I’m wary of calling Simone Weil a role model, since I don’t think anyone should have role models. I think idolizing anyone is dangerous, if only because it makes it all that much more difficult to become an individual. The other problem is that however much we may want to emulate a person, there are always aspects of that same person we’ll disagree with.
This is how I see Weil – someone with qualities I both deeply respect and with whom I adamantly disagree. However, as Francine de Plessix Gray makes clear in her biography, Simone Weil, this was a passionate woman who was uncompromising in her values yet continually open to intellectual evolution. All of these qualities are evident in the four distinct roles she played in life and, for that alone, I want to argue that she deserves our admiration, if nothing else.
Weil’s commitment to teaching alone would be enough to earn my admiration. This was a person of enormous intellect, who learned languages with alarming ease and was as conversant in math as she was in history or literature. However, if she were just smart – an understatement, I know – she would only have my respect. The reason I admire her is because throughout her life, Weil eagerly shared her knowledge with everyone she could. And not just in schools she was assigned to; Weil also founded schools and wrote her own courses in order to benefit the working class. She taught Greek, philosophy, mathematics, and more in addition to her official teaching load because she thought education shouldn’t just be for the wealthy. Furthermore, whenever she stayed with other families or friends, she would insist on helping their children with their homework.
The fact that she had the drive to essentially run a school as a side-job was just one example of the ferocious energy that lasted her entire life – something all the more remarkable when you consider her chronic headaches that plagued her throughout her life and the anorexia that ultimately contributed to her death. I could spend pages listing all the work she did on behalf of the poor and marginalized, but the best evidence of her solidarity with the less fortunate was her decision to work in factories among them. This genius, who could have easily used her gifts and family’s finances to live a comfortable life, instead chose to live life like most people did, people who had no choices. And so Weil worked tirelessly, suffering injuries and burns and occasionally having a near-fatal accident. In the process, she gained perspective on a world she knew she could never have understood by simply reading a book. This experience also nurtured her increasing hostility to people like Trotsky or Lenin who, for all their professed concern for the working man, had never actually worked alongside him. Weil’s writing on the degrading and crushing psychological impact on such work is truly eye-opening.
Oh, and I almost forgot – Weil also volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, even after France decided to stay neutral.
Weil did an enormous amount in tangible, practical ways to help people throughout her life, whether she was in France, Germany, Italy, England, or the U.S., always willing to put her mind and body in service of a noble cause. But in addition to her physical contributions, Weil also left an impressive intellectual legacy through the thousand plus pages she left on all sorts of topics which continue to inspire people today.
Of course, these same pages also inspire outrage and disgust in some people.
Read Part 2 to find out why.
But first, I wanted to conclude by noting that Gray’s biography is a fun and highly informative read about someone the Nobel-prize winning author Albert Camus once said was “the only great spirit of our time.”
So go read it. Now.