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Great European Lives: Simone Weil

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, and writer. Photo: Granger NYC/TopFoto. - Credit: Granger, NYC / TopFoto

Philosopher, February 3, 1909 – August 24, 1943

When Emmanuel Macron cited Simone Weil in a speech to the French Congress last month most people, including the official government transcriber, assumed he was referring to the feminist lawyer and government minister Simone Veil who had died a few days earlier.

Instead Macron, a keen student of philosophy, was co-opting into his speech on the nature of governmental efficiency a French Christian mystic of Jewish heritage who lived her short life in solidarity and sympathy with the oppressed to extraordinary degrees.

‘Efficiency is an instrument and we can be entirely efficient in service of a bad cause,’ warned the French President on July 3rd. ‘No, it demands what the philosopher Simone Weil called effectivity. That is to say the concrete application, tangible, visible, of our guiding principles.’

Perhaps unusually for a philosopher Simone Weil walked the walk as well as she talked the talk in the quest for ultimate truth, meaning it’s fair to presume that had she been alive she would have been aghast at being included in Macron’s speech. For one thing, he delivered it in the opulent surroundings of the Palace of Versailles when Weil shunned to wild extremes of ascetism anything remotely approaching luxury, and for another she was the author of a well-argued treatise called On The Abolition Of All Political Parties in which she wrote, ‘Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for killing in all souls the senses of truth and of justice. If one were to entrust the organisation of public life to the devil he could not invent a cleverer device.’

Exactly seventy-five years before Macron’s speech, in July 1942, Weil was one of 900 Jewish refugees approaching New York on the steamer Serpa Pinto, escorting her parents to safety as the Vichy administration set about facilitating the Holocaust in her native France. Her elder brother André, a brilliant mathematician, was already living in the city and able to offer sanctuary to the family but every nautical mile across the heaving Atlantic took Weil further from where she needed to be: with the suffering people back home.

Despite relegating herself to fourth class, the measliest accommodation on board, and sticking to the meagre diet endured by the half-starved masses back home that she imposed upon herself for almost her entire short life, Weil spent the month-long voyage as she had the weeks before departure in the Ain-Seba refugee camp in Casablanca and the previous, tortuous eighteen months in Marseille awaiting visas: writing. If she couldn’t be there in person she could at least make best use of her time until she could return, either to France itself or to London to aid the Free French government in exile.

Despite harsh conditions in Marseille, Casablanca and on board ship Weil wrote frantically, producing in an extraordinarily prolific period of writing some of her very best work. Preferring to write ardent essays and articles rather than dispassionate academic texts, she penned works on personality and the sacred, affliction and the love of God, attention, reading, factory work and the dignity of labour, and the anticipations of Christ in Greek tragedy and philosophy that still resound today.

She wrote, in the words of her friend and biographer Simone Pétrement, ‘in a hurry, like someone about to leave with a presentiment of a probable death who wants to say everything beforehand’.

Whether fired by premonition or not, when the thirty-one year old Weil arrived in New York in early July 1942 she had barely a year to live.

She had never enjoyed the best of health, partly due to a lifelong, iron-willed refusal to eat anything more than the bare minimum. This stubborn self-denial was fired by a politically-aware altruism that manifested itself at a startlingly early age: when she was six years old Weil refused sugar because the soldiers on the Western Front didn’t have any. Thus began an almost pathological need to share in the suffering of the world.

This was no affectation, nor was her ascetism fired by a desire for any spiritual reward or redemption: she simply felt obliged to honour the suffering undergone by the poor and oppressed of the world.

It was almost as if she’d been born with it. At the age of three Weil had refused the gift of a ring from a cousin because it was a frivolous luxury. When her path crossed as a student with that of Simone de Beauvoir the pioneering existentialist would later recall, ‘A great famine had broken out in China, and when she heard the news she wept. I envied her for having a heart that could beat round the world.’

Weil was politically precocious too: she was ten years old when the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were announced and the burning sense of injustice it immediately fired in her would blaze for the rest of her life, consuming every part of her mind and gnawing away at her frail, malnourished body.

Having graduated in philosophy – as the only woman in a class of 28 students – and begun teaching the subject at a school in Le Puy, in 1934 Weil arranged a year’s sabbatical in order to take on manual jobs. She would, she believed, only understand the plight of the oppressed to whom she had devoted her life if she could experience at first hand the deprivations they endured.

She worked on three different assembly lines, one of them a Renault car factory, eating sparingly and insisting that she sleep on a stone floor. The experience tarnished Weil physically and mentally, and she wrote later that the inhumanity suffered by the powerless industrial workers ‘marked me in so lasting a manner that even 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 some mistake’.

Despite the hardships, her labours confirmed for her the universal truth that manual work was the only true road to both self-knowledge and social cohesion.

Like many progressives of the period Weil, despite her pacifism, travelled to Spain to join the Republican forces fighting fascism during the civil war. Thin, weak and extremely short-sighted she frequently proved more of a hindrance than a help and when she myopically plunged her foot into a pot of boiling oil while walking through her unit’s base camp her parents retrieved her and took her to Assissi to recuperate from the burns.

It was there in 1937 that she experienced her first true religious ecstasy, in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, feeling for the first time in her life the urge to fall to her knees and pray.

Three years earlier, forcibly taken on a holiday to Portugal with her parents after falling ill during her year on the assembly lines, Weil had nurtured the roots of a religious awakening after witnessing a Catholic parade through the streets of a tiny fishing village.

‘The conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves,’ she wrote later, ‘that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.’

This combination of religious spirituality and tireless altruism left Weil thoroughly frustrated in America. Her place was in France, among the people who needed help. Through old university contacts involved in the Resistance she secured within four months of arriving in New York a passage on a ship to London, where work awaited her helping de Gaulle’s Free French government prepare for a postwar restoration of the republic.

‘If I had several lives I would have devoted one of them to you,’ she told her worried parents as she departed. ‘But I have only one life.’

Her work in London was characteristically idiosyncratic. She lobbied hard to be parachuted in to combat areas with a platoon of nurses, an idea so dangerous as to be suicidal, and when asked in the spring of 1943 to produce a report on the bureaucratic practicalities of a postwar French government she wrote instead a philosophical treatise on the requirements of the soul, published after the war as her most famous work The Need For Roots.

Shortly afterwards Weil was found unconscious on the floor of the spartan room she rented in Holland Park. Rushed to the Middlesex Hospital she was diagnosed with malnutrition, exhaustion and tuberculosis and transferred to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent. Her frail, neglected physique was too tired and weak to fight and Simone Weil died on August 24 1943 aged 34.

A few months earlier she had written to a friend. ‘I did not mind having no visible successes. What grieved me was the idea of being excluded from that transcendent realm, to which only the great minds have access, and wherein truth abides.

‘I prefer to die rather than live without that truth.’

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