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Simone Weil

(1909—1943) French essayist, philosopher, and mystic

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French philosopher, whose life and thought fit into no obvious categories.

Born in Paris, the daughter of a doctor, she came from an agnostic intellectual Jewish background. Her brother André Weil (1906–98) was a mathematician of considerable importance. Simone distinguished herself at the École Normale Supérieure as a student from 1928 to 1931 but totally rejected the attractions of an orthodox academic career. Instead, in a similar way to George Orwell in England, although with more passion and commitment, she chose to identify herself with and live the life of the poor and the oppressed. Consequently she served in the Spanish civil war on the republican side, worked as a manual labourer on farms and in the Renault car factory, and later, during World War II, with the resistance movement in England. Finally, she resolved to restrict herself, while continuing to work, to the same diet served to the inmates of the Nazi labour camps. Far from robust when she undertook such a regime, she soon died from tuberculosis.

Simone Weil published little during her life. Her reputation rests therefore on the posthumous appearance of such works as La Pesanteur et la grâce (1949; translated as Gravity and Grace, 1952) and, above all, Cahiers (1952–55; translated as Notebooks, 1956). In no sense an orthodox Christian or socialist – she chose, in fact, to remain outside all religious and political organizations – Weil reveals in her writings that she had been strongly influenced by the Christian mystic and gnostic traditions, as well as by early socialist analyses of modern industrial society.

Subjects: Literature

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