Excerpt #16 — Simone Weil on What is Sacred in Each Person

“The good is the only source of the sacred.
There is nothing sacred except the good
and what is relative to the good.”

Simone Weil (pronounced “Vey”, because of her roots in France, despite what I understand to be the German origin of her family name) was one of the most brilliant, fascinating, and edifying figures of the 20th century. Every time I return to her I cannot escape the conviction that she is, in so many ways, like the North Star. It is not without reason that Albert Camus said that she was “the only great spirit of our times”, and I’m told that he visited Weil’s mother and meditated in Simone’s room on his way to receive his Nobel Prize. Her fame does not stop there. Even presidents cite her. Naturally, she has her own society.

The way I learned about Weil was through two books, Gravity and Grace as well as Waiting on God, both of which I’d read for several classes during my first two graduate degrees. (Susan Sontag, mentioned below, once judged that Waiting on God is the best introduction to Weil.) They are intense, extremely beautiful, but in the way that they showcase a love that follows through on principle to the point of sacrificing itself for others in solidarity, rather than culminating in grand thoughts or flowery language or merely in learned tomes. I could say something about the political and mystical elements in Weil here, but I won’t, because they should be learned from an encounter with her through her writings directly.

I am constantly discovering new things about Weil, however: as of writing this, it appears that these same two books –the two books by which she is usually first met and known– may not be purely hers, writes Dr. Benjamin Braude (pronounced “BROW-duh”, if I recall correctly) of Boston College in a presentation he gave in 2015. It seems that there were two very close friends of Weil’s (their recollections of her can be found here) who had a hand in compiling or editing them. (After writing this, I sat down on the 16th of November with Dr. Braude in his office, as I couldn’t find a podcast or transcript of the talk I saw that he’d given; I took eight pages of notes. I can’t write some of it, because he’d like to write an article, so I’ll be spare in my comments. It appears that the work Gravity & Grace is, at best, only half Weil: the sentences are all hers, drawn from notebooks she wrote while working for G. Thibon in response to conversations she had with him –and in which he held the dominant role– but the paragraphs are all Thibon’s, ripped from their various contexts and re-constructed into novel paragraphs by him in the years after her death, and arranged topically. Thibon was, it seems, close to Pétain while he was in power following the fall of France, if memory serves he refused honors that were offered to him by the Vichy regime, and he may have written some speeches for Pétain — though I’m not diggin up my notes to confirm or correct these memories for you, dear reader. It is enough to know that Thibon was a fascist, an anti-Semite, and so we can agree he was at the least morally compromised, if not corrupt. He apparently was not in legal possession of Weil’s notebooks under French law, either, though the theft was retroactively validated by an agreement with the family. Dr. Braude mentioned that there were AAR panels on Weil until the 80’s, when one session exploded in controversy, leading to a schism in scholarship between what some have casually dubbed “cultists & critics” of Weil. Braude describes the Weil society, mentioned above, as part of the cultist side of the split.) Fr. Perrin’s work is much, much more faithful, it appears, and is not rife with scandal the way that G. Thibon’s reception of her work is. Susan Sontag, I am told, said that Weil “has always been framed”. (You can read a review by Sontag of one collection by Weil here.)

I keep meaning to get to her On the Abolition of All Political Parties , her Oppression and Liberty, and her The Need for Roots, which have all been on my shelf for an embarrassing number of years. I’ve had two books, The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, and Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love, sitting on my shelf for some time. (I say this to alert potential lovers of Weil about these works.)

Seemingly the best YouTube video on her is a BBC Radio 4 program that can be found here (there is a film that purports to be about here that can be found here, and which was used to introduce her to me, but I do not at all recommend it, as it is more about the family of the documentarist and her political preoccupations than it is about Weil, although the documentarist interviews some interesting figures from Weil’s life and legacy). I know of other audio sources on her, but I haven’t given them a listen yet.

I picked up several volumes by Weil for my wife for her birthday last year — the only gift she asked for (and I bugged her for months ahead of time, asking her). Among them was First and Last Notebooks, her Lectures on Philosophy, as well as her Late Philosophical Writings.

~~~

Our excerpt comes from one of the essays in the Late Philosophical Writings. Weil is here responding to a book by Jacques Maritain, The Rights of Man and Natural Law; I previously reviewed here a book by William Cavanaugh, who also wrote against Maritain, or rather, some unintended political consequences of some of Maritain’s thought, as it supplied the background to one implementation of it in Chile.

But here, Weil:

There is in each human being something sacred. But it is not his person, which is not anything more than his personality. It is him, this man, wholly and simply.

There is a passerby in the street who has long arms, blue eyes, a mind where thoughts are swirling that I know nothing about, but that may well be nothing special.

It is neither his person nor his personality that is sacred to me. It is him. Him as a whole. Arms, eyes, thoughts, everything. I would not violate any of this without infinite scruples.

If the human personality were what is sacred for me, I could easily put out his eyes. Once he was blind, he would still have a personality. I would not have touched his person at all. I just would have destroyed his eyes.

It is impossible to define respect for human personality. It is not just impossible to define verbally. Many luminous ideas are like this. But this notion cannot even be conceived; it cannot be defined and outlined by the silent operation of thought.

To take as a rule of public morals a notion that is impossible to define and to conceive is to open ourselves up to all kinds of tyranny.

The notion of rights, launched across the world in 1789, was by its internal insufficiencies impotent to exercise the function that was given to it.

To join together two insufficient notions in speaking of the rights of the person will not get us any farther.

What is it that keeps me from poking out his eyes, if I am allowed to do so, and might even find it amusing?

[105] Although he may well be sacred to me as a whole, he is not sacred in all respects and relations. He is not sacred to me insofar as his arms happen to be long, or insofar as his eyes happen to be blue, or insofar as his thoughts happen to be common. Nor, if he is a duke, insofar as he is a duke. Nor, if he were a garbage man, insofar as he is a garbage man. None of that would stay my hand.

What would stay it is knowing that if someone were to poke out his eyes that it would be his soul that was lacerated by the thought that someone had done evil to him.

There is at the bottom of every human heart something that goes on expecting, from infancy to the grave, that good and not evil will be done to us, despite the experience of crimes committed, suffered, and observed. This above all else is what is sacred in every human being.

The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what is relative to the good.

This profound and childlike part of the heart that always expects good is not what is in play when we claim our rights. The little boy who jealously watches to see if his brother has a piece of cake slightly bigger than his gives in to a motive that comes from a much more superficial part of the soul. The word “justice” has two very different meanings that are related to these two parts of the soul. The first is the one that matters.

[…]

[106] For those who have undergone too many blows, such as slaves, this part of the heart that [had evil inflicted upon it] makes them cry out in surprise, seems dead. But it never is entirely. It just cannot cry anymore. It is ensconced in a state of dumb and uninterrupted moaning.

[…] Most often, the words that try to translate [this cry] fall completely short.

[…] Excepting the intelligence, the only human faculty truly interested in the liberty of public expression is this part of the heart that cries out against evil. But as it does not know how to express itself, liberty is a small thing for it. It is above all necessary that public education be such that it furnishes, as much as possible, the means of expression. Then it is necessary to have a regime where the public expression of opinions is defined less by freedom and more by an atmosphere of silence and attention wherein this weak and inept cry can make itself heard. Finally, a system of institutions that brings out, as far as possible, leaders who can and want to hear and understand this cry.

It is clear that a party occupied with trying to get or trying to keep governmental power cannot discern anything but noise in these criesd. It will react differently according to whether this noise hinders its own propaganda or whether, on the contrary, it enlarges it. But in any case, it is not capable of a tender and divining attention that can discern the significance of this cry.

The same thing is the case to a lesser degree for the organizations that imitate, by contamination, the parties, which is to say, when public life is dominated by the competition of the parties […]

[107] […] When the freedom of expression is reduced in fact to the freedom of propaganda for organizations of this type, the only parts of the human soul that deserve expression are not fre. Or, their freedom is infinitesimal, hardly more than in a totalitarian system.

[…] The “person” does not provide this criterion. The cry of sorrowful surprise that rises up from the bottom of the soul upon the infliction of evil is not something personal. A blow to the person and his desires is not enough to make it burst forth. It always bursts forth by the sensation of some contact with injustice through pain. It is always, just as it is in the case of Christ, in the case of the least of men, an impersonal protest.

[108] What is sacred in science is truth. What is sacred in art is beauty. Truth and beauty are impersonal. […]

If a child does addition, and if she fails, the error bears the mark of her personality. If she proceeds in a perfectly correct manner, her person is absent from the whole operation.

Perfection is impersonal. The person in us is the part in us of error and sin. Every effort of the mystics has always sought to reach the place when there is no longer anything in their soul that says “I.”

But the part of the soul that says “us” is still infinitely more dangerous.

~~

Passage into the impersonal only comes about by attention of rare quality, and is only possible in solitude. Not only actual solitude, but moral solitude. It is never accomplished by those who think themselves members of a collectivity, as part of an “us.”

[109] Humans in a collectivity do not have access to the impersonal, even in its lesser forms. A group of human beings cannot even do addition. Addition works in a mind that has forgotten for a moment that other minds exist.

The personal is opposed to the impersonal, but there is a way from one to the other. There is no way from the collective to the impersonal. It is necessary above all that a collectivity be dissolved into separate persons in order that they may enter into the impersonal.

In this sense only, the “person” participates more fully in the sacred than the collectivity does.

Not only is the collectivity foreign to the sacred, but it misleads us by offering a false imitation of it.

[…] The subordination of the person to the collectivity is not a scandal; it is a fact in the order of mechanical facts, like that of a gram to a kilogram on a balance. The person is in fact always under the weight of the collectivity, up to and including what is called the expansion of the personality. […]

[110] […] A human being only escapes the collective by being elevated above the personal in order to penetrate into the impersonal. At this moment there is something in him, a portion of his soul, on which nothing of the collective can have any grip. If he can root himself in the impersonal good, which is to say, if he becomes capable of drawing energy from it, he is in a state, every time that he thinks that he has an obligation to do so, of turning a small but real force against no matter what collectivity, without calling on any outside force.

[…] Each of those who have penetrated into the domain of the impersonal encounters there a responsibility towards all human beings. It is the responsibility of protecting in them, not their persons, but all the fragile possibilities that the personal has covered over of passing into the impersonal.

It is to this above all that the appeal for respect towards the sacred character of human beings needs to be addressed. In order that such an appeal might have an existence, it is quite necessary that it be addressed to whatever beings are capable of hearing it.

It is useless to explain to a collectivity that in each of the single beings that compose it there is something that it ought not to violate. […]

[111] […] If it is useless to tell the collectivity that the personal is sacred, it is also useless to tell the personal that it is sacred. It cannot believe that. It does not sense itself to be sacred. The reason that keeps us from doing so is that it is in fact not.  […]

In a human being, the personal is a thing in distress, it is cold, it runs about looking for a refuge and for warmth. […]

[…] The relations between the collectivity and the personal ought to be set out with the sole object of removing what is capable of preventing the growth and germination of the impersonal part of the soul.

For that to happen, it is necessary, on the one hand, that there be space around each person, a degree of free disposition of one’s time, possibilities of going to higher and higher degrees of attention, of [112] solitude, of silence. It is necessary at the same time that it be kept warm, in order that distress not constrain it to drown itself in the collective.

Simone Weil, Late Philosophical Writings ed. Eric O. Springstead, transl. Eric O. Springstead & Lawrence E. Schmidt (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 104-112

She goes on to talk about this all more, connecting it to labor (“in the same measure as art and science, so physical labor, although in a different way, is a certain contact with reality, truth, the beauty of the universe, and with the eternal wisdom that constitutes the order of the universe” and so “debasing labor is a sacrilege”, and she has much to say about this), psychology, metaphysics, ethics, religion, mathematics, Christology, politics, modernity — she is amazingly broad in her interests and attention — and one can see here just how important the powers and faculty of attention is for her.

You should pick up a volume or two of hers, dear reader, and get to know her. It will be a relationship that will never wear out or leave you, I promise.

__________________________

Header image found at a Boston College conference page

5 thoughts on “Excerpt #16 — Simone Weil on What is Sacred in Each Person

  1. “The notion of rights, launched across the world in 1789, was by its internal insufficiencies impotent to exercise the function that was given to it.”
    1789 is an interesting year. Does she refer to the French Revolution of 1789 or the effective date of the American Constitution? The results of the two were quite different.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: One Award, Two Quotes | Into the Clarities

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