Simone Weil (1909-1943) philosophy developed between the World Wars. She viewed it in terms of Nature and the human condition and, contrary to the analytic tradition, she emphasised the ethical connection between life and philosophy.
Sartre and de Beauvoir lived in a godless world and valued the individual's freedom to choose their ethics and demostrate that morality was possible. Weil took morality seriously, despite recognising its flaws, and created her values from attending to the existence of others. For her, ethics lay in caring for others, accepting them for themselves, not for some personal aim of saintly moral perfection. Refusing attention to others for her meant accepting that nobody and nothing was sacred. This was what led to the rule of force and it turned the subject into an object. Morality, for Weil, was more than natural. It participated in the supernatural.
Kant attempted to ground morality in a rational law. Aristotle grounded his ethics in the drive for self-development. Hume argued that morality was a utilitarian calculation based on human sympathies. Weil rejected any ethical stance based on the individual since morality was a question of attention to and care of others and was grounded in a universal, supernatural obligation.
However, the authoress sought to base her ethical view on a natural foundation. This grounding, she argued, was that humans reacted differently to things than to other human beings. She attributed this to the fundamental power humans exercise over one another. She expresses this clearly in The Iliad or The Poem of Force:
"Anybody who is in our vicinity exercises a certain power over us by his very presence, and a power that belongs to him alone, that is, the power of halting, repressing, modifying each movement that our body sketches out. If we step aside for a passer-by on the road, it is not the same thing as stepping aside to avoid a billboard; alone in our rooms we get up, walk about, sit down again quite differently from what we do when we have a visitor."
Treating others as ends in themselves is where the natural world intersects with the supernatural, beyond space and time. There exists, for Weil, the expectation that we will be treated well, not badly, and that is where morality becomes a force of necessity.
Weil put into practise her belief that life and philosophy are connected. She worked in a car factory where she observed the negative effects of mechanisation on her fellow workers. In 1946 she joined the foreign fighters against the fascist coup in Spain, but retired after a scalding accident. During World War II she moved to the south of France to experience work as a grape picker in the wine harvest. She finally escaped to the US in 1942, through Morocco, but returned to work with the French resistance in London. In an effort to identify with her French compatriots she refused to eat more than the ration fare in occupied France, leading to malnutrition and her death from tuberculosis in her early thirties.
The Iliad, or The Poem of Force was composed in 1940, after the fall of France to the German invasion. It appears as a commentary on the extreme use of force in this context.
The opening lines set force as the main theme of the essay:
“The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.”
According to Weil The Iliad presents an unglorious, anti-war vision. All the blood, slaughter and deaths are described in stark terms, whereas the war victims are not glorified or sympathised with, but displayed as wretched results of the madness. She says that a taste of bitterness is left in the reader's mouth when Homer contrasts the joys of peacetime and the brutality of wartime.
The epic hero is Force, the driver of history. It forces the combatants to keep fighting, despite any opportunities to flee. It also scars the souls of those conquered under the vicious rule of the victors. Both sides are distorted from humans into things since their hopes and dreams are ruined by war and they become cogs in a monstrous machine. The authoress notes that all the characters in the poem are allowed an experience of elation which is then often removed in the next few lines.
Weil affirms that Force is the ultimate master of humans, forcing them to act against reason in a vicious circle of war, suffering then more war. Those caught up in the violence cannot escape their own violence.
However, Weil avoids mentioning a key element in the poem which contradicts her interpretation of force as the epic hero. After arguing with Agamemnon, Achilles refuses to fight (for 9 books of the poem) and rejects the reasons for returning to the fight, but is finally drawn back into battle in search of a hero's eternal glory.
Weil also misses the Iliad's role as entertainment, preferring to focus on Force as the fate of mankind. The homeric world embraces a concept of poetry as metamorphising suffering into a pleasurable story and establishes a gap between the audience and the narrative events. Weil hypothesised that the Greek audiences saw themselves as defeated victims of war, just like herself. But The Iliad suggests (and The Odyssey relates in detail) that the audiences were detached from the events recounted. However Weil thought suffering ennobling and forced it on herself needlessly.
Weil analyses the social theories of her time such as fascism, communism, anarchism and capitalism. She presents collectivism as the direction of modern culture with populations subjected to production and consumption in a totalitarian subjection of means to ends.
She then turns to State economics and the military as a means and containing the powerful through economic control and social contentment. She notes how capitalism has been able to sidestep Marxist and anarchist economics. She asserts that modernity has systematised accumulation, organisation and human relationships through the concentration of power. Productivity and efficiency are driven by oppression and coercion. She also observes that instead of revolting against its oppressors, society rebels against Nature.
Weil offers a solution to society's woes. drawing from contemporary anthropology which considered society a project of individual relationships. This outlook rejected individual authorities, 'totems' who fabricate the oppressive social structures through religion and norms which interpret and sanction activities:
"The collective is the object of all idolatry, this it is which chains us to the earth. In the case of avarice, gold is the social order. In the case of ambition, power is the social order."
Society itself is a manipulative force which individuals are not conscious of. It traps individuals in fear. Weil rejects Nietzsche's solution which transcends morality and offers a simpler perception of society based on Plato's cave allegory in The Republic:
"It is the social which throws the colour of the absolute over the relative. The remedy is in the idea of relationship. Relationship breaks its way out of the social. It is the monopoly of the individual. Society is the cave. The way out is solitude."
The shadows in the cave are produced by modern society, according to Weil. The solution is for individuals to discover their own realities and detach themselves from society's manipulations. As an activist, rather than an armchair philosopher, Weil advocated meditation on social mechanisms, not contemplation but rubbing shoulders with politics and society. She took active part in the Spanish Civil war, worked in factories and farms and joined the French resistance to experience first hand the nature of society and power.
Weil saw evil on all sides and described it as:
"the service of the false God, of the social Beast under whatever form it may be."
Loneliness in Weil's philosophy is linked to her analysis of society and religion. She discusses Christianity and Catholicism in the same collectivist terms as society. Despite her recognition of Christ, the moral teaching in traditional Catholicism and experiences of mysticism, she never converted.
Her visit to Assisi where she fell on her knees, her rapture at Solemes' monks Benedictine chants and her experience of War atrocities led her to a philosophy of solitude, a rejection of collectivity:
"What is sacred in science is truth; what is sacred in art is beauty. Truth and beauty are impersonal."
Her loneliness was both a renunciation of ego and an refusal to subordinate to the crowd. It is what she calls "impersonality". It is her way out of Plato's cave. She concludes that everything sacred in the individual is impersonal and everything in society is profane and false. Humans, she considers, live in this dimension:
"The collective is the object of all idolatry, this is which chains us to the earth. In the case of avarice, gold is of the social order. In the case of ambition: power is of the social order. Science and art are full of the social element also. And love? Love is more or less an exception: that is why we can go to God through love, not through avarice or ambition."
Weil's way of approaching the sacred she calls 'decreation', a method for achieving the impersonal, preceeded by solitude. It is a process of selflessness, rejecting immortality by reaching for a transcendent presence in the impersonal. As in all Weil's philosophy it applies to her daily life where she suffered from migraines and fatigue, and it has echoes of the mysticism of Teresa of Avila:
"It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day."
Simone de Beauvoir reported a conversation she had with Weil over hunger in China where she told her that the problem was not to make people happy but to find meaningfulness in their existence. Weil replied:
"It is easy to see you have never gone hungry."
Weil's philosophy recognised the primary need in human life: food, not meaning. She extended this to food for the soul as well, but without losing sight of caring for the physical needs of others. It was a moral obligation and developed into a political commitment in the form of revolution. This is where she found Marxism, whose great idea was:
“that in human society as well as in nature nothing takes place otherwise than through material transformations.”
She understood Marx as trying to change the social order so that everyone would be treated as an end in themselves, in a society free from oppression.
On the other hand her problem with Marx was that he did not understand the basic roots of oppression and the solution to that problem. Weil thought insufficient the Marxist aim of the destruction of the ownership of private property through the demise of capitalism.
Weil's first option was not the supernatural but the material in the form of Marxism and interest in hunger and injustice. When she later turned to the influences of Christianity and platonism she grounded this spiritual redirection in her previous temporal interests.
In her religious thought Weil offered her own creation theology. The Creator who is infinitely good and eternal retreated in order to allow the existence of the universe, something not completely good, finite and determined by space and time. There is a screen of necessary forces between God and creation: creatures are ruled by forces as in Plato's Timaeus. In her Christian thinking the contradiction between Creator and creature is overcome in Christ.
God's abdication is performed out of love and his providence is understood by recognising the universe as the sign of divine intentions. Humans should follow God by renouncing their autonomy (de-creation) out of love for the Divinity and inspired by the paradoxical non-active action of the Bhagavad Gita.
Weil constructs her philosophy of religion through unsynthesised oppositions which act as intermediaries lifting the soul upwards. This concept moved from an earlier natural mediation between mind and matter to a later relationship between natural intelligence and supernatural love. Reality itself is contradictory for the authoress since it presents an obstacle as when you encounter a difficult idea, another person or perform physical work. Thought makes contact with necessity and has to change contradiction into correlation, which leads to spiritual edification. She claims, paradoxically, that what is painful reality such as distance from God is also a connection to God, explaining this concept in the metaphor:
"Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link."
Weil distinguishes her concept of reality from that of the imaginary, which is criticised for its tendency to offer false consolations that obstruct real contemplation. She goes on to suggest that atheism can purify because it neutralises religious consolation through detachment.
Reality is also a necessity since it is determined, limited and contingent. The real is a reflection of necessity since the human condition, for Weil, is enslavement to forces outwith our control.
Contrary to her existential contemporaries Weil did not think of human freedom as integral to self, but something supernatural through consent. By consent she follows Marcus Aurelius and Spinoza in their stoic vision that consenting to necessity and the order of the world is acceptance of the divine will. Consent, then, is a reconciliation between the necessary and the good. It is de-creation, a selflessness where the ego is negated. This is her metaphysics, couched in mystical language, yet put into practice by her.