Article abstract: Perhaps even more than her writing, the life of Weil, twentieth century French mystic and philosophical thinker, has for several generations both fascinated and perplexed many. Weil’s passion and originality, her intense sense of commitment toward eternity and her fellowman, and her willingness to sacrifice her life for her truths remain her principal legacy.
Simone Weil was the second child and only daughter of a prosperous and highly cultured professional family. Her father, Bernard Weil, an eminent physician, was born in Strasbourg; Salomea Reinherz Weil, her mother, was from Rostov-na-Donu. The family was extremely close, and the influence of Weil’s mother was particularly strong. Although Weil’s parents were both of Jewish descent, they were agnostics and maintained no Jewish identity. Simone’s attitude toward her own Jewishness was to remain problematical throughout her lifetime. A sickly child almost from birth, Weil experienced normal health for only a few years of her life. Although much of Weil’s time was spent reading and studying, from a young age she also demonstrated an exceptionally acute moral sensibility and an unusual concern for the poor and oppressed.
An enlightened Parisian family, the Weils spared no expense in obtaining the best education for their children. They soon perceived, however, that André, Weil’s brother, was the more intellectually gifted of the two children. Considered something of a genius, he passed the baccalauréat at the age of fourteen and later was to become one of the outstanding mathematicians of his time. Intimidated by her brother’s achievements and discouraged by several unsympathetic teachers, Weil suffered through a period of deep depression in her early teens.
When Weil entered the Lycée Henri IV in 1925, she became acquainted with a man who was to exert the strongest and most lasting influence on her philosophy: Émile-Auguste Chartier, better known by his pseudonym, Alain Chartier. During her time at Henry IV (1925-1928), Weil continued her social activism. In particular, she became passionately committed to the revolutionary syndicalist, or trade unionist, movement. At this time she also began teaching in a type of free university organized for railroad workers. She was to devote much time and effort to this kind of project throughout her life because of her deep conviction that the proletariat—not merely the privileged few—could appreciate education and culture.
In 1927 the École Normal Supérieure had only begun admitting women, but, when the results of the entrance examination in 1928 were announced, two women were at the top of the list. Weil was first, and Simone de Beauvoir was second, followed by thirty male students.
During her years at the École Normale Supérieure, Weil gained a reputation as an intransigent revolutionary and was nicknamed the “Red Virgin.” Upon completion of the agrégation in philosophy in 1931 with a thesis on science and perception in the works of René Descartes, she was assigned to the position of professor of philosophy at the girls’ lycée of Le Puy, a small town in the Massif Central. This was the first of her five teaching assignments in five different towns during the years of 1931 through 1937. Her organizing activities among the unemployed working classes of the area earned for her continual harassment—even arrest on several occasions—by the municipal authorities.
Believing that any political theory or plan of social action required a firsthand acquaintance with the moral and physical problems that confronted the proletariat, Weil, in 1934, took a one-year unpaid leave of absence from teaching in order to learn by direct contact what kinds of problems most seriously undermined the quality of working-class life. She took on a series of factory jobs to better her understanding. Weil’s year of factory work is often regarded as a major turning point of her life. Her most ambitious goal during this year was to discover the means by which to reorganize industrial planning so as to create working conditions in which the proletariat could become truly free. Her probing essays on the subject, La Condition ouvrière (1951; factory journal), argued not for the conventional leftist change in ownership and political power but for a more profound transformation of modern work itself.
Pragmatically speaking, the answers that she found to freeing the proletariat were relatively vague. Yet the most lasting effect of the factory experience was one that she had not anticipated: a profound and irrevocable change in her character. She learned that, while the physical suffering of workers was deplorable, it was far less devastating than their slavelike humiliation and degradation. Another change was that a new pessimism about revolutionary activity began to surface in her thinking during this time.
Yet her dissociation from the revolutionary syndicalist movement as a result of this new pessimism was a process that had actually begun some time earlier. As early as 1933, Weil had written an article for the organ of La Révolution Prolétarienne (a humanitarian, anarchist, syndicalist movement with which she had become acquainted while at the École Normale Supérieure) in which she had criticized not only the Stalinist state in the Soviet Union but also the revolutionary syndicalist movement itself for excessive bureaucracy at the expense of the worker.
In August of 1936, Weil traveled to Barcelona to join the anarchist movement in the Spanish Civil War and volunteered for noncombatant service in the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). Although she was in Spain only a few weeks, she witnessed enough of the conflict to learn that neither side could be trusted; in her opinion, the war was only a pretext for a battle between the interests of the Soviet Union and those of Germany and Italy.
Weil’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War...
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