Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.

By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.

Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.

Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain

Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.

But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.

I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.

In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.

Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her

Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.

The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:

Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.

Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.

World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.

Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.

Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:

Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.

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It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:

Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc (Song of Joan of Arc) ~ by Christine de Pizan, ed. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1977), trans. L. Shopkow

Henry VI, Part I ~ by William Shakespeare, 1591 via Open Source Shakespeare (website)

Jeanne d’Arc ~ by T. Douglas Murray, New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1902 (excerpts detailing her trial)

Joan of Arc ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast, episode 51

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured ~ by Kathryn Harrison, New York: Doubleday, 2014

Joan of Arc ~ 1948 film directed by Victor Fleming, screenplay by Maxwell Anderson

Joan of Arc: A History ~ by Helen Castor, New York: HarperCollins, 2015

Joan of Arc: The Warrior Saint ~ by Stephen Wesley Richey, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003

The Passion of Joan of Arc ~ 1928 film, screenplay by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc ~ by Mark Twain, 1896

The Riddle Of Mark Twain’s Passion For Joan Of Arc ~ by Daniel Crown for The Awl, Apr 3, 2012.

Saint Joan ~ 1957 film adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, screenplay by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my youthful freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my childhood and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was a brilliant and never a less-than-fascinating one.

Learn more about the brilliant and idiosyncratic Bertrand Russell at:

Bertrand Russell ~ Melvyn Bragg in discussion with AC Grayling, Mike Beaney, and Hilary Greaves for BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time

Bertrand Russell ~ by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell – Biographical ~ at NobelPrize.org

Bertrand Russell: British Logician and Philosopher ~ by Ray Monk for Encyclopedia Britannica

Stop Working so Much: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell ~ by Nat Eliason and Neil Soni for Made You Think podcast

Various pieces on Bertrand Russell ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously and thought deeply about the nature of his God and humankind’s proper relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research on Khayyám (which, thus far, is not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding. He tells us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, and necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, through science, religion, or any other means. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Inspired Victorian Hedonists ~ by Roman Krznaric

Omar Khayyam ~ by J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 ~ The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam: Persian poet and astronomer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – by the editors for Muslim Heritage

Umar Khayyam ~ by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Averroes (Ibn Rushd)! By Eric Gerlach

Averroes by Giorgione893 years ago today, on April 14th, 1126, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist, and scientist Ibn Rushd, or as he is known by the Latinate version of his name in Europe, Averroes, was born.

Among his many achievements, Averroes is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics.  Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought. To the left is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice. Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus.

Aquinas Averroes and Scholastics

Thomas Aquinas

Averroes’ grandfather and father both served as chief judge of Cordoba, the place where Averroes was born, which later became part of Spain. Averroes wrote prolifically, twenty-eight works of philosophy as well as important treatises on law and medicine.  As a rationalist, Averroes argued that philosophy and religion teach the same truth and thus are not in conflict, such that intellectuals pursue the same matters that common people comprehend through religion and rhetoric.  He also argued that analytic thinking was important for the proper interpretation of the Quran, as Christian Scholastics would argue later about the Bible in Europe.  Averroes’ works were banned and burned in Islamic and Christian lands at different times, but they were revered enough to survive in both places.

Averroes was opposed to the work of Al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic and author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers.  Ghazali argued that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi and Avicenna contradict each other, and are thus incoherent as a set, and also contradict the teachings of Islam.  Ghazali also argued that Aristotle and those who follow him are wrong to assert that nature proceeds according to established laws, as all things proceed directly through the will of God.  Averroes wrote his most famous work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Ghazali. Averroes defended Aristotle and argued that philosophy does lead to coherent truth, which is not in conflict with Islam, and that nature proceeds indirectly from God via the laws of nature, which God established during creation.

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Averroes is also famous for his idea of monopsychism, that we all share the same divine soul, mind, and awareness, with each taking a part such that the lower soul is individual and mortal but the higher soul is universal and immortal, the source of true inspiration and reason.  Spinoza, who said that each of us is like a wave on the great sea of being, was a pantheist, inspired in part by Averroes.  Much later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he said, in the spirit of Averroes, “I believe in Spinoza’s god”.

In these and countless other instances, we can discern the influence of Averroes throughout both Eastern and Western thought. Thank you for your wisdom and insight, Averroes!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine!

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Thomas Paine, father of our American identity, on his birthday. Born on January 29th, 1737, this British-American expatriate, a former entrepreneur and corset-maker, became one of the pre-eminent political and humanist writers in the Enlightenment tradition. He wrote brilliantly in language readily understood by readers from all walks of life yet long studied by and widely influential to scholars and other authors, from wildly popular pamphlets which the case for American independence from Britain, to books and short works centered on his Lockean conception of human rights. Paine argued for the primacy of reason in epistemology, politics, science, and theology. Paine is a primary influence in my own concept of America as ever a work-in-progress bastion of liberty, of reason, of freedom of conscience, of the idea that the establishment of property rights entails the obligation to share the wealth with those who lack what they need to live.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by Thomas Paine, including some of my own work:

Common Sense ~ Thomas Paine (1776)

The American Crisis ~ Thomas Paine (1776-83)

The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (1791-92)

The Age of Reason ~ Thomas Paine (1794)

Agrarian Justice ~ Thomas Paine (1795-96)

Thomas Paine ~ from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Thomas Paine: British-American Author ~ by Philip S. Foner for Encyclopædia Britannica

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson ~ history of ideas travel series in which I follow Thomas Paine’s life and ideas in the era of the French Revolution

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights ~ my essay on how Paine’s ideas about property rights led him to advocate the unconditional allocation of public funds for the support of the young, the old, and the disabled

Pretty Pink Rose ~ David Bowie and Adrian Belew (1990) – ‘She tore down Paris on the tail of Tom Paine, but the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane’

As I Went Out One Morning ~ Bob Dylan (1968) ‘As I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s, I spied the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains’

Tom Paine’s Bones ~ Graham Moore (1995) Recorded by Dick Gaughan in 2001. ‘Well they say I preached revolution but let me say in my defence, all I did wherever I went was to talk a lot of Common Sense’

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Mark Twain, Joan of Arc, and a Letter to H.H. Rogers, Sunday, Apr. 29, 1895

Mark Twain on the USS Mohican in the Seattle Harbor, about to embark for Europe, 1895

Excerpt from a letter from Mark Twain to H.H. Rogers in New York City: Sunday, Apr. 29, ’95:

…At 6 minutes past 7, yesterday evening, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

With the long strain gone, I am in a sort of physical collapse today, but it will be gone tomorrow. I judged that this end of the book would be hard work, and it turned out to be so. I have never done any work before that caused so much thinking and weighing and measuring and planning and cramming, or so much cautious and painstaking execution. For I wanted the whole Rouen trial in, if it could be got in in such a way that the reader’s interest would not flag—in fact I wanted the reader’s interest to increase; and so I stuck to it with that determination in view—with the result that I have left nothing out but unimportant repetitions. Although it is mere history—history pure and simple—history stripped naked of flowers, embroideries, colorings, exaggerations, inventions—the family agree that I have succeeded. It was a perilous thing to try in a tale, but I never believed it a doubtful one—provided I stuck strictly to business and didn’t weaken and give up: or didn’t get lazy and skimp the work. The first two-thirds of the book were easy; for I only needed to keep my historical record straight; therefore I used for reference only one French history [Michelet] and one English one [Tuckey]—and shoveled in as much fancy work and invention on both sides of the historical road as I pleased. But on this last third I have constantly used five French sources and five English ones and I think no telling historical nugget in any of them that has escaped me.

Possibly the book may not sell, but that is nothing—it was written for love.

There—I’m called to see company. The family seldom requires this of me, but they know I am not working today.

Yours sincerely,

S.L. Clemens

When reading a book of Mark Twain‘s letters to select one for an intellectual history seminar presentation last year (this is a lightly edited version of that very presentation) this letter to H.H. Rogers jumped right out at me. As many of my long-time readers may know, I’ve long had a fascination with Joan of Arc and with Mark Twain’s book about her. 1896’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was, and still is, a mystery to many. Why did this hard-bitten cultural critic, cynic and skeptic write a tender and hagiographic historical novel about a medieval French Catholic warrior-saint? From his own comments over the decades, he wasn’t especially fond of the French; he thought the medieval period was an age of superstition and ignorance; he mocked patriotism as just another brand of thoughtless provincialism; and he certainly was no fan or defender of organized religion. And why did this novelist and humorist decide to write a history …well, again, a historical novel, but heavy on the history nonetheless? And why did he insist it was the best thing he’d ever written?

First Edition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896, cover

In some ways, Twain’s fascination with and tenderness for Joan of Arc isn’t hard to explain. His biographer Dixon Wecter writes that ‘the heroine of his inmost heart is Joan of Arc, a virgin of unapproachable purity’ (Wecter 172). He was noted, even then, as a writer with unusually sentimental ideas about women and girls, convinced that by nature they were tender and pure, of some plane higher than that of rough, vulgar, venal, lustful men. If we set aside the bloodshed and partisanship, it’s not too much of a stretch to characterize Joan as a model of virtuous womanhood, above the ordinary concerns and desires and accomplishments of men. And Joan appears in Twain’s book as just such a woman, with a ready wit and a strong sense of humor (Twain’s Joan laughs and pals around a lot) to redeem her from being a ‘tinsel saint,’ as he complained that the Catholic Church was about to make her with her canonization proceedings.

And when Twain wrote that his Joan book was ‘was written for love,’ he’s likely thinking not only about his love of Joan, he’s thinking of Susy. With the exception of his wife Livy, Susy was the dearest person in the world to Twain’s heart, and he made no secret of it. His daughter was vivacious, sentimental, affectionate, and the year after he finished Joan, dead. She died on August 15th, 1896, at age 24, in the same year Joan was published in book form (it was originally published as a serial in Harper’s Weekly). But throughout the first years he was writing Joan, Susy was as big a fan as he was, and had high praise, like Twain himself, for the work. It’s commonly accepted that Susy was a major inspiration for his characterization and idealization of Joan. It seems that he was in many ways unable, in fact, to put Susy aside so he could really consider Joan herself, on her own terms.

Although Twain wrote that he was recounting ‘mere history …stripped naked of flowers [and] embroideries,’ Joan’s story could not have been more fascinating on its own merits and Twain, inventor of fantastic tales and prolific creator of clever lines, could not have surpassed it in either. The fact that a seventeen-year-old illiterate peasant girl could run away from home; convince Church authorities that the voices in her head telling her to deliver France from England came from God and not the devil; convince war leaders and the King to give her troops and arms; lead the French army to a series of victories delivered by cunning military strategy as well as a new sense of united, sacred purpose; and once she was captured by the English and handed over to an ecclesiastical court in hopes they could discredit her as a sorceress and heretic, conduct her own case so skillfully that we still wonder at her prudent and adroit responses.

In early 1895, Twain wrote in his notebook that it was ‘across [France’s] firmament that those two prodigies swept, astonishing the world, Napoleon and Joan of Arc—that wonderful man and that sublime girl who dwarf all the rest of the human race.’ (Notebook 241) A little while after I read this passage and as I was looking for more references to Joan of Arc in his letters, I came across another to H.H. Rogers, written on Sunday, Sept 9th, 1894. Twain wrote: ‘..In those two days I reached and passed—successfully—a point which I was solicitous about before I ever began that book: viz., the battle of Patay.’ (Notebook p 616) The Battle of Patay, I remembered, was perhaps the most decisively victorious as well as an especially bloody battle from Joan’s campaign—which was so bloody overall that during her trial she was accused of ‘cruelly thirsting for human blood and encouraging its shedding’ (Trial 124)—and to refresh my memory of Twain’s account of it, I flipped through his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. On page 250, chapter XXX begins ‘When the morning broke at last on that forever memorable 18th of June’; I did a quick Google search of the date to see if this was the Patay account, since it’s not in the chapter title and there’s no index, and instead, I came up with a list of results for the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon met his defeat.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

I wonder: is this link between these two French objects of his admiration a coincidence? Twain often told an anecdote about the first time he encountered Joan of Arc: in 1849, when he was still a printer’s apprentice, a loose page from a biography of Joan blew right off the sidewalk and into his face (Harrington and Jenn 64). But I wonder how much of this is thanks to the romance our imagination often drapes our memories in, and how much are the links between ideas and events we inevitably find when we pursue our interests diligently enough. Perhaps he encountered the historic Battle of Patay when researching the military history of Napoleon, a more likely secular hero, and thereby found Joan again.

‘For I wanted the whole Rouen trial in, if it could be got in in such a way that the reader’s interest would not flag—in fact I wanted the reader’s interest to increase; and so I stuck to it with that determination in view—with the result that I have left nothing out but unimportant repetitions. Although it is mere history—history pure and simple—history stripped naked.’ To return to Twain’s ‘mere history’ of Joan, he’s referring to the account of her trial at Rouen that lasted from January 9th, 1431 until she was burned at the stake on May 30th of the same year. Originally, Twain was going to tell the story of her childhood through her military career, ending with the Bloodless March, in which English stronghold after stronghold, hearing of Joan’s victories, surrendered without a shot, and the King’s coronation at Rheims, where his now sole reign over his French kingdom was confirmed. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t end there, because I agree with her biographer Jules Quicherat and not Jules Michelet in that Joan’s trial is as important a part of her legacy as any of her accomplishments. I don’t really agree with Twain that his account of the trial is ‘history pure and simple’ without ‘embroideries’, but he does stick closely to the many sources he refers to for this part of the books for the essential facts. The embroideries consist of his extremely negative characterization of Pierre Cauchon, the English-sympathizing bishop who led her trial; and the thoughts, reactions, and emotions of Louis de Comte, the fictionalized recorder of the trial and Joan’s lifelong friend, and channeler of Twain’s own sympathies.

Twain was wise in his ‘cautious and painstaking execution’ of the trial scenes, I think: instead of sprinkling his Joan account with amusing tales about the colorful characters, invented or historically-based, who surround her, he focuses closely on the exchanges between Joan and her inquisitors. There’s rich material here for pathos and drama, too much to bring into this brief presentation in any detail. Twain stays true both to his own idealization of women and to Joan’s native cleverness when he highlights her seemingly artless, direct answers, which, though simple, were so spot-on that she deftly avoided the legal traps set for her. Her smarts, then, were showcased without her appearing haughty or show-offy in the slightest.

If I were to write a new biography of Joan of Arc, I’d hope to pursue her through the archives and written histories as carefully and as prolonged as Twain did—in fact, his intense and detailed research for the book made him important in the scholarly discussions about her life, times, character, and legacy—but I’d try to write it with less idealization, though I am at least half as enamoured of her as Twain is. Twain’s Joan is beautiful and compelling, but not quite real. I’d like to see for myself how closely I can approach her across the span of nearly six hundred years.

Here are some examples of questions I’d ask that Twain did not, or at least, left unanswered:

– Is Joan as unlikely a product of her time as so many of her biographers, her early ones especially, seem to believe? From Helen Castor’s history of Joan of Arc, I know that France was riddled at the time with visionaries, prophets, holy maids, seers, and the like. While none of them led the army of France, it’s true, perhaps people were not entirely surprised to hear someone like her making the claims she did, and so were more ready to listen to her. I think many of these would have ended up in ecclesiastical courts as well, so I’ll look for records of these, and examine them to see what kind of religious ideas these people shared. Could Joan have been inspired by any of them?

– Does her adroit handling of her own case in her trial really reveal simplicity and naiveté, where she was lucky to avoid legal traps only because her answers were short and to the point, or an exceptional intelligence at work? Are their patterns in the style and substance of her answers that reveal a tactical approach? She would have had plenty of time to work on this while imprisoned. I’d like to look at other court records of people from Joan’s social class to see how these court cases were generally conducted, if Joan had to face a degree of questioning any more intensive, severe, complex, etc then did others.

– The court made much of her adopting men’s dress and haircuts and wearing weapons as an affront both to religion and to modesty, while Joan herself dismissed these concerns. Was the wearing of men’s clothes so unusual for a woman in Joan’s circumstances? Joan was a peasant and did a lot of work with animals and keeping of the property, which may have allowed for women to adopt dress at time more like men’s. However, her family was actually well-do-do for people of her social class, so there may have been a stricter dress code for her than for the poorest workers. I’d like to see if there were other examples from her time of people adopting the dress of the other gender, of other social classes, etc and see what kind of controversy this did or did not arouse.

Perhaps when I get the chance to follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc throughout France, as I’ve long planned to do, I’ll be able to answer these questions and many more.

Sources and Inspiration:

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. London: Faber & Faber, 2014

Harrington, Paula and Ronald Jenn. Mark Twain & France: The Making of a New American Identity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017

Hobbins, Daniel. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Michelet, Jules. Joan of Arc: Or, The Maid of Orleans. From Michelet’s History of France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1858.

Quicherat, Jules. Procès de Condamnation et de Réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc, Dite La Pucelle. Paris: J. Renouard et Cie, 1841

Twain, Mark, and Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain’s Letters (Definitive ed., Writings of Mark Twain, v.34-35). New York: G. Wells, 1923

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (Oxford Mark Twain). New York, [N.Y.] ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996

Twain, Mark, and Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain’s Notebook (Second ed.). New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935

Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952

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