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

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Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Philosophy Resonates Today, by Skye C Cleary

Simone de Beauvoir is rightly best known for declaring: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ A less well-known facet of her philosophy, particularly relevant today, is her political activism, a viewpoint that follows directly from her metaphysical stance on the self, namely that we have no fixed essences.

The existential maxim ‘existence precedes essence’ underpins de Beauvoir’s philosophy. For her, as for Jean-Paul Sartre, we are first thrown into the world and then create our being through our actions. While there are facts of our existence that we can’t choose, such as being born, who our parents were, and our genetic inheritance, we shouldn’t use our biology or history as excuses not to act. The existential goal is to be an agent, to take control over our life, actively transcending the facts of our existence by pursuing self-chosen goals.

It’s easy to find excuses not to act. So easy that many of us spend much of our lives doing so. Many of us believe that we don’t have free will – even as some neuroscientists are discovering that our conscious will can override our impulses. We tell ourselves that our vote won’t make any difference, instead of actively shaping the world in which we want to live. We point fingers at Facebook for facilitating fake news, instead of critically assessing what we’re reading and reposting. It’s not just lazy to push away responsibility in such ways, but it’s what de Beauvoir called a ‘moral fault’.

Since we’re all affected by politics, if we choose not to be involved in creating the conditions of our own lives this reduces us to what de Beauvoir called ‘absurd vegetation’. It’s tantamount to rejecting existence. We must take a side. The problem is, it’s not always clear which side we ought to choose. Even de Beauvoir failed to navigate through this question safely. She adopted questionable political stances: she once, for example, dismissed Chairman Mao – responsible for the murder of over 45 million people – as being ‘no more dictatorial’ than Franklin D Roosevelt. De Beauvoir’s philosophy of political commitment has a dark side, and she personally made some grave errors of judgement, yet within her philosophy, there’s an opening to address this issue.

In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947) she argues that to be free is to be able to stretch ourselves into an open future full of possibilities. Having this kind of freedom may be dizzying, but it doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we like. We share the earth, and have concern for one another; if we respect freedom for ourselves, then we should respect it for others, too. Using our freedom to exploit and oppress others, or to support the side that promotes such policies, is inconsistent with this radical existential freedom.

With oppressive regimes, de Beauvoir acknowledged that individuals usually pay a high price for standing up to dictators and the tyranny of the majority, but demonstrated concretely – through her writing and political engagement – the power of collective action to bring about structural change. An intellectual vigilante, de Beauvoir used her pen as a weapon, breaking down gendered stereotypes and challenging laws that prohibited women from having control over their own bodies. She authored and signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, which paved the way for birth control and abortion in France. Her most famous work, The Second Sex (1949), sparked a new wave of feminism across the world.

Today more than ever it’s vital to recognise that freedom can’t be assumed. Some of the freedoms that de Beauvoir fought so hard for in the mid-20th century have since come under threat. De Beauvoir warns that we should expect appeals to ‘nature’ and ‘utility’ to be used as justifications for restrictions on our freedom. And she has been proved correct. For example, the argument that Donald Trump and others have used that pregnancy is inconvenient for businesses is an implicit way of communicating the view that it is natural and economical for women to be baby-making machines while men work. However, de Beauvoir points out ‘anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation’, and making birth control, abortion, and parental leave unavailable closes down men’s and women’s ability to reach beyond their given situations, reinforcing stereotypical roles that keep women chained to unpaid home labour and men on a treadmill of paid labour.

In times of political turmoil, one may feel overwhelmed with anxiety and can even be tempted with Sartre to think that ‘hell is other people’. De Beauvoir encourages us to consider that others also give us the world because they infuse it with meaning: we can only make sense of ourselves in relation to others, and can only make sense of the world around us by understanding others’ goals. We strive to understand our differences and to embrace the tension between us. World peace is a stretch, since we don’t all choose the same goals, but we can still look for ways to create solidarities – such as by working to agitate authoritarians, to revolt against tyrants, to amplify marginalised voices – to abolish oppression. Persistence is essential since, as de Beauvoir says, ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.’ De Beauvoir is surely right that this is the risk, the anguish, and the beauty of human existence.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Skye C Cleary is a lecturer at Columbia University, the City College of New York, and Barnard College, and is the managing editor of the American Philosophical Association’s blog. Her latest book is Existentialism and Romantic Love (bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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