What she cared about was human souls.
— T.S. Eliot on Simone Weil
Simone Weil was a French philosopher, mystic, and political activist.
Taking a path that was unusual among twentieth-century left-leaning intellectuals, she became inclined towards mysticism as her life progressed. Weil wrote throughout her life, though most of her writings did not attract much attention until after her death. In the 1950s and 1960s, her work became famous in continental Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”
A precocious student, she was proficient in Ancient Greek by age 12. She later learned Sanskrit after reading the Bhagavad Gita. Like the Renaissance thinker Pico della Mirandola, her interests in other religions were universal and she attempted to understand each religious tradition as an expression of transcendent wisdom.
From her late teenage years, Weil would generally disguise her “fragile beauty” by adopting a masculine appearance, hardly ever using makeup and often wearing men’s clothes.
As a teenager, Weil studied at the Lycée Henri IV under the tutelage of her admired teacher Émile Chartier, more commonly known as “Alain”. During these years, Weil attracted much attention with her radical opinions. She was called the “Red virgin”, and even “The Martian” by her admired mentor.
At the age of 19 she gained admission to the École Normale Supérieure – a French grande école (higher education establishment outside the framework of the public university system). It trained in the critical spirit and secular values of the Enlightenment. It has since developed into an institution which has become a platform for a select few of France’s students to pursue careers in government and academia.
The principal goal of ENS is the training of professors, researchers and public administrators. Among its alumni there are 13 Nobel Prize laureates.
She finished first in the exam for the certificate of “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir finished second.
Graduating with a Weil taught philosophy at a secondary school for girls in Le Puy and teaching was her primary employment during her short life.
She died at the age of 34 from tuberculosis, however the coroner’s report said that “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed”. The exact cause of her death remains a subject of debate. Some claim that her refusal to eat came from her desire to express some form of solidarity toward the victims of the war.
During her lifetime, Weil was only known to relatively narrow circles; even in France, her essays were mostly read only by those interested in radical politics. Yet during the first decade after her death, Weil rapidly became famous, attracting attention throughout the West. For the 3rd quarter of the twentieth century, she was widely regarded as the most influential person in the world on new work concerning religious and spiritual matters.
Her thought has continued to be the subject of extensive scholarship across a wide range of fields. A meta study from the University of Calgary found that between 1995 and 2012 over 2,500 new scholarly works had been published about her.
Simone Weil is right; it’s not the human being that must be protected, but the possibilities within him. Moreover, she says, “one doesn’t enter truth without having passed through one’s own annihilation, without having lived at length in a state of total and extreme humiliation.”
— Albert Camus, Notebooks 1942-1951
Below are 9 of Weil’s most profound and enlightened truths. I believe if we can read, understand and accept these we can propel ourselves into a more enlightened 2018. And overall, more enlightened people.
1. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.
Give absolute attention when others are speaking. Do not give half your mind, half your attention. Give it fully. Put your phone down. Really listen.
2. We must not wish for the disappearance of any of our troubles, but grace to transform them.
2018 will not be without its troubles. Do not expect for a smooth year. Expect, however, for yourself to be strong enough to handle whatever is thrown at you.
3. All sins are attempts to fill voids.
Before you lean into a bad habit, think about why you’re doing it. What are you trying to quiet, fill or satisfy. Be mindful of why you are doing something and you may be able to avoid it.
4. We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, ‘I am suffering,’ than to say, ‘This landscape is ugly.’
Realize when you are suffering and refuse to take it out on those around you. Realize that most things are internal and not external. Nothing can hurt you except your own mind. Refuse to let the outside world be inflicted by your inner turmoil.
5. Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.
Do not respond to situations that are causing you harm. Learn to control your reactions. Adding your reaction will only increase the situation and cause you more turmoil. When someone says or does something to you, learn to let it be. Do not give them the satisfaction of your reaction.
6. Simone Weil said it is impossible for us to forgive anyone who does us harm if we are degraded by it; so we must think the harm has not degraded us, but has revealed some true level.
This is also true when we humiliate and harm ourselves. If we are to forgive ourselves, we must somehow understand the experience as a realization or revelation. One of the pleasures of a masochistic experience can be that it leads to the satisfaction of reaching a true level, of finding deep and low-down truths about oneself.
— Lyn Cowan, Masochism: A Jungian View
7. A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.
Refuse to rely on your looks. Refuse to believe they are important. Refuse to believe that you are defined by this outer shell. You are soul — your body is nothing but a vessel. We will all wither and age and wrinkle. Do not rely on your outer shell to represent you.
8. We must force this insatiable desire within us, which is always oriented towards outward things and has its domain in an imaginary future, to close in on itself and bring its main thrust round to the present.
Realize when you are projecting yourself into future situations. Pay attention to your wandering mind. Ground yourself and teach yourself to stay in the present. Do not let your mind create false situations based on irrelevant future situations.
“If we behold ourselves at a particular instant – the present instant, severed from the past and the future – we are innocent. We cannot be at this instant anything other than what we are; all progress implies a duration. It forms part of the order of the world, at this instant, that we should be such as we are. All problems come back to the question of time.”
9. But by uprooting oneself, one seeks greater reality.
Have the courage to leave your comfort zone. Have the courage to embrace change — even if you didn’t ask for it. Have the courage to change the situation so that you may experience new ones.