The Iliad

by Simone Weil

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The Iliad: Or, The Poem of Force was written early in World War II and first published (under the pseudonym Emile Novis) in December, 1940, and January, 1941, in Cahiers du Sud, a journal published at Marseilles, where Simone Weil had moved after the occupation of Paris in 1940. This essay of some thirty pages is normally treated as literary criticism, but it actually lies at the intersection of several paths of intellectual inquiry. It testifies to a continuing love for the Greek classics and an unshakable confidence that they held precious enduring truths. Its argument—that Force is the true subject of the epic—advances by commentaries on particular passages quoted from Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). Interspersed are more general reflections that suggest wider implications regarding the harmful nature of power in the social and political life of all times and places. Finally, the essay contains penetrating insights into the sinister psychological changes that force works upon both its victims and its supposed possessors.

Weil’s varied writings are chapters in an autobiography of the mind. They are most fully understood in the light of the zeal with which she lived life and expressed her thoughts. When she wrote The Iliad in 1939, Weil was only thirty years old. Yet she had already wrestled with a whole range of fundamentally important issues on an intellectual plane and carried over that struggle into her personal life with ferocious commitment.

Weil had a brilliant academic career. She placed first in the nationwide entrance examination in general philosophy and logic for the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Following graduation in 1931, she took a series of teaching posts in provincial lycees. At the same time she thought deeply about the social, political, and economic realities of the world around her. Marxism for a time attracted but did not retain her allegiance. She found it inadequate to explain or improve conditions in France during her young adulthood. Strongly sympathizing with the plight of the working poor, she participated in union activities on their behalf and even worked for a time in factories. In 1936, a similar compassion for the oppressed led her to join Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Then, in 1937, she underwent a profound mystical experience that altered the course of her life; she began a quest for spiritual truth and an understanding of God’s will. From childhood onward, a tough ascetic strain in her character fed a compulsion to share the privations of others, be they impoverished factory workers, soldiers caught in the vise of war, or the subjugated populations of occupied lands. Over the years, rigorous, sympathetic self-denial strained her fragile health. She finally died of tuberculosis complicated by self-starvation in 1943, while working for the Free French during exile in London.

Through all these experiences she recorded the passions and pursuits of her mind in notebooks, journals, and a succession of published essays reflecting on fundamental social, political, philosophical, and theological issues—including war and its causes, the claims and failings of various “-isms” (nationalism, militarism, capitalism, communism, Fascism, totalitarianism), the ultimate source and nature of spiritual enlightenment, and, most important as regards Weil’s work, the role of power in determining human destiny. This last was, naturally, especially prominent in her mind in the context of World War II.


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Allen, Diogenes. Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, 1983.

Coles, Robert. Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage, 1987.

Ferber, Michael. “Simone Weil’s Iliad,” in Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life, 1981. Edited by G. A. White.

Fiedler, Leslie. “Simone Weil: Prophet Out of Israel, Saint of the Absurd,” in Commentary. XI (January, 1951), pp. 36-46.

McLane-Iles, Betty. Uprooting and Integration in the Writings of Simone Weil, 1987.

Milosz, Czeslaw. “The Importance of Simone Weil,” in The Emperor of the Earth, 1977.

Petrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life, 1976.

Summers, Joseph. “Notes on Simone Weil’s Iliad,” in Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life, 1981. Edited by G. A. White.

Weil, Simone. The Simone Weil Reader, 1977. Edited by George A. Panichas.

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