Weil’s Single-Minded Commitment to Truth: A Q & A Interview with J. P. LittleRonald Collins & J.P. Little
Janet Patricia Little (1941-) was long affiliated with St. Patrick’s University College, Dublin as a Lecturer in French. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Weil: “The Theme of Mediation in the Writings of Simone Weil,” University of Durham (1970) (with acknowledged assistance of André Weil, Simone Pétrement, and Sir Richard Rees). Portions of what follows were penned in mid-July of 2021 in Saint-Geniès de Malgoires.
Little’s writings on Weil and related topics include the following works, among others:
- Simone Weil: A Bibliography (London: Grant & Cutler, 1973 & 1979).
- Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth (Oxford: Berg Publishing Ltd., 1988)
- With Roger Little, Black Accents: Writing in French from Africa, Mauritius and the Caribbean: Proceedings of the ASCALF Conference Held in Dublin 8-10 April 1995 (London: Grant & Cutler Ltd, 1997)
- With A. Ughetto, eds., Sud., special issue. “Simone Weil: La soif de l’ absolu” (Marseille, 1990)
- Editor and translator for Simone Weil on Colonialism (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
- Introduction for J.M. Perrin & G. Thibon, Simone Weil as We Knew Her (New York: Routledge, 2003).
- “Simone Weil’s Concept of Decreation,” in Simone Weil’s Philosophy of Culture: Readings Toward Divine Humanity, ed. Richard H. Bell (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 25-51.
- “Simone Weil and the Limits of Language,” in The Beauty that Saves: Essays on Aesthetics and Language in Simone Weil, ed. John M. Dunaway & Eric O. Springsted (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996): 39-54.
- “Heraclitus and Simone Weil: The Harmony of Opposites,” Forum of Modern Language Studies 5.1 (1969): 72-79.
- “Society as a Mediator in Simone Weil’s Venise sauvée,” Modern Language Review 65.2 (1970): 298-305.
- “The Symbolism of the Cross in the Writings of Simone Weil,” Religious Studies 6.2 (1970): 175-183.
- “Albert Camus, Simone Weil, and Modern Tragedy,” French Studies 31.1 (1977): 42-51.
“Is there some way of making wheat grow out of stones? The only way is if a seed has fallen into a hollow place in the stone, to water it and keep on doing so whenever the water evaporates.”Simone Weil, First & Last Notebooks (348)
Question: You were writing about Weil in the late 1960s and thereafter into the 1970s. How was it that her work first found its way to you, and then interested you enough to write a PhD dissertation on her?
Little: I well remember my first contact with the writings of Simone Weil. I was at home, in a small market-town in the North of England, during the summer vacation between the second and third years of my undergraduate course, if I remember rightly. Looking for reading material, I raided the local Public Library, and found a copy of the two-volume edition of the Cahiers in Arthur F. Wills’ English translation and took them home. I knew nothing of Simone Weil, but the format – disordered jottings, musings on a way to see the world, on writers, artists, on political action… drew me in. The aspect of spiritual searching I had already come across and appreciated in Pascal felt familiar. But what a place to start! I was in turn entranced, bemused, fascinated, though there was inevitably much that went simply over the top of my head. I heard very clearly, however, a voice that was calling me, urgently, and when the time came for me to choose a subject for my doctoral dissertation, I felt that this was an opportunity not to be missed.
I had perhaps underestimated the amount of catching-up I would need to do before I even found a subject: I had never studied philosophy in any formal, academic way since it was not taught in English schools at the time, and at the undergraduate level, I had specialized in languages, so I had to set to work to read Plato, the Pre-Socratics, Kant, Alain, and so on and so forth, at the same time deepening my knowledge of Simone Weil in her context. It was an endless task, but one I undertook with great relish. It was perhaps the most enjoyable few years of my career.
A further problem became evident as I became drawn into the life and work of my chosen subject: as a philosopher, Simone Weil had as a guiding principle the absolute concordance between thought and action. But what did this mean for me? I felt for some while that by studying her works as an academic subject, I could not help but betray her. I eventually reached some sort of reconciliation, by turning her demand into an aspiration, a guiding principle that I should always take account of. But the feeling of potential betrayal has never left me.
Question: After your dissertation, what prompted your first book on Weil, the 1973 bibliography? And why?
Little: It was simply a need, in the early moments of my research, to systematize the whole corpus of the primary and secondary sources relating to Simone Weil, to find out what existed and where, and who had written what. I was greatly facilitated in terms of its publication by the fact that my husband, Roger Little, had begun to publish a series, Research Bibliographies and Checklists, with the bookseller and publisher Grant & Cutler in London.
In those early days, before the beginnings of the publication of the Œuvres complètes, still in progress, with Gallimard, the Simone Weil corpus was very incomplete and scattered, but the secondary sources at least, at that time, were not too voluminous to be out of control. It was the time when the early serious studies were appearing – Jacques Cabaud, Marie-Magdeleine Davy, Richard Rees, and then Simone Pétrement’s monumental biography of her friend. Because it was early days, I had the great good fortune of meeting the latter on several occasions, and also Jacques Cabaud and Richard Rees.
But I am not a natural bibliographer; my mind is not sufficiently systematic or efficient to get real enjoyment out of that kind of work, so after the initial volume and one supplement, I left that side of things to others, more competent.
Question: What is the story behind Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth? And who was Louis Allen and how did he fit into your early appreciation of Simone Weil?
Little: This short volume was conceived as an introduction to Simone Weil’s thought. In the title, I tried to encapsulate what seems to me to be two central ideas: that of waiting – the notion that truth is not to be found through an active, intellectual search, but is rather revealed through a right orientation. The truth that is thus revealed is the truth of mysticism, as well as that of more down-to-earth research: in a letter to her parents at the very end of her life, she points to the essential question in her own thinking as seen by others: “Does she speak the truth?” To this, one should add the essential corollary that for Simone Weil, one of the few Platonists that the 20th century produced, truth was also goodness (and beauty, the incarnation in the world of the three Platonic absolutes).
To turn to your other question, Louis Allen was my dissertation supervisor. He was Senior Lecturer in the French Department at Durham University where, as an undergraduate, I had greatly appreciated his breadth of vision and knowledge and his great humanity. It was natural that I should turn to him, a very liberal, questioning, yet committed Catholic converted from Judaism, to act as my supervisor, to which he readily acquiesced. I was not disappointed.
Question: In your Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth book you wrote:
Any attempt to recount the life of Simone Weil brings us immediately up against a contradiction: how can we talk about the life of someone who spent her whole time trying to reduce the sense of the personal and anecdotal?J.P. Little
How might Weil’s readers think about that question?
Little: I think the contradiction is in the end resolved by the guiding principle of Simone Weil’s life to which I have already referred: the total concordance between thought and action. She was convinced that thought, to be authentic, had to pass the test of matter. So that, instead of staying in her ivory tower – taking a comfortable university post for example, to which she had every entitlement, in the light of her brilliant academic career, she chose a different path, and soon took leave of absence from school teaching to experience the life of a production-line worker, in the harsh conditions of the 1930s. And instead of watching the looming Civil War in Spain from afar, and pontificating on the rights and wrongs of the conflict, she actually went there and engaged with the Republican forces.
Later, seeing war in Europe to be inevitable, she turned to the Bhagavad Gita for guidance as to how she should act. She still had pacifist sympathies at that time and, like Arjuna, she had a great – and principled – repugnance at the use of force to settle conflict. But through her engagement with this ancient Sanskrit text, she realized that she could not refrain from action. It would be action, however, that was essentially non-action, one that did not involve her as an individual; the action worked through her and was not instigated by her. This form of action was for her neither personal nor anecdotal; motivated by what she saw to be obedience, it was an overriding need to engage her whole being in the problems of the world. It was the same need that, unrequited, led eventually to her death. It was way beyond the personal and, indeed, the useful. She never looked at herself dispassionately and asked whether in fact she was fitted for a particular action. She had a unique vocation, based on the needs of the world and the suffering therein. And she never suggested that other people should be acting as she did. I think, therefore, that in the end I answer my own question.
Question: Nearly a quarter-century after your first book on Weil, you published Simone Weil on Colonialism. How did that come about? What took you there?
Little: Here I have to be anecdotal in the first instance. Having always been attracted by “abroad” (preferably as different as possible from what I perceived to be my rather dull life in England), but not being a natural tourist, I took a year out after my undergraduate degree to work for Voluntary Service Overseas in Ghana, then newly independent. This was followed successively by two years teaching in Sierra Leone, then research time in Senegal, and finally working for an NGO in India on several occasions. All this gave me ample opportunity to observe the aftermath of both British and French colonization. Through my experience and my reading of Simone Weil on the subject, I came to the conclusion that there could be no such thing as “good” colonization, that the very fact of colonizing a people whose history and world-view was almost always radically different from that of the colonizer, the fact that the act of colonization was an act of force, instilling in the minds of the colonized a sense of inferiority through being conquered and subjected to the ways and practices of another civilization, was violence done to their sense of identity, stunting their natural development.
Question: Why are Weil’s views on colonialism important and how do they fit in with other aspects of her philosophy?
Little: I came to colonization essentially after independence and experienced at first-hand the automatic deference of the ex-colonized to their former masters, the way in which their economic development had been perverted to the advantage of the colonizer, for example. Simone Weil saw with horror and dismay – at a distance – the brutality of practices in force in the 1930s, in Indochina, the necessary uprooting through colonization of indigenous peoples in vast areas of the globe, and came to the conclusion that “the uprooted uproot.” She devoted most of the latter years of her short life militating for an end to barbarous practices, but also for a structural way forward that would put an end to the hierarchical relationship between peoples. For her, this passed necessarily through a true comprehension of the fundamental unity of all peoples in their relation to goodness, the simple answer to the question “Why am I being harmed?” This aspiration towards goodness could not be recognized if people were subjected to a hierarchy of colonized and colonizer.
But she also believed in the unique quality of every civilization which, once destroyed, could not be brought back to life. This was a constant in her view of culture and civilization: her feeling for the plight of the Polynesians whose culture had been destroyed by (French) colonization was the same as her distress at the destruction by the persecution of the unique Cathar civilization. Her critique of colonization was therefore two-pronged: there was this approach based on the uprooting of one people by another more powerful, more prestigious, and there was the philosophic-spiritual stance that she increasingly took, her conviction that one nation does not have the right to possess the bodies and souls of another, that there was an inherent contradiction in the idea of “La République colonial.” To that must be added her belief, ever more strongly expressed, that France, through colonization, had violated the principles contained in her Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man. This increasing realization was a source of great shame to her. In her later writings on the subject, she insists on the similarity between what France had done through her colonial adventures, and what Hitler was attempting to do, through conquest, to France and the rest of Europe. (This is something that Aimé Césaire, the famous Martinican writer and politician, reiterated in his 1955 Discourse on Colonialism.)
Weil felt increasing despair at French inability to see this parallel. In The Need for Roots she returns to the theme again and again, asserting that if France uproots other peoples, it is because she herself is uprooted, having lost the essential of her past. This in spite of the emphasis the French nation puts on her history because it is a history “written by the conquerors”, falsely interpreted, glorying in the uprooting of other peoples.
The Relevance of Work
Question: In Simone Weil: Waiting on Truth you wrote:
A meditation on the theory and practice of work, and a desire to experience manual work at first hand and in as many forms as possible, provide a constant in the development of Simone Weil’s philosophy.J.P. Little
Has not modern capitalist culture been structured such that owing to the new technologies the very notion of manual labor has become ever more passée? If so, where does this leave that “constant” in Weil’s philosophy?
Little: If you had asked me that question ten years ago, I would have said yes, she is maybe guilty of idealizing methods of work that are now outdated. We cannot afford to invest so heavily in manual workers, even if people had the slightest inclination to earn their living in that way, in this day and age. But I would nuance this response now, in the light of events in the world and certain major realizations of what we as a species are confronted with. In the last decade there seems to have been a seismic shift towards adapting old methods to a new reality. With the new consciousness of climate change, and the increasing awareness that fossil fuels cannot continue to be exploited, not to mention the over-use of rare minerals to make our increasingly extravagant but dematerialized lifestyles possible, I think that the time has come for us to have a reconsideration of many of Simone Weil’s ideas on work. Might we not be rediscovering what Simone Weil called “the beauty of the world”, that is to say, in her words, “the order of the world, loved”. The ecological movement, in its political form, starts from a realization of the interconnectedness of all phenomena on this planet, and resonates strongly with Simone Weil’s “order of the world”. In practical terms, this means a holistic view of how we live, and a respect for all forms of life.
When we turn to urban society, we see that modern office practices have largely supplanted the rural economy as Simone Weil knew it. We should remember that France was still essentially a rural country in the 1930s, and in fact way beyond. But the current pandemic has already prompted a re-thinking of our modern urban economy, and although what will replace it is not always clear, it seems pretty certain that smaller units of work will start to form, to cater to a worker’s need for individual responsibility and his/her need for meaningful relationships within an enterprise. Already, before the pandemic, re-location in rural settings, with employees or the self-employed working from home, had become the norm in many places. These new practices, however, are not without their problems, with the danger of isolation and a loss of community. At the same time, we are learning to support local farmers and craftspeople, rather than bringing in foodstuffs from halfway around the world. The picture is still no by means clear, but I think Simone Weil would be encouraging us to think radically, to use the resources to hand, to transform as much as possible through craft techniques rather than through machines that rely heavily on fossil fuels. So I think she was visionary in many ways, in that she foresaw what people needed, spiritually as well as materially. She realized that they could not simply banish age-old practices that had significance, intellectual and spiritual, in people’s everyday lives, and at the same time could very possibly prolong the presence of human beings on this earth.
It is more difficult to put a positive gloss on what Simone Weil’s attitude to the new technologies would have been, however. I imagine she would have seen their potential for liberating working people from the soul-destroying and often dangerous and back-breaking work that she knew from her factory experience. The intellectual content of these technologies is obviously of a superior order, but it seems to me likely that in her eyes the dematerialization of work would have disqualified it from any contact with truth. The omnipresence of the giants of the Internet who seem increasingly to control our lives seems to confirm this movement away from reality, which is becoming more and more virtual. It seems likely that she would have rejected totally the way in which algorithms are increasingly taking control of our lives, often without our knowledge of what is happening to us, certainly without our consent most of the time, so that our thought-processes are bypassed, indeed taken over, and a preordained end is supplied, often for commercial purposes.
For Simone Weil, the contact with matter was the real test of the truth of any experience, indeed of any thought. At the end of The Need for Roots, she makes it clear that physical, manual work, work that brings the body and the mind into daily contact with matter that is ultimately of a superior order in the domain of truth. In a passage full of pathos, given that she was literally starving herself to death at the time, she invokes the importance of matter in the form of food in celebrations of every sort, declaring that the spiritual meaning of a feast lies in the special food that is produced for it. One could almost compare this thinking with the significance of the Catholic Host, a piece of matter containing a spiritual and sacred reality.
This belief in the spiritual potential of matter is manifest also in another passage in The Need for Roots where Simone Weil reflects on what she calls “compassion for France”, in the midst of her defeat. This is not a compensation, she says, rather a “spiritualization” of suffering undergone; a person who, in the desperate conditions of the war-year, suffers hunger and cold, is tempted to feel sorry for himself, has the possibility of transforming these sentiments into pity for France; cold and hunger are then experienced through the flesh to the very depths of the soul as the love of France.
Another form of transformation is considered in the essay “Condition première d’un travail non servile”, written in Marseille, which considers the question of means and ends. She reflects on the life of a manual worker, noting that everything in his or her life is a means to an end: finality is nowhere. You work to be able to eat, and you eat to be able to work again. After twenty years in this condition, you are at exactly the same point as you were before, you have acquired nothing more than what you have already. But human nature, says Simone Weil, is so constructed that desire is the only source of energy, and you cannot desire what you already have. Desire is essentially a forward movement. Escaping from this situation through revolution is a delusion, as is a simple increase in wages: the former is the ambition to liberate workers from the working condition, the latter effectively does this, as a worker who becomes very rich ceases to be a worker. What is necessary is something that satisfies the desire for finality within the working condition. And Simone Weil believes that a manual worker is ideally placed to discover this; because a worker’s life is experienced as monotony, there is one thing only that can make that monotony acceptable, and that is beauty, poetry, not the poetry expressed in words, but the poetry of the worker’s everyday life. Working people need this poetry as much as they need bread. It is the one thing that can satisfy their hunger for finality, God himself in matter. It is the manual worker’s privilege to possess this, because in every other condition of life, finality is found elsewhere, and intervenes as a screen between the individual and God. For manual workers, there is no screen, nothing separates them from God. They only have to look up. But, she immediately adds, the difficulty for them is to look up. Other people, who do not have the everyday grinding burden of physical labor have intermediaries – and here she is thinking of religious images, the liturgy, prayer, ritual gestures – which are of no use to individuals whose bodies are weighed down by back-breaking physical labor.
Working people need to be able to find intermediaries in the workplace itself, the matter of their everyday tasks, the instruments they manipulate daily. She gives as an example the laws of mechanics, the oscillating movement as an image of our earthly condition: everything here below is limited, and movement in one direction is immediately compensated by an equivalent movement in the other. The unlimited is based on a lie, the source of error and crime. Machines demonstrate this oscillating movement, as well as the circular one, the image of the divine, and working people, by their knowledge and manipulation of machines, have access to these images. As to agricultural workers, they too have access to spiritual truths through, for example, the image of the sower and the seed contained in the Gospels; in modern farming, the image must no doubt be read at one remove, but the principle remains the same.
There would seem at first glance to be a degree of idealization in this way of looking at manual work, and few readers would be prepared to follow Simone Weil along this path until we realize that what she is really talking about is attention: attention brought to bear on any act is the same thing as prayer, and it is attention that she is attempting to foster in every area of her thought: attention to a beautiful text or a problem in geometry manifest in her reflections on the right use of school studies; attention to a people or an individual in her social, political and ethical thinking, attention to the physical beauty of a landscape, a painting or a piece of music. It is attention alone that reveals the sacred in every aspect of the universe and our perception of it. It is that alone that comes into contact with reality.
At the end of the last of the London Notebooks, she is categorical: for a person living in this world, here below, tangible matter – inert matter and flesh – is the filter, the universal criterion for what is real in thought. There are no exceptions. Matter is our one and only judge. But it is the mind, through attention, that seizes the reality of matter, the mind that submits lovingly to the network of necessary relationships that it finds in matter. For a person engaged in physical labor, each day is a specific contact with the beauty of the world, and therefore, following Plato, with the truth. It is consent to the death of the ego, a “decreation”, and at the same time liberation from the tyranny of the collective. But whereas necessity that is in the order of things liberates, the false necessity manifest in social injustice must be opposed in every way possible.
What can we conclude from all this? While it is clear that the unbearable drudgery and enslavement to the machine of the industrial process as Simone Weil knew it was a dead end as far as the spiritual destiny of mankind was concerned, she is unlikely to have seen what has replaced it as much of a progress, if at all. She saw clearly, and with increasing desperation, that the only salvation was through a contact with matter that was a revelation of the order of the world, and therefore revealing of truth, rather than brutalizing. The Need for Roots ends with the uncompromising declaration that it is easy to define the place that manual work should occupy in a well-ordered society: it should be its spiritual center. A reform of work practices, yes; but a de-materializing of work deprives work of its spiritual potential. The question, therefore, remains of how to retain in the modern world this all-important contact with matter.
The Great Beast
Question: In your dissertation you wrote (p. 106): “Simone Weil’s concept of what political action could achieve was essentially self-limited and to a certain degree pessimistic. Her admiration for Machiavelli, which seems to have been considerable, was based on this pessimism since she saw in him the continuation of Plato’s theories on the essential evil of society.”
Did that degree of skepticism continue to play out in her 1943 report for the Free French (The Need for Roots)? In that work Weil seems (?) more open to the idea of community when it came to political, social, and spiritual life. What is your sense of this?
Little: Her analysis of society as she knew it pre-Second World War, the situation that had led to the humiliating defeat of France in 1940, was deeply critical on almost all fronts. This is why so much of this great text is an analysis of “uprootedness,” its causes and manifestations. France was uprooted for multiple reasons, and these she proceeds to address.
Her early analysis of society as “the Great Beast” is, I think, maintained here, and she remained very conscious of society’s potential for totalitarian drift. But by the time she wrote The Need for Roots, there was a new dimension to her thinking, a spiritual dimension, which at one and the same time gives hope to her analysis, because she sees with ever-greater urgency that society can be other, that the individuals who make up a society can lead joyful and fulfilled lives, but only in so far as their spiritual needs, the “needs of the soul” are fulfilled. True “rootedness”, she maintains, must address these. And at the center, as we have already seen, is the right place of the physical world, and people’s contact with it in manual work. But this new perspective operates a transformation in all aspects of society: the attitude to the past and to history, to true greatness in individuals or in society as a whole, to other societies past or present, to traditions and cultural practices. She saw so clearly what needed to be done, but was so fearful that no one was listening to what she was saying. And we have to admit that in so many domains this fear was justified. Are we listening? Am I listening?
On Greatness, History, and Patriotism
Question: How and why is a culture’s history important to Simone Weil?
Little: Put simply, she believed that a culture that had lost its sense of its own past was like a tree without roots: although the visible part of the tree might continue to manifest for a certain time, it was already a dead thing.
To continue the metaphor, a tree’s roots are not immediately obvious: rather than simply going straight down into the soil, they spread in all directions, sometimes surprising ones. Thus, the roots of the Christian civilization that have come down to us are to be found in Greece, according to Simone Weil, more specifically those parts of Greek civilization that were inspired by Egypt and Phoenicia. Persia and India are also sources, their influence on Greek thought being well-documented. In her urgings to those responsible for the reconstruction of France, once the war had ended, she was convinced of the need therefore to turn to these “oriental” sources, to revivify a broken Europe.
In a sense, it is not necessary to follow and accept all of Simone Weil’s hypotheses on Europe’s past (even though she makes categorical assertions in that sense, for example claiming that the Eastern origins of Christianity “are obvious”) in order to accept her central belief, that every culture needs to recognize its past, nourish its past, in order to remain spiritually alive.
There is another, potentially more serious, consequence of losing one’s roots. A civilization that is uprooted necessarily uproots others. This is one of her most fundamental arguments against the colonizing process undertaken by the European nations, which was still, at the outbreak of the Second World War, a major force in the world order – or disorder, she would no doubt have said.
If she remained a fierce critic of colonization – and indeed of French colonization in particular, maintaining that a country that had proclaimed the Rights of Man had simply no business becoming the owner of human flesh – it was firstly because of the brutal nature of the colonizing process: she was distraught at Louis Roubaud’s account of the Yen Bay massacre in Indochina, and the terrible conditions imposed by France on the local population, maintaining that such outrages dishonored those who inflicted such brutalities far more than those who suffered them. But more fundamentally, she was convinced that colonization always resulted in the uprooting of those cultures that were subjected to it. The colonized natives of Polynesia, for example, were being allowed literally to die of sadness at the extermination of their local traditions, just as Annamite intellectuals were forbidden access to libraries where the whole of their rich past was stored.
And why did this happen? As we have just asserted, according to Simone Weil, the uprooted uproot. She was one of the few thinkers to associate Hitler’s invasion of Europe with the colonial ventures of the European powers. What was happening to Europe, she maintains, was precisely what the colonizing powers, France to the fore, had inflicted on so much of the rest of the world. If Britain had not prevented German victory in Europe, the harm done would have been precisely that done by the colonizing nations to the rest of the world: it would have deprived people of their past, and thus of their soul, reducing them to the state of matter, human matter. If France fell so easily to the advancing Nazi troops in 1940, it was because she had already lost her roots, and like a rootless tree, was ready to collapse. The main body of the long essay we know as The Need for Roots is devoted to an analysis of France’s loss of rootedness.
Looking ahead to a post-war situation, Simone Weil issues a stark warning over the probable Americanisation of Europe and indeed of the whole world. The danger lies in the fact that America’s only roots are to be found in Europe, and those are under severe strain. She fears therefore the further uprooting of the rest of the world, which can only be avoided by turning to the spiritual roots to be found in the East, and forming a real friendship based on respect, with that part of the world.
Question: How does Simone Weil gauge greatness, both as to what it is and what it is not?
Most of Simone Weil’s reflections on this issue turn the notion of greatness on its head, to such an extent that in history, religion, politics, where greatness is recognized in a “normal” sense, this is taken as proof by Simone Weil that the phenomenon at issue is in fact suspect, if not completely debased.
Her assertion that “history is written by the victors” (not necessarily originating with her, but it fits her case perfectly) supposes that what comes down to us as historical fact is simply an arrangement of fact to justify and glorify those who were on the winning side. Hence the need to treat with suspicion any claims to greatness on their part. History treats losers with scant respect: much of the time they simply disappear. The history of the dispossessed, she claims, has still to be written.
Her analysis of the notion of “la patrie” (the fatherland) well illustrates how far her ideas on greatness diverge from those taught in the history books. The sort of patriotism where the fatherland is turned into an absolute inevitably becomes idolatrous, she claims. Idolatry has nothing to do with the worship of idols: Rome was idolatrous, in that nothing of any spiritual value outside the State was allowed to exist, all veneration going to the State itself. For reasons of control, Christianity was turned into a State religion, blighting the infant Church in its spiritual substance and development. For Simone Weil, in an assertion somewhat at odds with orthodox Christian doctrine, the act creation itself was an act not of power but of abdication on the Creator’s part, but this spirit was completely lost in the path the Church subsequently took. Taking its cue from Rome, it became totalitarian in its aim and existence.
Simone Weil held that the French State as it subsequently developed, especially in the seventeenth century, took on the same fatal defects, coming to be seen as an absolute, conceived of as prestige and power, beyond good and evil, the “my country right or wrong” syndrome. Simone Weil’s view of patriotism is entirely different. In The Need for Roots, she makes a sustained attack on the notion of patriotism as it developed under Richelieu and Louis XIV, which was, according to her, State idolatry in the person of the King. Even writers of the stature of Corneille succumbed to this idolatry, she maintains, which she, as a Frenchwoman, has a burning need to expose. We have already seen, in our consideration of her criticism of colonialism, how devastated she was at Louis Roubaud’s revelations of French practices in Indochina, the terrible shame she felt as a Frenchwoman that such cruelty could be perpetrated in the name of France. The same motivation drives her in both cases; it is an issue of mistaken patriotism.
Question: Might you say a few more words about Weil’s views on patriotism?
Little: True patriotism is conceived of differently, she maintains. One of her few approving comments to be found on Joan of Arc concerns Joan’s expression of “pity” for France. In Simone Weil’s view, for patriotism to be pure, it must contain an understanding of the frailty of the fatherland, exposed as it is to all sorts of suffering; a finite entity, loved as such. It is an attitude of tenderness towards something precious and needing protection. We value it, not as a solid and unchanging entity, but as a vital milieu, a source of spiritual nourishment for the people who inhabit it.
Given these considerations, it is not surprising to find that Simone Weil’s assessment of the “greatness” or otherwise of the French Revolution is far from conventional. Usually held up as a shining – though admittedly bloody – example to the world of a bid for freedom from tyranny, the foundation of democracy as we know it. Simone Weil’s criticisms, however, center on the form of greatness that emerged from it. As far as she was concerned, the Revolution effectively buried France’s past, producing a catastrophic rupture with her history. The Encyclopaedists whose philosophy of “Enlightenment” is generally seen as showing the way to a freer and more just society are treated with suspicion by Simone Weil, as a bunch of “uprooted intellectuals” who cut France off from her past.
It is clear from these observations that, for Simone Weil, a right attitude to the past is of supreme importance in constructing a society that is truly great. And so we come full circle with the previous question on the need for a society to be rooted. She brings together in The Need for Roots the contemporary situation in Europe, with Hitler riding roughshod over the European nations, and what France and other colonial powers had done to other peoples, with her assertion that the greatest human tragedy is the loss of the past, which is why people everywhere desperately resist conquest. In this way, the same urgent need to reassess what France holds to be greatness is woven into all her late writings, but is in fact only an intensification of her fundamental convictions, manifest in embryonic form from her earliest writings.
On Force, Action, and Indian Philosophy
Question: How significant was Weil’s interest in and reliance on Eastern philosophy and spirituality?
Little: She believed that the ancient Sanskrit texts, notably the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, belonged to that “thread of pure gold” that linked certain civilizations with the transcendent. Her discovery of these texts marked an important stage in her intellectual and spiritual development, and she continued to find nourishment in them until her death. But a major feature of this discovery was her conviction of their similitude with the ancient Greek texts which formed the initial basis of her culture, a recognition of their common inspiration, rather than a belief in the influence of one on another.
In characteristic fashion, she was determined to read the Indian texts in the original, and we know that during the months she spent in Marseille she studied Sanskrit with René Daumal, whom she had got to know at the École Normale Supérieure. Her Notebooks of the time contain many of her translations of passages from the Isa-Upanishad and from the Bhagavad Gita, texts which René Daumal had lent her, “translation” for her being always more than a simple rendering of a text into another language, representing rather a part of her spiritual quest. The Notebooks also illustrate her meditation on key Sanskrit words, and frequently her gloss on a similar term in Greek, teasing out similarities and oppositions.
But the most fundamental feature of her discovery of the Indian texts, in my view, relates to what we have already observed in connection with Simone Weil’s thought, the way in which thought and action are always to be considered together. Her discovery of the Bhagavad Gita dates from 1940 (although she had certainly come across it earlier through her brother André, who had taught mathematics at the University of Aligarh in India in the 1930s). This was the time of her anguished self-questioning as to the attitude to take towards the outbreak of war in Europe. It was also contemporary with the writing of the major essay “The Iliad or the poem of force”. Faced with a war that had already broken out, and which involved her homeland, what stance should she adopt? Should she maintain her long-standing pacifism, and remain on the sidelines, or involve herself physically and morally, in spite of her conviction that war was the ultimate evil?
She meditated therefore profoundly on this ancient text, which portrays the battle between two branches of the same family committed to fight and slay each other. The main protagonist, Arjuna, hesitates, overcome with pity for his relatives – and also for himself. He is gradually brought to a true understanding of his situation through the intervention of his coachman, Krishna, who teaches him how to participate in the action of war without being stained by it. This is possible through a renunciation of the fruits of action in the very heart of the action, which Simone Weil interprets as espousing the action of war while abandoning the ego, normally at the heart of any decision. She sees Arjuna’s decision to fight as one imposed by his warrior caste, therefore on a choice made independently of his present self. In a series of reflections that seem to undermine Western concepts of free will, she concludes that when one thinks one has the choice between various actions, one is living an illusion. It is only by rising above this illusion, taking account of necessity, that one sees that one no longer has any choice; the action is imposed by the situation itself. The ego, therefore, has no part in the choice of action, and one is not stained by actions from which the ego is absent.
The asceticism that this represents is therefore in no way a removal of the self from the sphere of action. It is a “non-acting action”. It is no doubt in the light of this inner necessity that one should interpret Simone Weil’s “Project for front-line nurses”, which she was working on at the time of her study of the Sanskrit texts, and which was met with so much incomprehension both at the time and by subsequent critics. It is in the light of her reading of these texts that we must interpret her immense and, in the event of mortal frustration during the last months of her life, when she was refused the possibility of this purified involvement in the action of war, this vocation in the highest sense of the word. It was a vocation that she saw as strictly personal, that no one had the right to refuse her, but also that no one else had the obligation to pursue. At the end of her life, she saw things as no one else did, with intense purity and single-minded application that came of months of meditation and reflection on the matter, and in this her reading of the Sanskrit texts was of immeasurable importance.
Camus on Weil: The Only Great Spirit of our Times
Question: You’ve written about Weil and Camus. What do you suppose it was about Weil and her philosophy that so captured Camus’ attention?
Little: This was inevitably a one-sided discovery, and it is tantalizing not to know the other side of the story, Simone Weil never having had the possibility of knowing Camus or his writings. But it is clear that, for his part, Camus felt a deep affinity with certain aspects of Simone Weil’s writings. That is not to say that there were not certain areas which would have been closed to him, her whole experience of the transcendent, for instance.
There is much in what you might term their moral philosophy, their approach to fundamental human problems, that illustrates the same preoccupations, although Camus made no claims to being “a philosopher” in the strict sense, whereas Simone Weil’s analysis of problems always bears the stamp of her education and her extensive reading and meditation on Plato, Kant, Descartes, etcetera.
She was also committed to literature as a vehicle for transmitting her view of the world, using great novelists such as Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, in her philosophy classes. She attached great importance to her poetry, and to her tragedy, Venise sauvée. Camus also wrote a tragedy, Les Justes, indicating that they both still believed in the form of tragedy at a time when this had lost its hold on the public. Even a cursory comparison between the two texts reveals the same reluctance to kill or destroy, even in a just cause and the acceptance of death or social condemnation in pursuit of an ideal. They both had a deep sensitivity to beauty, whether of a natural or an artistic kind.
The Mediterranean world of the Algeria of his origins was of particular importance to Camus, and both he and Simone Weil knew and loved intuitively Florence and the Florentine painters. They both had an instinctive feeling for justice, automatically siding with the poor and the dispossessed, whom they championed eloquently in their writings. Politically they were both anti-totalitarian, at a time when it was unfashionable to reject Marxism in its manifestation under Stalin, and they both put their lives on the line when Hitler invaded France. They were both suspicious of “official” history: for Simone Weil, history was written by the victors, whereas Camus went one further, saying that it was written by the murderers. In both cases, their conclusion reflects the rule of force in this world. They were also both “loners”, suspicious of official groups or Parisian circles that created official dogma on political or artistic matters, preferring to work as individuals faithful to their vision of the truth. And they both had a truly Greek sense of limits in the sphere of human action: for Camus, these can only be overstepped if one is prepared to pay the ultimate price and sacrifice one’s life; for Simone Weil, limits are written in the fabric of the universe, and an excess in one direction automatically brings about a reverse movement.
For all these reasons: philosophical, political, cultural, it seems to me natural that Camus should recognize in Simone Weil a fellow seeker after truth, and should work unstintingly to bring her to the notice of a French readership.
Thinking through Gravity and Grace
Question: In your introduction to Simone Weil as We Knew Her, you wrote: “given [Gustave Thibon’s] deep Catholic faith, it was perhaps inevitable that Gravity and Grace suggested a less complex relationship with Catholicism than was actually the case.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Little: I think it is unfortunate that for many years, indeed decades, Simone Weil’s more specifically spiritual writings should have been known mainly through Gravity and Grace, both in the English-speaking world and in France in the original French. I say this for several reasons: firstly because Thibon was a committed Catholic of a very particular kind, and it was inevitable that his selection of passages from the Notebooks should reflect his own beliefs, avoiding what might be seen as controversial by the Catholic Church. Secondly, he did in fact make minor alterations to the text itself, again in the interests of overall Catholic coherence in a writer whose coherence was elsewhere.
The writer who emerged from this editing seemed less complex, less original, and more orthodox than the Simone Weil who was revealed little by little in the monumental Œuvres complètes, in the Gallimard multi-volume edition, still in progress. Should Gravity and Grace never have appeared? I would not go as far as that, but nevertheless, Simone Weil is not for readers wanting easy or ready-made solutions. She challenges and goes on challenging, nearly eighty years after her early death. Her personal way of working was more a meditation: a contemplation of insoluble problems, until the solution was revealed.
Perhaps Gravity and Grace was useful at the time of its initial appearance (1947), but I do not believe that it should be used as a work of reference now that all the Cahiers have been published in a scholarly edition. I realize that this excludes readers who do not have access to the French, but maybe that should encourage scholars in the English-speaking world to produce an equivalent English language version!
Question: There is, as you know, some controversy over Weil and the baptism question and whether she was baptized on her death bed. Quite apart from the factual controversy, does it matter, and if so, why?
Little: I have followed some of this controversy, which was started in the 1960s and has rumbled on ever since. For the sake of honesty and inclusiveness, one is obliged to evoke it. There were a number of figures involved, the objectivity or accuracy of whose views could not always be guaranteed, and scholars have at various times tried to bring them all together. What is certain is that the “baptism”, if it occurred, was performed either at the Middlesex Hospital where Simone Weil was being treated or later, at the Sanatorium in Ashford. Either is apparently possible. But her own role in this is not clear. It is even suggested that she was on her deathbed and already unconscious; if this were true, it would diminish even more Simone Weil’s own part in the affair.
I find it in the end rather unseemly. By this time Simone Weil was under unbelievable stress. She had always believed in the importance of the moment of death for any departing soul, and that moment must surely reflect the life that had preceded it. And yet, at the end of her life, she was left with a tragic sense of having failed in her vocation. Indeed, had she been baptized and therefore in a position to receive the Sacraments, a moment to which she had always aspired, she might well have refused to partake, feeling herself, by this failure, to be unworthy of communion with Christ. But this is only idle speculation on an intimate affair in respect of a soul on the threshold of death. Much of it is an attempt at recuperation of a life of extraordinary authenticity and commitment to truth. I believe therefore that we should leave her in peace, attending only to the one question she felt important in respect of her life: does she speak the truth?
Legacy and Endings
Question: What do you most appreciate about Weil as a thinker? What is your favorite essay (or essays) and why?
Little: I think it has to be multi-faceted. Firstly, as I have already intimated, her single-minded commitment to truth. In an age of spin, of alternative truth and downright lies, in people’s everyday life as well as at the highest levels of State, with the ethos of the social networks invading the public space, a commitment to truth has never been more important. But there is also, in equal measure, her immense compassion for the sufferings of mankind through the workings of necessity and her burning indignation at suffering inflicted by the powerful on the weak. Her untiring commitment to righting injustice by every means at her disposal is a clear illustration of her need to take action wherever she perceived injustice. This for me is, again, a very important aspect of her greatness as a thinker. For her, thought had to be incarnate in the material world as well as in the world of ideas.
As to my “favorite essay,” I would go back to most of them over and over again, to reflect on, and for enrichment. If I had to choose, I would take what is not really an essay in the complete sense, but the few pages Simone Weil wrote as a “Preamble” to The Need for Roots – not her title, of course. They still transport me, but still inspire fear at the inevitable falling far short. I still find them immensely challenging. The expression is peremptory, categorical, the logic impeccable: “Given this, then that.” The ideas flow from one to another with no ambivalence or hesitation. And with no place for argument.
She begins by positing “a reality situated outside the world”, beyond the reach of human faculties, ungraspable, unprovable, and unknowable by the intellect. And yet “it is.” In response, there is in the heart of every human being the demand for absolute good that finds no object in this world. Just as the reality of this world is the only foundation of fact, so the reality of the “other” world is the only foundation of goodness. From this transcendent reality flows all the goodness that can exist in the world, all beauty, all truth, all order, all obligation. But the only way these qualities can be present in the world is through the intermediary of those who lovingly recognizes this transcendent reality, even though this recognition is not necessarily overtly expressed. They and they alone can show equal respect for all human beings, whatever their condition and nothing allows us to suppose that any human being is deprived of this power to turn with loving attention towards the transcendent reality. In other terms, it is the power to regard every other human being as sacred.
This world is composed of differences, continues Simone Weil. No one can naturally give the same attention to all other human beings, many of whom will escape attention altogether. Respect for all human beings can only be present if directed towards something identical in every one of them, their link with the other, transcendent reality, that is to say, the demand for absolute good.
This respect inspired by the link with the other reality can, however, only have an indirect expression in this world. Here below, human beings are governed by necessity, abandoned, Simone Weil says, to need and hardship. Therefore this indirect expression is directed towards those earthly needs of body and soul. But, because of the link with the “other reality”, whenever, through the acts or omissions of others, the life of a human being is destroyed or mutilated, it is not just his physical being that is wounded or destroyed, but his aspiration towards goodness. There is therefore an act of sacrilege, whereas if the harm is done by the forces of necessity, it is only his physical needs that suffer aggression.
The possibility of “indirect expression” of respect towards the human person is the foundation of obligation, she continues. This is based on the earthly needs of body and soul already referred to. To every need corresponds an obligation, and any person who has his or her love and attention turned towards the reality beyond this world has the obligation to remedy, by every means possible, the privations of body and soul of every human being whatsoever. She admits that consent to this obligation is often mixed with lies, and the practice is often defective. But to refuse this obligation becomes a crime.
In terms of the organization of society, Simone Weil maintains that the proportion of good and evil in society depends on the one hand on the consent to or refusal of this obligation, on the other on the distribution of power between those who consent and those who refuse. She holds that the object of public life is to put all forms of responsibility, as far as possible, in the hands of those who consent to this obligation. To support the exercise of power by one who refuses this obligation is criminal. Law is the collection of measures likely to bring about the desired effect, but their application depends on a clear notion of need, and it will be incumbent on people’s intelligence to define, with all the exactness and discernment possible, the earthly needs of body and soul.
There follows the list, well-known to students of Simone Weil’s thought, of human needs, ranked in complementary pairs, before she begins what was to be her last major, though still unfinished, essay.
In the few pages of the “Preamble” lie the foundations of the Need for Roots and, more broadly of Simone Weil’s moral and political philosophy as outlined in that essay which dates, as is well-known, from the very last months of her life, at a time of great physical and mental suffering. These sufferings, which would no doubt have silenced many a lesser spirit, seem only to have increased her acuity, her ability to go straight to the essential, in an ever more urgent attempt to persuade her fellow citizens of the malady from which France was suffering. I can only marvel at her spirit.
Question: Weil ended her London notebooks with a single word: “Nurses.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
Little: It cannot but refer to her “Projet d’une formation d’infirmières de première ligne.” which she painstakingly translated as “Plan for a Group of Volunteer Fire-line Nurses” and submitted to Admiral William D. Leahy, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. This project is well-known to Weilians as the one that evoked from de Gaulle the response “She’s mad!” Simone Weil elaborated the project when all other avenues of participation in the war seemed closed to her, and certainly believed in it, both in the possibility of finding sufficient volunteers of the right caliber – among whom, obviously, she counted herself first and foremost – and of its ultimate usefulness.
The fact that it was never taken up by the authorities and put to the test was a matter of great chagrin to her and was a major factor leading to her death, largely through a frustrating vocation. It occurs to me, however, that Simone Weil was way ahead of her times here, and that one reason why the plan was never put into practice was simply the ethos of the times: it would never have occurred to the military authorities (or anyone else, for that matter) that women could be capable of such involvement on the battle-field, whereas in today’s atmosphere of equal rights and responsibilities, it could have had a more sympathetic hearing. After all, when I was growing up in Britain in the Forties and Fifties, women were not allowed even to read the news, let alone make it, lest it offend their feminine sensitivities! That at least was the pretext: in practice, it was a method of control.
Question: How would you answer the question you raised at the end of Waiting on Truth: “Where does she fit in?”
Little: I think the urge to be intellectually tidy, to produce a coherent plan of movements, each with its adherents, influencing other movements with their cohort of writers and intellectuals, must be resisted in the case of Simone Weil. Her major contribution to French intellectual life was perhaps to insist on shining a single light, the light of Plato’s Good, on all problems: political, ethical, moral, organizational, with the uncompromising need to distinguish the truth in any situation. This light is brighter the less ego it contains, dimmed by the presence of ego. Clearly, Simone Weil could not rise to her own standards of perfection in every instance, but she showed the way, she pointed in the right direction. It is up to us, her readers across time, to act on her clear precepts.5 Recommendations