Simone Weil: mystic, philosopher, activist. Her ethics demand that we look beyond the personal and find the universal
Deborah Casewell is a Humboldt Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Bonn and co-director of the UK-based Simone Weil Network. Her most recent book is Eberhard Jüngel and Existence: Being Before the Cross (2021).
Edited byNigel Warburton
The short life of Simone Weil, the French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist, was one of unrelenting self-sacrifice from her childhood to her death. At a very young age, she expressed an aversion to luxury. In an action that prefigured her death, while still a child, she refused to move until she was given a heavier burden to carry than her brother’s. Her death in Ashford in England in 1943, at just 34, is attributed to her apparent refusal to eat – an act of self-denial, in solidarity with starving citizens of occupied France, which she carried out despite suffering from tuberculosis. For her uncompromising ethical commitments, Albert Camus described her as ‘the only great spirit of our time’.
This is certainly more complimentary than her university nicknames of ‘the Red Virgin’, ‘the Categorical Imperative in Skirts’, and even ‘the Martian’. Indeed, Weil’s reported interactions with the other great spirits of those times further underline the force of her personality. Simone de Beauvoir, who attended the Sorbonne at the same time, came across her during their student days and described a conversation with Weil sparked by her response to the famine in China:
she declared in no uncertain tones that only one thing mattered in the world: the revolution which would feed all the starving people of the earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence. She looked me up and down: ‘It’s easy to see you’ve never been hungry,’ she snapped.
Despite this put-down, Beauvoir admired Weil and her ‘heart that could beat right across the world’.
Weil took no prisoners in any debate. Although Leon Trotsky had recently excoriated her critique of Marxism, Weil arranged for the Marxist revolutionary to stay in her parents’ apartment in December 1933 and host an illicit political gathering. This did, however, come at the expense of a night-long, intense discussion with Weil. While she always argued softly and clearly, that did not prevent the discussion from being punctuated by violent shouts.
That heart that beat across the world is perhaps why she always remained outside contemporary philosophical trends, and certainly outside of the academic and elite conversations in philosophy at the time. Weil’s philosophical commitments, while constant, often pale in comparison with her dramatic life and her political engagement. She enacted her philosophy with her commitment to causes, and finally with her body. This began with her declaration of Bolshevism at the age of 10, through to her university involvement in Marxism, trade unionism and pacificism. The first commitment declined as she found in Marxism itself plenty to criticise, though this did not prevent her from joining the republicans in the Spanish Civil War, albeit rather ineffectively. Yet, through all of this, two elements of her character remained constant: her self-denial for the sake of others, and the strength of her will.
Evident of this totalising, personality-driven self-sacrifice are her attempted actions in the Spanish Civil War. She first tried to join the anarchist Durruti Column, but had to be excluded from combat due to her extreme short-sightedness and the danger that she would pose to her own side. Having failed there, she then demanded to be sent out by the anti-fascist commander Julián Gorkin as a covert agent to rescue the prisoner Joaquín Maurín. When she was refused, Gorkin commented that, as someone obviously not Spanish, she would not be particularly covert and so would be sacrificing herself for nothing; Weil replied that she had every right to sacrifice herself.
Under the Vichy regime, those with Jewish heritage, which included Weil and her family, were excluded from white-collar professions, and they later fled to New York. She then expended significant effort trying to return, even though it would have been to certain death. One particular plan of hers, which made it back to Charles de Gaulle, was to air-drop nurses on to battlefields, with her at their head. De Gaulle’s alleged reaction was ‘Elle est folle!’ (‘She’s mad!’) Yet, as easy as it is, in the face of such intensity, to find such gestures amusing and even slightly unhinged, this strongly held, strongly asserted desire to give up everything, including life itself, makes her ethical vision so fascinating, because it aims at the precise opposite of her own life – at ignoring all that is particular and assertive in favour of something impersonal and universal…