Abstract: “This article outlines and contextualizes Simone Weil’s critique of greatness and its contemporary relevance. Weil argues that the greatness of conquest and colonization is ersatz greatness based on violence. For Weil, worshipping greatness is a path to fascism. Drawing from this, I argue that Weil’s critique provides an opening for the abolition of greatness as a political narrative. To make this second move, I expand Weil’s critique of the historically situated concept of greatness to challenge reactionary ideals of history in the contemporary US contextualized by referencing controversies about statue removals and Critical Race Theory in primary education.”
Excerpt: “No thinker has more accurately diagnosed the problem of greatness than the French philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil (1909- 1943). What is at stake in this article is Weil’s critique of greatness and how this greatness is historically constructed. I propose that through Weil’s critique of greatness as it is understood by the so-called West as an ersatz, or false and ungodly, form of greatness, space may be made for the abolition of greatness as a political narrative. I approach the question of greatness through Weil’s own materialist genealogy of history and ideology critique.
Inspired by the statue removals in the United States and elsewhere in 2020 and 2021 and spurred on by the public debates about education, including the right-wing reaction to The 1619 Project, The 1776 Project, and so-called Critical Race Theory in 2021, 2022, and 2023, this article is a small contribution to the project of undermining prevailing historical narratives through a critical analysis of Weil’s idiosyncratic political thinking about conceptions of greatness. In this reading of Weil, she takes up Walter Benjamin’s call to write history from the vantage of the oppressed6 through her “second magnum opus” The Need for Roots. The purpose of Benjamin’s and Weil’s twin demands is not an inversion of greatness from the powerful to the powerless. Instead, Weil reconstitutes historical narratives to reject greatness as a weapon of the powerful against the powerless. Importantly, Weil builds her critique of greatness through its roots in colonialism, colonization, whiteness, and the origins of the modern state.
In the context of her political thought, the critique of greatness comes late, growing out of Weil’s analysis of the state, capitalism, fascism, and her materialist-mystical conceptions of deracination and attention. Within her oeuvre, The Need for Roots stands as Weil’s most comprehensive work. Weil described it, in a letter to her parents, as a “second magnum opus,” following her “Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression” (1934). Written at the behest of Free French Forces in London to address potential issues with trade unions, The Need for Roots takes up the conditions in France that led to the Nazi conquest and the capitulation of both the Occupied Zone and Vichy to the imprisonment and extermination of Jews, Roma, disabled humans, LGBTQIA+ identified individuals, socialists, and communists. The origins of Weil’s own historical realities are both part of the historical process and status that Weil calls deracination [uprootedness] . . . .”
- Scott B. Ritner, “A Critique of Greatness,” Theory & Event, vol. 26, no. 2 (April 2023), pp. 345-367
- Ronald Collins, “What is Greatness? On Reading the Past,” in Eric Springsted & Ronald Collins, eds., A Declaration of Duties toward Humankind: A Critical Companion to Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots (forthcoming 2024).
- Simone Weil, “Hitler and the Idea of Greatness: Force is Our Only Measure,” Commentary (July 1950) (excerpted from L’Enracinement, Bernard Frechtman trans.)