Simone Weil—Imagining the Secular Saint
Scope: Though less well known than her French contemporaries Sartre and de Beauvoir, Simone Weil gradually emerged in the second half of the 20th century as representing a genuinely radical and original stance toward the question of life’s meaning: a refusal to choose between the hero and the saint. Weil’s life reveals a frightening yet inspiring attempt to live the truth of both paths to meaning fully and simultaneously, with full awareness of the terrifying human risk involved. This lecture begins with a biographical sketch of Weil’s life, which reveals a complex identity full of contradictions, and then goes on to examine the principal influences on her intellectual formation and early writing. Among the factors examined are her passionate attachment to Greek culture and philosophical thought, especially Plato, and an equally passionate, almost driven commitment to radical reform and social justice.
1. With the introduction of the secular saint we break new ground, both in this course and, to some extent, in cultural discourse. a. Question and commitment and looking at search for meaning in a new way. b. We may characterize secular saint as an ideal type of person who lives the question of meaning in human existence fully open to its mystery and fully committed to searching for meaning along the paths of both the hero and the saint. c. We must acknowledge that, as we have presented these two paths and their historical development, they are mutually exclusive opposites that resist synthesis or assimilation d. This makes the figure of the secular saint an embodiment and affirmation of the human person primarily in terms of his or her freedom of conscience exercised as an absolute responsibility for one’s identity in relation to the mystery of reality as a whole. e. Binocularity –seeing from two distinct perspectives to allow depth of field f. Walking erect – an evolutionary stage of human development – moving from 4 legs to 2 - requiring the capacity to balance constant shifts of weight and momentum – opposites, contradictory shifts in stance or place in the world, yet something over millennia that humans have learned to do 2. Simone Weil has been widely regarded as a creative genius by figures as diverse as Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt, Dorothy Day, Robert Coles, and Charles de Gaulle. a. Weil was born in Paris in 1909; she died at age 34 in a sanatorium in Kent, England, of tuberculosis, complicated by her refusal of food to demonstrate solidarity with those in Nazi-occupied France. b. Parents were nonreligious Jews, brother Andre illustrious mathematician c. She suffered from a weak constitution and severe physical ailments throughout her life, especially chronic debilitating headaches. She was born both physically and socially awkward and a ruthless strain of self-criticism. d. Her brief life was bracketed by the two world wars and shaped by the political, social, and economic dislocations that dominated the years between them. She registered the anguish of her times with exquisite sensitivity and felt obligated to rethink Europe’s collapsing civilization. e. In the last five years of her life a mystical spiritual perspective unexpectedly opened to her. She came to know the love of God as intimately, she said, as the smile of a friend. 3. Simone Weil’s thoughts on the political and economic dynamics of society have their roots in Greek philosophy and reflect the characteristics of the heroic worldview and the concept of heroic citizenship that evolved from it. a. Weil’s conception of justice is simple and straightforward: Justice, she says, consists in seeing that no avoidable harm is done to any person. b. Weil understands human existence as a whole, and questions of justice specifically, in the context of...