Simone Weil, 1909 – 1943

February 3, 1909 – Birthdate of Simone Weil, French mystic and philosopher.

After her graduation from formal education, Weil became a teacher. She taught intermittently throughout the 1930s, taking several breaks due to poor health and to devote herself to political activism, work that would see her assisting in the trade union movement, taking the side of the Anarchists known as the Durruti Column in the Spanish Civil War, and spending more than a year working as a laborer, mostly in auto factories, so she could better understand the working class.

Taking a path that was unusual among twentieth-century left-leaning intellectuals, she became more religious and inclined towards mysticism as her life progressed. Weil wrote throughout her life, though most of her writings did not attract much attention until after her death. In the 1950s and 1960s, her work became famous on continental Europe and throughout the English-speaking world. Her thought has continued to be the subject of extensive scholarship across a wide range of fields.  A meta study from the University of Calgary found that between 1995 and 2012 over 2,500 new scholarly works had been published about her.  Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”.

Many commentators who have assessed Weil as a person were highly positive; many described her as a saint, some even as the greatest saint of the twentieth century, including T.S. Eliot, Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, and Robert Coles.  Weil biographer Gabriella Fiores writes that Weil was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.”  Foolish though she may have appeared at times—dropping a suitcase full of French resistance papers all over the sidewalk and scrambling to gather them up—her deep engagement with both the theory and practice of caritas, in all its myriad forms, functions as the unifying force of her life and thought. Gustave Thibon, the French philosopher and close friend, recounts their last meeting, not long before her death: “I will only say that I had the impression of being in the presence of an absolutely transparent soul which was ready to be reabsorbed into original light”.

Weil has however been criticised even by those who otherwise deeply admired her, such as Eliot, for being excessively prone to divide the world into good and evil, and for her sometimes intemperate judgments. Weil was a harsh critic of the influence of Judaism on Western civilization, and an even harsher critic of the Roman empire, in which she refused to see any value at all.  On the other hand, she held up the Cathars as exemplars of goodness, despite there being little concrete evidence on which to base such an assessment, and according to Pétrement she idolized Lawrence of Arabia, considering him to be a Saint.  A few critics have taken an overall negative view: several Jewish writers, including Susan Sontag, accused her of anti-Semitism.   A small minority of commentators have judged her to be psychologically unbalanced or sexually obsessed. General Charles de Gaulle, her ultimate boss while she worked for the French Resistance, considered her “crazy”, though even he was influenced by her and repeated some of her sayings for years after her death.

After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34. The coroner’s report said that “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed”.

On November 12, 1979, France issued a 1,30 franc + 30 centimes semi-postal (charity) stamp honoring Weil (Scott No. B518).

Simone Weil - France

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