This evening, at The Buddhist House, we had a seminar about Simone Weil (1909-1943), regarded by many as one of the foremost religious thinkers of the 20th century. We were particularly looking at how a person can be simultaneously a genius and a misfit, a much loved figure and an outcast, skilled and inept. Weil came from a secular Jewish backgroud in France and was exceptionally intelligent, yet over shadowed by her brother Andre who was even more intellectually gifted and became one of the great methematicians of the century. When Simone and Andre met they would converse in ancient Greek, just one of many languages she learnt. Simone early developed intense feelings about social oppression and
throughout her life supported left wing causes passionately, but not uncritically. She was one of the first leftist thinkers to criticize the Soviet Union for its inhumane policies under Stalin, and she quarrelled with Trotsky too. She gradually became disillusioned with the idea of revolution.
She was one of the first women to be admitted to the Ecole Normale Superieure, coming top in the national entrance exams, with Simone de Beauvoir second. This led to a career in teaching, but she frequently got dismissed for non-conformity and for her extra-curricula political activities. Her socialist convictions also led her to take jobs in factories and on farms to experience first hand the travail of the workers and she describes some of these experiences with compelling vividness in her extensive writings.
She is best known nowadays for her religious writings and convictions. She very much wanted to be a Catholic but could never reconcile herself to the history of the Church, its exclusiveness (non-Christians are damned), or to certain of its doctrines. She wrote: "When I read the cetachism of the Council of Trent, it seems as though I had nothing in common with the religion there set forth. When I read the New Testament, the mystics, the liturgy, when I watch the celebration of the mass, I feel with a sort of conviction that this faith is mine or, to be more precise, would be mine without the distance placed between it and me by my imperfection. This results in a painful spiritual state. I would like to make it, not less painful, only clearer. Any pain whatsoever is acceptable where there is clarity." (Letter to a Priest 1951, published by Routledge 2002). Weil believed that creation was the result of God withdrawing and that though God gives us the possibility of independence, we do best to refuse the gift: "God gave me being in order that I should give it back to him". "The self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a self." Weil never had a sexual relationship and died young as a result of starving herself. Her best known books are The Need for Roots, Gravity and Grace and Oppression and Liberty.
The seminar stimulated some intense discussion. I imagine that she would have enjoyed it. She very much approved of education for its own sake.