Simone Weil - Biography
Simone Weil (1909 - 1943) was a French thinker and social activist. Her body of work is know for possessing a type of mysticism that reflects both her interest in Christian spirituality and her Jewish heritage. Sylvere Lotringer (publisher of the renowned Semiotext(e) Press and Jean Baudrillard Chair at the European Graduate School) amusedly points out that her ideologies of work and social justice left her with a desire “to be a slave.” Her works include La Pesanteur et la Grâce, L'Enracinement, Attente de Dieu, Lettre à un religieux, Les Intuitions pré-chrétiennes, La source greque, Oppression et Liberté, and Note sur la suppression générale des partis politiques.
On February 3, 1909, Simone Weil was born to a Jewish family of Alsatian descent. The family had migrated to Paris after the occupation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany. Her father was a doctor who provided well for his family. Her brother, André Weil, would gain fame and respect as one of the most significant mathematicians in the twentieth century.
Simone Weil was a fast learner and before she became a teenager, she had become quite familiar with ancient Greek. Later, she would turn her intellectual interests East by learning Sanskrit. She sought a universal thread to spirituality as well as a way to discover a wisdom of transcendence.
As a child, Simone Weil was very aware of the social conditions around her. In solidarity with the men who were fighting in World War I, the precocious Simone Weil refused to eat sugar. Shortly thereafter, she announced she was becoming a Bolshevik.
As a teenager, Simone Weil was educated at Lycée Henri IV. She was particularly inspired by her instructor Émile Chartier. In 1928, Simone Weil took the examination to enter the Ecole Normale Superieure. Simone Weil’s peer and fellow intellectual traveler Simone de Beauvoir finished second in the same test. Simone Weil was inspired and intrigued by Simone de Beauvoir’s radical ideas. Beauvoir nicknamed Simone Weil “the Martian” and “Red Virgin.”
In 1931, Simone Weil graduated after completing coursework in philosophy. She began to teach philosophy and a school for girls located in Le Puy. She held this position for most of the remainder of her life. She also began writing; however, the bulk of her writing was not published until after her death.
The working class aroused Simone Weil’s sympathies and they became the focus of her much of her social activities. While she was still in school, she participated in the demonstrations of the workers’ movement. She also penned political pamphlets that clamored for labor rights. Her political positions placed her in a type of pacifist Marxism. While teaching at Le Puy, she continued her pro-worker activities. She gave support to unemployed workers and protested unfair labor practices. Some thought such activities were inappropriate for an instructor. But Weil ignored this condemnation. Weil also began writing short pieces for labor publications. These articles found fault with both the socialist and capitalist ideal.
In 1933, she was engaged with the general strike of French workers, which protested cuts in salary and growing unemployment. In 1934, she took a sabbatical to work in a factory. She felt that such activity would bring her even closer to the workers she advocated for. After a few months, her poor health and general physical weakness drove her from the factory. The following year she resumed teaching. Most of her income was sent to fund political causes or charitable organizations.
Contrary to her supposed pacifism, she fought with the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War. She rejected Marxism in favor of anarchism, joining an anarchist paramilitary group called Sébastien Faure Century. Despite her fervor for the cause, her lack of physical grace and agility endangered the militants she was fighting with. She traveled to Assisi to recover from injuries that she had incurred from a cooking fire. In Assisi, she continued to write about issues of labor and war.
While visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Simone Weil had one of the spiritual encounters that would lead to her to an exploration of Christianity. She had been agnostic before this experience. Her previous considerations had resulted in her conclusion that nothing could be known about the existence of God. She would later write that she had always possessed a Christian frame of mind centered on loving ones neighbors. Her political actions could be seen as proof of this claim. At one point, she felt deep profundity on listening to villagers sing al fresco. The sweetness of their voices disarmed her. However at the Basilica of Santa Maria, she experienced what she described as a religious ecstasy. Within a year, she would have another ecstatic moment after reading a religious poem, “Love”, written by the English Metaphysical poet, George Herbert.
Intellectually, she found Roman Catholicism the most compelling form of Christianity. Despite her growing admiration for the Christian tradition, Simone Weil rejected the idea of baptism out of respect for her love of the non-Christian world as well. For a period in World War II, she stayed in the city of Marseille. During this period, a Dominican monk gave her religious instructions.
Despite her growing preference for Christianity, Simone Weil studied other religions ad spiritual traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Greek and Egyptian mystery religions. She felt that all of these traditions held part of the key to true spiritual revelation. Despite this belief, she rejected and opposed syncretism. She claimed that such synthesis of ideas was undisciplined and lacked the true attention that a seeker should possess. In her view such melding of traditions robbed them of their unique beauty and truth.
Simone Weil and her family visited the United States in 1942. For a short period of time, Simone Weil took up residence in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She desired to live alongside the destitute. Each day she attended Mass at Corpus Christi Church. It was at this church where she made the acquaintance of Thomas Merton, who would eventually become a Trappist monk. Although she had previously rejected the idea of baptism, she quietly asked a priest to perform the ritual.
Simone Weil left New York to travel back across the Atlantic. She arrived in London and ingratiated herself with the exiled members of the French Resistance. In 1943, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She refused treatment because of her political ideals. Her health rapidly declined and she was moved to a facility in Kent.
From early in her life until her death, Simone Weil would be stricken be crippling headaches. Her poor physical health was made worse by recurring attacks of sinusitis. She used her frequent illness as a subject in much of her philosophy. Her body of work anticipates Gilles Deleuze’s claims in M is for Malady that illness helps the work of a philosopher. She was attracted to a Spartan and ascetic style of life. Her introverted social positioning allowed her to refine her sometimes revolutionary philosophy. Her final illness weakened her to the point that she died of heart failure at the age of thirty-four.