In my last post, I discussed two of the four roles Simone Weil played in her life. I should note that she didn’t act out these roles one after the other. True, she had already been teaching for many years when she started working at factories, but she continued to teach whenever she could. In fact, one of the most amazing things about Weil’s life – besides the fact that she crammed in more activity in a little over thirty years than most of us do in our entire lives – is that she never moved on from doing one thing to another. She simply did more and more and more and more.
But there is certainly an evolution in her thinking, which I would divide into her philosophical and mystic years.
For most of her life, Weil could be generally said to be a political philosopher highly influenced by anarcho-syndicalist and Marxist ideas. This isn’t surprising, given her desire to improve the lives of all those who suffered and to suffer alongside them. As Marxist leaders became outright totalitarian in their methods and anarchist groups became more violent (as she was disappointed to discover during her time fighting alongside Spanish Republicans against the fascist Franco), she began to craft her own political philosophy, taking bits and pieces from a variety of traditions. Her unique stance is rooted in compassion for others (just like all her activities), although even she was to later acknowledge her militant pacifism during the rise of Hitler was a serious mistake.
But this gradual development of her political and philosophical views was nothing compared to the abrupt shift it took once she began her mystic period. Weil became exponentially more religious in the last years of her life. She continued to read widely in Western philosophy (always coming back to Plato, Kant, and Pascal in particular), but also began reading Sanskrit, Hindu, and Buddhist texts (in the original languages, which she taught herself, of course) as well as texts from Middle Age Christian sects that had been deemed heretical. Weil herself was and continues to be seen as heretical by some. She began her mystic phase by being drawn to Catholicism, but she remained critical of certain aspects of the faith even while practicing it far more rigorously than most ostensible Catholics around her. Like her political philosophy, Weil’s religious thinking changed over time, a unique synthesis of many different traditions.
I said at the outset that Simone Weil is someone I deeply respect and with whom I adamantly disagree, but that has nothing to do with her teaching or activist activities, both of which I find downright inspiring. Her philosophical and mystical ideas, on the other hand…
Suffice it to say that the idiosyncratic political and religious amalgamations she crafted are a curious mix of noble, naïve, and occasionally disturbing elements. I personally agree with many of her political aims, but think her pacifism was ultimately a mistake (which she herself, again, noted later). As for her religious writings, there are plenty of things I disagree with on a basic level, but I’m inclined to side with many scholars who are alarmed by the explicit contempt she had for Judaism in her last years.
I’ve had a lot of fun writing and thinking about Weil’s multifaceted life, and I hope this insultingly brief breakdown of her activities inspires you to read more about her. Because as much as I may disagree with some of her ideas, Weil’s life testifies to the kind of openness to personal evolution I think is so necessary to living fully. She never decided on an idea and stuck to it no matter what. At the same time, she lived out the values she believed in.
So if nothing else, Simone Weil proves that having convictions is not the same thing as being close-minded. And if you read about Weil yourself (or preferably her always-interesting essays) I can promise you’ll come away wanting to learn more, to do more, and, above all, to be more.
So go read it (everything she wrote). Now.