Simone Weil

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Simone Weil should not be confused with Simone Veil, a French politician.

Simone Weil (February 3, 1909August 24, 1943) was a French philosopher and mystic.


It is, perhaps, a testimony to Simone Weil’s spiritual insight that people with differing views from hers commended her thought and life. From religious conservatives to liberals, political conservatives to left-wing, believers and atheists have praised her. But Weil came to religion from a purely secularist and atheist milieu.

Weil was born in Paris, and she was the younger sister of mathematician André Weil. Her ancestry was Jewish, but Simone and André were raised agnostic. Her brother was a math prodigy and Simone herself exhibited precociousness early as well-—reading at an early age books well beyond her years.

Weil excelled from a young age, becoming proficient at Ancient Greek at 12. She came second in her class at the École Normale Supérieure, ahead of Simone de Beauvoir in third place. (First class honours went to a young woman who pursued an undistinguished career in the French public service and was never heard of again.)

In her late teens, she became involved in the worker’s movement. She wrote political tracts, marched in demonstrations, and advocated worker’s rights. At this time she is a Marxist, pacifist, and trade unionist.

She received her teaching diploma in 1931, and becomes a teacher of philosophy at a girls’ school. During this time and for the rest of her life she suffers terribly with migraines and sinusitis. In 1933, she participates in the general strike throughout France by the worker’s unions, protesting unemployment and wage cuts.

In 1931, Weil became a school teacher, a profession she practiced in between punishing stints at factories and farms, designed to increase empathy with the working class. Though she considered herself a pacifist, in 1936 she joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. However, her clumsiness repeatedly put her corps at risk; finally she suffered serious burns which caused her to leave Spain and travel to Assisi to recuperate.

In 1934, she takes a year’s leave of absence and works in cognito in two factories as a laborer. Despite he ill health and natural awkwardness, she manages to get thru several months. Returns to teaching in 1935, but gives most of her money away. For a month in 1936, she works on a farm, and then later that year decides to observe and help in the fight against Fascism in Spain. While in camp, she accidentally pours hot oil on herself and has to go to hospital.

In 1937, she continues to write essays on labor and management issues, and war and peace. Then in the spring she experiences a religious ecstasy in the same church that Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed in. She prays for the first time in her life. She has another, more powerful revelation in 1938. From this time on, her writings take on a more mystical and spiritual content, while retaining their focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism but refused baptism, fearing that the consolations of organised religion would impair her faith.

During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille, receiving spiritual direction from a Dominican friar. In 1942, she travelled to the USA and afterwards to the UK. In London, she became a French Resistance worker. Her health had always been frail, and the punishing work regime she assumed for the Resistance soon took its toll. In 1943 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to rest and maintain a generous diet. However, the idealism which had always informed Weil's political activism and material detachment did not permit her to accept special treatment.

In 1915, when she was only six years old, she swore off sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched along the Western Front. Twenty-eight years later, Weil limited herself to the rations she imagined her compatriots were subjected to in the occupied territories of France. Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent, England. She died in August 1943, surrounded by a few devoted friends.

Most of her work was published posthumously.


Weil's philosophy can be roughly divided between her secular thinking and her spiritual thinking. This is a rough division because, for Weil, the world is the stage both for spirituality and for politics, but it must still be recognized, because Weil's spiritual drive is an essentially personal one, while her public philosophy emphasizes relationships that hold between groups and individuals, and is interested in healing social rifts and providing for physical and psychological needs of the mass of humanity.

Weil's critique of secular metaphysics in Lectures on Philosophy

In Lectures on Philosophy (hereafter LP), Weil attempts, among other things, to set forth for her lycée students a coherent version of the materialist philosophical project. (She might say: "What a coherent materialism would look like, if it existed.") It is sometimes difficult to discern what methods are operating, and particularly what her truth- or validity-criteria are, and whence she derived authority for her varied claims. This is, in fact, a concern throughout her work.

Implicitly, her method seems to be something like that of William James, in that she deals with truth not so much logically or scientifically but psychologically or phenomenologically--she is concerned in LP with disclosing what she believes to be the conditions necessary for an experience of truth or reality to emerge for the human subject, or for an object, concept, etc. to emerge as real within human experience.

However, she does not argue, as does James, for a general theory of human truth-production justified by recourse to empirical observation; for her, the problem of truth is always a deeply personal one, to be approached through introspection. She is caught between her own yearning for traditional, idealist philosophy and her own appreciation of the limits of foundationalism. Thus we find statements like:

Any proof of the syllogism would be absurd. The syllogism is, to put it briefly, nothing but a rule of language to avoid contradiction: at bottom the principle of non-contradiction is a principle of grammar.--LP, p. 78


We are forced to accept the postulates and axioms precisely because we are unable to give an account of them. What one can do is try to explain why they seem obvious to us.

alongside the most strident and unforgiving proclamations of this or that specific truth. When pressed, her final appeals take forms like, "It's based on what is beautiful, and if it's beautiful, it must be true." This is not quite a child's naïve clinging to fancy or an absurd extension of the Keatsian axiom, though it is kin to both; it is expression of how personally Weil took truth: she counted as true not that which she could prove but that upon which she depended, that which she could not do without. In LP she tells us:

One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world.

Most people hardly ever realize this, because it is rare that the very same man thinks and puts his thought into action...--LP, 72-3

Weil is pointing here to the disjunction between planning and execution which is brought about by the division of labor between designer (architect, for example) and worker (bricklayer, for example), a division which holds the place almost of original sin for both Weil and for John Dewey, and which also reflects Weil's encounters with the philosophy of Marx.

That connection becomes even stronger when we read,

What marks off the ‘self’ is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.--LP, p. 72-3

In other words, for Weil, both self and world are constituted precisely in and only through informed action upon the world. This resembles pragmatic arguments forwarded by Dewey and James about the key role of observation and above all experimentation in creating human knowledge.

Weil's mystical theology in Gravity and Grace, etc.

Weil's theology is interesting and complex both in itself and in the factors which encouraged its genesis in her psyche. Some have suggested that she should be regarded as a modern-day Marcionite, due to her virtually wholesale rejection of the Old Testament and her overall distaste for the Judaism which was technically hers by birth; others have identified her as a gnostic for similar reasons, and also for her mystical theologization of geometry, Platonic philosophy, and so forth. However, it has been pointed out that this analysis falls apart when it comes to the creation of the world, for Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation of a demiurge, but as a direct expression of God's love--despite the fact that she *also* recognizes it as a place of evil, affliction, and the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy.

It is difficult to speak conclusively of Weil's theology, since it exists only in the form of scattered aphoristic scribblings in her notebooks and as an influence on her more secular writings that were intended for publication, and also in a few letters. None of these formats provides a very direct path to understanding her beliefs, since the first is only semi-formed, the second only enables us to see the secondary effects, and the third is subject to being skewed according to Weil's desire to present herself differently to different interlocutors. However, it is possible to make certain generalizations.


Absence is the key image for her metaphysics, cosmology, cosmogeny, and theodicy. She believed that God created by an act of self-delimitation--in other words, because God is conceived as a kind of utter fulness, a perfect being, no creature could exist except where he was not. Thus creation occurred only when God withdrew a part of himself.

This is, for Weil, an original kenosis preceding the corrective kenosis of Christ's incarnation. (One might compare this with Christologies like that of Athanasius, which emphasize the incarnation as a natural extension of creation rather than as a break from the original created order.) We are thus born in a sort of damned position not owing to original sin as such, but because to be created at all we had to be precisely what God is not, i.e., we had to be the opposite of what is holy.

This notion of creation is a cornerstone of her theodicy, for if creation is conceived this way (as necessarily containing evil within itself), then there is no problem of the entrance of evil into a perfect world. Nor does this constitute a delimitation of God's omnipotence, if it is not that God could not create a perfect world, but that the act which we refer towards by saying "create" in its very essence implies the impossibility of perfection.

However, this notion of the necessity of evil does not mean that we are simply, originally, and continually doomed; on the contrary, Weil tells us that "Evil is the form which God's mercy takes in this world." Weil believed that evil, and its consequence, affliction, served the role of driving us out of ourselves and towards God--"The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it."

More specifically, affliction drives us to what Weil referred to as "decreation"--which is not death, but rather closer to "extinction" (nirvana) in the Buddhist tradition--the willed dissolution of the subjective ego in attaining realization of the true nature of the universe.

(Of course, Weil's concept of that true nature was a Platonistic or Vedantic one of metaphysical fulness, while the Buddhist concept is one of metaphysical emptiness, but the soteriological strategies and metaphors suffer considerable overlap.)


Weil's concept of affliction goes beyond simple suffering, though it certainly includes it. Only some souls are capable of truly experiencing affliction; these are precisely those souls which are least deserving of it--that are most prone or open to spiritual realization. Affliction was a sort of suffering plus, which inclusively transcended both the body and mind; they were physical and mental anguish that went beyond to scourge the very soul.

War and oppression were the most intense cases of affliction; to experience it she turned to the life of a factory worker, while to understand it she turned to Homer's Iliad. Affliction was associated both with necessity and with chance--it was fraught with necessity because it was hardwired into existence itself, and thus imposed itself upon the sufferer with the full force of the inescapable, but it was also subject to chance inasmuch as chance, too, is an inescapable part of the nature of existence. The element of chance was essential to the unjust character of affliction; in other words, my affliction should not usually--let alone always--follow from my sin, as per traditional Christian theodicy, but should be visited upon me for no special reason.

The man who has known pure joy, if only for a the only man for whom affliction is something devastating. At the same time he is the only man who has not deserved the punishment. But, after all, for him it is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God. (Gravity and Grace)

Metaxu: "Every separation is a link."

The concept of metaxu, which Weil borrowed from Plato, is that which both separates and connects. (e.g., as a wall separates two prisoners but can be used to tap messages) This idea of connecting distance was of the first importance for Weil's understanding of the created realm. The world as a whole, along with any of its components, including our physical bodies, are to be regarded as serving the same function for us in relation to God that a blind man's stick serves for him in relation to the world about him. They do not afford direct insight, but can be used experimentally to bring the mind into practical contact with reality. This metaphor allows any absence to be interpreted as a presence, and is a further component in Weil's theodicy.


For Weil, "The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible." For Weil, the beauty which is inherent in the form of the world (this inherency is proven, for her, in geometry, and expressed in all good art) is the proof that the world points to something beyond itself; it establishes the essentially telic character of all that exists.

Beauty also served a soteriological function for Weil: "Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul." It constitutes, then, another way in which the divine reality behind the world invades our lives. Where affliction conquers us with brute force (literally), beauty sneaks in and topples the empire of the self from within.

Weil's Work in The Need for Roots

Written during WWII, Simone Weil’s book The Need for Roots was written right before her death. She was in London working for the French Resistance and trying to convince DeGaulle to form a contingent of nurses to serve at the front lines.

Weil’s book on the Need for Roots has an ambitious plan. It sets out to address the past and to set out a road map for the future of France after WWII. She painstakingly analyzes the spiritual and ethical milieu that led up to France’s defeat by the German army, and then addresses these issues with the prospect of eventual French victory.

What marks her work is the concreteness of her plans and analysis. This means that she does not clothe her plan in theoretical language, but puts it a concrete form—for Weil, the concreteness of the plan would assure its implementation.

Obligations versus Rights

There are several key themes in the work. The first is the precedence that obligation has over rights. For Weil, unless a person understands that they have certain obligations in life, towards themselves, towards others, and towards society, the notion of right will have no power or value.

At the same time, obligations have a transcendental origin. They come from a realm that imposes an imperative—this must is a light from the other world which shines on this world and provides it with direction and order. For Weil, this is a spiritual concept—this means that it transcends the world of competing interests and power games. It opens up a world where justice is possibility and a promise and provides the foundation upon which any purely selfish and relative means find their true perspective.

Obligation has its analogy to the “Thou Shalt not…” of the Ten Commandments. It is the feeling of sacredness with regard to the holy. It is that which stops us from transgressing certain boundaries of ethical or spiritual behavior. It is that which, if profaned, inspires in us feelings and torments of guilt. It has its home in the conscience, that voice inside us that tells us what is and is not right to do.

For Weil, there is one obligation that supercedes all others. This is the obligation to respect and love the Other. It is recognizable in the feelings and emotions associated with harming something so essential to being human that if we violate it, we violate a holy shrine. This something in a human being is what makes them who they are and what they are.

For Weil, without this supernatural world, we are left to a human world where power and force hold sway. This means that the strongest and smartest will crush and destroy those whenever and wherever they can. The struggle for power is the motor of human history, she believes. It is the human condition. It is the source of human suffering and injustice. In her analysis, there is no human answer to this struggle for power, nor is it possible to stop the struggle with any form of ideology, such as Marxism or capitalism or any other form of man-made political system.

The world of spirit, for Weil, confronts this struggle for power. Spirituality is not a way out, an unearthly and utopian dream—instead, she believes that there are techniques that enable humans to become spiritual. These techniques are the ones that the great mystics of every religious tradition has recognized and practiced. For her, the mystical practices of Saint Teresa, Saint Francis of Assisi and St. John of the Cross, especially are telling. For Weil, they are manuals of dealing with the pain and suffering of concrete life while maintaining a link to the transcendent world of God.

Obligations, therefore, provide a link to the spiritual realities that give life meaning and sustain the oppressed and sufferer with its healing power. But obligation is also that power that calls to each of us from the face of another. For Weil, this aspect of the other is that which is inviolable in each and every human being. As she states in one of her essays, it is that part of each of us that expects the good to be done to us. It is that which cries out for justice when it is violated.

Rights, on the other hand, are those relative ends which we strive for. They are not eternal in the way that obligations are, and instead rely on obligations to have legitimacy. That is, unless we have an obligation to respect the human in people, rights will not be given any legitimacy.

Why is Spirituality Necessary for Politics?

Another aspect of this question is the awareness that Weil brings to social and political problems of why spirituality is necessary. It might be a truism that true change in a society cannot occur unless there is a subjective change as well. There is an example of this in alcohol or drug treatment programs. Unless the person wants to change, all the counseling and the support groups will not make a person change.

For Weil, on the social level, this is true of societies as well. In her analysis of history and revolutions, she showed that every revolution ultimately replaced one form of oppression with another. For her, this showed that the reality of history is struggle for power. This is why she believed that for true change, a spiritual awakening must occur in individual conscience.

Take an example: why, with all the money thrown at poverty in the US, is there still poverty? For Weil, the answer to this question is that the programs and money were directed at the right problems. Because they were programs by those who had for those who did not have, the misrelation in power continued—in many ways, the rich instituted programs that would continue to benefit them and maintain their hold on power.

Perhaps this in and of itself justifies the notion that living with the poor and oppressed changes one’s consciousness. Of course, a simple or superficial identification with the poor will not be an authentic experience. But a continued and extended opening up of oneself to the pain and suffering of the poor and oppressed—putting oneself into their condition and seeking that condition would seem to work a change in the spirit.

Perhaps this is why Weil commends the mystical practices of the saints—this rigorous and methodical emptying of oneself does not come easily—it is too easy to believe that one is there while still holding on to the escape route in the back of one’s mind. It demands something like a spiritual practice to seek out all those ways we have of deluding ourselves and lying to ourselves. Weil never says that it is simply a matter of living with the poor—there is a constant reminder in her writings that this experience must permeate one’s entire spirit and being. In her words, one must become a slave to understand what a slave endures.

Can we guarantee obligations?

How does a social organization guarantee that the obligations that individual members owe to each other are carried out? How does a social organization nurture and help bring to birth this awareness of one’s obligations to others?

These are some of the problems that Weil realizes she must answer if she is to provide a realistic and workable solution to the problem of injustice in the world. As mentioned earlier, change must come from inside for people to really change. But how do you make someone change? The answer is that you do not, instead you must provide a social structure that meets certain needs and anchors them in a fertile and nurturing soil. Thus the metaphor of rootedness in her work.

Based on her analysis of obligation, Weil therefore posits that there are certain spiritual needs of the human soul. Without these, a human society will die and its dying will crush and destroy human souls. For her, every socio-cultural entity deserves respect. It is the sum of all human aspirations and wisdom. The flowering of human souls—past, present, and future—depends in many ways on a socio-cultural entity to thrive and grow.

She uses the analogy of a garden. This is not hyperbole—in a very real way, Weil believes, the human soul is like a plant that thrives or dies, depending on the type of environment in which it grows. Like a plant that responds to good soil, sunshine and nutrients, the human soul responds to a nurturing social structure, the light of the spirit, and the elements of the state. For Weil, the nutrients of the soul, what she calls its food, when present in a society reflect overall health for both the individual soul and the society.

It is important to note Weil’s emphasis at the start on the individual. All elements of a socio-cultural entity begin and end with the individual. Now, the individual has both material and spiritual aspects. Weil does not buy into the notion that man is only a soul or only a body. Both aspects of a human have needs and these needs must be met or the individual is in jeopardy of dying.

Even though Weil talks about societies and nations, she is emphatic in her denunciation of the notion that society or the nation is the most important entity in the spirutal life of an individual. She does not believe that collectivities have rights which somehow outweigh those of the individual, nor does she believe that these can solve problems in and of themselves related to injustice. They are merely the means to attaining justice, not the ends.

The Spiritual Needs of the Soul

The soul needs food just as the body needs food, according to Weil. This food comes in the form of meeting the obligations that encourage the soul to grow and mature. These needs include the following.


The need for order reflects Weil’s overall belief that the universe follows a rigid course of cause and effect. This order, however, relates to the ability of all members of a society to keep the obligations that they must observe for a free and just society to exist. This order is a balancing of obligations and needs. Without this balance, the society becomes sick and ultimately may die.

Unlike things in the natural world, however, where there are opposites and extremes that one must maintain a mean, the true nature of order allows all spiritual needs to be met and satisfied. With natural needs and desires, there are polar opposites, but with spiritual needs, they all need to be present for true freedom and justice to exist.


Liberty relates to the ability and freedom to make choices. The need for individual choice is weighed against the rules of society, thereby limiting our choices. Liberty and choice relate to maturity—mature individuals grow up understanding their own liberty depends on the liberty of others and the ability of society to control the negative actions of others. The rules that are imposed should accord with conscience. And though the realm of action may be restricted, for people of goodwill and conscience, they are second nature and accord well with the liberty of all members of a society.


Obedience comes about through the free consent of all members of the society that are affected. There is obedience to rules and to those who enforce the rules and exercise authority over others. When these are obeyed through a free and open consent, there is not servility but obedience. Consent is the heart of obedience—since obedience out of fear of punishment or hope of reward breeds servility. She notes that in her own time, men are starved for obedience—yet there are those [read Hitler] who have exploited those fact and enslaved men instead.


For Weil, responsibility is what each person needs to feel useful and indispensable in their social life. Many people want to know the worth of their work, therefore they want to know what the big picture is relating to the work that they do. People also want to know what the interconnections are between his own actions, those of his or her fellow citizens, and those of the society as a whole. In other words, people need to know the part that they play in every great or small undertaking. Closely related to responsibility is the need for initiative—that is the possibility to show one’s leadership.


This notion relates to the respect that each individual deserves simply as a human being. There are no reasons why someone should not deserve this respect [felons? But felons lose rights, not equality] Society where opportunities depend on natural talents and expertise will produce some inequalities. Society must ensure that these inequalities do not impinge on this need for equality. One way to obviate this is to provide stiffer penalties for those in positions of authority and power than for those without this status.

Note also her emphasis on how many can affect equality. It should not be made the measure of all things, as she puts it.


Veneration of superiors as symbols, of what? “that realm situated above all men and whose expression in this world is made up of the obligations owed by each man to his fellowmen.” The superiors should acknowledge this as the source of their authority, not their personal powers. “The effect of true hierarchism is to brings each one to fit himself morally into he place he occupies.”


This has to do with the respect due to each human being as part of his social environment. It is recognition of his role in and activities as part of a greater social purpose—this links individuals to a past and to the actions of those who went before him or her.

Oppression rubs out true honor and the traditions and past accomplishments of men and women are extinguished. They lose their “social prestige.” Conquering rubs out these traditions and this memory, thereby desecrating the memory of those who have gone before and denying members of the conquered society and relationship to the heroism and traditions of their past. Instead, they are made to honor and venerate the heroes and heroines of the conquering nation.

Modern societies have a warped sense of honor—while they honor certain types of heroes such as aviators, millionaires, and others like them. But the heroism of miners and others are left unacknowledged.


There are two types of punishment: disciplinary and penal. Disciplinary punishment puts people back on track after making a mistake, much as we do for children. Failings against which it would be too exhausting to fight if there were no social support.

Penal punishment welds a man back into society again after he or she makes commits a crime of their own accord. This is best done with consent on his part—“the only way of showing respect for somebody who has placed himself outside the law is to reinstate him inside the law by subjecting him to the punishment ordained by the law.”

But punishment as fear is wrong. Punishment must be an honor. “It must not only wipe out the stigma of the crime, but must be regarded as a supplementary form of education, compelling a higher devotion to the public good. The severity of the of the punishment must be in keeping with the kind of obligation which has been violated, and not with the interests of public security.”

This last comment shows Weil’s concern that crimes committed by those with more public authority and power should be punished more severely in many cases than those committing “lesser” crimes. [why is this?]

Freedom of Opinion

The big thing to note here is her emphasis on the individual. Only individuals have opinions. This is important, because she opposes this idea to the idea that associations or corporations have opinions as well. This is seen in some countries, particularly the United States of America, where companies and political parties are said to have the right of freedom of speech.

Weil also asserts that individuals should be responsible for their words. They should not be simply allowed to express any shocking opinion, unless they are willing either to admit that they don’t stand behind their words or that they do; in the most egregious situations, individuals could be penalized for making outrageous statements that spurred others to perform immoral acts.


For Weil, truth is one of the most important needs of the soul. She says that all people should be nurtured in truth and be protected from sources of untruth, such as newspapers, false media accounts, and propaganda. Her main focus seems to be on the laborers again. She notes that a laborer who spends 8 hours a day working must not be expected to be able to have to distinguish between what is true and false in the papers or other media. They must expect that what they see, hear, or read is invariably true. To ensure truth in the media, she suggests setting up special courts to which those who believe that someone is spreading can be brought and judged. For Weil, the dissemination of lies and falsehoods is a crime as dangerous as any other, if not worse than others because it attacks the human soul’s “most sacred need—protection against suggestion and falsehood.”


Obviously, the concept of uprootedness and the need for roots is basic to Weil’s entire book. Why this metaphor? Is it a metaphor? In some passages, she seems to speak quite literally—as though humans and their social environments are plants and gardens that can be grown and planted through effort.

As the title of the book the book suggests, there is a need for roots—that is, humans need roots to grow. Roots provide the stability and nourishment of a plant. The deeper they go, the more the plant can withstand bad weather and shocks to its system and the more extensive its root system the more nourishment it can receive to grow and remain healthy.

So let’s become clear about what the soil is and what the plant here is. The soil, for Weil, is the social structure that humans create to protect themselves from harm, catastrophes such as starvation, protection from animals, from the elements, and finally protection from each other. The roots are from the plant that symbolizes us humans.

Just as plants need good roots and soil to root in, they also need sun. For Weil, the sun to humans is the world of the spirit. It provides light so the nutrients can work properly, just as photosynthesis creates chlorophyll from the nutrients using the energy of the sun.

Now, let’s explain the logic of this metaphor. The plants in the soil, are human beings. The soil is the social and cultural structures that human beings have built up over the millennia. In most cases, they are evolving and in time we see more recent shoots sprout and grow from older plants. The laws governing the growth of these plants are the similar to the laws that govern nature. They are just as rigid, just ineluctable as the law of gravity. The laws that govern the actions of humans in society mirror the laws of the natural world. That is, just as we find a struggle for existence and survival in nature, so also we find a similar struggle within human social structures. This, for Weil is the struggle for power.

In outline, this struggle is unique to human beings. It rests on the necessity of wrestling from the natural world a place that humans can survive in—a human environment which humans have created. At a certain level of human social organization, humans are at peace with other. They have little strife among themselves—the main battle is to find food and shelter and weather the natural elements. We can see examples of this in some tribes in the Amazon.

As societies become more structured and humans begin to develop technical skills and more control of their natural environment, a division of labor occurs—That is, the work that is needed to build cities, grow food for larger populations, pave roads, carry out religious rites--this division of labor means that you must have those who give orders and those who follow orders. This arrangement of worker and manager is necessary for any extended and complex social activity. To conceive, plan, and carry out any great project, there must be those who give orders and those who take orders.

The struggle for power is not, Weil asserts, between the workers and the managers, as Marx and others had theorized. The struggle is between those who have the power. They fight and vie with each other for more and more power, more and more control of the undertakings and the direction that a society will take, as well as all the material and psychological rewards that come from power.

For Weil, this struggle is inevitable. There is no way to get around it, since human beings must continue—for their survival—to provide for themselves and to maintenance the social structure that is the main instrument of their continued existence. Weil sounds a very pessimistic note on this state of affairs—at the end of one of her essays, she notes that we are born slaves.

This pessimism is only brightened for Weil by the illumination provided by the spiritual reality that she came more and more to experience in her life. It is the spiritual world, with its revelation of obligations and ethical insights that enables societies to soften and re-route the immense pain and suffering caused by the struggle for power. Through the power of the spiritual, human beings can see that their final destiny does not merely end on earth, and that perhaps there will be a final reckoning for the actions that one has performed in this life in a life after death. She found this concept in many religions, from Mesoamerica to Egypt to Greece to China to Druid England.

Societies embed these spiritual insights and beliefs into their practices, rituals, and symbols. The spiritual insights of past generations are stored in memory and passed down from generation to generation. The customs, traditions, sacred writings and religion of a society are the embodiment of this spiritual treasury. As generation follows generation, individuals in the present can communicate with the past and the past communicate with the present through this accumulated spiritual wealth. In this way, a medium of continuity across time and space is created and the wisdom of the past can inform and perhaps direct the activities and behavior of the present as individuals plan and move into the future.

We have already seen what spiritual needs the individual has to have to remain free and just. A society that meets and provides these needs is a spiritually rooted one. This society will provide the material and spiritual needs of each member of the society. Weil finds these societies as part of the natural development of human life on earth. They are ordained by God as the creator and source of life. They are precious and should be honored and venerated for their beauty, but above for their ability to sustain human life in its material needs, if not more so with their spiritual journeys and desires.

Once a society begins to lose the ability to provide and meet these needs, it starts to die. Once individuals begin to lose their contact with the soil that nourishes and the sun that illuminates each person’s days, they decay from the inside out. Like a tree that has a sickness, the pith and meat of the tree softens and eventually cannot support the weight of the plant and it topples.

Why or how does this happen? The answer to this question is complex. But for now, we can say that for Weil, most societies do not die natural deaths. They are killed by conquerors and invaders who uproot civilizations, not only not leaving buildings and temples standing but also destroying those spiritual roots that had perhaps sustained the civilization for hundreds if not thousands of years.

This is an immense crime in Weil’s eyes. Through her study of history she had come to love the wonder and beauty of several civilizations. That they were no longer existent, beat into dust by empires, hurt her sense of spiritual balance. Yet, her moral outrage emanated more from a deep despair for she knew that as beautiful as art, architecture, poetry, and religion are, they are nothing compared to the beauty of a human being. Above the death of every civilization she heard a mournful dirge of immense pain and affliction which was the combined voices of each individual who had been hacked, burned, raped, and sodomized—whose human dignity and beauty had been profaned by the merciless and bloody boot of empire and desire for power.

It was this affliction which was caused by a human being treating another human like a piece of garbage which she ultimately saw as her own spiritual vocation in life. But above that, it was the vision of a world wherein humans have the responsibility and mission to alleviate as much of this affliction as possible—to create just and free societies where the cries of the orphans and the widows would not be heard that drove her to use all of her spiritual and intellectual and physical resources to bring to birth a manifesto that would lay out the blueprint for rebirth and regeneration. This rebirth would serve as the basis for the rise of a civilization to equal those great ones of history…

In one of her essays, Weil says that the oppressed cannot voice their affliction, cannot dry out due to the weight of the pain they suffer. Her work—her words and her life--is an attempt to give voice to this affliction. I want to suggest that this aspect of her work puts it on level of the ancient Jewish prophets, those men and women who stood up against injustice in the name of God and gave voice to the widows and the orphans, those who are crushed beneath the unending struggle for power.

As a side note, I would note the eccentricity of several of the prophets—Ezekiel is said to have dung, Isaiah to have lain on his side for months at a time. And then we recall Hosea, whom God told to marry a prostitute who continued to leave him, get impregnated, and God would tell him to take her back—numerous times. With this in mind, perhaps we can make room for a frail, sickly, young French Jew, who spent her life’s fire fighting for workers, the despised, the marginalized, and died by starving herself because she could not forget that men, women and children in her homeland were dying for want of food.

Causes of Uprootedness

So the question becomes what causes uprootedness in the modern world. In her analysis of uprootedness, she begins with the alienation of the workers from their work and societies, goes on to discuss farmers, and finally takes on nations as a whole. As she confronts each situation, her analysis is clothed in mundane and non-sexy particulars. Yet, her analysis has the ring of authenticity because it combines nor only the brilliance of intellectual analytical skills but also the emotional experience of having lived with the workers and seen and understood what their needs—material and spiritual—were.

For Weil, there are several main causes for uprootedness. We have already mentioned invasions; she also mentions money and education. These can cause uprootedness by undermining the foundation of why we act and what motivates us to act. Instead of obligations being fundamental to a society. For example, with money it is the desire to make money or see all things important as coming from or in terms of money that causes uprootedness to take place.

Education can cause uprootedness by severing the culture of the elite from the rest of the people. She notes the effects of Renaissance, for example, in dissociating the people from their folk culture and having the cultures of antiquity, especially of Rome imposed by the intelligentsia onto the masses of individuals. For Weil, the Renaissance brought to birth the cult of technical science, which brings with it pragmatism and specialization, and severs the mind and soul from any relationship with the world of spirit. Her example of this is the child in school who can parrot the fact that the sun revolves around the earth but no longer looks to heaven for inspiration or reverence or awe.

Uprootedness is a disease that causes further uprootedness wherever it goes. Her examples of those who are uprooted include foreign invaders, French colonialists, America (because it is the land of immigrants), British marauders, and the Spanish. Uprootedness can have several outcomes, but the most dangerous are a kind of spiritual lethargy which resembles slavery and a form of activity that spawns and feeds on further uprooting others.

World religions

While Weil's primary religious identification was Christian, she did not limit herself to the Christian religious tradition. She was keenly interested in other traditions—especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries, Hinduism (especially the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), and [[Mahayana|Template:Mahayana]] Buddhism. She believed that all these and others were valid paths to God, and much of her reluctance to join the Catholic Church can be ascribed to that body's reluctance to recognize non-Christian traditions.

However, she was opposed to religious syncretism, claiming that it effaced the particularity of the individual traditions:

Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention.

Weil was an avid classicist, schooled in Greek and, after discovering the Gita, in Sanskrit.


  • La Pesanteur et la Grace (Gravity and Grace) (1947)
  • L'Enracinement (The Need for Roots) (1949)
  • Attente de Dieu (Waiting on God) (1950)
  • Oppression et Liberté (Oppression and Liberty) (1955)

On-Line Articles by Weil

Further reading

  • McLellan, David. Utopian Pessimist. New York: Poseidon Press, 1990

External links

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