About Weil About Simone Weil

About Simone Weil

Eric Springsted

A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Simone Weil

The following biographical sketch is reproduced, with permission, from Eric Springsted, Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), pp. xix-xxi.

Simone Weil © Sylvie Weil, reproduced with permission

Simone Weil was born February 3, 1909, in Paris, to Dr. Bernard and Mme. Selma Weil. Her older brother, André, was one of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians. The family was of Jewish lineage but were free thinkers and thoroughly assimilated. Weil saw her intellectual heritage as French and Christian.

Weil was educated in the best French tradition, attending the lycéesFenelon and Henri IV and studying with well-known philosophers, such as René Le Senne and Émile Chartier (Alain). In 1931 she was one of the first women to graduate from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. With the degree of agregé, she was entitled to teach in the lycéesystem. At the same time, she continued her deep involvement in political and workers’ movements, something that had begun in her earlier school days. As a student it had made her an irritant to some of her own teachers; as a teacher, she was an irritant to most of the administrators of the schools where she taught, and she tended to scandalize the bourgeois parents of her students, as she led marches of the unemployed and taught classes for workers in her free time.

After writing in 1934 an extensive study titled Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression, she felt there was more to be known about the subject, something that could only be learned by coming into contact with it. She took a leave from teaching and worked in three Paris factories as a common piecework laborer in 1934 and 1935. The experience nearly broke her, as she discovered what she came to call “affliction.” She was morally defeated, and as one who had never been strong, other than in her will, suffering from migraines most of her adult life, she was physically ground down by the experience. At this time she began withdrawing from active political involvement, at least with respect to official organizations and parties. In 1936 she went to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, no matter that she was committed at this point to pacifism; she simply could not bear to be absent in a struggle for justice. Soon, a clumsy accident caused her evacuation, which likely saved her life as her regiment was wiped out two weeks later. The experience in Spain opened her eyes to the realities of war, just as war was breaking out over Europe as a whole.

It was during this time that she had three religious experiences, with the third, in 1938, being a sense of Christ’s personal presence. It gave her a sense of how love could be present even in affliction. Although her experiences were unknown to many friends and colleagues, she began writing extensively on religious topics. This marks a turning point in her life and thought.

When the Germans invaded France in 1939, Weil and her parents were on the last train out of Paris, escaping to Vichy France. They remained in Marseille until 1942. For Weil this was an extremely productive period, and many of her most important religious and philosophical writings come from it. This was in good part due to her discussions with Father Jean Marie Perrin, who raised the question of her baptism. For her part, she sought to convince him of the universality of grace, particularly through her many essays on the ancient Greeks. In the end, although she continued to explore the possibility of baptism, she explained to Perrin that she believed it would be a betrayal of her vocation to accept it—not only a betrayal of those who were outside the Church, with whom she identified, but, moreover, disobedience to God. During this period she also worked for the Resistance in distributing materials and as a laborer in the grape harvest in the Rhone valley. It was there that she became friends with the folk philosopher Gustave Thibon, who would later put together some of the notebook material she left in his care, edited to his own concerns and titled Gravity and Grace. It might be noted that Weil published very little in her lifetime, although the French oeuvres complètes will run to sixteen volumes when finished. 

In 1942 she left Marseille with her parents for New York. Her plan from the beginning was to get back to the occupied zone, hopefully to take on a dangerous mission for the war effort. In particular, she had devised a plan for frontline nurses, and she hoped to lead it. She enlisted help for its realization anywhere she could. She was in New York from June to November, writing, researching, and attending black churches in Harlem. In November she got permission to go to London to work with the Free French. She left, hoping that this was her route back to France. However, she contracted tuberculosis, likely by the time she embarked, although she was careful to keep that fact from the authorities.

While in London, she kept pressing for the realization of her nurses project. Instead, she was given the job of writing reports on issues that would have to be faced when the Germans were expelled from France and a new French government installed. Although she was not happy with the assignment, she produced an enormous amount of highly original material in a short time, including the book-length analysis that came to be known as The Need for Roots. She collapsed from overwork and illness in April 1943. Her remaining months were spent in the hospital and, finally, a tuberculosis sanitarium. Although her doctors thought recovery was possible, Weil, who never did eat much, found it difficult to eat and justified it by saying that she wouldn’t eat more than the people in occupied France were getting. She died on August 24, 1943, and was buried in Ashford, Kent. The doctors, baffled by her choices, officially declared the death a suicide because she refused to eat and follow orders. The story is told that she was baptized in her last days by a friend. There is little reason to doubt the story, but what is to be made of it remains a matter of controversy, with no clear evidence as to what Weil’s own thoughts might have been about it.

This biographical sketch is reproduced, with permission, from Eric Springsted, Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), pp. xix-xxi.

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