— Simone Weil (August 25, 1933) (Oppression & Liberty)
We are in a period of transition; but a transition towards what? No one has the slightest idea.
Attention. Begin there, with that word, with that concept. It is an important place to start if only because modern Western culture has largely forsaken any meaningful and sustained attachment to this vital human faculty — this even apart from the special meaning Weil gave to the word. Much in modernity wars against the basic notion of attention as if it were something to be discarded . . . like an old technology that has lost its value, utility, and relevance.
This is not to invoke Cassandra and prophesize the end of civilization. Rather, it is to suggest that Western civilization is, once again, at a crisis point, a point at which attentive and humane people need to pause and step back and assess where we are and where we are tending. Each culture needs to check its excesses; each needs to combat its injustices, and each needs to recommit itself to those values without which it cannot claim to be legitimate in the highest sense of the word. How the present evolves into the future depends, in some real measure, on how people act at those pinpoints in time that determine destiny.
We are at one of those pinpoints. This is our culture; these are our times. Superficiality, brevity, and rapidity are the rule. A ruinous cynicism filters our look on life, the taint of totalitarian authority escapes us as its power expands; secularism flirts with relativism; reasoned discourse succumbs to sound bites; five-inch screens steal more than four hours of our cerebral day; objectivity is eclipsed by endless partisan strife; algorithms supplant arithmetic; selfies and TikTok feed a self-aggrandizing appetite; public education is insipid and formulaic; lawmaking ceases to be deliberative; and the specter of scapegoating against the poor and alien takes hold with complicit indifference. This is our default position or one near it. Seldom is there the time (or the will) to critique or condemn it. Once this dye has been poured into the beakers of our lives, its ruinous stain colors everything.
Daily, basic notions of attention compete with its opposite – lethargy, that idleness of the mind that wars with exercise. It is an astounding figure for a modern and prosperous nation: 32 million adults in the U.S. cannot read beyond a fifth-grade level. Nearly one in five high school graduates cannot read. Parents who cannot read will likely pass that deficiency on to their children. Such is the price of progress, or what passes for that in a society in which the wonder of the Odyssey or the tragedy of King Lear will never enter the minds of many. In such a world, more and more people are impatient with any form of sustained reading, the kind that requires attention.
280 characters. Think of it. That is the maximum number of letters the former “leader” of the world’s most powerful nation used to “communicate” with the public. Worse still is how the commercial media feed on this feast of nonsense. No matter how serious the situation – concerning public health, the environment, national security, economic stability, or judicial justice – a tweet of even 140 characters can override anything. Instantly, it all makes for banner headlines and “breaking news.” To compound the problem, there is a steady barrage of senseless tweets followed by worldwide notice given to them. We live in an era of “alternate facts,” an era in which an endless surfeit of digitally driven tweets masquerades as political truths. In the process, reason flees the cognitive scene. The result: It is impossible to dwell on anything too long, or even remember anything after a short “news” cycle. Since all of this is offered up as if it were “reality TV,” the media (liberal and conservative) happily partake in this Spectacle of the Absurd because the end product is greater ratings and greater revenue. In this cultural mix, impulse is the norm, thought is the fatality.
It should be obvious: real deliberation – in government and elsewhere – is under persistent attack. Truth is reduced to opinion; fact is downgraded to fiction; and what should be apparent ceases to be so. Technology is sovereign; a subservient people yield to it with robotic allegiance.
Indeed, it seems that Huxley’s Brave New World is our world. Soma (that Huxleyan metaphorical pill that lulls a people into a collective stupor) takes its toll. While all of this occurs, the abuse and aggrandizement of power swell as a befuddled people and press sit powerlessly. All of this is not to anchor such concerns to a specific time, place, or nation. But such concerns illustrate the kinds of problems that arise when, as today, attention to them is so lacking.
Philosophy – if ever there was a time when it could make a real contribution to culture and the common good, now is the time. If ever there was a time when thought, properly understood and executed, could change minds and save lives, now is that time. If ever there was a time when deep-rooted and clearheaded (and elevated) thinking was needed, that time is now.
All of this brings us to Weil and her philosophy of thinking . . . understood in a philosophical sense and beyond. For example, if there were a chance to give life to the value of attention as she understood it, Weil’s philosophy could provide a meaningful and ethical alternative to what passes as thinking in our post-modern/algorithmic-driven world. Given the crisis of cogent thought in our times, the moment seems so ripe for such a philosophical experiment. Such an experiment might open our eyes to what we cannot see, namely, the colossal failings of our own cultures and consciences.
It is but a hope: Attentive thought may yet play a real role in the affairs of humankind. Of course, the work is for us, not as idolaters of Simone Weil but as persons willing to think again, even if it means renouncing the kind of abstractions that govern our behavior or struggling to renounce our allegiance to “the Great Beast.”
Philosophy understood as education is central to understanding the tyranny of our collective malaise. For this, political revolution alone is insufficient. Weil’s words: “It is not enough to revolt against a social order . . . : one has to change it, and one can’t change it without understanding it.” (Jacques Cabaud, 50) That insight, penned when she was not yet 23, is one overlooked by many a revolutionary or social activist. One cannot solve a problem unless one first sees it. That is why the discipline of education (and the mindset it fosters) is essential if the war on thought is to abate. To that end, Weil’s words are vital, though they are certain to shake the foundations of our daily lives. Then again, it is well to note that Weil the philosopher was also Weil the resistance fighter — the former informed the latter.
Albert Camus called Simone Weil “the only great spirit of our times.” Most assuredly, she would have objected to that characterization. Why? Because gauged by her philosophical calculus, the focus should not be on her person but rather on her ideas – do they comport with the truth? Hence, reading Weil and understanding something about her thinking may well have constructive consequences beyond scholastic ones. Either way, it is, I believe, an effort worth making, challenging as it is. Or to put it as Camus once did: “I do not give the human race more than one chance in a thousand, but I should not be a man if I did not act on that chance.” — rklc
- Jacques Cabaud, Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love (New York: Channel Press, 1964).
- Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty (New York: Routledge Classics, 2001, Arthur Wills & John Petrie, trans.).