The first decade of the new millennium has refuted Aristotle’s assertion that ‘man is a political animal’. In many respects, new technologies keep glorifying and enhancing the pursuit of selfish pleasures to the detriment of our social duties. At the same time, the escalation of violence in the Middle East points to a new definition of mankind as essentially ‘a religious animal’ whose allegiance to his or her faith overrides any other consideration towards our fellow human beings. In this struggle to recapture the fundamental values of Western Humanism, philosophy has certainly a central role to play. One particular figure seems to embody the intellectual courage needed to face the dual challenge of religious fanaticism and political cynicism.
Simone Weil was born in 1909, of French Jewish parents and died of tuberculosis in England, at the age of 34. Despite her short life, Weil embraced life through the prism of a remarkable sensitivity and a unique philosophical temperament. A young philosophy teacher, in the early 1930’s, she soon became aware of the material poverty and social alienation of the French working class. Like Orwell, she spent a short time fighting on the anti-fascist side in Spain and like Orwell, she shared, if not the life of the homeless In London and Paris, the long hours of factory life and the fraternity of workers, physically exploited and deprived of a sense of purpose in their tedious everyday existence. Weil fully understood the social frustrations of her fellow workers but she also carefully refrained from joining a political party despite her ‘Marxist’ reading of an economic system turning its workers into ‘slaves’ and crushing their human aspirations. However her conception of social relations was dramatically transformed by her ‘mystical’ experience of 1935 when she felt the overwhelming presence of Christ in her soul. From then on, Weil called herself ‘a Christian, outside the Church’, combining a strong sense of social justice with a fervent spiritual, but non dogmatic, approach of human existence. Deeply opposed to any kind of political power or religious authority (which she refers to as ‘force’), the young woman made her way to London where she offered her services to the Free French organisation in the hope of seeing a better Europe emerge from the years of bloody struggle against Nazism.
Weil passionately believed in the rise of a more human and more cooperative society, liberated from the constraints of economic competition and allowing each individual time to blossom and cultivate his spirituality: a kind of Christian socialist community with no trace of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Like Marx, she believed in the paramount importance of work as a source of self-affirmation but more importantly, as a source of communion with others … and Christ, as a way of participating in the divine Order. Critics of globalisation find in Weil a thinker who defines man as a physical, social and spiritual entity, deeply rooted in its local, cultural traditions. A ‘mystical philosopher’, she saw in the latter the very foundations of man’s happiness, the purpose of life being to accept the world as it is and to work towards its improved ‘humanisation’. It is not surprising that Albert Camus considered Simone Weil an outstanding thinker as they both shared the same desperate love of life and the same sympathy for a suffering humanity which they hoped to see, one day, reconciled with itself.