In this new series, Modern Philosophy 101, the primary subject is the French philosopher and political activist, Simone Weil. Weil came to prominence after death. Since then, Weil's writings have been celebrated and studied by many, particularly in continental Europe. Weil was the type of philosopher who not only wrote about one's philosophy but lived it. From working in factories to serving in wars, from academic studies to religious experiences, Weil lived a full, albeit short and honorable life. Weil's philosophy aligned somewhat with Rene Descartes, particularly when it came to epistemology - how humans acquire knowledge- and her views on religion when Weil found Christianity later on in life. T.S. Eliot described Weil as the greatest saint of the 21st Century. Charles de Gaulle said she was insane. This piece will examine a little further into who Simone Weil actually was.
Love In The Void: Where God Finds Us - Book by Simone Weil
“There is something else which has the power to awaken us to the truth. It is the works of writers of genius. They give us, in the guise of fiction, something equivalent to the actual density of the real, that density which life offers us every day but which we are unable to grasp because we are amusing ourselves with lies.” ― Simone Weil
Simone Weil was born into an agnostic middle-class French Jewish family in Paris in 1909. In 1928, Weil went to study philosophy and logic at the prestigious Parisian university The École normale supérieure. During the Parisian's time at the prestigious university, the philosopher became well known and highly admired. The theorist's radical views made people stand up and take note. For example, Simone Weil was opposed to capital punishment but made an exception when it came to rape. Among her peers, Weil earned the nickname, The Red Virgin and a teacher of Weil called her the Martian. Unlike Simone Weil's philosophical contemporaries of the day, the Parisian made no attempt to pursue a public career espousing one's philosophy. Instead, Weil lived the philosophy that completely encompassed the spirit, that of which was totally inbuilt. The philosopher did not seem to fit in any one mold and in the 1930s, after graduating, Weil went to teach philosophy in schools and wrote articles for socialist and communist periodicals. It was shortly after this period that the Parisian becomes a larger-than-life figure. In 1932, on a visit to Germany, Weil began assisting Marxist activists but from what Weil witnessed there, they were no match for the fascist national socialists. Returning home to France, Simone Weil aired her concerns to friends and peers at what was taking shape in Germany only to be dismissed. A year later Hitler came to power and began wreaking havoc and banished the communists from the political arena. Thereafter, the theorist spent a great deal of time helping communists escape from Germany. And this is where Weil becomes the philosopher that all would come to know. A selfless, kind-hearted thinker that lets the philosophy do the talking. Simone Weil could not just watch what was going on from the sidelines. Going out to Germany in 1932 opened Weil's eyes to the hardship and cruelty of the world. The great philosopher was compelled to help others less fortunate than herself.
Painting of Simone Weil -The Red Virgin.
Another example of this was when, in 1934, Weil stopped teaching and applied to work in a Parisian factory. The philosopher wanted a better understanding of working-class lives. Weil observed that the workers became emotionless. The monotony of the work and being under constant watch by management led not to resentment but a more numb-like state operating like slaves. Once again, Weil was not content to just theorize the effects of these working conditions for the disenfranchised. There was a deep curiosity to understand by experiencing the same ways of life. To be in the shoes of the powerless. In 1936 Simone Weil went to serve in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side and later assisted the French Resistance from London.
'I can, Therefore I am.' - Simone Weil
In the last five years of Weil's life, the Parisian turned her thoughts towards Christianity. She consistently posited the notion that the acquiring of knowledge needed meticulous and considered thinking. Sometimes the enquiring of knowledge would be extremely complex and difficult. For example, one of her difficulties was "combining her intricate Catholic doctrine on the threshold of the Church with wisdom from various traditions such as ancient Greek philosophy and tragedies, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Following Aeschylus, she believed knowledge was gained through suffering." - (2018, A.R. Rozelle-Stone. B.P. Davis). Weil's philosophy aligned with Rene Descartes where epistemology was concerned. Though, the philosopher as ever proves that theorizing is not enough and goes one step further than Descartes' Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am, and says, "I can, therefore I am". She aligns herself with Descartes in order to find foundational knowledge. Like Descartes, she argues for the existence of self, God, and the external world. The philosopher proposed that the self has the power to freedom. Although Weil believes that the realization of self cannot be all-powerful as long as there is an omnipotent God. The understanding of self-realization is to understand that one is not God. Some may have argued that having faith in God undermined Simone Weil's philosophy. Weil's profound religious beliefs did not mean that her philosophical intellect was weakened, in fact, it was strengthened. Learning and attention were at the heart of Weil's faith. According to the theorist, attention to prayer and education was in one with serving God. Throughout Weil's life, the philosophy of compassion and suffering would set the unique thinker apart from her contemporaries.
Simone Weil, Pop Art by Unexpected Object
Even down to the end of Simone Wiel's life, the Marxist is said to have gone through a torturous experience. Simone Weil's death has become mythologized. On the 24th of August 1943, Weil passed away in hospital in England. The coroner pronounced the death as suicide - cardiac failure from Self-starvation. The myth goes that Weil refused to eat in solidarity with victims of war, but others argue that this self-sacrifice came from her study of the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. One thing that is for sure is that Simone Weil made an indelible mark in the world of philosophy and there are few that could argue against this. As highlighted earlier, the great philosopher did not just sit passively in her philosophical teachings, but literally went out into the field and practiced what she preached. She died at the tender age of thirty-four.
Wikipedia, (18 Nov 2021). Simone Weil. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_Weil
Holy Hill Hermatige, (21 Nov 2021). Simone Weil. https://holyhill.ie/simone-weil/
Rozelle-Stone, Davis, A. R. B. P. (2018, March 10). Simone Weil. Plato.Stanford.Edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/simone-weil/
Zaretsky, R. (20 Feb 2018). What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder. Nytimes.Com. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/20/opinion/simone-weil-human-rights-obligations.html
Gagne, L. (2018, May 25). Who Was Simone Weil? [Illustration]. Plough.Com. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/witness/who-was-simone-weil-introduction
McCann, C. (n.d.). The Red Virgin. McCann, C. (n.d.). The Red Virgin [Illustration]. Simoneweilnovel.Com. https://www.simoneweilnovel.com/
Object, U. (2021, February 23). Simone Weil Pop Art 4 [Illustration]. Pixels.Com. https://pixels.com/featured/simone-weil-pop-art-4-unexpected-object.html