Written Reviews

The Paradox of Will and Grace: A Review of Simone Kotva’s Effort and Grace

Marie Cabaud Meaney

For some, philosophy is merely an intellectual game, a toying with trendy theories. Hence, it has no existential significance. Then there are those for whom philosophy is a spiritual exercise, a search for wisdom. It is a way of attempting to attain meaning and fulfillment. It would be wrong to assume that the latter understanding is a thing of the past, an anachronism that can be easily dismissed.

Weil Front and Center

In Effort and Grace: On the Spiritual Exercise of Philosophy, a scholarly tour de forceSimone Kotva delineates the more recent proponents of this search for meaning. Her title is a nod to Gravity and Grace (1947), the famous posthumous book containing a selection of Simone Weil’s notes collected and edited by Gustave Thibon. This Weilian pointer makes sense since Kotva’s investigations starting with Maine de Biran (1776-1824), the founder of spiritualism, lead up to Weil in the final chapter. This occurs after taking the reader through the thought of Félix Ravaisson (1813-1900), Henri Bergson(1859–1941) and Émile Chartier (Alain: 1868-1951), who all give their own interpretation and emphasis to the problem addressed in the title. Furthermore, as Kotva states in her preface, it was Weil who caught her interest rather than another significant 20th century proponent of this approach, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010), who preferred to emphasize effort rather than grace (ix-x).

A Fruitful Paradox: Its Sources

The spiritual life is fraught with a fundamental paradox: is it effort or grace, will-power or receptivity, Stoic exertion or attentive waiting that is required? That is the central question. Some view this as an either-or matter when really both are needed, to the right degree, in order to turn philosophy into a real spiritual journey. The pitfalls of quietism, that lets life pass by, are no less dangerous than a misapplied muscular effort that gets one no closer to the good, as Simone Weil famously stated in “Formes de l’amour implicite de Dieu,” than jumping leads one to flying like a bird in the sky. 

“Attention” is at the core of Weilian philosophy. Properly understood, it may be a more accessible term to the modern reader than “spiritual exercise.” It requires a negative effort, rather than a “muscular” one, is similar to prayer (nay can become prayer in Weil’s thinking), and is fueled by desire. It is receptivity at its best, without the obstacle of strain or mere passivity’s lack of focus (viii–x).

The tension goes back a long way, namely to Stoicism with its focus on autonomy, on the one hand, and St. Augustine’s emphasis on grace as a reaction to Pelagianism, on the other hand. It continues much later, as Kotva shows, with St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who accentuated effort and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) who focused on receptivity, followed by St. Francois de Sales (1567-1622) and François Fénelon (1651-1715), all of whom influenced thinkers in centuries to come.

While the prominence given to the inner life has its source in religion, particularly the monastic contemplative life, according to Kotva, it became more secular through the ages (30). Though Descartes wanted to explore his consciousness without any given principles, he still saw in God the one whose blinding radiance overshadows the individual’s inner light (33). But in the 18th century, secularization shifted this towards an inner exploration that required effort, but without reaching any endpoint. The 19th century reversed that course with Biran and Ravaisson though their successors, Bergson and Alain (Weil’s teacher) with their interest in Stoicism, would shift it back to a focus on effort.

The Spiritual Life and the Life of the Spirit

The secularization process, I believe, fudges the issue and might explain the lack of distinction by the author (who rightly states that this paradox need not be expressed in a theological context) between the interior/spiritual life and the inner life or life of the spirit (ix). The interior or spiritual life, it seems, is essentially religious and refers to a journey towards/with God with all its ups and downs. By contrast, the inner life or life of the spirit simply refers to the life of the mind. The one can lead to the other, as Weil has shown, but that doesn’t mean the two shouldn’t be distinguished. 

Simone Kotva

Kotva speaks of Weil’s experience of forceful self-denial in her year in the factory in 1934-5 as giving her “access to the spiritual life” before her mystical experience or the religious moments that led up to it. I wonder: what exactly does she mean by that? Weil, of course, later claimed that she had obeyed God’s commandments before she even knew He existed, which she explains by her concept of the implicit love of God available to all, believers and unbelievers alike. All of this points to the possibility of an unconscious or only semi-conscious spiritual life. That said, might Kotva mean that this experience, which led Weil to feel broken in mind and spirit, opened up in her that inner space needed for grace?  I mean the kind of grace that allowed her to be moved by the religious procession she witnessed in a Portuguese village in 1935. In any case, it would have been helpful had Kotva explained this or defined the terms “spiritual life” and “the inner life” more clearly.

Maine de Biran’s influence on Weil

Maine de Biran

While the influence of Pascal, Descartes, Spinoza, Lagneau, and Alain on Weil has been traced, this is not the case with Biran. The question of his impact on her is therefore intriguing. Though Weil mentions his name various times in her oeuvre, starting in her student days, continuing on in her Cahiers and then in her writings in Marseille, she does not give him much room. Kotva speculates (n. 19, p. 206) that since Biran’s Essai sur les fondements de la psychologie et sur ses rapports avec l’étude de la nature was a classic student text, it would have been familiar to Weil. In any case, Kotva shows convincingly how much Biran with his school of spiritualism, and his successors who changed his thought along the way, was “in the air” and therefore would have been absorbed by Weil which her references to him confirm.

Weil on Attention – Effort and Grace

Kotva divides her chapter on Weil into three sections:

  • The first focusing on Weil’s early philosophical treatment of attention, 
  • the second on its practical application during her year in the factory, and 
  • the third on her new understanding of the issue after her mystical experience in 1938.

The first two, I’d say, pertain to the inner life/life of the spirit rather than the spiritual life – it is therefore a leap from there to Weil’s later understanding of attention. Here, Kotva uses Weil’s early thesis on Descartes (1929-30) and the notes taken by her students from 1933-4 during her class at the lycée in Roanne as the basis for her analysis on attention. 

Descartes’ method of carefully directing attention to every aspect of experience speaks to Weil though she casts Descartes in a new light, as one who combines both body and spirit, who sees human beings as both subjects to the world and active beings who have a grasp on it through work (134-5). In the lecture notes, she hones in on the paradox of will and grace, stating that effort and repose are not mutually exclusive (142); effortlessness, however, is a sign of the exercise of the will that it has acquired over time (138-9).

In her journal from her factory year, as Kotva brings to light, Weil focuses in on the balance necessary between deliberate effort and unconscious passivity. To do the work well, factory workers must be hovering at the intersection between deliberate effort and unconscious passivity, as Weil found out; they cannot be too attentive or try too hard lest they fail to keep up with the pace of the machines (146-7). However, the kind of attention brought out by fear of the foreman or not keeping up is ultimately destructive; much better would be an attention fostered by joy, but this would require a complete overhaul of industrial work (150). 

After her mystical experience, Weil focuses in a new manner on this tension between effort and grace. This, I’d claim, is substantially different from her previous interest, since passivity/repose is not the same as grace though it (or at least receptivity) is one of the conditions of its descent – as is attention, as Kotva states (160). Kotva points out the importance of St. John of the Cross’ works for Weil who started to read them in Spanish in August 1941 — she would have been familiar with his approach through Biran (151-2). Attentive waiting or en hupomene/ faithful immobility shows the efficacy of desire in bringing down grace. The dark night of the soul and the suffering this entails are necessary furthermore to give attention to those suffering. The Grail legend, as Weil interprets it, shows this, for only Parsifal who suffered himself is able to ask the wounded king what ails him, as Kotva rightly underlines (154-5, 160).

Weil’s Outsider Status

Kotva shows interestingly how Weil, in a way, reverses the trend set by Bergson and Alain with their emphasis on effort in order to hold them in grace and will-power in a skillful balance. She wonders if this counter-cultural accent might explain why Weil has remained a sideline figure within the 20th century and beyond (165). Though this might have contributed to her outsider status, it seems of minor importance to me compared to other factors: namely her focus on the supernatural, the width of her interest, and her outstanding originality in her treatment of previous thinkers and topics.

All this makes her stand out. And then there is this: The radicality of her life in its service to the truth, to the good, and to her fellow human beings without any compromises, led to her utter unconventionality (her mother called her “the Martian”). Then there were her anti-Judaic opinions, which haven’t served her well. Furthermore, if Weil’s readers don’t admire her simply from a distance, they will find themselves walking on heights where the air becomes very thin. Seeking truth and the good, as radically as Weil did, calls for a complete kenosis, an emptying of self like Christ on the Cross. 

Authentic and Inauthentic Religions

Kotva’s book ends with thoughts on other thinkers who have seen philosophy as a spiritual exercise, most prominently Pierre Hadot. It seems curious that modern initiatory witchcraft was used as an example of paying attention in a book that is so centered on Weil. For Weil, in various texts like in “Formes de l’amour implicite de Dieu,” distinguishes emphatically between “authentic” and “inauthentic” religions, the first focusing on love while the second adores force whatever the pretenses of its followers may be. Except if witchcraft has changed in everything but its name, which I doubt, it essentially seeks power, even if supposedly for ecological purposes or for the sake of greater justice. It would therefore have been listed by Weil as an “inauthentic” religion if a religion it ever was.

Marie Cabaud Meaney

Those wishing to learn more about this approach to philosophy as a spiritual exercise and learning about Simone Weil will appreciate this book. This is especially so since few anglophone readers are aware of the French tradition in the field. Bloomsbury is to be applauded for its attempt to show the existential relevance of philosophy in its series “Re-inventing Philosophy as a Way of Life” of which Kotva’s book is the third publication. 

Marie Cabaud Meaney is the author of two books on Simone Weil: Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretation of Classic Greek Texts (OUP, 2007) and Brücken zum Übernatürlichen: Simone Weil über das Böse, den Krieg und die Religion (Bernardus Verlag, 2018).


“Formes de l’amour implicite de Dieu” in Œuvres complètes: Écrits de Marseille (1941-1942), IV, 1,  ed. Robert Chenavier et al., Paris: Gallimard, 2008, pp. 285-336, p. 323

Regarding the distinction between authentic and inauthentic religions, see for example: “Formes de l’amour implicite de Dieu” in Oeuvres complètes OC IV, 1 291 and in Lettre à un religieux, Paris: Gallimard, 1951, p. 72, as explained in my article (in  French) “Simone Weil et Josef Ratzinger sur la diversité des religions,” Cahiers Simone Weil (41/2), June 2018, pp.165-198 or (in German) “Irrungen und Wirrungen – Zur Vielfalt der Religionen: Ein Dialog zwischen Simone Weil und Joseph Ratzinger” in Brücken zum Übernatürlichen: Simone Weil über das Böse, den Krieg und die Religion, Bernardus-Verlag, 2018, pp. 135-188.

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