The gravity and grace of who we are

Simone Weil on the necessary elements to become a person

From the cover of The Red Virgin

6 min read

Simone Weil (1909–1943) was born to Jewish parents in Paris. She entered the École normale supérieure, University of Paris in 1928. Afterwards, Simone taught for some time in various high schools throughout France. She also tutored workers in factories and field laborers in philosophy.

In Southern France, during wine harvest times, she carried with her a copy of Plato’s Symposium, eagerly sharing, and explaining it to others. She was always interested in first-person perspectives on human experiences.

In 1934 she spent a sabbatical year working in Parisian factories like those of Alstom and Renault. This was a major turning point for her both philosophically and religiously. She directly experienced what she called the humiliation and dehumanization of industrialization while working on the factory floor.

In her journals and writings, she clearly records these harsh experiences and recalls the continuous and repetitive orders from bosses and the inhuman pressure to keep pace with the mechanized production process.

The result was, according to Simone, fatigue ending up in your being no longer able to think. And, of all things, Weil could not but think.

Tearing our souls to shreds

She described how in this whole process workers become trapped like squirrels in a cage, ensnared into a kind of slavery. In this situation persons are no longer able to have thoughts, to invent or even exercise judgment.

In short, you enter into the shock of becoming a “thing” and this “contradiction lodged within the soul tears it to shreds” (The Iliad, or the Poem of Force).

Simone saw how “this heavy emptiness” caused a lot of human suffering. “We must face the reality,” she says, “that there is in work an irreducible ‘element of servitude,’ which even a perfect society can never remove.”

Marx spoke of religion as the “opium of the people” entrapping us. But Simone Weil says this applies more aptly to the idea of revolution: “the hope of revolution is always a drug” (The First Condition for the Work of the Human Person).

A change in external working or living conditions will not necessarily alter who we are as human persons. The great falsehood at the heart of any adequate analysis of alienation, according to Weil, is to think that our souls can fly away from “disgust for work.”

She wrote, “disgust [experienced in work] in all its forms is one of the most precious trials sent to man as a ladder by which to rise… Monotony is the most beautiful or the most atrocious of things. The most beautiful if it is a reflection of eternity—the most atrocious if it is a sign of an unvarying perpetuity. It is time surpassed or time sterilized” (Gravity and Grace).

We can, in fact, as human beings recreate ourselves through work, and we should not run away from this opportunity. It is through work, she writes, that time enters the body and so is transformed.

Only beauty can save us

We remain as slaves, Simone says, if we simply remain “turning round and round” in circles living lives out of mere necessity. This is to stay at the “vegetative level” of life.

The slave is he or she “to whom no good is proposed as the object of” their labor “except mere existence.” So, “to strive from necessity and not for some good,” maintaining our existence just as it is — “that is always slavery.”

Weil suggests that “the beautiful alone enables us to be satisfied by that which is. Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem. They need some light from eternity. Religion alone can be the source of such poetry. Slavery is work without any light from eternity, without poetry, without religion. May the eternal light give not a reason for living and working, but a sense of completeness which makes the search for any such reason unnecessary” (Gravity and Grace).

The worst outrage for Weil is not necessarily physical deprivations but “the crime against the attention of the workers.” In her writings she continually argues against the situation where people are just cogs in a machine, pointing out how such an approach “empties the soul of everything unconcerned with speed.”

As human beings we are much more than gearwheels in a system, and we must attend to this reality.

Turning the soul towards detachment 

Simone believes that any exit strategy from such oppression cannot be based upon revolutionary or utopic solutions. The Marxian analysis holds, she says, “that once you change the external economic and social structures, you totally eradicate alienation.”

But Weil’s unique approach is unfolded in her philosophical reflections, where she considers that philosophy is not about the acquisition of different forms of knowledge. Reflection, she argues, is about the “transformation of the orientation of the soul, which we call detachment.”

Real change happens within, and this begins in detachment. In her essay Philosophy (1941), she points out that it was Plato who originally outlined this particular way of living. Referencing Plato’s Republic (VI 518b-d), Weil stresses that “philosophy is to turn one toward the truth with all one’s soul” (42). Plato says that the “art that is needed here is the art of conversion, which shows the easiest and the most effective way of making the soul turn.”

In her writings, Weil mentions several philosophical texts and sources originating from the Greeks, the Bhagavata-Gita, the Egyptians, Chinese, and European philosophers like Descartes and Kant who follow this tradition of detachment. These thinkers are interested in knowledge not for its own sake, but because they are “orientated towards salvation” (42).

To make a continual thoroughgoing investigation of experience, we cannot remain “attached” to it but must “unfasten” from it. This demands an effort, and “to achieve it looks… like a miracle. The word ‘grace’ expresses this miraculous character” (Some Reflections on the Concept of Value, 32).

Weil suggests detachment not as an abstract concept, but as a way of life, and this equally applies to the encounter with what she calls “the work of human hands,” which always contains, as she observes, “suffering.”

She looks upon “attachment” as a “manufacturer of illusions and whoever wants reality ought to be detached” (Gravity and Grace). As we have said, Weil spoke from her own personal experiences, and so she held that “experience proves that this waiting [to reach the moment of ‘grace’ or insight] is satisfied. It is then we touch the absolute good.”

“Workers need poetry more than bread... They need some light from eternity.”

The model

Christ was to Simone Weil the model of such a way of life. She observes how “He emptied himself of his divinity.”

He invites us to empty ourselves of the world. To take the form of a slave. To reduce ourselves to the point we occupy in space and time—that is to say, to nothing.

This is to “strip ourselves of the imaginary royalty of the world… Then we possess the truth of the world” (Gravity and Grace).

In many ways, Weil anticipates some of St. John Paul II’s thoughts in his encyclical Laborem Excercens on human work, where he speaks of “elements for a spirituality of work.” He outlines how all work is linked with toil. In enduring the drudgery “of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity” (27). Through work, we can enter the process of becoming who we are as persons. It is, St. John Paul II says, in “the most ordinary of everyday activities” that we unfold this reality (25).

Likewise, Simone explained how “through work man turns himself into matter, as Christ does in the Eucharist. Work is like a death. We have to pass through death… When the universe is weighing upon the back of a human creature, what is there to be surprised at if it hurts?

She says, “if we are worn out it means that we are becoming submissive to time as matter is. Thought is forced to pass from one instant to the next without laying hold of the past or the future” (Gravity and Grace).

In her philosophical perspective, this is to take in the gravity and grace of who we are as human beings.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.