The fascinating, tragic life of humanist philosopher Simone Weil

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November 15, 2018
Mark Alfano
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The subject of La Passion de Simone
Sydney Chamber Opera’s innovative new production La Passion de Simone tells the story of philosopher and activist Simone Weil, in the structure of a Passion Play with music by revered contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Who was Simone Weil, and what makes her life such a compelling narrative, with poignant relevance to current world politics? We asked philosophy academic Mark Alfano to break it down for us.

An opponent of both fascist politics and centre-left bureaucracy, Simone Weil speaks to our contemporary problems with insight and clarity. The life and work of this short-lived French philosopher, labour organiser, resistance fighter and mystic is as relevant today as it was a century ago. But who was Weil, and what exactly did Weil stand for?

Simone Weil converted from secular Judaism to Christian mysticism in her teens

Weil was born into a secular Jewish family in France in 1909. She was always deeply concerned about the suffering of others, including both those she knew personally and strangers. Her cardinal virtue, you might say, was her compassion. During World War I, when she was just six years old, she refused to eat sugar out of solidarity for French fighters on the Western Front. 

When she was 16, she had the first of three spiritual encounters that eventually led her to an arm’s-length embrace of the Catholic Church, along with sympathetic engagement with gnostic heresies and wisdom literatures from around the globe. She was especially interested in what is sometimes called “negative theology,” arguing that finite human existence is only possible in a space from which God has “withdrawn.” God’s absence is the thing we know best about them. 

"Her cardinal virtue…was her compassion"

Later, while working for the Free French resistance in London during World War II, she again restricted her diet – this time out of solidarity with French citizens living under Nazi rule and rationing. At the same time, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The combination of this disease, her chronic poor health, and her self-starvation led to Weil’s death at the age of 34.

She was a free thinker who emphasised the importance of first-hand experience

In 1928, Weil graduated at the top of her class, one spot above Simone de Beauvoir, who would go on to be one of the foremost feminist thinkers of the 20th century. She subsequently taught philosophy at various lycées in and around Paris. As part of her engagement with the thought and practice of the labour movement, she took a year-long sabbatical from teaching to work as an unskilled labourer in a Parisian factory. 

“Weil graduated at the top of her class, one spot above Simone de Beauvoir”

Weil also traveled to Germany to investigate first-hand the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party and the prospects of German communists to oppose him. In addition, and despite her pacifist tendencies, she traveled to Spain to join the anarchists who were fighting Franco and his fascist army during the Spanish Civil War. Weil was short-sighted and a terrible shot with a rifle; she briefly saw combat, but was forced to leave Spain after suffering serious burns from a campfire.


Weil was a refugee who took seriously the plight of other refugees

Together with her parents, Weil responded to the German invasion of France first by fleeing from Alsace-Lorraine to Paris, then going to Marseille. In this way, she was living like a refugee within her own country for several years, during which she helped German communists escape from Nazi-controlled territory. From Marseille, she eventually took her parents to New York City. However, New York was too far from the action for Weil, so she traveled to London to help the Free French resistance, even meeting Charles de Gaulle. 

We are living through a time right now of great migrations both within countries and between them. French author André Gide dubbed Weil “the patron saint of all outsiders”; she would presumably have been appalled by the current anti-refugee sentiments and policies in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere in Europe — not to mention in the United States and Australia.

She was a fierce defender of freedom of thought and freedom of speech

Simone Weil felt that pressure to conformity in thinking was a kind of violence. When people are unable to think for themselves, or unable to form deep and nuanced understandings of their first-hand experience, they are reduced from rational subjects to mere objects. Weil witnessed such violence in industrialised factories, where labourers were coerced into meaningless, repetitive tasks and faced the arbitrary, unaccountable power of managers and bosses. She also perceived this sort of violence in the senseless gear-grinding of large and unresponsive state bureaucracies. 

"Weil felt that pressure to conformity in thinking was a kind of violence"

In the last years of her life, Weil advocated a new kind of patriotism

Always an opponent of the stupidities inherent in tribalism, nationalism and jingoism, Weil eventually formulated a new conception of patriotism. According to her, we should love our countries – our homes, the places where we have “roots” – not for their glorious achievements or capacity to project force and domination. 

Instead, we should treasure our communities precisely because they are fragile and weak. For Weil, patriotism is more like the tender, protective love of a good parent than the bloodthirsty chest-thumping of a Nazi or someone who promises to “Make America Great Again.” Hers was a patriotism arising from compassion and empathy, not arrogance and heroism.

Weil thought that ethics should start from a recognition of human fragility and finitude

As a chronic invalid, Weil was viscerally aware that human beings are fragile bodies that serve as vehicles for fragile minds. This fragility manifests in what she called affliction, which is a state of both physical and emotional suffering. Instead of envisioning free agents meeting one another in the public square and demanding the recognition of their rights, she emphasised human needs and the obligations of compassion that should respond to these needs. This emphasis is of a piece with her care for refugees and her solidarity with her compatriots during both World War I and World War II.

Her life and work have inspired many artists

In addition to this opera, composed by Kaija Saariaho to a libretto in French by Amin Maalouf, Weil inspired Canadian poet and essayist Anne Carson to write both poems and a full libretto. Her life and work have also served as inspiration for other artists, who created documentaries (watch the trailer above for An Encounter with Simone Weil by filmmaker Julia Haslett), poems, short stories, and a variety of other media, to engage with her ideas and her idiosyncratic personality. The French existentialist philosopher, Albert Camus, fittingly praised her as “the only great spirit of our times.”

La Passion de Simone
9–11 January  
Carriageworks

Mark Alfano is Professor of Philosophy at Australian Catholic University and Delft University of Technology, where he teaches and researches in the areas of ethics, epistemology, and Nietzsche studies.

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