Simone Weil: Reason, faith, and empathy
What would Simone Weil think of the world we inhabit today?
The year was 2003. I was a 19-year-old sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts institution just outside New York City. For many young people, a university education is a mind-opening experience, a challenge to assumptions held since childhood. This was especially true for me. During my first week of college classes, I stared in shock as a plane hit the World Trade Center. Soon after that, I watched men and women my age and younger go off to war. Growing up in a sheltered suburban environment during the relatively complacent “end of history” 1990’s, I never thought I’d see this kind of violence.
Today, a decade and a half later, I still struggle to make sense of the world. Every day seems to bring more bad news: another terrorist attack, another species going extinct. Occasionally I return mentally to my college self, remembering the classes I took, the amazing teachers with whom I studied. It was in college I was first introduced to the writings of an exceptional philosopher who herself lived during a time of crisis.
Simone Weil (1909–1943) was born on the eve of World War I and died in the midst of World War II. Even as a child she could not ignore the sufferings of others: She gave up sugar at the age of 6 in solidarity with the soldiers entrenched on the Western Front. As a young woman she temporarily left her teaching job to work in an auto plant and become a labor activist. She fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. After her parents brought her to the United States during World War II, she voluntarily returned to Europe in the hope of working with the resistance—a decision that led to her premature death at the age of 34, largely due to her refusal to eat more than her ration. “It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer when one has the chance of coming to his assistance,” she declared.
I first learned of Weil through a Hungarian-American philosophy professor named Elfie Raymond. Herself an exceptional woman (she was rumored once to have thrown an inkwell at French philosopher Jacques Derrida), Raymond embodied some of the characteristics I see in Weil. In an essay on education, Weil states that its purpose is not to fill students’ minds with information, but to cultivate habits of character. “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies,” Weil says. “Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.”
For Weil, attention is the prerequisite for truly understanding and empathizing others. Unfortunately, that has never been my strong suit. Even in 2003, when I was not a daily Internet user and did not yet own a mobile phone, I struggled to keep my mind focused on the person or problem in front of me. Professor Raymond noticed this and urged me to “come out of myself,” becoming more aware of my surroundings. It was not an easy task and even now, a professor myself, I still struggle every day.
While I first heard Weil’s name from Elfie Raymond, it would be seven years before I actually got around to reading her. Working as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Toronto for a literature course titled “Ancient and Medieval Literary Modes,” I was encouraged to read Weil’s famous essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” in which she interprets Homer’s epic in light of her own time. She notes that in the Iliad there are no real winners or losers, no “good guys” or “bad guys.” The real hero of the poem is force, an unalterable reality that humans must learn to treat properly: “Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice,” she writes.
Whenever I read Weil’s words, I ask myself the same question. What would she think of the world we inhabit today? The fact that academic interest in her work has skyrocketed in recent years suggests that many people have the same question. What would she say about Brexit, a U.S. president elected on a platform of nativism and xenophobia, and the rise of far-right political parties across Europe? What would be her response to the five-year civil war in Syria and the ongoing reality of global terrorism? What would she say about environmental degradation and the mass extinction of species that human activity has caused? What would she make of artificial intelligence and the increased power that humans are choosing to give machines?