Saturday, May 19, 2007

Simone Weil

I am reading a biography of Simone Weil, a French philosopher of the early twentieth century. Weil was a women from a privileged secular Jewish family who had extraordinary intellectual gifts and devoted her short life to understanding poverty and affliction. She worked as a teacher and volunteered her time in the evening to giving lectures to workers and promoting trade unions. She spent several years on and off in hard physical labour, something for which she was particularly unsuited. She had immense difficulty with fine motor control, and only acquired legible handwriting as a child through prolonged effort. She also suffered paralysing migraines.

Weil was driven by her desire for social justice. She moved from a position of strict pacifism to action, and participated in the Spanish civil war and the French resistance. She converted to Christianity and in her later writing expressed the plight of the worker as "affliction" rather than "oppression". She died of tuberculosis in 1942 at the age of 34. She had restricted her food intake out of sympathy for those in occupied France.

Oppression and Liberty , her first significant work, made a tremendous impact on me when I read it years ago; more recently I read The Need for Roots, her last work. Notes from her lectures on philosophy were later published and are still used today as a university philosophy text.

In Waiting for God she wrote about human relationships,

    He who treats as equals those who are far below him in strength really makes them a gift of the quality of human beings ... As far as it is possible for a creature, he reproduces the original generosity of the Creator. ... The supernatural virtue of justice consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship.
And on faith and religion,

    We must have given all our attention, all our faith, all our love to a particular religion in order to think of any other religion with the high degree of attention, faith and love that is proper to it.
She said,
    when from the depth
    of our being,
    we need, we seek a sound

    which does mean
    something: when we cry out
    for an answer

    and it is not granted, then,
    we touch the silence of God---

    Some begin to talk,
    to themselves, as do the mad;
    some give

    their hearts to silence.
from Stephanie Strickland. The Red Virgin.