It’s been noted more than a few times that during the build-up to the Russian Revolution the intellectual leaders of the Communist movement found the workers and peasants not quite to their liking. Academics and agitators would truck out to the countryside, prepared to bestow their wisdom on the ignorant peasants only to have their wisdom rejected. Two groups with very real frustrations and grievances against the system were unable to communicate; the tragedy was one group was determined to educate the other, and when the people they had categorized as their pupils rejected this proposition, those who had declared themselves the enlighteners decided that where they could not persuade, they would compel. The story of history.
Simone Weil broke that pattern throughout her short life (she lived during rather turbulent years: 1909-1943). She placed first form in her academy in Paris in the post-WWI years; coming in behind her was Simone de Beauvoir. The world has long known of de Beauvoir, paramour of the gluttonous and destructive Sartre. Her work was received happily by the Parisian mandarins; once more the stability and prosperity craved by the poor would be mocked and ruined by the writings and work of the rich who sought total liberation from all restraint in order to gratify their obsessions.
Weil took a dramatically different path. She was eager not merely to instruct, but to learn; more shocking, she was willing to learn from those who were supposed to be led. As a young Marxist she chose to accompany the proletariat to revolution on the ground floor: she went to work in a factory. It was in that work, the monotonous, oppressive, soul-killing work of the factory, that she realized the problems of modernity went far deeper than who had power and who didn’t, than who was liberated and who needed to be liberated (however much they protested against it). The problems started deep down in human nature and the kind of work necessitated by our demands. Marx, Engels, Lenin: their dream world never displayed curiosity or love for Creation, for people, for animals. Just as Marx disdained the idea of even listening to workers, so the whole future of Communism would disdain the idea that nature was anything but raw material to usher in the technocratic utopia.
Weil suffered beside those others sought merely to manage; she listened; she prayed, and in silence she turned. She conceived of a re-embodied approach to our political and spiritual woes. Rather than offer bureaucratic solutions which sought to manage humanity, she stressed the need for attention and roots, two overlooked aspects of human life that resist the forces of dehumanization. Attention and roots build in us the capacity for communion, which as the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said, is the only way we really can know anything: “Knowing means more than a way to tame reality. To know is to enter into communion with things.”
The history of mankind can be seen as the long rebellion against the slow, steady of work of attention and roots. We seek to build Rome in a day, knock it down and rebuild it anew, grinding human bones and blood into dust for the sake of spreading concrete or insulating ourselves from suffering; we are forever “creatively disrupting” all that makes life worth living. Communion with Creation, our neighbor, and God is what we were made for, and these things are increasingly removed from our ability. Simone Weil realized peace cannot be found by erecting and forever arguing about yet another new system, but through metanoia, a turning within our own hearts back towards that which we are always called to be. Simone Weil allowed herself to experience this turning, this conversion, to a degree that enabled thousands of people to hear her and follow her way themselves.
For these reasons I nominate Simone Weil as a candidate for the Nine Worthies, a woman who humbled herself, who suffered alongside the people others sought to manage, and who came to profess a God who loved and suffered among His people, as one of us, and so protected the imago dei of the person from all the dehumanizing machinations of power.
Below you will find a few excerpts from Ms. Weil’s writings. Recommended books: Gravity and Grace, The Need for Roots, Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, and Waiting for God.
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” – The Need for Roots
The combination of these two facts — the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it — constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.
Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes also that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect.
This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings. Whatever formulation of belief or disbelief a man may choose to make, if his heart inclines him to feel this respect, then he in fact also recognizes a reality other than this world’s reality. Whoever in fact does not feel this respect is alien to that other reality also.” -Draft for a Statement of Human ObligationThe aim is to replace economic oligarchies by the State, which has a will-to-power of its own and is quite as little concerned with the public good; and a will-to-power, moreover, which is not economic but military and therefore much more dangerous to any good folk who have a taste for staying alive. And on the bourgeois side what on earth is the sense of objecting to State control in economic affairs if one accepts private monopolies which have all the economic and technical disadvantages of State monopolies and possibly some others as well?” -The Power of Words
The needs of the soul can for the most part be listed in pairs of opposites which balance and complete one another.The human soul has need of equality and of hierarchy. Equality is the public recognition, effectively expressed in institutions and manners, of the principle that an equal degree of attention is due to the needs of all human beings. Hierarchy is the scale of responsibilities. Since attention is inclined to direct itself upwards and remain fixed, special provisions are necessary to ensure the effective compatibility of equality and hierarchy.” -Statement of Obligations
A modern factory reaches perhaps almost the limit of horror. Everybody in it is constantly harassed and kept on edge by the interference of extraneous wills while the soul is left in cold and desolate misery. What man needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.
Physical labour may be painful, but it is not degrading as such. It is not art; it is not science; it is something else, possessing an exactly equal value with art and science, for it provides an equal opportunity to reach the impersonal stage of attention.” -Human Personality
If you say to someone who has ears to hear: ‘What you are doing to me is not just,’ you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like, ‘I have the right…’ or ‘you have no right to…’ They evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention.” – Human Personality
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” –letter to a friend.