“In the day of Victory, the angel of justice strives with the demons of violence; the heart of the victor all too easily is hardened; moderation and far-seeing wisdom appear to him weakness; the excited passion of the people, often inflamed by the sacrifices and suffering they have borne, obscure the vision even of responsible persons and make them inattentive to the warning voices of humanity and equity.” J. Naughton
Simone Weil, who died on August 24, 1943, was one of those warning voices writing a memo in London for General Charles DeGaulle’s Free French on the problems that would face France after the victory over Nazi occupation. Her memo concerning the need for humanity, non-violence, and equity was published after the War as Enracinement in French and The Need for Roots in English.(1) The memo, too philosophical for people who were primarily concerned with the upcoming D-Day and the need to coordinate the different resistance movements within France, had little impact.
No one in the Free French leadership was sure where Simone Weil fit into the different groups which had assembled in London. The Free French officials had quickly rejected her request to be sent back to France to partake in armed resistance or in helping the wounded. Simone Weil had had a short experience with armed combat as part of an anarchist brigade in Spain in the Civil War against Franco, but her poor eyesight and very fragile health had quickly put an end to her armed participation. She returned from Spain convinced of the need for non-violent action, influenced by her philosophical interest in Indian thought and the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi. She also returned from Spain as a convinced opponent of the death penalty having tried to stop her anarchist co-fighters from executing prisoners of war and Catholic priests. Her non-violence is expressed in a powerful prose-poem ‘L’Iliade: A Poem of Force, published in both French and English, first under her pen name, Emile Novis It was published in the US by Dwight Macdonald in his journal Politics.
She had begun her intellectual life as a Marxist but an anti-Stalinist one. As a young philosophy teacher, she had housed Leon Trotsky in her Paris apartment, but found Trotsky dogmatic and too willing to justify the policies of the Soviet Union even as he opposed Stalin. Simone Weil’s Marxism was embodied in no political formation and was more an ideal form based on compassion for the fate of workers than from an expression of class struggle. Simone Weil was above all indebted to the writings of Plato and her teaching was largely related to Plato and classical Greek thought with an interest in the Greek mystery societies in which women play an important role. The cave from where one only sees shadows is her image of the world in which we live.
She was interested in the spiritual dimensions of religion without ever becoming a member of an organized religion. She came from an agnostic Jewish background. Her brother, André Weil who was able to leave France for the USA in 1941 was a well-known mathematician whose career was largely spent at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute had been created to house Albert Einstein and was home for a good number of theoretical mathematicians.
Simone Weil was interested in Taoism, Hinduism and in the person of Jesus. As she wrote, Osiris in Egypt and the Krishna of the Gita were also incarnations of the Divine. Her views of Jesus as Prince of Peace kept her outside the Catholic Church, but after her return from Spain, she started meeting with Catholic intellectuals.
The most significant of these was Gustave Thibon (1903-2001) who lived not far from where I live in Ardeche, south-central France, but I never met him. Simone Weil and her family had been able to leave Paris in 1940 for Marseille in what was then still “Unoccupied France” under the French government of Vichy. Simone Weil’s parents and brother left for the safety of the USA, but she refused to leave those suffering behind. Thus, through mutual friends in Catholic intellectual circles, she went to live in Ardeche, helped by Gustave Thibon. She left all her writings, nearly all unpublished, with Thibon when she left Ardeche to join the Free French in London. Thibon oversaw the publication of her writings and wrote perceptive introductions to many of them after her death.
Gustave Thibon was a self-taught philosopher and poet but also a wine producer, wine being the economic base of our area. Thibon had left school at 16 at the death in the First World War of his father in order to help his grandfather tend the wine vines. Thibon remained a farmer all his life, even after the Second World War when his philosophical writings became well known, and he was often asked to give talks in different European countries. Thibon understood the driving energy of Simone Weil, her constant questioning of ideas and her desire to put her ideals into practice. Thibon was part of a network of intellectual Catholics who were also concerned with the future of France after the war. Along with Thibon, the group included Louis-Joseph Lebret, a Catholic priest who played a large role in creating the cooperative movement in France and who helped draw up the first development plans for Senegal after its independence in 1960. Francois Perroux whose economic ideas set the stage for the first post-war reconstruction and planning in France was also a member of the network.
Although Thibon and the others were orthodox Roman Catholics, they were united with Simone Weil in trying to build a synthesis between philosophical thought and economic conditions, especially of the poorest and those ground down by repetitious factory work.
Simone Weil’s health, always poor, declined in London, and she died at age 34. It is only after her death that her writings in notebooks were structured into books. Her life and writings are a prime example of the effort to establish a link between society and the direction of thought.
Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.
(1) Simone Weil. The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind (New York; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952)