Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gravity and Grace was the first of Simone Weil’s books to be published in English. Early in 1942, shortly before sailing from France to New York, Weil presented Gustave Thibon with a portfolio of papers, asking him to read them and take care of them during her exile. The portfolio contained a dozen thick exercise books in which Weil daily had recorded her thoughts. These entries were interspersed with quotations in many languages and with strictly personal notes. After Weil’s death in 1943, Thibon, as her literary executor, selected representative expressions of her distinctive religious philosophy from these notebooks and organized them into thirty-eight sections. The first section, “Gravity and Grace,” provides the title for the whole and establishes one of the major themes of these meditations.

Individual entries are bare and simple, like the inner experiences they express. Indeed, Weil’s ideas are often presented in an unadorned prose style much like geometry theorems. Generally, in each section a concept or process is defined in a series of aphoristic statements and then analyzed by observing what happens when the concept or process encounters the energy of other forces.

The opening sentences of Gravity and Grace explain the title and establish the basic convictions of Weil’s religious thought:All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity, unless there is supernatural intervention.

Gravity, in Weil’s spiritual vocabulary, is the evil to which the human soul is prone, a force which draws it always downward or keeps it down even when it would rise. Grace is the opposing force which alone can make possible, by its presence, the liberation and ascent of the soul. Gravity and Grace explores how these two antithetical forces operate in human life. Numerous sections—“Illusions,” “Idolatry,” “Violence,” for example—demonstrate the effect of gravity; other sections such as “Love,” “The Cross,” and “Beauty” reveal the movements of grace.

In formulating the laws of gravity and grace operating in the spiritual life, Weil frequently employs metaphors taken from the physical sciences. Her meditations are built upon metaphors of structure and force: balance, counterbalance, opposition, oscillation, entropy, retrogression, “difugal force,” equilibrium, action and reaction. For example, when describing the soul’s inclination to enlarge itself, Weil postulates a physicslike theorem and proceeds to examine a number of corollaries:Like a gas, the soul tends to fill the entire space which is given it. A gas when contracted leaves a vacuum; this [condition] would be contrary to the law...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)