Compassion, Consolation, and the Sharing of Attention

Stuart Jesson read

The difficulty of showing authentic compassion is a major preoccupation of Simone Weil’s work. This difficulty is primarily understood in terms of the way that thought “flies” from intense suffering “as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death.” Compassion is conceived by Weil as being at the centre of all authentic spirituality, and as a kind of litmus test for truthful engagement with the world (and with God). Compassion relies upon the giving of attention, and to give one’s attention to one who suffers means to resist a powerful urge which is felt at physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual levels. Attention, in turn, is considered most often as a kind of openness, or receptivity; a willingness to encounter—or even be penetrated by—what is given in the real. Weil suggests in a number of places that the power to attend is right at the centre of personal identity, and supplies the only real possibility of acting upon one’scharacter (a suggestion that Iris Murdoch developed in Sovereignty of Good). Finally, these two aspects of Weil’s thought are closely aligned with a third; her pervasive suspicion of “consolation”. On the whole, consolation is aligned with the “imagination” that insulates and removes one from reality. One can console oneself when suffering with thoughts about the future, or with attempts to explain one’s suffering as a part of some larger, coherent whole or as a necessary means to some desirable end. Equally, one can cushion oneself from any real encounter with the suffering of others with similarly evasive movements of thought: one begins to see the suffering other as representative of a class of people defined by such suffering; thereafter, their situation no longer seems surprising.

I take Weil’s understanding of the matters briefly summarised above to be profound and phenomenologically convincing in any number of ways. Nevertheless, my aim in this chapter is to raise some questions about this picture. Put simply, my argument is as follows: even though Weil is deeply sensitive to the ways that the capacity for attention determines one’s way of relating to others, on the whole she conceives of attention as a private operation of the individual “soul”. However, there are good reasons to think that in many cases, attention is something shared, even to the point where one might wish to talk about a “joint subject” of attention. I hope to show that examination of the way that attention is shared in compassion helps to bring to light ways in which such attention might be “creative”, to use a term that Weil herself uses on one occasion. Following from this, I hope to show that this shared dimension of attention may change how we conceive of the relationship between compassion and “consolation”.

It is very apparent that this will discussion will not be able to address everything that would be necessary in order to fully bring the idea of joint attention to bear upon Weil’s philosophy. There will remain some important questions to answer concerning how well the ideas below might integrate into Weil’s religious metaphysics, especially concerning her underlying conception of the human person, and of the ultimate significance of human relations. Nevertheless, the picture that I have tried to sketch offers, I believe, a small but significant complication of Weil’s account of attention, and a useful starting point for further exploration.

  • Full text of article here.
  • Originally published in Simone Weil and Continental Philosophy, London: Rowman & Littlefield, Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, ed., 2017

Simone Weil: Suffering, Attention and Compassionate Thought

Stuart Jesson read

This article explores Simone Weil’s account of the relationship between human suffering and intellectual life, with reference to the issues raised by the allegation that as an enterprise theodicy evinces a failure to ‘take suffering seriously’. The article shows how Weil’s understanding of the relationship between suffering and attention gives a clear and powerful account of the way that compassion – which involves an uncompromising acceptance of suffering – can be discerned in patterns of thought. Nevertheless, it is less clear in her work how these convictions might serve as a guide for theological statements. Weil’s understanding of the Christian conception of life is centered on the experience of finding God present in and through suffering, and this leaves her with the problem of how to reconcile her commitment not to ‘sweeten what is bitter’ with consolations or compensations with her intuition that the truth of creaturely existence is made available through suffering. Through an analysis of the inner contours of this conflict, it is argued that Weil’s central problem is of how to articulate spiritual reality in such a way as to encourage undivided attention.

Studies in Christian Ethics, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 185-201

Mystic of Passion and Compassion

Maria Clara Bingemer

Karen M. Kraft, trans., foreword by Tomeu Estelrich, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Simone Weil: The Way of Justice as Compassion

Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield