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Weil, Simone

The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French

Graham Dunstan Martin

Weil, Simone 


French philosopher and mystic. One of the first female graduates of the École Normale Supérieure, she taught philosophy in various provincial schools from 1931 to 1938. An active socialist, hostile to communism, which she equated with fascism, she gained first‐hand experience of a worker's life on the Renault assembly line (1934–5); this, and her political conclusions, are related in La Condition ouvrière (published 1951). She sought to join the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but an accident forced her to return to France (1936). Following mystical experiences at Solesmes (1938), she converted to Christianity, but was never baptized, being hostile to dogma and institutional religion. Because of her Jewish origins she fled the Nazi advance and in 1942 went to the USA, then England, to offer her services to the Free French. She offered to serve in a front‐line nursing detachment, but was refused (a motive of suicidal selfsacrifice was suspected). Pleading the reduced rations of occupied France, she did not eat properly and contracted tuberculosis. Her death is usually attributed to a combination of illness and self‐neglect.

Weil's writing consists for the most part of articles written over some 15 years and collected into books after her death (her Œuvres complètes are being published by Gallimard). It would be misleading, therefore, to see her philosophy as all of a piece. Her political theory (e.g. L'Enracinement, 1949 and Écrits de Londres, 1957) is often in Utopian disharmony with its time. We need to have a sense of usefully belonging to our country (‘enracinement’). We have not rights, but duties and needs. Democracy is needful, but political parties should be banned since they promote half‐truths, injustice, and the collective passions on which oppression feeds. Politicians and judges should, at the end of their term of office, account for their actions before a tribunal; punishments would be ‘severe’. Weil's belief that truth and justice are absolutes is perhaps disquieting, but she speaks out strongly for free speech.

Her mysticism (La Pesanteur et la grâce, 1947) is unusually tragic and world‐rejecting. One should seek to achieve total detachment, and to kill the self. God is present in the world only in the form of absence. One must not suppose He is present in the world, for this would implicate Him in evil, and would excuse evil acts by His devotees. Atheism brings one closer to God than does faith without experience of Him. The way to God is through suffering, which, freely accepted, destroys suffering.

Her style has a beautiful lapidary clarity, and the originality of her views inspires fresh thinking on any issue that she touches.

[Graham Dunstan Martin]


See R. Rees, Simone Weil (1966);Find this resource:

F. d'Hauteville, Tourment de Simone Weil (1970);Find this resource:

G. A. White, Weil (1981).Find this resource: