered? To traduce that reality by reducing it to a simplified and dishonest account of the world is the most serious moral failure she can imagine. 

Reality, even in its brutality, is often infinitely more interesting and extraordinary than reductive fiction. Consider the reality of the Weilian integrity that persevered, even in a darkened cell, north of the Arctic Circle, until the final hour. Alexei Navalny could have written about freedom, corruption, and oppression from exile. Instead, he staked his life on these ideas, and paid the ultimate price. 

He put his body in the way of reality: the reality of tyranny, the reality of affliction. “It is in affliction itself that the splendour of God’s mercy shines,” Weil wrote. “From its very depths, in the heart of its inconsolable bitterness.” 

We can draw the strength to face reality only from this assurance: that something much stronger than bitterness is at the heart of it all.

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