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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.

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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 of entropy. . . . It is not so with the God of the Christians. Not to exercise all the power at one’s disposal is to endure the void [that is, the vacuum]. This [enduring] is contrary to all the laws of nature. Grace alone can do it. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can enter only where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.

The laws regulating the spiritual life can be better understood when compared to laws governing the universe. Thus, in the description of how the soul expands and contracts, the structures and processes involved in spiritual emptiness are not like those laws operating in physical voids. The difference lies in the nature of God’s grace. The supernatural pressure of divine grace not only creates the void in the first place but also maintains the condition and fills the spiritually empty. Such an explanation is typical of Weil’s development of an idea. Heavily saturated with the metaphor and language of physics and chemistry, Gravity and Grace presents itself as the science of the spiritual, the experimental knowledge of supernatural truths.

Weil’s view of reality is fundamentally Platonic. God in His divine identification with the Good, the Beautiful, and the Virtuous is utterly transcendent. Alluding often to Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, Weil believes that most lives are spent in illusion because “there is every degree of distance between the creature and God.” Yet in spite of the distance separating humans from ultimate reality, Weil is convinced that connections exist between the transcendent world and the world of things. Thus, although all things are barriers blocking humans from knowing the divine world, at the same time they are bridges which connect them to transcendent reality. Although humans make things (money, home, traditions, culture, for example) to be ends in themselves, nevertheless, it is “the essence of created things to be intermediaries” or “bridges” (what Weil signifies in Greek as metaxu). For Weil as a Platonist, the exterior world provides a vast network of figures and images which can either hide or reveal the ultimate reality of spiritual truth.

To prepare a space in which grace overcomes the heavy pull of gravity, it is above all necessary to practice “attention,” that is, an intense looking which does not demand possession. Such attention, when thoroughly detached and devoid of any egocentric energies, encourages the Good to join itself irresistibly to the soul. By being attentive without attachment to any preconceived notions or predetermined objects, “we keep our gaze directed toward the same thing [so that] in the end illusions are scattered and the real becomes visible.” By practicing radical openness, one discovers what is truly real: “Perfect detachment alone enables us to see things in their naked reality.” Intense awareness is the path to transcendent reality.

Appropriate moral behavior results from being truly attentive. When empty of personal, ego-driven desire, then “through well-directed attention we do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing.” Correct moral action thus derives from necessity; one cannot do otherwise. Indeed, disciplining oneself in well-directed moral conduct is not so much an action as it is a “sort of passivity.”

Weil’s concentration on the impersonal quality of moral behavior underscores her belief that human life is ultimately anonymous in relation to the Absolute. By releasing oneself from the personal, one serves the final reality. Indeed, only by entering the process of “decreation” (“to make something created pass into the uncreated”) is it possible to reduce oneself sufficiently that God may be all in all. By reducing self, by “disappearing,” one strips away an “imaginary divinity” even as Christ emptied Himself of His “real divinity.” One finds one’s eternal “place” in the universe by imitating the incarnational condescension of God in Christ: “God renounces being everything. We should renounce being something. That is our only good.” According to Weil, the renunciation must be complete. It occurs when one reenacts the passion of Christ, dying to self in service to others. When one experiences such a necessary transformation, then it may be said that grace, now understood as “the law of the descending movement,” has overcome the force of gravity. The paradox is achieved: By descent, one arises. Mankind’s salvation lies in “falling upwards.”

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Social philosopher Gustave Thibon compiled excerpts from Simone Weil’s notebooks into a single volume for publication four years after her death. The finished product, Gravity and Grace, has drawn critical acclaim for Weil as a teacher, activist, philosopher, mystic, and writer; much serious study about her began after the appearance of this work in print. Emphasizing the principles of suffering and redemption, this collection delineates the scope of her human and mystical endeavors. Simone Weil did not merely advocate affliction; she deliberately sought it by pursuing the strenuous physical feats generally performed by men. Her passages give insight to the perils of mental stimulation, manual labor, and war—all of which she actually experienced. In her efforts to absorb all facets of oppression—she left her studies to work diligently on farmland, deserted her teaching post in favor of factory work, and actively participated in the Spanish Civil War—Weil demonstrated convictions relatively rare among women.

As its basis is personal belief and reflection, Gravity and Grace explores the mind of a woman who can only be categorized in terms of gender. Yet even in this aspect, she is exceptional. Weil’s ideas are shaped by a plethora of sects and classes. Although she extracted her religious idealism from the Greek, Hindu, and Jewish traditions, her most prominent identification is with Christianity. This diversity of influences contributes to the abstruse inconsistencies that abound in the selections. While Thibon is responsible for the classification of the journal entries into chapters, the paradoxical tone and style are strictly Weil’s; Thibon’s only contribution to the text is his introduction, which unifies Weil’s impact in the literary, social, and political realms. Weil mysteriously struggles to preserve the imperfections of humanity, which are in direct opposition to the doctrines of dogmatic faith. Despite vast influence, Weil’s writing does not adhere to a specific religious or political agenda. Her chief aim is to reconcile gravity (which represents the baseness of the mortal condition) with grace (that divine power by which baseness can be lifted).

Beginning with a chapter on the parameters of gravity and grace, the collection explores myriad themes that derive from the title, including void and compensation, detachment, the self, love, evil, illusions, idolatry, and affliction. Each chapter consists of separate entries that relate to a central motif; these statements fuse the best features of Christianity with human limitations. Weil recognizes the ambivalence of the individual and of humanity, and she often refutes her own ideas antithetically as a means of illuminating the highest truth; she does this repeatedly in Gravity and Grace.

In her writing, she addresses a collective universe as “you” and “we” distinctly; never is mention given to “man,” except when she makes a biblical reference (such as “man and wife”). She sees the inner soul as androgynous and does not dichotomize men and women. Weil, like Plato, incorporates her political views (as they pertain to human behavior) into her writing. Ideally, she would have an equal, harmonious society.

Context

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As critics have noted, it is quite difficult to separate Simone Weil’s life from her work. Her life itself was a cry for women to follow: She entered the École Normale only two years after the educational institution began to accept women. She thought nothing of her difficult duties on the land and in the Renault factory (where she spent one year of work) and would operate machinery with the same energy and determination as men—despite her frail stature. Without her posthumously published work, however, she might have been only faintly remembered, because what is known about her has been prompted by public interest in her literary work. Weil’s writing as a reflection of her person has yielded an abundance of power for women.

Gravity and Grace was initially dismissed as the mystical creation of a mentally unstable, suicidal individual suffering from eating disorders. Yet Weil has come to be embraced as one of the most remarkable female intellectuals. Her spiritual idealism has been linked with Plato, and the Catholic church has praised her work; her political opinions have been compared to those of Karl Marx and George Orwell. She was not afraid to voice her opinion on any topic. Her gender was never a hindrance to her; in fact, it was not even a consideration—she was undaunted by society’s expectations of the female role. This refusal to differentiate between the sexes is the core of the women’s movement toward equality. Still, Weil did not know that she was lending herself to such a cause. Her involvement was in world issues—such as her refusal to eat when underprivileged persons were deprived of food, her determination to understand the social class structure, and her willingness to give her existence to the abolishment of oppression. Such acts have marked her as a woman to be imitated and remembered.

Bibliography

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Cabaud, Jacques. Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love. New York: Channel Press, 1964. Cabaud examines the intellectual and political sides of Weil as secondary to her religious purpose. Includes an ample index and excellent primary and secondary bibliographies.

Dietz, Mary G. Between the Human and the Divine: The Political Thought of Simone Weil. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988. Structuring her work around Weil’s writing, Dietz discusses Weil’s clash of needs: the necessity for the soul to remain rooted in itself and the desire for it to join with God. This exploration attempts to rectify the public’s view that Weil abandoned politics for religion, showing that Weil’s task was in fact to link the two.

Hellman, John. Simone Weil: An Introduction to Her Thought. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982. Traces Weil’s movement from politics toward religion, stressing her encounter with Marxism and her later disillusionment with it. Hellman mentions her writing in instances where it directly pertains to her thought.

Kovitz, Sonia. “Simone Weil’s Dark Night of the Soul.” Midwest Quarterly 33 (Spring, 1992): 261-276. Kovitz’s article reviews the various phases of Weil’s temperament: despair, bouts with thoughts of suicide, and the more enlightening desire for a knowledge of God.

McLellan, David. Utopian Pessimist. New York: Poseidon Press, 1990. This evaluation gives a condensed version of the main points in Weil’s life. Attention is given to Weil’s political participation and her seemingly contrary views on the essence of human behavior. Offers an appendix (“On Human Personality”) and a chronology. The select bibliography includes original works in French and English translations, as well as secondary works.

Petrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. Regarded as the premier source for an accurate, personal, and full background on Weil, this biography emphasizes the inseparability of Weil and the literary works that she produced. Petrement praises Weil’s numerous accomplishments not usually attributed to women, and she presents Weil’s political and religious excursions through memoirs of their shared academic setting and in accounts of Weil’s trying work experiences.

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