Written Articles

Simone Weil and Aristotle

Martin F. Andic

This heretofore unpublished paper by Dr. Martin Andic (1940-2005) was presented at the annual Colloquy of the American Weil Society meeting in Berkeley, CA on May 2-3, 2003. The paper was saved by Dr. Lissa McCullough and prepared for publication by Dr. Eric Springsted

Source references to Aristotle are identified in parentheticals; other sources are noted in brackets. A list of all sources and abbreviations appears at the end of the article. Annotated endnotes, which were extensive, have been omitted. Published with permission of  Victoria Andic-Whealy.  

Martin Andic (Photo: Lissa McCullough)

Additionally, a few hyperlinks have also been added as have bracketed subheadings. The French version of the article will appear in a forthcoming issue of Cahiers Simone Weil. For a brief account of Martin Andic and his work on Weil, see “Interview with Eric Springsted” in this issue.  – rklc 

Simone Weil hungered and thirsted for justice and truth, and she longed for God. Accordingly, she was impatient with Aristotle’s defense of slavery, and with his indifference to the religious dimension of Plato and the influence of “the so-called Pythagoreans” as he refers to them, as if he were conscious of the flimsiness of the evidence for them and their views. But it is misleading to say that she disliked Aristotle and could not learn from him, in the way that she disliked Nietzsche. For, while she often speaks severely and feelingly against Aristotle, she reads him carefully and expresses high regard for him as a philosopher as we understand that today. 

Moreover, there are many points of contact between her thought and his, and we might think that some of her most characteristic and original thoughts came to her in response to reading him.  To demonstrate this, I will begin with her praise of him, and then her criticism of what he writes about slavery, friendship, the vulnerability of human happiness, and divine grace. Next, I explain their substantial agreement, nevertheless, on truth and method, knowledge and contemplation, and nature. There I will focus on their preference for circles rather than straight lines, the Darwinian notes in their treatment of nature, and their shared emphasis on its beauty. My objective, however, is not to argue for any fundamental affinity of the two writers so much as to highlight the deep difference made by her Christianity and emphasis on the Trinity of God and God’s Creation and Incarnation and Passion.  

I. First Criticism of Aristotle

So far from rejecting Aristotle outright, Simone Weil says that no one else ever searched better for God by human reason without, as Plato does, relying on grace. Plato considers true wisdom to be supernatural, flowing into us from God himself so that all that we can do is to be turned toward him in love; truth is experience and contact and not an abstract conception only. Aristotle, who for his part ignores religious tradition and relies only on his own reflection, is thus the only philosopher in the modern sense in ancient Greece. But he is “quite outside the [greatest] Greek tradition” [SN 89], along with the sophists and politicians; he is “the only one of the Greeks of any quality, perhaps, who was not a Pythagorean.” [FN 453].  Aristotle, like Hegel, constructs a beautiful and pleasing system that includes many “marvelously penetrating formulas” (FW 288). But it is Socrates and Plato who, analyzing meaning rather than proving truth, are the real masters of thought, for they are oriented to salvation, turned toward truth with all their soul. Aristotle had talent but not genius, in this sense of a total, unreserved love of truth requiring “supernatural humility” in one’s thought, wide openness to the divine [SE 24-25].

Weil questions Aristotle’s love of truth because he does not seek it in religious tradition, but it is also because he defends slavery. This proves to her that he did not love justice nor know it well, and to rely on him is to lose discernment too. “Slavery is a crime like murder and rape, because. . . God alone has the right to kill, violate, reduce to slavery the souls of men. . . a violence which is to be desired above all.” [FN 504]. In the beginning physical labor was the spiritual core of society, as decreation and obedience, and there was no slavery. [F 337] “Before slavery began there was a civilization with spirituality of labor.” [NR 295-302]. She does give Aristotle credit for admitting that some have argued that slavery is contrary to nature and reason, but she blames him for not taking their argument seriously. She contrasts him with Plato who reserves it as a punishment for the incorrigible, comparable to death or exile, which “amounts to condemning slavery as an institution.”  

In Aristotle’s defense it may be said that he agrees with Plato that only those should be slaves who cannot do right and live well (these are the naturally slavish), so that it is wrong to enslave those captured in war who could practice the virtues and take forethought to plan their lives and thus exist independently and freely. Consequently, her excuse for Plato would exonerate Aristotle also.

Weil also credits Aristotle for admitting that machines would make slaves unnecessary, thus anticipating Marx. But to her this is only a concession that with factory organization and automation we could afford to be just. Aristotle, however, would say that to live well we must practice all the virtues and so do justice to everyone we can, helping others to practice virtue and live well who are able to. He allows that some people who argue that while treating others as slaves to their harm is wrong, also argue that taking responsibility for people and educating them in excellence hinders one’s own, insofar as moral and political activity interfere with contemplation (Politics 7.2).  

Here Aristotle is thinking of some passages in Plato’s Republic, and his own view is that the best life includes as much contemplation as possible, consistent with our embodied and social and political nature. But he also shares Plato’s fear that power corrupts, for “desire is a wild beast” (3.16) that maddens even the best of us. Oscar Wilde writes that “[a]ll power is quite degrading; it degrades those who exercise it, and it degrades those over whom it is exercised”; Weil similarly says that “might . . . petrifies differently but equally the souls of those who suffer it and of those who wield it.”  Thus also Plato in the Seventh Letter: “Subjection is bad both for masters and for subjects, for themselves, for their children, and for their children’s children. The attempt to enslave others is altogether disastrous.” For Aristotle, however, the best person loves nobility and the virtues, and uses his power to build these up in everyone he may; in him power is subjected to love, as Weil would put it, following Plato. 

Aristotle writes that since the human being is a political animal, a stateless person is either a bad man or above humanity, like an isolated piece in checkers (sc. vulnerable on the board, or dismissed from it). He is “either a beast or a god” (1.2), either unable to live in society and insufficient to himself, or else without any need of others and complete in himself. Aristotle’s ideal city is a polity of free people who can and who choose and aspire to live the best life together, taking turns ruling and being ruled (this will exclude from citizenship women and children, slaves and tradesmen, and many of the rest). If anyone so far excels the others in virtue as clearly and fully to be what they aspire to, like a god among men, then “either he or they can be no longer regarded as part of a state.” (3.13) [Thus], it is wrong to subject him to them, and right that he should rule them as king and they should joyfully obey and imitate him always.  Many have thought that Aristotle refers to Alexander and great men of that sort. But some scholars question the story that Aristotle was his teacher or even that they ever met (since it is not mentioned in any reliable source until two centuries after the death of both). Besides, far excelling in virtue means to Aristotle being much more just and generous than others, more social and political (and a better citizen) as well as more contemplative (7.3), sufficient and yet careful for others. Whomever Aristotle actually meant, this description beautifully fits the Socratic philosopher who is presented as moving freely through the Cave like a substance among shadows, like a living man among the dead, like a god among men, for all his emptiness of pride, self-belittling, and self-mistrust.   

Simone Weil presents in the same way [as] the saint in relation to society, infinitely above it in what he is and does in religious and moral terms, and yet infinitely small within it in its own worldly ones. So far as worldliness sees, “he accomplishes nothing, or it turns to mud.” [FN 484] Nevertheless, he returns to this world in order to fulfil the good that he loves, as best he can in everything that he does.  

Aristotle says that the best ruler practices and promotes nobility and excellence; in rectifying as well as distributing he applies both kinds of equality, numerical and proportionate. Weil, too, writes that he restores balances, always ready to change sides, “like Justice, that ‘fugitive from the camp of victory.’” [G&G 171] The counterweight may be evil in itself, but intention make it blameless and right in relation to given particulars, just as for Aristotle one deliberates [weighs, ponders, balances] details in view of a noble goal and finds a middle way and willingly chooses a lesser but necessary evil, as when one throws cargo overboard in a storm in order to save oneself and fellow passengers.

II. Second Criticism of Aristotle

A second point on which Weil criticizes Aristotle, if possible even more harshly than she does on slavery, is in his discussion of friendship: he contends that those who are very unequal cannot be friends, for being friends presupposes equality in deserving [it] rather than [in] creat[ing] it.  There is friendship [philia] between father and son, older and younger, husband and wife, ruler and subject. But the more one excels the other in what he is or does, the more love he is due, so that if the lesser person loves more he earns and deserves friendship.  But if the disparity is too great then there can be no friendship at all, as with the gods, and with kings. Weil quotes Thomas Aquinas’ comment on this passage, via Jacques Maritain. She says “This is absolutely contrary to Christianity.  How can these people think themselves Christians?” [F 355].  For the Good Samaritan rescues the man set upon by thieves out of kindness, not regard for the merit of the man; and Christ calls his disciples friends because he loves them and not because of what they do to deserve it. Justice is not in this way the foundation of God’s love for man and man’s love for God, which Aristotle calls impossible (MM 2.11).  “Aristotle is the corrupt tree which bears only rotten fruit,” she goes on to say, “How is it that people cannot see this?” [F 355] Once again it is faith and the love of God that discern the truth.  

In partial defense of Aristotle, Simone Weil herself does not always contrast justice and love in this way. In her discussion of compassion and gratitude as forms of the implicit love of God, she insists that Christ himself identifies love and justice when he calls his benefactors righteous, and she argues that compassion and gratitude are supernatural justice. They are due, and it is right to give them.Moreover, she too says that to love created beings and things is the only way that we can have the love of God: by uniting ourselves to his love.  

Aristotle for his part says that love and friendship are shown by giving without expecting a return. He commends the human kindness and generous friendship shown towards strangers and slaves as well as the fellow-citizens and the actual and potential friends with whom we mean to live the best life together. Could he say that God is like this with us?  This is what he says: 

Friendship, we maintain, exists only where there can be a return of affection, but friendship toward God does not admit of love being returned, nor at all of loving. For it would be strange if it one were to say that he loved Zeus. (MM 2.11)  

Weil, following Plato, would reply that one might aspire to be like Zeus, to have his justice alive and active in one’s relationships. Aristotle says that we cannot coherently imagine the gods justly making agreements with and paying debts to each other, generously giving to one another, restraining their own appetites, performing actions or making things. But (so Plato and Weil would say) we could understand the gods to be performing such actions in and through us, so that we have the love of the gods when we consent to this. Aristotle remarks that a god needs no friend (EE 7.12 1244b8, 5b15); but he says this too about a supremely and blessedly happy and self-sufficient man. Yet, he goes on to argue that in order to be fully happy a man will need friends to whom to give benefits, if not from whom to receive them. For it is performing wise and good actions that especially makes one happy, practicing the virtues including the virtue of friendship, and this means sharing one another’s aspiration to nobility and excellence and enjoying seeing each other’s deeds and assisting and inspiring them as much as one can. Thus if a god is sociable and generous (like the best human beings, and in and through them) he may rejoice in drawing us into his wise and good life, and living it with us.  

This is what Plato says, and there is at least one passage in which Aristotle seems to agree. “If the gods watch over us, as they seem to do, then we may expect that they rejoice in what is best and most like them in us, our intelligence, and that they reward those most love and honor it, because they care for [sc. love] what the gods love and act rightly and nobly.” Aristotle’s parenthetical phrase “as they seem to do” may of course be only a dialectical reference to what is believed by the many and the wise, and not his own judgment. He agrees that God is not grudging and does not keep the life of mind to himself (Metaphysics 1.3, 12.7), though does it follow that God wishes to live it with us? If Aristotle generally emphasizes the divine sufficiency and absorption in itself (or himself), then so for her part does Simone Weil, following Plato, in speaking of the life of the divine Trinity.  

Weil can approve Aristotle’s formulation that God is “a thought that is a thought of thought,” provided that the word “thought” is taken in a different sense each time. But for her these signify different persons in God, and thus real sociality, that is to say friendship that is a model to us of human amity, in separation and unity. Moreover, she argues that this life of God entails and is completed in the Creation, Incarnation, and Passion.

III. Third Criticism of Aristotle

A third emphatic criticism comes when Weil writes that “Aristotle’s rule about the sufferings of the innocent is absolutely false” [FN 226]. She is discussing the children in The Brothers Grimm’s Fairy Tales who are white as snow and red as blood, much desired by their mother, and yet abandoned to a stepmother. Her meaning seems to be that to be created is to be exposed to affliction and death, and everyone is liable to suffer, the innocent along with the guilty and even more than they. Her reference here is probably to Aristotle’s ruling (NE 1.10) that we lose our happiness so far as that consists in virtue and “nobility shines through even misfortune,” although supreme or blessed happiness may be lost, for that involves friends and family, wealth and position and rank that are needed for the fullest exercise of excellence but are external to moral choice, and so depend on and amount to luck although active virtue may make them more likely. Weil would say that even the happiness that consists simply in being good is fragile because, in the worst case, the worst person wrongs the best but in hypocrisy and self-justification does not feel guilty; whereas his victim, the best person who is least deserving of such treatment, in his degradation and self-doubt does not feel innocent: it is the other way, guilt feels innocent, and innocence feels guilty. Consequently, “[i]t is the innocent victim who is able to experience hell.” [FN 621].  She appeals to Plato’s Republic where Glaucon asks Socrates to show that justice is best even in this worst case.  
In Aristotle’s support, however, it should be said that he admits that “the worst evils, wickedness and folly, are least felt because they cause no pain” to the wicked fool (Rhetoric 2.4), so that “a wicked man is not aware of his wickedness.” (NE 7.80, although the best man enjoys remembering his deeds (4.3, 9.4, 7). Moreover, when Aristotle says that happiness depends chiefly on virtue and wisdom, which are “one’s own and cannot easily be taken away from him” (NE 1.5), he may mean that this moral happiness is only safer than the supreme happiness that depends on luck as well. In any event, he says that “God is a witness to us of this truth,” namely, that a happy man must be wise and good and act wisely and well, “for God is happy and blessed, not by any external good, but in himself and because of what he himself is” (Politics 7.1), and this is the difference between luck and happiness. He does not mean that God speaks to us to assure us that this happiness is excellence and wisdom, only that God himself is happy because of his possession and practice of wisdom and excellence.  

Plato and the Stoics would agree that possessing these things yield the only true happiness, and that external goods are in comparison worthless. They only become good for us when we use them wisely and well. Accordingly, they would resist Aristotle’s distinction between happiness and supreme happiness.  So would Simone Weil; and yet she draws closer to Aristotle and his rule when she writes that “[e]vil is only felt within a pure being; but in him it is not evil” [F 69], sc. because he experiences the love of God through and beyond it. [cf. FN 262, 288, 340].  A pure being rejoices in the love of God alone, and affliction cannot destroy that love, on the contrary affliction is perfected by that love, which transfigures it. Even if one can only desire this love, or only desire to desire it, that is enough to prepare us, and God will do the rest, providentially.  Thus for Weil affliction cannot take away the joy that is really established in the love of God, just as for Aristotle misfortune cannot take away our real moral happiness. 

Moreover, when she says that “[f]aith in Providence consists in being certain that the universe in its totality is in conformity to the will of God” both because everything obeys the beautiful lawful order of the world set down by the eternal Wisdom, and also because “in this universe good outweighs evil,” so that “the determination to seek first the heavenly Father’s kingdom and his justice does not automatically entail death.” [NR 271, 270]. We can compare this with Aristotle’s claim that wisdom and justice prepare us for, and make more likely the luck of getting and keeping the family and friends, riches and rank. It is that [which] make us supremely happy (Politics 7.1).  

What Aristotle means, and should say, is simply that justice and wisdom deserve these external goods, but are in themselves happiness and the condition of these external goods becoming parts of our happiness, by giving us [the] scope and means for virtuous action.  

What Simone Weil means, and should say, is simply that in this universe good is better than evil and that, after we have done right, whatever then must happen is good, by giving us occasion to love God through and beyond it. Moreover, to resolve to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness does entail death to self and all that worldliness lives for, but beyond this death is a truer life.  

Luck for Aristotle, and Providence for Weil are, we may think, pictures that tempt us to stray from deeper insights.  In Weil’s case, Providence looks here like the consolation against which she constantly warns.

IV. Fourth Criticism of Aristotle

Aristotle’s contrast between being happy (eudaimon) and being supremely or blessedly happy (makarios) is addressed by Weil in a fourth criticism. To him happiness is attained through our own excellence and practice and is something divine and blessed (because it exercises nous or intellect, the most divine part of us (NE 10.7-8). But the supreme happiness that depends on luck is, he says, a blessedness sent or given by the gods (1.9-10); it is their blessing or grace. He is speaking in accord with a traditional view that he probably does not fully share. Weil, however, takes him at his word when she comments:

Supernatural good is not a sort of supplement to natural good, as we are told, with support from Aristotle, for our greater comfort.  It would be nice if this were true, but it is not.  In all the crucial problems of human existence, the only choice is between supernatural good on the one hand and evil on the other. [SE 23].

Her point is that Aristotle speaks as though grace completes our natural comfort (which she takes to be the fulfilment of our worldly desires, not directed entirely to God); whereas the truth is, grace destroys this in order to transform us into pure total love. Grace has a gravity, as Bernard Doering has said, a terrible humbling power in terms of what we usually are to ourselves. It is death, violation, enslavement of our worldly selfish self, as we saw earlier [FN 504]. Aristotle would have been familiar with this idea from tragedy, which often warns against the destructive grace of Zeus and Aphrodite, for example. As for Weil, she writes that “Love is a divine thing.  If it enters a human heart it breaks it.” [F 324]. But, she goes on to say, our hearts are created to be broken in this way; we are meant to consent to God’s decreative and recreative action [FN 545]. God who is nothing but love has made nothing but love and the means or metaxical occasions to love [WG 123, FN 401]. When we have found the love of God through and beyond evil and affliction, the creative act has been completed [FN 333].

For Simone Weil, it is only God in us who loves this way. It is interesting to see Aristotle approach this thought, too, when he says that it is God in us that moves everything in us as well as in the universe (EE 7.14), and indicates that as intellect is the divine presence in us (NE 10.7-8), so is the direction of everything to its own good. Aiming at the good is desire. For Aristotle God is the unmoved mover of all motion by being the best and most lovely of all, and so as the first object of love and desire (Metaphysics 12.7, cf. 2.2), the heavenly spheres turning in admiration just to look at it (and why not, don’t we dance in our delight?). So the desire for good is already the presence of good – which is what Simone Weil says. We have to empty our desire of any finite, worldly and egoistic object, and unite ourselves to God’s pure desire for pure desire, to his love of love, and then we love and desire and possess everything, even God himself, in the way that he does.  A purported fragment of Aristotle’s preserved by Martianus Capella in the fifth century indicates that in thus bringing forward the divine subjectivity and desire we may not have left Aristotle far behind. Philosophy is speaking:

Aristotle, one of my followers, reasoning from the fact that it [the One] is one alone and wishes always to be sought after, asserts that it is called Desire because it desires itself, since it has nothing beyond itself and, never carried beyond itself or linked with other things, turns its own ardours on itself. (2443)

Aristotle, however, shows no sign of taking this all the way, as Simone Weil does, to a love that is a love of love even in affliction, and thus perfected in the Cross.  The two thinkers are revolving at different speeds, if one may put it this way.  

I will return to this presently, but now it is time to consider some similarities as to truth and method, knowledge and contemplation, and nature.  

V. Some Similarities

Simone Weil, as we have seen, questions Aristotle’s love of truth, because he does not rely on religious faith and humble himself to grace, which would give him real discernment and show him the wrongness of slavery and inequality.  Aristotle has talent but not genius, which is this heaven-opening humility. “A village idiot, if he really loves truth, is infinitely superior to Aristotle in his thought, even though he never utters anything but inarticulate murmurs.” [SE 24]  

It is correct that Aristotle does not rely on religious tradition, though he constantly mentions it, for it is part of what there is to explain, what tradition means and what validity it has. But it does not follow that he does not love truth. He declares emphatically that we must prefer truth to our friends, and observation to theory, saying no more than we know, and that to defy observation is near to madness; even [though] some falsehood deserves punishment [cf. NR 37-40]. 

In his dialectical moments, when he is working from received beliefs to first principles and back again, Aristotle is wide open to plausible objections and always ready to reexamine, qualify, partly reject, and reformulate any of his conclusions so far. He begins with a survey of the beliefs of the many and the wise, which generate contradictions when they cannot all be true, then sifts out axioms for his own systematic and scientific account, and returns with it to these beliefs to consider which of them are correct and why the incorrect ones are held, in what way or with what qualification they are right.  This is to establish the phenomena, the real appearances or facts of observation.

Simone Weil likewise works to make a precise “inventory” of all the basic contradictions of the human condition, and to look at them steadily and whole; she even calls this “the proper method of philosophy.”  

The love of the good is indispensable, for this is the light in which truth is seen in its full dimension.  In both points she follows Plato. But she might have looked to Aristotle, too.  When she writes “[m]ethod of investigation: when one has thought something, find in what way the contrary is true” [FN 121], she might be describing his dialectical procedure. When she later says that when the opposition is insoluble on a higher level, a more comprehensive level, it has an educative value. “This impossibility is not resolved in the higher domain, for it cannot be separated from the terms, which continue in their own domain and do not move into a higher one.” [FN 547] In this case, she could be reporting Aristotle’s words that “both the contradictory statements will in the end stand, if what is said is true in one sense but untrue in another””(EE 7.2). For both, however, contradiction between truths in need of qualification is not primarily or only a feature of reality, but of our way of searching for truth that presupposes it.  

After defending the Law of Contradiction as implied in our belief in truth (Metaphysics 4.3-4), Aristotle notes that those who question truth include those who most love and seek truth, and find it; he mentions Empedocles and Democritus, Parmenides and Anaxagoras, Protagoras and Heraclitus, and goes on to say that they question it by accepting contradictions because they fail to distinguish being from sensible being, and actuality from potentiality. But Aristotle himself accepts contradictions, at least provisionally, and looks for them dialectically because he loves truth, and wants to see how it explains and establishes the appearances in collision.

Everyone desires truth, he says, and generally finds it; it naturally prevails with them over falsehood, and good men are believed more fully readily, presumably because they are truthful. Truth for him is a personal virtue, as well as a mirroring of reality: for someone who loves truth, and avoids falsehood when it is base, “is truthful in speech and in his life simply because it is part of his character to be that kind of man.” (NE 4.7, cf. 4.3 the best man is open in word and deed). Weil likewise speaks of “truth become life,” life beyond death (to self) that is “the breath of truth,” and “the spirit of truth in love.” [NR 246] This is the supernatural virtue of the person in whom truth comes alive and active, so that one discerns it and fulfils it.  

Like Aristotle (and Plato, and Jesus too), Weil often prefers small, simple, homely, even vile examples, and instances in which the greatest looks like the least, which she calls Hermes’ law (‘as above, so below, but reversed”). And, like Aristotle, she characterizes the best friendship as each helping each to find one’s own way of truth, so that it involves both separation and community. 

For all his questioning of traditional religion, and Weil practices this too,  Aristotle has a love for truth and makes it central to his philosophy, as she does.  I will develop this further by coming at it from another direction, namely their accounts of knowledge and contemplation.  

VI. The Blind Man’s Stick

One of Weil’s most brilliant suggestions is that our best and fullest knowledge of the world, and of God through and beyond it, is like the exploration of a blind man tapping his way with his stick. [FN 19] It gives him an extended body and sensibility so that he feels not the stick but the obstacle or medium that shows him his way, as the tiller does for the sailor, the water for the swimmer, the tool for the worker, the penholder for the writer, the handshake for the friends, the Eucharist for the priest and communicants, and all those metaxical things through which our love reads God. Later Weil doubles the sticks and makes them into a set of pincers through which we touch the divine lying beyond our normal reach, like contradictories that held together point to a higher truth, the relation between them being like the pin. Love pins and unites the contradictories, if we may so express it; and love moves the stick to find what is real, giving us our best knowledge of it. This knowledge has the sureness of experience and contact, and like active truth it transforms us (with our consent), destroying the evil in us and turning all our energy, all our soul, into love. 

When Weil first mentions the blind man’s stick she cites Descartes’ Optics, it is in her Ecole Normale dissertation on his account of science and perception.  She emphasizes the practical side of knowledge, and physical work as our way of knowing the world and ourselves. Aristotle occasionally shows this emphasis too, when he remarks that “statements about particulars have more truth in them.” (NE 2.7) He argues that we most fully and actually know what we know when we are applying it to particulars. Simone Weil for her part is thinking out an epistemology of labor linked to her Marxist ideals of justice. As she gradually links it to mystical Platonism and Christianity as well, it turns into an epistemology of suffering love, and the stick becomes a contact with God and a support for contemplation.

Aristotle, however, at least partly anticipates Descartes and Weil in his treatise on The Movement of Animals, where he mentions a stick extending our body and sensibility. Here the active and perceptive soul is in the instrument with which it is actually working (since if it is not in the stick then it is not in the fingers either, nor wrist, nor elbow, and so on up). Moreover, he characterizes the soul’s knowledge of the simplest and most primary things as contact, evidently an all-or-nothing intuitive act of intellect (nous) that passes understanding (dianoia). This act of contact is a passivity in which we, in some part of us, become what we touch (since we can be, or are potentially, what it is actually), and are changed into its likeness.  

There is a fragment on the religious mysteries in which Aristotle says that “those who are being initiated are not made to learn anything but to undergo something so that they are in a condition [to learn]” (2392?).  Simone Weil quotes this and, linking it to Aeschylus’ phrase to pathei mathos, “by suffering they will learn,” comments that ‘Knowledge through suffering [is] knowledge through transformation” [FN 428]. This suffering and knowledge [are] active, although with divine things we are always passive as well, as in the birth in beauty in Plato whereby in love of beautiful excellence we let it reproduce itself in and through us, so that we are transformed into its likeness. For Weil the transformation always involves decreation and obedience, the one active the other passive: in other words humility and justice, for this is the only way we can go to God and be with him. We have be emptied of everything but love and thus let God be our action and life; and then we know him by contact that is union, being one spirit with him. Then we are his extended body and sensibility, with which he explores his world, his mediators and instruments. 

Weil might take this notion of knowledge by union in aspiration and likeness from Plato’s account of music education, whereby we learn to recognize the beauty of justice that we already love by our own resemblance to and harmony and familiarity with it. But it is in Aristotle too, for he says that in moral knowledge “beginning students can repeat the words they have heard, but they do not yet know the subject, which must grow to be part of them [sumphunai], and that takes time,” and it requires a love of nobility too; but “experience [sc. practice, action] gives one an eye with which one can see straight.” For Weil only love fully sees the beauty of things that is their fuller reality, and that is why our best knowledge is love. For Aristotle, too, here following the Pythagoreans, to be is to be beautiful, and the most entirely actual is the most beautiful and lovely, which implies that without love and desire and aspiration we will not entirely see it.  It is reported that “When Aristotle was asked, ‘Why do we love the beautiful?,’ he answered “That is the question of a blind man,’” as if to say, really and truly to see it is to love it.  

VII. On Contemplation & the Love of God

For Aristotle the highest knowledge, such as we attribute to God in full and forever, and (or just because it is) such as we take part in at our best moments, is an act of intuitive intellect and contemplation (nous and theoria.)  Weil, too, brings these forward as the primary act and activity of intelligence; the intuitive faculty is flawless, she says, and constitutes genius. Contemplation is a gazing at principles and contradictions and mysteries lit by the good [FN 34];  this is “the proper method of philosophy” [F 335], and the way to God – “By the pure contemplation of human misery we are caught up to heaven.” [FN 261].  

It has a practical side, for “[e]verything which is inspired, heroic or saintly is derived from contemplation” (598), whether we are just looking at our own faults and temptations and problems without trying willfully to change or resolve them but asking and waiting for light and strength to deal with them, or whether we are looking at misery as our shared human condition and responding compassionately. For her this contemplation is good even if it does not or cannot lead to any useful action.  She writes in London that she cannot think with full truth of the love of God in the affliction of men, and is sure that she will not be able to until she shares in both together at the point of death, when she must herself give up everything with her life; she is afraid that she never will, and so may fail in her death.

An unbeliever might say that my desire is selfish, because truth revealed at the last moment can be of no use to anyone or anybody. But a Christian cannot think this.  A Christian knows that a single thought of love, lifted up to God in truthfulness, even though mute and without echo, is more useful even for this world than the most splendid action.  [SL 178]

It is more useful, that is to say, because by showing that unconditional love is possible even in the worst of all possible worlds, exposed everywhere to affliction and evil, it saves the world, redeems it from hatred and despair. Only God can do this, but “when such a creature has become transparent, something by way of which God can love himself, the creative act has been completed.”  In saying that contemplation is good in itself even apart from action, Weil is taking further a point she might have found in Aristotle’s Politics. If happiness is active excellence, living well, then the active life will be best, for cities collectively and for individuals.  

Not that a life of action must have relation to others, as some suppose, nor are only those ideas active that are pursued for the results of action, but the thoughts and contemplations that are independent and complete in themselves [autoteleis kai hauton heneken, have no object beyond themselves and are followed just for what they are] are much more so.  For as doing or acting well is the end, there is a kind of acting that is an end [namely thinking], and we say that even those who by their thoughts direct others’ action act more truly and fully. (The Politics of Aristotle, Oxford Univ. Press, Jowett trans. (1885), vol. I, p. 213)

Aristotle refers here to those who formulate laws for others to execute, rather than to political philosophers whose theories of justice guide them; but he certainly considers that metaphysical philosophers who think as often and as fully as they can of God and what he thinks, and of how he thinks it, are doing the best that human beings can do, doing what human society is for.  (I will return to these independent, autotelic thoughts presently.)

God’s thought, he says, is a thinking of thinking, for this is the best conceivable activity directed to the best conceivable object.  It is not mere self-awareness or acknowledgment, however; because God’s thought is fully united to its object forever, it is a thinking of what it is to think and be what is thought, and so of what it is to be the actuality of all actual things, and it is this actuality.

Weil says that our best thought and knowledge [are] illuminat[ed] by love, and perhaps this is implied in Aristotle’s view that actual knowledge is like light, making colors to be actual: thus actually knowing is the lighting of what we have learned and can think so that we actually do think it.  But whose light is it?  Plato writes in his simile of the Sun that thinking is being lit either truly by the Idea of Good or untruly by the pleasure that we take for it. Possibly Aristotle is following this, and saying that it is our knowledge ordered by the Good that lights us truly.  We direct ourselves, or let ourselves be directed, to it, in order to be directed selflessly by it. In any case, Plato’s point is that we know the truth about anything in the light of the Good, in that we see what a true ruler or physician is in what good the best ruler or physician does; and if a true artist is a fine or noble one, it follows that truth is beauty; and this is what Weil says.  She is talking about the beauty of existing things and beings, just as they are; but the beauty in them is their goodness or their desire for and aspiration to it, which may be something in them deeper than themselves, as Aristotle puts it. 

Weil links contemplation to pausing and stopping our discursive and egoistic activity; while he calls it an activity of stillness partly because understanding is a “settling down of the restlessness natural to the soul. . . and coming to a standstill,” and “thinking [generally] is more like rest than motion.”  We cannot do for long what God does forever, because we have evil and changefulness in us, so that we tire of doing what he does effortlessly and changelessly.   

Weil likewise comments on the effortlessness of the divine, and on the stillness presented and demanded in the greatest drama, the stillness of rhythmic movement and sound, the stillness in reading truly, in attention to God, in finding him within us as the true center. She sees this divine centrality in the preference shown in ancient science for limited motion in a circle in which “nothing is changed” [FN 406, NR 292] and balance is preserved, by contrast with the preference in classical science for unlimited motion in a straight line. Only the first model can be a bridge to God, she thinks: for a line offers in itself no measure of time unless it goes back and forth as a circle does, and otherwise it pushes on and on towards something beyond it; whereas a circle suggests a number of times a motion is completed, and since it is homogenous in all its parts any point is beginning and end and marks such a completion.Thus she refers to Plato’s suggestion in Timaeus that it is seeing the wheeling heavens that gives us the idea of number and time and the power to inquire, and the notion of God and becoming like him in our own thoughts and actions.  We do this by giving up wanting things in an imaginary future that we compete to possess, instead of things that we can have now at any time that we want them, such as virtues which are always rewarded by the good [they do] us to practice them and by nothing more, and which are desired freely and for nothing beyond themselves, though our desire is oriented to and defined by something higher.

Plato’s text is elliptical and difficult, and Weil may have gone, as we do, to Aristotle for assistance in working out its meaning.  Aristotle explains, for example, that “regular circular motion is the best measure of all the others, because its number is most recognizable”, and that it is prior to linear motion because it is simpler and more complete, and can always go on forever and regularly, and any point can define its beginning or middle or end, so that it both always is and never is starting and finishing, and is at once in movement and at rest (the more it changes the more it remains the same, thus achieving constancy in change); moreover circular motion is continuous but linear is such only by imitating it.  

Elsewhere Aristotle explains how circular motion can be complete at any moment that it goes on, and has an end within and not beyond itself: it is like walking, as opposed to walking to the library, which takes time to finish by going through an ordered series of stages and so can be interrupted; walking to the library is complete only in the whole time it takes or in the moment of reaching the library, but just walking is a whole and actual at any moment of the time.  It is “autotelic,” as Aristotle says of contemplation in the Politics, when that is like not thinking out a proof but just thinking it, gazing on it. The autotelic activities that Weil means, following Plato, will be exercises of virtues like justice and love, done freely for the good that is in them, as well as beyond them but not horizontally but vertically, if one may put it this way: not in this world but above it in God.

VIII. On Nature

In closing, a word about nature. First, Simone Weil gives Aristotle credit for anticipating Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, notwithstanding Aristotle’s belief that they did not change. She mentions Aristotle’s attention to artificial selection by breeders and natural selection through the elimination of organisms less adapted to their environment in competition for resources.  He is relying on the notion of a balance between them and their environment, so that those survive that are better adapted by random changes, though it looks as if they changed in order to adapt and survive. Darwin’s insight was to study the condition of existence of evolving living things, so that an adaptive function is the result of the change and not its cause: there could be no adaptation without blind mechanisms and accidental variations.  

Aristotle discusses this notion but ends up dismissing it: nature’s adaptations are no accident, he says, because they always serve the purpose of the creature in the same way, e.g., teeth nearly always come out sharp in front for cutting and flat in back for grinding, therefore purpose can be natural as well as artificial. Darwin and Weil would say that this mistreats adaptation and purpose and nature as causes rather than, what they really are, effects. On the other hand, Weil and Darwin could agree that we must acknowledge the reality of nature as adaptive (selective) in order to be competent students of biology, and so must believe in it in order to know that it exists and what it is and how it works in individual specimens, experience giving us an eye to see well.

Second, both Weil and Aristotle emphasize the beauty of the world as drawing our attention and love. Actually, Darwin was sensitive to this too, as a friend of his testifies: “Nothing escaped him. No object in nature, whether Flower, or Bird, or Insect of any kind, could avoid his loving recognition.” Weil calls such attention a form of the implicit love of God, where God is secretly present in the beauty of the world and in our response to it.  Aristotle for his part writes, in the famous passage in The Parts of Animals, that though the intelligent stars above are more divine and satisfying to know than the plants and animals among us here below, these earthly things are closer and more our own kind and we can have better and fuller knowledge of them. So we must not shrink from the humblest of these.  

In all natural things there is something wonderful; and as Heraclitus, when the strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the stove in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is said to have told them not to be afraid to come in, “for there are gods here too,” so we should enter into the study of every kind of living thing without distaste; for in every one of them there is something natural and beautiful.  Absence of chance, and purpose in everything, are to be found most of all in the works of nature, and the result of her generations and combinations is a form of the beautiful.

IX. More Similarities & Differences

There are other similarities and differences to explore. For example, Weil cites Aristotle for Pythagorean formulae about justice, for Plato’s unwritten teachings, for incommensurability in mathematics, for the theory that milk comes from semen which in childhood circulates throughout the body in the blood as desire without an object, and for details of the Eleusinian Mysteries. She repeats his view (which he puts forward to start discussion) that time does not exist except for the present, as a limit of past and future, so that we are subject to what does not exist [sc. wholly, now]; and she distinguishes as he did, following Plato, between seeing and reading.  

Not loving, as Weil does, the Pythagorean and mystical side of Plato, however, Aristotle does not share her enthusiasm for Eudoxus and for mathematics generally as a double language allowing the expression and contemplation of religious truth, at various levels so that what is contradictory and impossible below is a correlation of contraries and necessary above.   He holds that God is not a creator of the universe, but is everywhere creative; she could not agree, because she means to be Christian and to see the universe as created by God and so as beginning in time, which is a thought that he finds incoherent.

The greatest difference between Weil and Aristotle, however, is that for her the consented affliction of God is central, showing the purity and fullness and perfection of divine love and freedom and joy. There is little to compare with this in Aristotle.

 Moreover, for Weil, it is precisely the action of God always to look to what is good and right, freely to do it even when wronged, and joyfully to take and see what follows as the right and best outcome.  Only God can do this in us, from beyond what we usually call ourself, the worldly ego.  We have to turn away from everything else and let this be the thought of all our soul. 

Aristotle may have some intimation of the first point, insofar as he thinks that intellect is the presence and action of God in us. But he rejects the second, for, he argues that gods cannot conceivably perform acts of justice but only contemplate, and that we have to seek and practice our own justice.  He resists the third, when he contends that although our active excellence is itself happiness, it is increased and completed by external goods that give it fuller scope, and getting and keeping these depends mostly on luck.  

As for God’s consent to affliction, Aristotle knows what the poets say and people generally believe about Dionysos and Prometheus, but evidently he puts no faith in it. He flatly declares that “It is impossible for a god to be harmed . . . [and] wronged”; God simply “spends his life in pleasure.”

The difference is crucial.  Simone Weil emphasizes the creation and incarnation and passion of God, and places them at the center of contemplation.Aristotle does not. Consequently, her philosophy has a fundamentally different direction from his, a different face.


Aristotle: Unless otherwise noted, all citations to Aristotle are from: 

  • The Complete Works of Aristotle (rev. ed., Oxford trans., 2vols., edited by Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series LXXI.1-2, Princeton University Press, 1984). 

Writings of Simone Weil cited are:  

  • [G&G] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, tr., Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (Routledge, 1952, 2002) {NB: this source and the citation to it in Pt. I were added by the editor—rklc}
  • [FN] First and Last Notebooks, tr. Richard Rees (Oxford Univ. Press, 1970) 
  • [FW] Formative Writings 1929-1941, ed. Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1987) 
  • [IC] Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks, tr. Elisabeth Chase Geissbuhler (Routledge, 1957)
  • [LP] Lectures on Philosophy, tr. Hugh Price (Cambridge 1978); The Notebooks of Simone Weil, tr. Arthur Wills (Routledge,1956) 
  • [NR] The Need for Roots, tr. Arthur Wills (Putnam 1953, repr. Ark 1996)
  • [OL] Oppression and Liberty, tr. Arthur Wills and John Petrie (Routledge, 1958) 
  • [SE] Selected Essays 1934-1943, tr. Richard Rees (Oxford Univ. Press, 1962) 
  • [SN] Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, tr. Rees (Oxford Univ. Press, 1968)
  • [WG] Waiting for God, tr. Emma Craufurd (Putnam 1951, repr. Harper 1973)  
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