Back in 1939 Winston Churchill referred to “the action of Russia” as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That same description is apt for Simone Weil, a 30-year-old French woman who was living in Paris at that time.
Who Was Simone Weil?
Born in 1909 to secular Jewish parents, Simone Weil died 75 years ago (on Aug. 24, 1943) at the age of 34. Often described as a philosopher, mystic, and political activist, it is fitting to take some time to think about the life and work of this enigmatic person.
Weil (pronounced “vey”) was a brilliant child and received a good education. At the age of 22 she finished her formal education, having majored in philosophy, and began her short teaching career.
The next year, 1932, she engaged in a demonstration for unemployed workers—and was transferred to another teaching position by school authorities. After teaching in three different schools in three years, in 1935 she took a leave of absence in order to work in factories.
Severe migraine headaches made it necessary for her to quit both manual work and teaching. In 1938 and the years following she had mystical experiences of God, but she was never baptized.
After living in the U.S. for a few months in 1942, Weil went to England to work with the Free French organization there. In April the next year she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and then died in August, partly (or largely) because of refusing to eat.
What Did Simone Weil Emphasize?
From among many and varied matters Weil emphasized in her life and writings, let's consider briefly only the following three:
In preparing to write this article, I read Love in the Void (2018), a book of selected writings by Weil. In that book’s first paragraph by Weil, she asserts that “prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
Early this week, June and I watched “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” an intriguing 2001 documentary by Julia Haslett. Early in the film are these striking statements by Weil:
Attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity.
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.
From childhood Simone had an exceedingly strong sense of identification or empathy / solidarity with others. Even as a five-year-old she refused to eat sugar because French soldiers fighting in WWI had none.
In her lectures on philosophy in 1933-34, she declared: “Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”
Thus, as Laurie Gagne, the editor of Love in the Void, wrote, “Because of her great love for the oppressed, Simone Weil spent a good part of her life trying to comprehend their suffering, usually by attempting to share it in one way or another.” That is why she chose to work some in factories.
“The Love of God and Affliction” is the last chapter of Love in the Void. Here Weil talks about the significance of affliction, which is extreme suffering that is both physical and psychological.
Affliction is of great importance to Weil because by it she came to understand the love of God seen in and through the passion of Christ. Affliction led her to experience God’s love deeply—and then to share that love.
OTHER RECOMMENDED BOOKS ABOUT SIMONE WEIL
Robert Coles, Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987)
Stephen Plant, Simone Weil: A Brief Introduction (2007)
Eric O. Springsted, Simone Weil & the Suffering of Love (1986)