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. I do not mean to suggest that she has no flaws, but 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. At least one prominent student of Wittgenstein’s wrestled with 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. (The essayist-activist 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. This post is already somewhat long. A decent encyclopedia introduction to her can be found on Britannica.

I am constantly discovering new things about Weil: 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. I stumbled across this argument as it was offered by 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 — Gustave Thibon (who is behind Gravity & Grace) and Fr. Perrin (who compiled Waiting on God, the American edition of which is translated as “Waiting for God”, and which does not include a controversial essay that the English edition –which I have linked to above– has).

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 what I report from that meeting.

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. It is for this reason that the Simone Weil Society of France no longer includes Gravity & Grace in their canon of works by Weil. 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. Thibon was a fascist, and an anti-Semite, and so I think my readers and I can agree that he was at least morally corrupted. Thibon, apparently, was also not in legal possession of Weil’s notebooks under French law (Weil’s family had legal rights to it), though the illegality was retroactively validated by an agreement Thibon struck with the family. So much of what I’m told about Thibon’s treatment of Weil and Weil’s work fills me with wariness.

Fr. Perrin seems like another story. His efforts at bringing Waiting on God to publication are much more faithful, it appears, and are not rife with scandal the way that G. Thibon’s assembling of her work is. It may be that these troubles are what led Susan Sontag  to say, as I am told she did, that Weil “has always been framed”. (I cannot find the origin of that quote, though you can read a review by Sontag of one collection by Weil here.)

So much of Weil’s writings are in French, originally and even now; I’m told that any serious scholar needs to know French in order to grapple responsibly with her as a figure. (The one biography that Dr. Braude recommended was by Thomas Nevin, and it shows a great familiarity with French and French sources.) One may hope that the usual scholarly outfits would be of service in bridging this linguistic ocean, but it’s not clear that this is the case. 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.

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. As of editing this post, I have just ordered three Old Calendar Christmas gifts for my wife: Miklos Veto’s The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil, as well as two works by Weil, Letter to a Priest and Selected Essays, 1934-1943: Historical, Political, and Moral Writings. (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.

Apparently Weil sought support for an idea about parachuting nurses onto the front line of battle in France; she knew how important Maritain was as a figure, and sought his help in her cause. He replied, and suggested she touch base with several figures, but Weil became concerned that his ideas about rights were unsound. For Weil, obligations were more fundamental than rights, and the former could not be safely grounded in a notion of the “person”. Eric Springstead rightly notes the theological and metaphysical origins of her objection via her foil in Maritain:

at the end of The Need for Roots, [Weil] directly quotes [Maritain] as saying that “the notion of right is even deeper than that of moral obligation, for God has a sovereign right over his creatures and he has no moral obligation to them.”This though absolutely appalled [Weil], and she cites it as an example of what she deemed “the Roman [not Roman Catholic] conception of God,” that is, a God who is like an emperor exercising sovereignty over subjects as slaves.
“Beyond the Personal: Weil’s Critique of Maritain”
The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Apr., 2005), 210

But here, Weil (the bracketed ellipses “[…]”, of course, mark where I’ve cut out sections from the original text):

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 cries. 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 free. 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), the relationship between affliction and truth, language, psychology, metaphysics, ethics, Christology, politics — 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.

~~~

Attention, when it is “root[ed] […] in the impersonal good [and] becomes capable of drawing energy from it” (to paraphrase the section quoted above), is not something that is concerned with rights, but with obligations. The personal, Weil contends, is interested in expansion:

Adding the word “rights” to that of “person” implies the right of the person to what one has called its “expansion,” and [116]

this kind of language makes the cry of the afflicted “takes on the tone of envy” when the oppressed attempt to use the language of rights to name their pain, doing them a grave disservice. The language of human rights does not connect well with her understanding of what is sacred in the person:

The concept of rights is linked to that of sharing out, of exchange, of quantity. It has something of the commercial to it. It evokes legal proceedings and pleadings. Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, force is not far behind to back it up, otherwise, it would be ridiculous. [113]

Force occupies a middle region, rather than the germinal higher region of the good, sacredness, beauty, justice. The language of rights, by contrast, “reveal[s] a spirit of war”, and “makes any nuance of charity impossible on both sides.” [115] Claims of injustice and claims that rights are violated are not the same, then. “[T]he spirit of attention and love” [115] is at the source of “why are you doing what is unjust to me?” or “why are you hurting me?” So Weil says that “a young girl who is in the midst of being forced into a brothel will not speak of her rights. In such a situation, the words would seem ridiculously not up to the situation.” [115]

Justice consists in standing guard so that evil is not done to human beings. Evil is done to a human being when one cries from deep inside: “Why has someone done evil to me?” He is often deceived when he tries to say what the evil is, or who has hurt him, or why it has been inflicted on him. But the cry is never wrong.

The other cry that we often hear, “Why does he have more than I do?”, is related to rights. It is necessary to distinguish the two cries and to take care of the second as much as one can, with the least brutality possible, using the help of the legal code, ordinary courts, and the police. In order to form minds capable of resolving problems within this domain, a law school suffice.

But the cry “Why has someone done evil to me?” poses entirely different problems, problems to which the spirit of truth, justice, and love are indispensable. [124]

The higher region of what is good and sacred are dangerous to talk about. The usage of words like “justice” and “God” and love” are trials: “[i]n order that a legitimate use be made of [those words]], it is necessary at one and the same time both not to enclose them within any human conception and to join them with conceptions and actions that have been directly and exclusively inspired by their light.” [127] Lest someone marshall 9/11 bombers or something similar act of ostensibly religious terror against her argument, look at the factional collectivism of the bombers, the lack of sensitivity and attention involved in any act of religious terrorism, and contrast it with the kind of impersonal experiences she mentions above, or the outcome of suffering in the sections I have not quoted, combined with the resulting sense of obligation that comes from contact with the impersonal good.

Force and rights will not lay hold of what the weakness of love and attention and justice can produce:

Only the light that falls continually from the sky gives a tree the energy to push powerful roots into the earth. The tree is actually rooted in the sky. Only that which comes from heaven is capable of really making a mark on the earth. [118]

The “middle region” of values such as rights and liberties has middle institutions to safeguard these things; we need other institutions “to abolish all that which, in contemporary life, buries souls under injustice, lies, and ugliness.” [128] Pedagogically, she speaks of “the establishment of a silence where the truth can sprout and grow”, [126] which would seem to facilitate the alertness to these blights. Pedagogical questions are not answers about institutions, though, and I have no idea what she has in mind as to what these institutions would be. They are not churches, and are certainly not inquisitorial armadas of any kind — all force seems part of this middle region that is already mapped out. It is easy to imagine that such “higher” institutions would become perverted for all the things she hates about misguided middle-region dynamics and institutions, but she states that these higher institutions are “unknown” [129] and that we need “to invent them”.

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

21 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

  3. Pingback: Update | Into the Clarities

  4. This just goes to show how many blindspots I have. I’ve had numerous courses in 20ieth century philosophy, and read countless books, and I’ve never come across Weil’s name. And I’m even living in a region quite attuned to the French. I guess gender is part of the explanation. Be that as it may, it’s humbling, as there is a lot (too much?) to think about in this post. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t that a big part of why we read and write — to recover more and more of our blindspots? If it weren’t for your thoughtful posts, mine would be more numerous. THAT IS MY OVERT PLUG FOR _WEIGHING A PIG DOESN’T FATTEN IT_, PEOPLE! https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress.com/

      Yes: 20th century philosophy usually covers Wittgenstein & Heidegger (probably the two greatest heavyweights of the 20th), Levinas, Husserl, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Merleau-Ponty, and some analytics. On rare occasions, figures like the Frankfurt School — Adorno, _et al._. On rarer and rarer occasions, Deconstructionists. All dudes. (Sadly, neither Max Scheler nor Hans Jonas are among the canonical figures, despite their flanking Heidegger!) Arendt is sometimes included, and some Feminists are sometimes included. Weil breaks pretty much all of the moulds, though. Where to fit her?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I come from a literary science background, which focussed fairly heavy on art theory & philosophy on representation, ideology, etc, with lots of Adorno, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, etc. The rare names you mention were rule rather than exception in our courses. Strangely enough, Wittgenstein was ignored mostly, I still don’t know because he was considered a given, or because he’d said it all already and made what came after (and all our debates) look futile… (And thanks for that plug! 😉)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.