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The Enigma of Simone Weil

Anarcho-syndicalist, Catholic, Marxist, mystic: Simone Weil remains one of the twentieth century's most compelling and enigmatic philosophers. Recent years have seen an increasing number of writers turn to her work for inspiration, but what the left gain from her difficult, often contradictory writing?

Katie Tobin28 February 2024

The Enigma of Simone Weil

In August 1943, the French philosopher Simone Weil died from a cardiac arrest at age 34. The coroner’s report claimed that, after suffering complications from tuberculosis, she had killed herself by refusing to eat, ‘the balance of her mind [...] disturbed’. While the exact reason for Weil’s hunger strike remains unclear, many believe it to have been an act of solidarity with German families living under the Nazi regime. One of her biographers, David McLellan, wrote that her self-inflicted starvation followed her study of Arthur Schopenhauer and his writings on Christian saintly asceticism and salvation. In Simone Weil: A Sketch for a Portrait, Weil’s first biographer in English, Richard Rees, offers a speculative but compassionate outlook on her passing. ‘As for her death,’ Rees writes, ‘whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.’

Anarcho-syndicalist, Catholic, Marxist, and mystic: Weil has been revered as all at once, yet as Gustav Thibon notes in his 1947 introduction to Gravity and Grace she never formally joined any political body, nor could she bring herself to fully convert to Catholicism. Thibon, a farmer and Christian philosopher whom Weil stayed with between 1940 and 1942, characterised the early stages of their relationship as ‘friendly but uncomfortable’, stating that the two ‘disagreed on practically everything’. Over time they would develop a deep friendship, one that would outlive her time at the farm, and Weil eventually bestowed on him her manuscripts during her exile from France. ‘No faction, no social ideology has the right to claim her,’ Thibon wrote, compelling her readers to resist interpreting her in light of present-day politics. Still, her limitless love for others continues to defy the confines of our contemporary political imagination.

Weil is one of the twentieth century’s most compelling – and contradictory – figures. And her reputation continues to grow. Recent years have seen a number of writers return to Weil for inspiration. Octavia Bright, in her memoir This Ragged Grace, recounts her reading of Weil in the early stages of recovery from alcoholism, using Weil’s meditations on love, the void, and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment as a retrospective lens by which to reflect on seven years of sobriety. Jacqueline Rose’s The Plague, her powerful meditation on death in the context of the Conservative government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, likewise uses Weil's work throughout. Most recently, Wolfram Eilenberger’s The Visionaries follows a decade in the lives of Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Ardent, and Ayn Rand as they search for an intellectual framework by which to live a meaningful life.

Despite Weil’s enduring influence, recognition of her as a thinker only came after her death. Part of the slow reception has been the contradictions inherent in her thought. While intriguing explorations of suffering, compassion, justice, spirituality, and the human condition suffuse much of her writing, as Rose points out, ‘there is no unifying thread’.

To read her, then, can be a thankless task, especially since much of her enigmatic appeal lies precisely in her inconsistencies and eccentricities. ‘On the page her concepts slide into and out of each other in a sometimes creative, sometimes tortured amalgam, a blur,’ Rose tells us. ‘Weil's writing is like an intricate tapestry with multiple strands - pull on one and it can feel as if the whole thing will fall apart in your hands.’ As Bright, Rose, and Eilenberger note, reading Weil requires delicacy and a careful understanding that her writing exceeds the bounds of personal conflicts and contradictions. Only then can we truly begin to unravel the contrary enigma that is Simone Weil.

Early Years

Weil was born in Paris, in 1909, to a secular Jewish family but raised an agnostic. Her father, Bernard Weil, was a medical doctor of Alsatian Jewish heritage who had relocated to Paris following the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Her mother, Salomea ‘Selma’ Reinherz, was born into a Jewish family in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, and grew up in Belgium. Her elder brother, André Weil, would go on to be a renowned mathematician; both, according to a classmate and later biographer, were raised in a loving and supportive household. Her infancy was, however, marred by a severe bout of appendicitis that nearly killed her. This would mark the beginning of Weil’s lifetime of illness: from crippling headaches and migraines to repeated hospitalisations due to tuberculosis from the 1930s to her death.

From a young age, Weil devoted herself to political activism and spiritual enlightenment, pursuits she saw as inextricably entwined. Influenced by her readings of mystics like Meister Eckhart, Weil believed that the essence of spirituality lay in a profound and selfless love for others and a duty to political and social justice. In 1915, at only six years old, she refused sugar in a show of solidarity with the soldiers entrenched on the Western Front. By ten, she boldly declared her allegiance to the Bolshevik cause, joining a workers’ demonstration on the streets of Paris the following year. By twelve, Weil was fluent in Ancient Greek, later learning Sanskrit so that she could the Bhagavad Gita in the original.

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As Weil's education progressed, so did her commitment to activism. Studying at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, a prestigious secondary school known for its rigorous academic standards, she excelled in maths and philosophy, taking a keen interest in the works of Descartes and Plato. During this time she became further involved in the French labour movement, writing thought-provoking political essays, joining protest marches, and advocating for workers' rights.

After completing her secondary education, Weil started at the École Normale Supérieure where studied philosophy under the tutelage of Émile Chartier (known as Alain) and Henri Carteron. There, Weil would demonstrate in solidarity with the unemployed and striking labourers, organise marches, and eventually graduate first of her class, just ahead of fellow student Simone de Beauvoir.

Contemporary Relevance 

Weil's unique blend of spirituality and political justice forms the cornerstone of her philosophical contributions. Although best known for her political philosophy, her short life spanned multiple creative endeavours, while she worked primarily as a philosophy teacher. A poet, sometime sculptor, and the author of an unfinished play, she once lamented in a letter to Jean Posternak: ‘Why have I not the infinite number of existences I need?’ Weil continued her activism while working at the lycée in Le Puy in the Haute-Loire in the 1930s, leading a demonstration for the unemployed, for which she would later be charged with incitement and threatened with dismissal from her teaching post.

She wrote furiously throughout these years, but little of her work was made public. One exception was her 1940 essay ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’, first published in the Marseilles-based literary magazine Les Cahiers du Sud. Over 24 pages, the essay delves into the nature of force and violence as Homer depicts it in his epic poem, before ultimately concluding that force is as destructive for the oppressor as it is for the oppressed. ‘The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force,’ she writes. ‘Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work, she shows how the human spirit is modified by its relations with force. It is swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.’

Despite Weil's unyielding desire to liberate the oppressed, and her commitment to political and economic reform, her critique of power and force extended to her views on Marxism. She believed that the idea of the proletariat failed to understand the everyday experiences of the oppressed and the working class.  The liberation of workers needed to come within the workshop itself, and only by experiencing the plight of the workers, she believed, would we then be able to move towards ubiquitous class consciousness. Despite her affluent background, Weil would enact this by working in various factories and, later, on Thibon’s farm. Her Factory Journal, born from this transformative experience, not only described the physical and emotional tribulations of factory work but also delved into the existential and philosophical dimensions of suffering, offering a unique insight into the human condition in the face of industrial hardship. In it, she recounts how she would end her days weeping violently and suffering from excruciating headaches, chills, and a perpetual sense of terror.

For Weil, a Cartesian dualist, it was not just the physical toll but the mental anguish that held paramount importance. In the crucible of industrial labour, she arrived at what she considered the greatest deprivation of all: the loss of her ability to think. She noted that exhaustion had the insidious effect of obliterating her original reasons for subjecting herself to factory life, nearly rendering her incapable of resisting the most tempting pitfall inherent in that existence: abandoning thought altogether. It’s here that Weil’s ethos of extreme self-sacrifice, alongside her rejection of partisan politics, stands as one of the most compelling parts of her activism. How could she serve her cause if too ill to meaningfully partake? And who, exactly, did these acts benefit if Weil was so resistant to formally align her activism with any political sect? For many, her participation in gruelling factory work and her refusal to eat was viewed as merely an act of personal asceticism that ultimately overshadowed her broader involvement in social and political causes, causing her to withdraw from the very causes she originally sought to support.

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Many critics have read this commitment to forging solidarity with the working class as an attempt to find roots. In her monumental work, The Need for Roots, Weil conducts an exhaustive exploration of the causes of ‘uprootedness’ and the possibilities for postcapitalist life. Uprootedness, she claimed, was a spiritual malaise, one of isolation and meaninglessness, brought about by the industrialization, urbanization, and the erosion of traditional communities of modernity. Like Martin Heidegger, Weil wrote about the disaffection of the self from a sense of dwelling and the necessity of finding meaning through work. Others, like Marx and Nietzsche, also highlighted how human relationships had changed within societies now dominated by commerce, industrial capitalism, and the relentless expansion of colonial territories, but few did so with the unique intensity of Weil’s benevolence.

Uprootedness was not just a socio-political condition, but also a spiritual ailment that afflicted the soul of humanity. For Weil, such uprootedness had far-reaching political consequences. ‘Hitler’, she wrote, ‘would be inconceivable without modern technique and the existence of millions of uprooted men.’ Today, we see Weil’s uprootedness in the troubling prevalence of the Far Right. In a state of disillusionment and isolation, many have turned to misogyny and violence to deal with their discontent. Likewise, the mounting transphobia in the UK. In one way or another, these groups use the marginalised – women, migrants, people of colour, the trans community – as a political scapegoat, rather than turning to the chief source of their alienation: capitalism.

It’s here that Weil’s work offers some compassionate wisdom, highlighting how our economic structure is innately designed to foster competition and individualism over collaboration and community. ‘To be rooted,’ she writes, ‘is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’ Weil believed that the remedy to uprootedness was ultimately fostered through solidarity: ‘A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community.’ 

Weil’s Paradox 

Despite the acuity of Weil’s work, her refusal to adhere to a singular ideological framework and her ever-evolving ideas make her a challenging figure. While lucid and moving, seldom was her work logical, and her reputation among scholars and activists remains contentious. She would also change her views several times, notably on pacifism, viewing it at once as fundamentally incompatible with the principles of compassion and justice that were central to her beliefs, yet later actively supporting the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. There she was, by all accounts, largely unhelpful. As Peter Salmon tells us, ‘her comrades spent much of their time trying to keep her away from guns, lest she kill one of them’. Later, she would renounce her pacifism once again during the Second World War in favour of an all-out war against Hitler. 

Likewise, her opposition to Marxism would also leave her politically adrift while yearning for societal transformation. Weil recognised that the human spirit sought more than just economic equality, yet for her social change could not be achieved solely by economic reforms and class warfare. Instead, she recognised that humanity longed for a sense of rootedness within a community – a quality she believed Marxist radicals fundamentally lacked. Drawing from her personal experiences in the French resistance and her involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Weil became aware of the nihilistic impulses that could emerge during revolutions. Some revolutionaries, like Marx and Engels, she noted, displayed a willingness to place themselves above others in the pursuit of their ideological goals. ‘The word “revolution” is a word for which you kill for which you die,’ she concluded, ‘for which you send the labouring masses to their death, but which does not possess any content.’

Instead, Weil advocated for a more virtuous form of resistance, one that drew inspiration from concepts like decreation – the process of self-emptying or self-negation, where an individual strives to remove their ego and personal desires in pursuit of spiritual and moral purity – and the hesitant warrior hero depicted in the Bhagavad Gita. Weil believed that embracing superhuman virtue required individuals to endure affliction (or malheur) and engage in acts of decreation and grace. In doing so, she emphasized the importance of a resistance that prioritized moral integrity, humility, and a deep connection to the well-being of the community over the pursuit of individual power or revolutionary zeal.

Weil's philosophical and spiritual exploration spanned various religions, displaying a profound commitment to moral integrity and resistance against oppressive forces. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that her stance on anti-Zionism occasionally veered into territory that could be perceived as perpetuating anti-Semitic ideas. Although hereditarily Jewish, Weil's family background and upbringing had no formal connection to Judaism or Jewish religious practices. She held that her criticism was directed at authoritarian nation-states and their potential for colonialism and oppression, rather than the Jewish people themselves. In The Need for Roots, she emphatically declared that ‘there is no such thing as a holy nation, emphasizing her broader critique of the misuse of nationalism to justify oppressive regimes. This viewpoint also extended to her rejection of the Roman Empire, which she equally abhorred. Weil's critique of Zionism can be seen as part of her broader condemnation of the authoritarian nation-state, which she believed had the potential to lead to the horrors of twentieth-century fascism. ‘Indeed,’ wrote Leslie A. Fielder in a 1951 issue of Commentary, ‘what vague sense of an obligation to Jewry survived in her was expressed in revulsion, a passionate anti-Semitism that upsets for once her cherished method of honoring contradictories.’ 

It is, however, important to highlight the challenge in interpreting Weil's position like this. Her criticism of Zionism should not be instinctively aligned with anti-Semitism. Her primary concern was with oppressive nationalism and the potential infringement upon individual freedoms. Weil's complex relationship with the Catholic Church further adds to the intricate tapestry of her moral and philosophical thinking, as she grappled with her concern with the Church's long history of persecuting heretics and apostates. ‘I am afraid of the Church patriotism that exists within Catholic circles,’ she said in a letter to anti-fascist priest Joseph-Marie Perrin. ‘I am apprehensive because I worry about being influenced by it... There were certain saints who endorsed the Crusades or the Inquisition... they were blinded by an exceptionally potent force.’ So resolute was her anti-totalitarianism that Weil would spend the rest of her life outside of the Church.

So, in a world growing ever more politically divisive, what can we take from Weil? Ultimately, it was justice that first drew Weil to Catholicism – the central edict that shaped her. And it is justice we can take from her. Justice would shape her multifarious attitudes towards Judaism and pacifism, and inspire her activism, laborious factory work, and self-sacrificial asceticism. It’s because of this that Weil, while deeply flawed, has acted as a muse to countless writers: Bright, Camus, Eilenberger, T. S. Eliot, Jacqueline and Gillian Rose, and Chris Kraus, to name but a few. And, although her work is rife with contradictions, justice remains at its centre, living her life by its creed – perhaps even dying by it too.


Katie Tobin is an arts and culture writer based in London. She is a PhD student at the University of Durham, researching reproductive justice in fiction, and a former lecturer in English and Philosophy. Her work has also appeared in AnOther, Dazed, Elephant, The Financial Times, i-D, Plaster and Wallpaper*.


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