Simone Weil on Society and Solitude
Perhaps the outstanding woman philosopher of the twentieth-century was Simone Weil (1909-1943), praised by thinkers of such diverse opinion as Andre Gide, Albert Camus, and T. S. Eliot. To Gide, Weil was the "most spiritual writer of this century"; to Camus, "the only great spirit of our times." Eliot called her "a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of a saint." The critic Leslie Fiedler described her as "the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation."
Simone Weil was a teacher, scholar, thinker, writer, laborer, and ultimately mystic. This brilliant combination of a spectra of interests and a depth of analysis from political and social insight to pure philosophy to a deep and sensitive spirituality makes Weil the genius spirit that is the consensus of all observers.
Her special contribution may also be her trenchant thoughts on society and solitude.
Weil on Society
Weil's analysis of social, economic, and political issues, in essays such as "Sketch of Contemporary Social Life," "Analysis of Oppression," "The Need for Roots," and "The Great Beast" skillfully employ the methodologies of Marxian sociology and anarchist thought plus her own clear thinking: a post-modern or post-ideological point of view. She presents a grand critique of modern civilization and the dominant ideologies of her time: fascism, communism, anarchism, capitalism. This lays the foundation for an understanding of the present while pointing prophetically to the future.
In "Sketch of Contemporary Social Life" (1934), Weil develops the theme of collectivism as the trajectory of modern culture.
Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been so less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking.
Weil is not defending the individual as laisse-faire atom but as subordinated to inimical modern forces by "production and consumption," with science, technology, labor, money, and social life turning historical means into corporate and collectivist ends.
The inversion of the relation between means and ends -- an inversion which is to a certain extent the law of every oppressive society -- here becomes total or nearly so, and extends to nearly everything.
Weil then analyzes the relationship bwtween economics and the state, and militarism as an adjunct to extending economic control and social content to the goals of the powerful. Sometimes she uses Marxian or anarchist viewpoints to demonstrate her point; other times she uses them to demonstrate their failure to have anticipated the shrewdness of the capitalist elites and institutions to bypass and overcome the logical obstacles to their version of reality. With the modern spirit has come the systematization of accumulation, organization, and control of the range and relationships of all human activity. Power is concentrated and like a whirlpool absorbs every facet of life. Oppression is inevitably bound to productivity, efficiency, coercion. Productivity and progress, consumption, and limitless expansion of desire and power are all aspects of modern culture. And yet society revolts not against its own oppressors but against nature.
In an aphorism of "The Great Beast," Weil begins the transition from analyzing society to discovering a solution or antidote. Here her thoughts hearken to anthropological thinking circulating in the early twentieth century, which maintained that society is a project of individual relationships, a projection given life and meaning separate from those relationships, a projection to which power and thought and authority is renounced. This is not a renunciation to the fictional cooperative called "society" but to individuals as authorities, who then contrive the symbols, ploys, and coercive social structures. Anthropology called these "totems"--Weil does not use the term--which define God, religion, and the norms of society via the power of institutions to interpret and sanction.
According to Weil, the person's accession to society, the individual's renunciation of values to the collective as defined by a small group, is based on ignorance and fear, fear that without society (which is to say the state), people will collapse into crime and evil. The social and collective is seen as transcending individuals, as a supernatural entity from which nationalism and war is as normal as science, progress, and consumption. All of these evils are taking place simultaneously in a social context. The individual has probably never reflected on these issues at all, never acknowledged his or her degree of complicity in this system. But, say the apologist for the Great Beast, the individual need have no direct responsibility,
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.
Thus society itself is the Great Beast, not some particular product of society, not even the state, the mode of production, the capitalist class, or any other social product. The weight of humanity is a heavy and ponderous gravity, a force but a contrived force to which the individual remains oblivious.
As long as one accepts the "totem," and subordinates all values to the collective, the contrived dichotomy of good and evil will trap individuals in fear. But the solution to the dilemma Weil depicts is not Nietzsche's transcendence of morality but a simple perception of the nature of society, of the nature of the "Great Beast."
It is the social which throws the color 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.
Alluding to the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, where reality is seen second-hand as shadows on the wall rather than directly in the light of reality, Weil points to the compelling truth that everything people do or believe is based on a second-hand source: society. As long as individuals substitute society's view of reality for their own discoveries of reality -- so that the relationship to self, others, nature, and the universe is direct, immediate, intuitive, and accountable -- the individual will remain oppressed.
Conscience is deceived by the social. Our supplementary energy (imagination) is to a great extent taken up with the social. It has to be detached from it. That is the most difficult of detachments.
The most difficult of detachments , yet it can begin, not with action but with reflection.
Meditation on the social mechanism is in this respect a purification of the first importance. To contemplate the social is as good a way of detachment as to retire from the world. That is why I have not been wrong to rub shoulders with politics or society.
Weil was modest in this passage. Her activism was thorough-going. In 1930's France and Spain, she took breaks from teaching to work in factories, on farms, with labor unions, and to visit the front in the Spanish Civil War to learn first-hand the nature of society, power, and politics. She worked among the republican forces in Barcelona, and witnessed the atrocities against civilians. Later, she wrote to the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, who witnessed the atrocities of the nationalists against civilians. Though Bernanos was a social conservative he and Weil came to share a similar revulsion to war and ideology. She wrote to him:
My own feeling was that when once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whole life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men that murder. ... For the purpose [of the whole struggle] can only be defined in terms of the public good, of the welfare of men -- and men have become valueless. ... One sets out as a volunteer with the idea of sacrifice, and finds oneself in a war which resembles a war of mercenaries, only with much more cruelty and with less human respect for the enemy.
Of course, Weil's experience can be extrapolated to any modern war, with its contrived pretexts and goals. In this regard, her reflections in the thirties are prophetic. She added to Bernanos that she knew of no one else who had understood the ramifications of war on human morality. Such was the "rubbing of shoulders" she so modestly mentioned.
In the 1940's, Simone Weil returned to activism as a resistance member in England after exiling with her family from Vichy France through Casablanca to New York City. She was no armchair philosopher or writer but combined deep reflection with direct experience of the complexities of the world she analyzed. Weil witnessed evil on all sides and summarized it all as "the service of the false God, of the social Beast under whatever form it may be."
Weil on Solitude
The transition to solitude has already been hinted in Weil's use of Plato's cave allegory. For those who have come to Weil's conclusions about society, the issue of solitude is treated contextually in her philosophical essays, such as "Decreation," "Human Perssonality," and "Love." The sources of Weil's thoughts on solitude are two: 1) her trenchant analysis of the nature of society, using modern sociological and psychological tools, and 2) religious philosophy, whereby Weil trains the same keen thinking on spiritual themes.
Weil came to discuss Christianity and Catholicism with an excellent control of the literature, vocabulary and doctrine. But she had strong reservations and criticisms about the same collectivist tendencies of the Church she critiques in society in general, and Weil never converted to Catholicism despite her great affinity for Christ, sanctity, and the moral virtues of traditional Catholic thinking. Indeed, her writings show that Weil embraced the deepest sentiments of Christianity and may have enjoyed mystical experiences, but she averred to her friend and mentor, the priest J. A. Perrin, that she would never convert or take baptism.
Christianity being Catholic by right but not in fact, I regard it as legitimate on my part to be a member of the Church by right and not in fact, not only for a time, but for my whole life if need be. But it is not merely legitimate. So long as God does not give me the certainty that he is ordering me to do anything else, I think it is my duty. ...
I have never once had, even for a moment, the feeling that God wants me to be in the Church. I have never even once had a feeling of uncertainty.
The springs of Weil's solitude, then, are not a specific example of a saintly hermit or desert elder. She was deeply moved by the melancholy hymns of Portuguese women watching their departing husbands on their fishing boats one star-lit night by the ocean. She had visited Assisi and, as she notes, been compelled for the first time to fall to her knees. And she had listened for rapt hours to the chant of the Benedictine monks at Solesmes. But her sense of solitude was not romantic or aesthetic.
Solitude was a core conclusion to the philosopher in her, formed by experience in the world, of war, atrocity, betray, and dishonor. Yet solitude was the core reality, too, of the spiritual, the transcendent, and the love of God. What a unique presence Weil brings to solitude in her complex and vibrant mind and heart!
In "Human Personality," Weil develops the notion that "what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him ... essentially anonymous." The realm of the impersonal genius created "Gregorian chant, Romanesque architecture, the Iliad, the invention of geometry." In a quintessentially Platonic expressions, Weil writes, "What is sacred in science is truth; what is sacred in art is beauty. Truth and beauty are impersonal."
Impersonality is only reached by the practice of a form of attention which is rare in itself and impossible except in solitude, and not only physical but mental solitude. This is never achieved by those who think of themselves as members of a collectivity, as part of something which says "We."
Solitude is thus a separation for the sake of productivity or individual self-expression. But more importantly, solitude is permanent enough to both sever that sense of subordination to social groups and constructive enough to achieve a renunciation of ego, what Weil calls "impersonality."
Moreover, solitude has a moral and ethical component that the collectivity or group lacks, or, more specifically, cannot claim. To desire absolute good but then seek it in the world of externals fails because the world of externals is the realm of merely relative goods. Weil describes the problem in terms of how one relates to others, again summarized in a Platonic image already quoted above.
Relationship breaks its way out of the social. It is the monopoly of the individual. Society is the cave. The way out is solitude. ... To relate belongs to the solitary spirit. No crowd can conceive relationship: "This is good or bad in relation to..." "in so far as ..." That escapes the crowd. A crowd cannot add things together. One who is above social life returns to it when he wishes; not so one who is below. It is the same with everything.
Weil extrapolates her concept of solitude into the realm of the sacred. She concludes that just as everything sacred in the individual is impersonal, so society is its opposite: profane, idolatrous, the realm of falsity. Yet human beings live and work in this realm.
The collective is the object of all idolatry, this is 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.
Nor can we truly go to God through the social, through institutions, which refine and redefine God in an idolatrous way. Weil goes so far as to stigmatize Israel as the idolatrous counterpart to ancient Rome.
The method of approaching the sacred Weil calls "decreation," as a de-incarnation of the person, a method for attaining the impersonal for which solitude is a prerequisite. Decreation is "to make something created pass into the uncreated." This is distinct from the thing passing into destruction, passing into nothingness. In the essays "Decreation" and "Love," Weil works out a concept of suffering, renunciation, purity, gratitude, joy, and being which is the process of approaching God. The approaching to God is the state of selfless love that rejects "pseudo-immortality," that false clinging to a prolongation of earthly social identity rather than a transcendent presence in the impersonal. Along the way, solitude is necessary but is is no long a matter of aloneness or alienation. It has very concrete application to our daily lives.
Do not allow yourself to be imprisoned by any affection. Keep your solitude. The day, if it ever comes, when you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse. It is even but this infallible sign that you will recognize it.
Weil's essay "Friendship" quiets develops her only acceptable concept of the social.
The above is an autobiographical passage, as is Weil's echo of Teresa of Avila when Weil writes: "It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day." It is autobiographical in representing Weil's own physical suffering (migraines and fatigue, which apparently always plagued her but which contributed, she writes, to her concept of suffering and sacrifice and an insight into the values of Jesus).
Towards the end of her very brief life of thirty-six years, having suffered so much with the world and humanity, Weil died of tuberculosis in England. Her spiritual goal, the insight that saturates her writing, is aptly summarized by the poem that concludes "Decreation":
It is necessary not to be "myself," still less to be "ourselves."
The city gives one the felling of being at home.
We must take the feeling of being at home into exile
We must be rooted in the absence of a place.
To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.
To exile oneself from every earthly country.
To all that to others, from the outside, is a substitute for decreation and results in unreality
For by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.
Because she was a philosopher, much of Simone Weil's writing is difficult and challenging. Because of her unique experience of politics, work, war, and spirituality, her writing is also complex and charged with her personality. Weil falls into no easy category. But that she so quickly and comprehensively evolved a role for solitude in her life and thought suggests a compelling reason for pursuing her thoughts as far as possible.
Some of the more representative works of Simone Weil are her First and Last Notebooks, translated by Richard Rees. Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1970; Gravity and Grace. Putnam, 1952; Oppression and Liberty, London: , New York: Routledge & K. Paul, ? The most representative anthology is The Simone Weil Reader; edited by George A. Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.