Simone Weil

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Concern for the symbol has completely disappeared from our science.

Simone Weil (3 February 1909 - 24 August 1943) was a French social and religious philosopher. Politically active, she took part in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance. The sister of mathematician André Weil, through whom she became involved in mathematics, she became the only female member of the Bourbaki group.

From modern thought to ancient wisdom the path would be short and direct, if one cared to take it.

Sourced

Wrongly or rightly you think that I have a right to the name of Christian.
  • Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction.
    • The Pre-War Notebook (1933-1939), published in First and Last Notebooks (1970) edited by Richard Rees
When one speaks to you of unbelievers who are in affliction and accept their affliction as a part of the order of the world, it does not impress you in the same way as if it were a question of Christians and of submission to the will of God. Yet it is the same thing.
  • Wrongly or rightly you think that I have a right to the name of Christian. I assure you that when in speaking of my childhood and youth I use the words vocation, obedience, spirit of poverty, purity, acceptance, love of one's neighbor, and other expressions of the same kind, I am giving them the exact signification they have for me now. Yet I was brought up by my parents and my brother in a complete agnosticism, and I never made the slightest effort to depart from it; I never had the slightest desire to do so, quite rightly, I think. In spite of that, ever since my birth, so to speak, not one of my faults, not one of my imperfections really had the excuse of ignorance. I shall have to answer for everything on that day when the Lamb shall come in anger.
    You can take my word for it too that Greece, Egypt, ancient India, and ancient China, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflections of this beauty in art and science, what I have seen of the inner recesses of human hearts where religious belief is unknown, all these things have done as much as the visibly Christian ones to deliver me into Christ's hands as his captive. I think I might even say more. The love of these things that are outside visible Christianity keeps me outside the Church... But it also seems to me that when one speaks to you of unbelievers who are in affliction and accept their affliction as a part of the order of the world, it does not impress you in the same way as if it were a question of Christians and of submission to the will of God. Yet it is the same thing.
    • Last letter to Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, from a refugee camp in Casablanca (26 May 1942), as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas, p.111
  • Concern for the symbol has completely disappeared from our science. And yet, if one were to give oneself the trouble, one could easily find, in certain parts at least of contemporary mathematics... symbols as clear, as beautiful, and as full of spiritual meaning as that of the circle and mediation. From modern thought to ancient wisdom the path would be short and direct, if one cared to take it.
    • The Need for Roots (1949) p. 292
Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong.
  • Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be an atheist with that part of myself which is not made for God. Among those in whom the supernatural part of themselves has not been awakened, the atheists are right and the believers wrong.
    • "Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine" as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas, p. 417
  • That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.
    • "Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine" as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas, p. 418
  • Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny.
    • Lectures in philosophy [Leçons de philosophie] (1959) as translated by Hugh Price p. 103
  • There are two atheisms of which one is a purification of the notion of God.
    • As quoted in The New Christianity (1967) edited by William Robert Miller
The real sin of idolatry is always committed on behalf of something similar to the State.

Prelude to Politics (1943)

As translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas
  • Maurras, with perfect logic, is an atheist. The Cardinal [Richelieu], in postulating something whose whole reality is confined to this world as an absolute value, committed the sin of idolatry. ... The real sin of idolatry is always committed on behalf of something similar to the State. [p. 199]
Our patriotism comes straight from the Romans. ... It is a pagan virtue...
  • Our patriotism comes straight from the Romans. ... It is a pagan virtue, if these two words are compatible. The word pagan, when applied to Rome, early possesses the significance charged with horror which the early Christian controversialists gave it. The Romans really were an atheistic and idolatrous people; not idolatrous with regard to images made of stone or bronze, but idolatrous with regard to themselves. It is this idolatry of self which they have bequeathed to us in the form of patriotism. [p. 220]
  • Rome is the Great Beast of atheism and materialism, adoring nothing but itself. Israel is the Great Beast of religion. Neither one nor the other is likable. The Great Beast is always repulsive [p. 393]

First and Last Notebooks (1970)

  • One of the most exquisite pleasures of human love — to serve the loved one without his knowing it — is only possible, as regards the love of God, through atheism.
    • Last Notebook (1942) p 84
  • In order to obey God, one must receive his commands. How did it happen that I received them in adolescence, while I was professing atheism? To believe that the desire for good is always fulfilled — that is faith, and whoever has it is not an atheist.
    • Last Notebook (1942) p 137
  • No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving some good outside himself towards which his thought turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope. consequently, the only choice is between worshipping the true God or an idol. Every atheist is an idolater — unless he is worshipping the true God in his impersonal aspect. The majority of the pious are idolaters.
    • Last Notebook (1942) p 308

Simone Weil: An Anthology (1986)

There is nothing that comes closer to true humility than the intelligence. It is impossible to feel pride in one's intelligence at the moment when one really and truly exercises it.
[Ed. Siân Miles, pub. Weidenfeld and Nicolson ISBN 1-55584-021-3 ]
  • The eulogies of my intelligence are positively intended to evade the question "Is what she says true?"
    • Letter to her parents (1943), as quoted in the Introduction by Siân Miles [p.2]
  • There is nothing that comes closer to true humility than the intelligence. It is impossible to feel pride in one's intelligence at the moment when one really and truly exercises it.
    • As quoted in the Introduction (by Siân Miles) [p.35]

Human Personality (1943)

Published in Selected Essays 1934-1943 (1957)
At the bottom of the heart of every human being... there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience... that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred...
  • At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.
    The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it. [p.51]
  • Gregorian chant, Romanesque architecture, the Iliad, the invention of geometry were not, for the people through whom they were brought into being and made available to us, occasions for the manifestation of personality. [p.55]
  • It is precisely those artists and writers who are most inclined to think of their art as the manifestation of their personality who are in fact the most in bondage to public taste. [p.57]
  • A modern factory reaches perhaps almost the limit of horror. Everybody in it is constantly harassed and kept on edge by the interference of extraneous wills while the soul is left in cold and desolate misery. What man needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.
    Physical labour may be painful, but it is not degrading as such. It is not art; it is not science; it is something else, possessing an exactly equal value with art and science, for it provides an equal opportunity to reach the impersonal stage of attention. [p.59]
If you say to someone who has ears to hear: "What you are doing to me is not just," you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love...
  • Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, it must rely upon force in the background, or else it will be laughed at. [p.61]
  • If you say to someone who has ears to hear: "What you are doing to me is not just," you may touch and awaken at its source the spirit of attention and love. But it is not the same with words like, "I have the right..." or "you have no right to..." They evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention. [p.63]
  • If a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sound ludicrously inadequate. [p.63]
Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood.
  • The full expression of personality depends upon its being inflated by social prestige; it is a social privilege. [p.64]
  • Just as a vagrant accused of stealing a carrot from a field stands before a comfortably seated judge who keeps up an elegant flow of queries, comments and witticisms while the accused is unable to stammer a word, so truth stands before an intelligence which is concerned with the elegant manipulation of opinions. [p.68]
  • Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood. In them, intelligence is neither a good, nor even an asset. The difference between more or less intelligent men is like the difference between criminals condemned to life imprisonment in smaller or larger cells. The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell. [p.69]
  • To listen to someone is to put oneself in his place while he is speaking. To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction, or in near danger of it, is to annihilate oneself. It is more difficult than suicide would be for a happy child. Therefore the afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact. When they move their lips no ear perceives any sound. And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard.
    That is why there is no hope for the vagrant as he stands before the magistrate. Even if, through his stammerings, he should utter a cry to pierce the soul, neither the magistrate nor the public will hear it. His cry is mute. And the afflicted are nearly always equally deaf to one another; and each of them, constrained by the general indifference, strives by means of self-delusion or forgetfulness to become deaf to his own self. [p.71]

The Self (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
It is because of my wretchedness that I am "I." It is on account of the wretchedness of the universe that, in a sense, God is "I"
  • It is because of my wretchedness that I am "I." It is on account of the wretchedness of the universe that, in a sense, God is "I" (that is to say a person). [p.83]

The Needs of the Soul (1949)

Published in The Need for Roots (1949)
  • Those who keep the masses of men in subjection by exercising force and cruelty deprive them at once of two vital foods, liberty and obedience; for it is no longer within the power of such masses to accord their inner consent to the authority to which they are subjected. Those who encourage a state of things in which the hope of gain is the principal motive take away from men their obedience, for consent which is its essence is not something which can be sold. [p.97]
  • By committing a crime, a man places himself, of his own accord, outside the chain of eternal obligations which bind every human being to every other one. Punishment alone can weld him back again; fully so, if accompanied by consent on his part; otherwise only partially so. Just as the only way of showing respect for somebody suffering from hunger is to give him something to eat, so the only way of showing respect for somebody who has placed himself outside the law is to reinstate him inside the law by subjecting him to the punishment ordained by law.
    The need for punishment is not satisfied where, as is generally the case, the penal code is merely a method of exercising pressure through fear. [p.103]

The Great Beast (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
  • By a strange mystery — which is connected with the power of the social element — a profession can confer on quite ordinary men in their exercise of it, virtues which, if they were extended to all circumstances of life, would make of them heroes or saints. [p.124]

Analysis of Oppression (1955)

Published in "Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression" in Oppression and Liberty (1955)
The common run of moralists complain that man is moved by his private self-interest: would to heaven it were so!
  • The common run of moralists complain that man is moved by his private self-interest: would to heaven it were so! Private interest is a self-centered principle of action, but at the same time restricted, reasonable and incapable of giving rise to unlimited evils. Whereas, on the other hand, the law of all activities governing social life, except in the case of primitive communities, is that here one sacrifices human life — in himself and in others — to things which are only means to a better way of living. This sacrifice takes on various forms, but it all comes back to the question of power. Power, by definition, is only a means; or to put it better, to possess a power is simply to possess means of action which exceed the very limited force that a single individual has at his disposal. But power-seeking, owing to its essential incapacity to seize hold of its object, rules out all consideration of an end, and finally comes, through an inevitable reversal, to take the place of all ends. It is this reversal of the relationship between means and end, it is this fundamental folly that accounts for all that is senseless and bloody right through history. Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men — oppressed and oppressors alike — the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels. [p.141]

The Iliad or The Poem of Force (1940-1941)

Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.
  • Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death's face. The mind is then strung up to a pitch it can stand for only a short time; but each new dawn introduces the same necessity; and days piled on days make years. On each one of these days the soul suffers violence. Regularly, each morning, the soul castrates itself of aspiration, for thought cannot journey through time without meeting death on the way. Thus war effaces all conceptions of purpose or goal, including even its own "war aims." It effaces the very notion of war's being brought to an end. Consequently, nobody does anything to bring this end about. In the presence of an armed enemy, what hand can relinquish its weapon? The mind ought to find a way out, but the mind has lost all capacity to so much as look outward. The mind is completely absorbed in doing itself violence. Always in human life, whether war or slavery is in question, intolerable sufferings continue, as it were, by the force of their own specific gravity, and so look to the outsider as though they deprived the sufferer of the resources which might serve to extricate him. [p.181]
I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness.
  • He who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance separated from him by an abyss. The variety of constraints pressing upon man give rise to the illusion of several distinct species that cannot communicate. Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice. [p.192]
  • Moreover, nothing is so rare as to see misfortune fairly portrayed; the tendency is either to treat the unfortunate person as though catastrophe were his natural vocation, or to ignore the effects of misfortune on the soul, to assume, that is, that the soul can suffer and remain unmarked by it, can fail, in fact, to be recast in misfortune's image. [p.193]

Void and Compensation (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
  • I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness. [p.200]
Truth is sought not because it is truth but because it is good.

Attention and Will (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
  • Truth is sought not because it is truth but because it is good. [p.213]
  • We can know only one thing about God — that he is what we are not. Our wretchedness alone is an image of this. The more we contemplate it, the more we contemplate him. [p.216]
  • The recognition of human wretchedness is difficult for whoever is rich and powerful because he is almost invincibly led to believe that he is something. It is equally difficult for the man in miserable circumstances because he is almost invincibly led to believe that the rich and powerful man is something. [p.216]

The Power of Words (1937)

Published in Selected Essays 1934-1943 (1957)
In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends...
  • There is no area in our minds reserved for superstition, such as the Greeks had in their mythology; and superstition, under cover of an abstract vocabulary, has revenged itself by invading the entire realm of thought. Our science is like a store filled with the most subtle intellectual devices for solving the most complex problems, and yet we are almost incapable of applying the elementary principles of rational thought. In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. To keep to the social level, our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters; all it contains is absolutes and abstract entities. This is illustrated by all the words of our political and social vocabulary: nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy. We never use them in phrases such as: There is democracy to the extent that... or: There is capitalism in so far as... The use of expressions like "to the extent that" is beyond our intellectual capacity. Each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean, successively or simultaneously, anything whatsoever. Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts. In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills. [p.222]
What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war.
  • "A man thinks he is dying for his country," said Anatole France, "but he is dying for a few industrialists." But even that is saying too much. What one dies for is not even so substantial and tangible as an industrialist. [p.224]
  • What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live, but the things which enable it to make war; petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict. Thus when war is waged it is for the purpose of safeguarding or increasing one's capacity to make war. International politics are wholly involved in this vicious cycle. What is called national prestige consists in behaving always in such a way as to demoralize other nations by giving them the impression that, if it comes to war, one would certainly defeat them. What is called national security is an imaginary state of affairs in which one would retain the capacity to make war while depriving all other countries of it. It amounts to this, that a self-respecting nation is ready for anything, including war, except for a renunciation of its option to make war. But why is it so essential to be able to make war? No one knows, any more than the Trojans knew why it was necessary for them to keep Helen. That is why the good intentions of peace-loving statesman are so ineffectual. If the countries were divided by a real opposition of interests, it would be possible to arrive at a satisfactory compromise. But when economic and political interests have no meaning apart from war, how can they be peacefully reconciled? [p.224]
Prestige, which is illusion, is of the very essence of power.
  • The aim is to replace economic oligarchies by the State, which has a will-to-power of its own and is quite as little concerned with the public good; and a will-to-power, moreover, which is not economic but military and therefore much more dangerous to any good folk who have a taste for staying alive. And on the bourgeois side what on earth is the sense of objecting to State control in economic affairs if one accepts private monopolies which have all the economic and technical disadvantages of State monopolies and possibly some others as well? [p.230]
  • The struggle between the opponents and defenders of capitalism is a struggle between innovators who do not know what innovation to make and conservatives who do not know what to conserve. [p.233]
  • The necessity for power is obvious, because life cannot be lived without order; but the allocation of power is arbitrary because all men are alike, or very nearly. Yet power must not seem to be arbitrarily allocated, because it will not then be recognized as power. Therefore prestige, which is illusion, is of the very essence of power. [p.235]

Contradiction (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
An imaginary perfection is automatically at the same level as I who imagine it — neither higher nor lower.
  • An imaginary perfection is automatically at the same level as I who imagine it — neither higher nor lower. [p.240]

Prerequisite to Dignity of Labour (1957)

La Condition ouvrière (1951)
  • It is not in a person's nature to desire what he already has. Desire is a tendency, the start of a movement toward something, toward a point from which one is absent. If, at the very outset, this movement doubles back on itself toward its point of departure, a person turns round and round like a squirrel in a cage or a prisoner in a condemned cell. Constant turning soon produces revulsion. All workers, especially though not exclusively those who work under inhumane conditions, are easily the victims of revulsion, exhaustion and disgust and the strongest are often the worst affected. [p.245]

Detachment (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)


  • We must leave on one side the beliefs which fill up voids and sweeten what is bitter. The belief in immortality. The belief in the utility of sin: etiam peccata. The belief in the providential ordering of events — in short the "consolations" which are ordinarily sought in religion. [p.258]
  • We should desire neither the immortality nor the death of any human being, whoever he may be, with whom we have to do. [p.260]
  • The miser deprives himself of his treasure because of his desire for it. [p.260]
  • If we love God while thinking that he does not exist, he will manifest his existence. [p.260]

Love (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
  • God's love for us is not the reason for which we should love him. God's love for us is the reason for us to love ourselves. [p.270]
Stars and blossoming fruit-trees: utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity
  • To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. [p.274]
  • To wish to escape from solitude is cowardice. Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue). [p.274]

Chance (1947)

Published in Gravity and Grace (1947)
The most important part of education — to teach the meaning of to know...
  • Meditation on the chance which led to the meeting of my mother and father is even more salutary than meditation on death. [p.277]
  • Stars and blossoming fruit-trees: utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity. [p.277]

Waiting for God (1950)

  • The most important part of education — to teach the meaning of to know (in the scientific sense).
    • The last statement in her notebook

Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God

Online text
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object...
  • Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.
  • School children and students who love God should never say: "For my part I like mathematics"; "I like French"; "I like Greek." They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.
  • Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.
  • Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.
    All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style, and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.
Paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of a great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them.
  • We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them. Man cannot discover them by his own powers, and if he sets out to seek for them he will find in their place counterfeits of which he will be unable to discern falsity.
  • The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
  • Paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of a great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.

Quotes about Weil

  • In trying to understand her, we must not be distracted ... by considering how far, and at what points we agree or disagree. ... I cannot conceive of anybody's agreeing with all of her views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.
    • T.S. Eliot in his Introduction to The Need for Roots (1949)

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