Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2483
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 ended abruptly as the result of an injury (she accidentally spilled some boiling oil on her leg). Since Weil’s general physical condition was already poor and the complications from her burns weakened her so severely, she was forced to take a medical leave of absence from teaching during the academic year 1936-1937. Although she returned to the classroom in October, 1937, at the Lycée of Saint-Quentin near Paris, by January of 1938 her health was so poor that she had to apply once again for sick leave. She was never to return to teaching.
From the time she ended her factory work in August, 1935, until the autumn of 1938, Weil was in spiritual crisis. One of the first revelations of her sympathy with Catholicism occurred during a visit to Portugal in September, 1935. It was in Santa Maria degli Angeli, in Italy, however, that a force far stronger than she, as the describes it, compelled her to go down on her knees for the first time in her life. Weil spent Holy Week of 1938 at the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes meditating, and it was there, she recounts, that Christ himself came down and took possession of her. She had always admired Christ; from her lycée days she had read and used the Bible in her writing, teaching, and personal meditations on history, social justice, and philosophy. Yet her aversion for the Roman and Hebrew civilizations was a major obstacle that for years repelled her from the faith. As a result of her mystical experience, occurring in the autumn of 1938, Weil’s life was suffused with a belief that she had encountered Christ and that she belonged to him. Thenceforth the person of Christ was to guide her philosophy.
During the years of Weil’s spiritual crisis, she became more and more detached from the revolutionary syndicalist movement. While her faith in political parties had collapsed after her brief participation in the Spanish Civil War, she continued to demonstrate her concern for the working class in her articles on industrial reform. She also attended meetings of the Nouveaux Cahiers, a discussion group organized and attended by industrial executives for the purpose of planning a rational and equitable program of social reform in factory life.
The new emphasis in Weil’s political thought at this time was on two rather unpopular causes: anticolonialism and pacifism. Although her views on a policy of gradual decolonization were similar to the policy eventually adopted by the French government in the 1950’s, at that time the French public was not yet ready to give up its territorial claims. In retrospect, the pacifist stance in which Weil persisted right up to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, was much less justified. She repeatedly underestimated Adolf Hitler’s drive for conquest, and she insisted that almost anything was preferable to armed conflict. Yet when news reached France of German soldiers entering Prague, Weil was no longer able to support a pacifist position.
After a few months’ stay in Vichy, in October of 1940 Weil moved to Marseilles, where she attended meetings of the Young Christian Workers’ Movement and wrote for the French Resistance newspaper, Témoignage chrétien. One of the most important associations of Weil’s Marseilles years, however, was her involvement with the group that published Cahiers du sud, including Jean Ballard, editor in chief, the poet Jean Torrel, and André Gide’s son-in-law, Jean Lambert. It was in this journal that Weil published her essays on the Iliad, literature and morality, and Provençal Catharism (a form of Christian gnosticism widespread in the region known as Occitania in the eleventh and twelfth centuries).
Ever since her conversion experience, Weil had been exploring very carefully the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic church. Yet, while she was drawn to Catholicism, she also criticized the Church as a bureaucratic establishment, especially in its inquisitional intolerance, ambiguous morality, anti-intellectualism, and otherworldly impurity. Because of these and other doubts, she never officially joined the Church and was never baptized.
Although she preferred to remain in France and share the hardship of her countrymen, in May, 1942, Weil reluctantly agreed to accompany her parents to New York, where she hoped to leave them in safety. After months of waiting in New York, Weil finally arranged passage to England, where she began working for the Free French movement. Assigned to the Ministry of the Interior, she was to submit written reports analyzing political documents received from unoccupied France. Since these documents concerned the postwar reconstruction of the new republic, they provided the occasion for some of Weil’s most detailed political theorizing. While their tentative nature often led to impracticalities and excesses, the essays in Écrits de Londres et dernières lettres (1957) offer a useful look at the practical implications of her unusual speculative philosophy.
Ever since leaving France, Weil had drastically restricted her diet in order to share the privations of her countrymen in the Occupied zone. Her revulsion to the fallen material world had always included sexuality, comfort, and other desires—not the least of which was food. Eventually, however, her friends found it necessary to resort to subterfuge to keep her even minimally nourished. Negligent sleep habits also contributed to a general decline in her health involving an aggravation of her chronic migraines, progressive weakening of her physical stamina, and the onset of a tubercular condition.
As she felt her life ebbing away from her, Weil accelerated the pace of her writing. She reportedly spent her last months in a constant state of creativity, continually scribbling down notes on random topics as they occurred to her. The Cahiers (1951; Notebooks, 1952-1955) contain numerous examples of elliptical thoughts, outlines, and sketches of projects that she was unable to pursue. As such, these tentative explorations might be viewed as footnotes to the definitive formulation of her philosophy.
In April, 1943, Weil’s body was no longer able to endure the demands she made upon it, and she was admitted to the hospital with tuberculosis and severe exhaustion. While the doctors believed that her chances of recovery were good, she persistently refused treatment and took food only infrequently. Clearly designed to transgress the boundaries of deprivation that could be reasonably attributed to solidarity with her countrymen, Weil’s actions expressed her need for total personal affliction in the suffering world to which she was so sensitive.
On August 17, Weil was transferred to Grosvenor Sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, and on the afternoon of August 24, 1943, she lapsed into a coma and died later that evening. The newspapers in the area announced that the coroner’s inquest had ruled her death a case of suicide by starvation, although medical reports were confusing and conflicting. At the age of thirty-four, Weil had reached the end of one of the most unusual and controversial pilgrimages in recent history.
In her short life, Simone Weil was a striking teacher of philosophy, a dedicated left-militant, a provocative essayist on social and religious issues, and an exceptional, though controversial, personality. In her final years and posthumously for a much larger audience (when her essays, notes, fragments, poems, and letters were first published in book form), she gained an even more paradoxical notoriety as a “Catholic saint outside the church.”
While her later social thought, exemplified in the political sociology of L’Enracinement (1949; The Need for Roots, 1952), still emphasized the centrality of the worker and his alienation and oppression, it demonstrates less of her earlier insight. The antipolitics and the libertarianism, egalitarianism, and pacifism had partly submerged themselves into a heightened spiritual quest that undercut merely human social questions. Weil’s remarkable intensity and impassioned earnestness, combined with sophisticated philosophical and historical perceptions and abilities, made her a poignant witness to the possible social-religious transcendence of human suffering.
Coles, Robert. Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987. In this intelligent and interpretive portrait written by a Harvard psychiatrist and humanities professor, the author describes Weil’s major quests and obsessions in an effort to comprehend her inspiring and contradictory nature. Also contains notes and bibliography.
Dunaway, John M. Simone Weil. Boston: Twayne, 1984. This brief sketch is intended as an introduction to the subject, primarily for the use of the nonspecialist. A bibliography, extensive notes, and references are also provided.
Fiori, Gabriella. Simone Weil: An Intellectual Biography. Translated by Joseph K. Berrigan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989. This lengthy and well-written synthesis of Weil’s life and thought is based upon evidence solely provided by individuals closely familiar with Weil and her works. Extensive notes and a bibliography of primary and secondary works are included.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Simone Weil. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. This brief but very readable study underscores the continuity of Weil’s work beneath the seeming reversal of political positions. Also contains footnotes and primary and secondary bibliography.
Pétrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. Written by one of Weil’s closest friends, this lengthy standard biography of Weil is particularly useful for the documents it contains and for the author’s efforts at ordering and dating these documents. Numerous notes and illustrations are also included.
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