'The generation of 1930 in French intellectual life was unique in the gravity of the challenges they faced.' Simone Weil-the brilliant social and political theorist, activist, and spiritual writer-was one of an eminent company in the France of the 1930s who responded to these challenges. In her brief, remarkable life she wrote a host of essays and letters and filled several notebooks with reflections. Hellman's volume sets out the single world view-with its paradoxes and its logic-which appears behind her disparate writings but which she never lived to set out formally herself. Hellman extracts the key themes in Weil's writings on Marxism, Hitlerism, factory work, history, and religion, in an effort to examine the seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in her fusion of deep spirituality and commitment to the poor and oppressed and her love-hate relationship with Roman Catholicism and Israel. The result is a synthesis of her thought as a whole, drawn principally from her varied, fragmentary writings, and seen in relation to her life and personality.
John Hellman, a member of the History Department at McGill University, is an associate editor of Cross Currents and the author of Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950 and of articles on modern European intellectual, political, and religious history. He holds the Ph.D. degree from Harvard University.
Simone Weil's remarkable life would have brought her renown even if she had never written a word. But, despite her frequent illnesses and early death at thirty-four years of age in 1943, and her lack of opportunity to formulate a major intellectual testament, she left some important intellectual achievements. Not only is she remembered as one of France's most prominent political thinkers of this century1 -one of the most original and creative non-Stalinist Marxists of her generation2 -but she also left religious and philosophical writings of great originality.
Albert Camus, who played an important role in publishing her works after the Second World War, was particularly taken with her early political thought and described her in 1951 as "the only great spirit of our time."3 Camus, a lucid nonbeliever, has left few comments on her later, more religious writings, but although her views of Christianity were frequently described as heretical, and her differences with Roman Catholic doctrine were always sufficiently important so as to prevent her from joining the church, she became one of the three most important intellectual influences on Pope Paul VI4 -one of the most learned and doctrinally orthodox of modern Popes. Despite the fact that she was later attacked for infidelity to her own Jewish tradition, a prominent contemporary French Jewish intellectual has described her as "the greatest spiritual writer which France has produced in the first half of this century."5
However original and brilliant her writings, Simone Weil's life was so out-of-the-ordinary, and so coincided with her own philosophy, that it is difficult to separate her life from her thought: "No one has more heroically put his acts in accord with his ideas."6 Simone Weil's insights and analyses, however, have a power and originality of their own which need not be tied to her altruistic life to be recognized, and in some respects they can be appreciated with greater clarity if they are considered by themselves. Simone Weil died in broken health, having written letters but not a single book. Does this mean that her thought was incoherent or-left in fragments as it was-incomplete? An expert on her thought has written: "What amounts to a single world view, with both its paradoxes and its logic, does appear through her writings, even though she died before setting it out formally herself."7 It is a major purpose of this work to set out this world view in a way which Simone Weil did not have the opportunity to do, and-without ignoring its paradoxes-to test its logic. Her thinking has far more logical underpinning to it than is at first apparent on reading her individual essays. An effort to disengage the key themes in Weil's writings can help us to examine the seeming contradictions and inconsistencies, grasp the background to several generalizations which seem rash in isolation, and, in general, clarify her thought. We may then better evaluate the claims for brilliance and originality made on her behalf.
Why must the structure of Simone Weil's thought be distilled, extracted from the corpus of her writings? One major reason why she never ordered her thoughts as they are in this book was that she almost always focussed her arguments toward her audience-and these varied from Trotskyist political militants and anarchist union leaders to monks and medievalists. And since much of her writing was correspondence of one sort or another and never intended for the general public, she sometimes adopted extreme positions in order to highlight, for purposes of dialogue, her differences with her correspondent or particular audience. Thus she wrote her early-and most complete-essays on politics as a Marxist for her fellow Marxists. Therefore she could assume a basic appreciation for Marx's thought, and sympathy for his goals, among her readers and engage in a fraternal, "in-house" criticism of his insufficiencies. Her intention in this context was obviously to ameliorate Marxism, not reject it out of hand as a reading of her essays in isolation might imply. She was at the time a great admirer of Marx-but a vigilant and critical one who set high standards for Marxism and her fellow Marxists out of fidelity to the inspiration of the master himself.
This same attitude of critical fidelity which informed Weil's Marxism also characterized her later adherence to Christianity. Some of her essays from the latter period of her life, if read in isolation, make her out to be as much anti-Christian as Christian. But again it was her demanding lucidity and spiritual exigency which were behind the apparent severity of her views. An example was her "Letter to a Priest," which is often cited as her definitive, harsh critique of the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Testament. It was not written for the general public, but rather to set out in an extreme way what she saw as the barriers between her position and that of the church. It was sent to one of the several curés she met who could not grasp how a woman with her deep spirituality, with her love for the church, could continue to refuse its sacraments. And, on the other hand, her long essays in Need for Roots, despite the religious dimension so vital to their arguments, were written for the hard-minded leaders of the French Resistance, and so their spiritual aspects could not be articulated so explicitly as they might have been for someone who shared her deep religious convictions. Her remarkable essay on Attention, in contrast, was written for the Catholic students of Father Perrin, and she made this notion, which she first acquired from her teacher Alain, into a deeply religious concept despite the fact that one need not share religious belief to grasp it. And this is true of several of her most important ideas: although often framed for religious persons, they did not require religious belief to be appreciated, as Albert Camus, among others, demonstrated.
In sum, most of Simone Weil's writings were composed in a tone of fraternal correction toward groups or organizations for which she held deep affection at the time-Marxist revolutionaries, trade-unionists, Catholics, Resistance leaders-she saw no need to describe the commitment which inspired her effort. It would be as distorted to employ isolated remarks of Simone Weil against Marxism, Christianity, or the Resistance as it would be to use the words of the Prophets to undermine Israel.
Like her teacher Alain, Simone Weil went from one subject to another with an unorthodox, critical-often humorous-attitude and with little concern to pull the whole together. But she did not follow Alain's example in insisting that her own thought was essentially antipathetic to any systematic formulation. Thus when readers of Weil have perceived a single, highly original world view behind her disparate writings, they have been frustrated at their inability to find it expressed in a clear and coherent way. This is an important stimulus to this study.8
Previous books on Simone Weil have tended to centre on her piety and religious writings. Since she led an unusually worthy life, fact has influenced the exposition and conclusions. Most of her biographers have portrayed her as a sort of saint,9 while a few others have seen her as an aberrant personality-sexually obsessed,10 or psychologically disturbed.11 One critic simply labelled her an esoteric cult figure without much talent.12 Most such opinions seem influenced by the prejudices of the various authors against any individual deeply sympathetic to Catholic-Christian spirituality-and against any claim to "sainthood" in general.
Simone Weil did not write to gain recognition as a religious thinker. The thought of Simone Weil, in fact, profoundly unsettles many believers. Albert Camus demonstrated that an atheist appreciative of the humanistic values in the Judeo-Christian tradition can have far more sympathy for many of her themes than can guardians of religious orthodoxy.13 Weil's ideas are not necessarily tied to the heroism or folly of her life; they should also be appreciated in their own right. Thus she urged that people worry less over how she lived, and why she said what she did, and be more concerned over whether what she said was true or not.14
This study does not argue that the thought of Simone Weil was inspired by the sorts of special graces God sends only to his saints-or by the special energies displayed only by unusually obsessed, deviant personalities. Rather it sets this issue aside as unrelated to an appreciation of her remarkable intellectual achievements. In any case the testimony of those among Simone Weil's biographers, relatives, and friends who knew her best suggest that Weil was neither the gloomy, suicidal, Cathar bent on self-destruction nor the austere, humourless ascetic one might infer from some of her isolated writings. She was, rather, a mischievous, often playful individual, with a good sense of humour and that special sense of irony which seems to distinguish onetime students of the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
Despite the remarkable power of her religious writings, Simone Weil always remained something of the bright normalienne: she brought fresh and astute solutions to a host of spiritual problems; she thought about history, politics and modern scientific culture in a new and stimulating way. A broad look at Simone Weil will reveal a character at once more attractive and more human. This perception, in turn, will cast her work in a...