Simone Weil’s rejection of the enlightenment
Simone Weil (1909-1943) is a French philosopher and mystic.
At the Ecole Normale Supérieure she was the contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. She was a brilliant Hellenist, translating from the classics without the text, as she knew the text by heart, according to another contemporary of hers, a teacher at my school near Paris. Weil started writing for a philosophy magazine while a student.
Like Beauvoir she became a philosophy teacher in a provincial secondary school, the usual route for top philosophy graduates; she was a popular and gifted teacher, her lessons were published from pupil notes later on. She also taught in the then equivalent of the WEA. She took leave from teaching to work in factories. She was a syndicalist and wrote articles for trade union magazines. She visited thirties Germany and wrote about the politics there. She applauded the Front Populaire. She briefly joined the Republicans in Spain in 1936. In 1942 she went to London to join De Gaulle and the Free French.
There she wrote a text meant to be a preparation for the rebuilding of France after the war, “The Need for Roots—Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Human Beings”.
Most of her writing was published after her death.
According to Simone Weil, the thinking of the modern world uses rational discourse which excludes the supernatural. Yet the modern world believes in justice, even though justice is not of this world. This is a contradiction.
Either everything that we can talk about sensibly is material and of this world, and in this case justice cannot be part of sensible talk, or the supernatural has some validity in rational discourse.
Marx was therefore a better option for people in search of a consistent philosophy: he was a materialist, and he did not say that justice existed. Whereas Voltaire and the Enlightenment philosophers wanted to have it both ways: they rejected religion as supernatural, but they thought justice could be achieved in this world.
Rights are an example of this: rights are strictly of this world,
existing only within institutions that can guarantee them: “Rights by themselves are not worth much” says Simone Weil.
I will develop this in what I think is the spirit of Simone Weil. All quotations are from ‘The Need for Roots.’
The above quotation comes from the beginning of The Need for Roots:
“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its being. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.”
Take the example of workers’ rights: Workers rights exist in a circumscribed domain, where all parties agrees that rights exist, and where the party most likely to have to defend the right against the other party is aware of the nature of the rights and knows either how to demand them or who to ask for help to have their rights upheld. The right of the worker to work only 8 hours a day corresponds to the obligation of the employer to organise the work in such a way that it can be done by people working 8 hours and not more than 8 hours. The worker exercises his right to work only 8 hours because he works for an employer who recognises that he has an obligation to allocate him or her a daily portion of 8 hours:
“the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him.”
The employer may see that not overworking people makes for better productivity; if he does not, the law, labour law inspectors or union representatives are there to remind him of his obligations; workers can avail themselves of the protection of the law and the help of inspectors and representatives. It is the recognition of the obligation to limit work to 8 hours that makes the right to an 8 hour day effectual:
‘A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.’
The right only exists because it is recognised by others who recognise their obligation towards the holder of the right.
Simone Weil notes that the obligation commits the person to an action. It is therefore within the realm of possibility. You can’t be obliged to do something impossible or to provide something that does not exist.
“The notion of rights, being of an objective order, is inseparable from the notions of existence and reality. This becomes apparent when the obligation descends to the realm of fact, consequently it always involves to a certain extent the taking into account of actual given states and particular situations. Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions.”
The obligation must be attached to someone who can carry it out, or to a body that can carry it out.
Human rights in the abstract therefore cannot exist: there is no context and no person or body that can recognise an obligation towards all human beings in their quality as human beings.
There are obligations towards human beings as such; however, these obligations are not in the realm of reality:
“obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions because it is situated above this world.”
“The men of 1789 [with their Declaration of the Rights of Man] did not recognize the existence of such a realm. All they recognised was the one on the human plane. That is why they started off with the idea of rights. But at the same time they wanted to postulate absolute principles. This contradiction caused them to tumble into a confusion of language and ideas.”
This world is a world of matter ruled by force; rights are guaranteed when there is a balance of forces: those who have the right must also have enough force to make sure the right is respected. It is not a matter of justice.
The philosophy of the Third Republic secular spirit and political radicalism was founded on both science and humanism, which are incompatible. “Either we must perceive at work in the universe, alongside force, a principle of a different kind, or else we must recognise force as being the unique and sovereign ruler over human relations too.”
The first part of the alternative is incompatible with modern views of science, and the second is incompatible with humanism.
There is in fact in France (and Europe) a cult of force, which she calls the cult of false greatness; this is apparent in the admiration we have for the Romans, even though the Romans were a destructive and exterminating race, a band of rootless adventurers intent on uprooting others.
This cult of force is in contradiction with ‘justice’ or ‘the rights of man’; as well as being part of the reigning ideology, it governs France’s relations with conquered colonies, where the rights of man are not even thought of. This contradiction is one root of the malaise of the Western world.
The other source of malaise is the role of the State. The State in France since Richelieu has taken a greater and greater place in the life of the individual, eliminating in the process any competing substantial entity, such as smaller nationalities, and any competing attachments, such as the family, the trade corporation, customs and religious beliefs. The State has detached individuals from their roots and from connections with bodies other than itself. I should note that when Simone Weil speaks of roots she means connections with entities other than oneself.
The Romans subverted the Christian religion to the State’s benefit. The Roman Empire turned the Christian religion into a system similar to itself, that is, made of a being above the mass (God and Caesar) and a mass of slaves. The population of Rome, whether slave or free, had no rights vis a vis the Emperor; in the same way mankind is subject to the absolute will of God. There is a personal relation, of master to slave, between God/Caesar, and the mass of slaves/believers, who can try to curry favour etc, but can only behave as slaves.
“The impersonal aspect of God and the divine Providence was thrust into the background. God was turned into a counterpart of the emperor.” This contributed to the decline of Christianity, because it is a distortion of real Christianity. In Christianity, God is Truth, Goodness and Beauty; the order of the universe is True, Good and Beautiful. Man is part of the universe and he worships God by loving the order of the universe; the idea of a personal relationship with the order of the universe, or the Good, makes no sense; man is free. Scientists in Antiquity such as Pythagoras worshipped God when they studied the laws of the universe and admired their beauty.
There is no contradiction between science and religion, because science studies what there is, that is, the laws of the universe, which all things obey; all things obey God.
Tending towards the Good is the mark of greatness. It follows that there is almost no real greatness in the world; we should admire historical figures to the extent that they aimed for the Good or allowed Good to flourish; this is the criterion for greatness.
Modern man admires scientists, but the greatness they attribute to them is false. Scientists do not aim for the Good, their motivation is challenge, play, advancement, money. When a discovery threatens to upset civilisation, they don’t stop to reconsider, because their objective is not the Good.
People have an inkling of this other world when they talk of justice. Everyone agrees, unless they are blinded by passion or interest, that if you have food, and see on your doorstep a man half starved, you must give him some bread.
This agreement should be a starting point for a different way to look at the world, that is, from the point of view of obligation towards human beings, based on their needs. In other words, this different way of looking at the world conforms to the ‘eternal nature of man’, but is accessible to those who do not believe in the Good.
“This obligation [to give bread to a hungry man on your doorstep] has no foundation, but only a verification in the common consent accorded by the universal conscience. It finds expression in some of the oldest written texts which have come down to us. It is recognized by everybody without exception in every single case where it is not attacked as a result of interest or passion. And it is in relation to it that we measure our progress.”
The basic obligation to human beings is respect. This respect must be shown in a real and not a fictitious way, “and this can only be done through the medium of Man’s earthly needs.
On this point the human conscience has never varied. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians believed that no soul could justify itself after death unless it could say: ‘I have never let any one suffer from hunger.’ All Christians know they are liable to hear Christ himself say to them one day: “I was hungry, and you gave me no meat.” Everyone looks on progress as being, in the first place, a transition to a state of human society in which people will not suffer from hunger. To no matter whom the question may be put in general terms, nobody is of the opinion that any man is innocent if, possessing food himself in abundance and finding some one on his doorstep three parts dead from hunger, he brushes past without giving him anything.”
“Consequently, the list of obligations towards the human being should correspond to the list of such human needs as are vital, analogous to hunger.
Among such needs, there are some which are physical, like hunger itself. They are fairly easy to enumerate. They are concerned with protection against violence, housing, clothing, heating, hygiene and medical attention in case of illness. There are others which have no connexion with the physical side of life, but are concerned with its moral side. [..]
They are much more difficult to recognize and to enumerate than are the needs of the body. But every one recognizes that they exist. All the different forms of cruelty which a conqueror can exercise over a subject population, such as massacre, mutilation, organized famine, enslavement or large-scale deportation, are generally considered to be measures of a like description, even though a man’s liberty or his native land are not physical necessities. Every one knows that there are forms of cruelty which can injure a man’s life without injuring his body. They are such as deprive him of a certain form of food necessary to the life of the soul.”
It follows that we must try and investigate these needs of the soul; because governments do not do this, they act sporadically and at random; Simone Weil was writing this text with a renewed post-war France in mind. Although the work is subtitled ‘prelude to a declaration of duties towards mankind’, she is not thinking of a worldwide organisation that would guarantee the satisfaction of human needs on a world scale. Instead she has in mind governments of individual countries thinking in this way and adapting the general principles to particular circumstances:
“Man requires, not rice or potatoes, but food; not wood or coal, but heating. In the same way, for the needs of the soul, we must recognize the different, but equivalent, sorts of satisfaction which cater for the same requirements.”
What serves the needs of the soul deserves respect. In the same way as a cornfield deserves respect because it is food for mankind,
“we owe our respect to a collectivity, of whatever kind—country, family or any other—not for itself, but because it is food for a certain number of human souls.”
Each collectivity is unique and irreplaceable, it offers food for the future and has its roots in the past. They are however not necessarily eternally healthy and nourishing. Simone Weil nevertheless mentions being in a collectivity first before she lists the needs of the soul; she is assuming that human beings need a collectivity, then goes on to make suggestions regarding the other needs of the soul.
The suggestions are offered mostly in pair of balancing ideas; the ideas of balance, equilibrium and measure are fundamental in Simone Weil. She says:
“needs are arranged in antithetical pairs and have to combine together to form a balance. Man requires food, but also an interval between his meals; he requires warmth and coolness, rest and exercise. Likewise in the case of the soul’s needs.”
So order is placed at the top of the list of needs, together with liberty; then obedience and responsibility; equality and hierarchy; pride and punishment; freedom of opinion; security and risk; private property and collective property; finally, truth, making 14. Weil says this list is a suggestion.
Before we go any further, we should ask why is the ‘need for roots’ not mentioned in this list? I suppose it is because it is similar with the need for a collectivity, which is assumed at the start of the argument. The rest of the book, The Need for Roots, after the description of the needs, is concerned with the uprootedness of the modern world. Men are not connected to the soil (they don’t live in the country, don’t have any land), they live a long way from the land they came from, they have lost the traditions and ways of life of their ancestors. But roots in the Weil sense are not just about the past and the land. They are also, as I suggested above, connections between living men as well, and at least half of the needs of the soul are forms of connectedness, types of links between people: obedience and responsibility; equality and hierarchy; pride and punishment; private property and collective property.
Simone Weil says:
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”
The 14 needs of the soul listed above are essential:
‘if they are not satisfied, we fall little by little into a state more or less resembling death, more or less akin to a purely vegetative existence.” Life at work represents a large part of the time of one’s life; it must therefore fulfil the needs of the soul. I propose to illustrate the 14 needs with examples from the life of the factory, which Weil does in some cases, from her own personal experience, but not all; this will make her points clearer, I hope.
The first need listed is ‘order’; Weil means by order, the absence of contradictory obligations.
“The imperfection of a social order can be measured by the number of situations of this kind it harbours within itself.”
Suppose workers in the factories Weil worked in. Workers want to be helpful to other workers, but may be stopped from being helpful when they flatter the foreman in order to get easier and faster work, i.e. producing more on piecework. Workers want to earn a living without having to flatter, but getting an easier and faster job is also a priority. Weil says that incompatible obligations make life so unpleasant that people are driven to deny obligations (that of being helpful) or to lie to themselves in order to forget that they are not fulfilling some obligations. A situation without this sort of contradiction may not be possible:
“When duty descends to the level of facts, so many independent relationships are brought into play that incompatibility seems far more likely than compatibility.”
Order is an ideal.
Freedom and Obedience
A child stopped from eating a poisonous berry howls with frustration at his lack of freedom to do what he wants; the grown up does not feel frustrated because he knows why he shouldn’t eat it, and it does not occur to him to want to eat it. In the same way, if rules in the factory are sensible, and workers know why the rules are there, they do not feel their freedom is curtailed.
Obedience is giving your inner consent to the authority to which you are subjected.
At the factory where Weil worked, workers had to queue even when it rained when they arrived at the gate of the factory, even though the gate was open. There was no good reason for this.
The workers queuing in the rain did not obey, in Weil’s sense. The rule was made by an authority they did not respect, and it was not sensible; they queued because they had no choice.
“Those who keep 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.”
In the same way, workers in the factory obey the rules of the factory only because they are afraid of being sacked and need the money. Weil says:
“Those who encourage a state of things in which the hope of gain is the principal motive take away from men their obedience, because consent, the essence of obedience, is not something which can be sold.”
The passage applies so clearly to industrial work that I quote it extensively.
“Initiative and responsibility, to feel one is useful and even indispensable, are vital needs of the human soul.”
Workers have no opportunity to show initiative: their work is cut out, and they are just an appendage of the machine, feeding the piece, waiting till the machine has made a hole in it, or shaped it in some way, and that is it.
“For this need [for responsibility] to be satisfied it is necessary that a man should often have to take decisions in matters great or small affecting interests that are distinct from his own, but in regard to which he feels a personal concern.”
The factory worker never has to take a single decision.
“… [the worker] needs to be able to encompass in thought the entire range of activity of the social organism to which he belongs, including branches in connexion with which he has never to take a decision offer any advice. For that, he must be made acquainted with it, be asked to interest himself in it, be brought to feel its value, its utility and, where necessary, its greatness, and be made full aware of the part he plays in it.”
Factory workers at Alsthom did not know what the pieces they were transforming on the machine were for. Weil said, if they had been told they were making the Paris metro, that would have given some meaning to their work.
Weil describes a man, a former manual worker, in charge of a small provincial workshop she visited, full of optimism and happiness, surrounded by his glum employees who were denied initiative.
She finishes the passage with the need of some for leadership:
“In the case of every person of fairly strong character, the need to show initiative goes so far as the need to take command. A flourishing local and regional life, a host of educational activities and youth movements, ought to furnish whoever is able to take advantage of it with the opportunity to command at certain periods of his life.”
This means affording the same marks of respect to all human beings, not letting the workers wait in the rain while the directors walk in as they please.
The manager and the workman will never be equal in income or power. Weil thinks that the law should create an equilibrium in order to compensate this inequality:
“ For instance, an employer who is incapable or guilty of an offence against his workmen ought to be made to suffer far more, both in the spirit and in the flesh, than a workman who is incapable or guilty of an offence against his employer. Furthermore all workmen ought to know that this is so. It would imply, on the one hand, a certain rearrangement with regards to risks, on the other hand, for criminal law, a conception of punishment in which social rank, as an aggravating circumstance, would necessarily play an important part in deciding what the penalty was to be.
let us look on the professions of miner and minister simply as two different vocations, like of poet and mathematician. And let the material hardships attaching to miner’s condition be counted in honour of those who undergo them.”
Hierarchy is there to balance Equality; people high in the hierarchy are respected not as such, but because the order of society which is implied is the thing that is respected.
Simone Weil uses the word ‘honneur’; she means, a sense of pride, the need to be ‘honoured’, acknowledged as honourable.
Human beings belong to social organisms which allow them “to share in a noble tradition enshrined in its past history and given public acknowledgment.”
“For example, for the need for pride to be satisfied in professional life, every profession requires to have some association really capable of keeping alive the memory of all the store of nobility, heroism, probity, generosity and genius spent in the exercise of that profession.”
Social oppression means that heroic work is not publicly recognised: compared to the social prestige of air pilots
“the sometimes incredible heroism displayed by miners or fishermen barely awakes an echo among miners or fishermen themselves.”
There is nothing in France that deserves the name of punishment, says Weil. This is because, properly considered, crime is breaking the chain of obligations, and punishment should be the process which allows the criminal to regain his place back in that chain. The judicial system in France however is not just and worthy of respect, and does not have as its object the reintegration of criminals.
Simone Weil gives an idea of “good punishment” by giving the example in Genesis; God punishes man by imposing on him death and the obligation of labour, and through this punishment man returns to God.
The story of Genesis implies that through work, man will return to paradise. This story has the value of a symbol. Work is therefore good.
Simone Weil thinks that making work central to human civilisation, is the way to come near Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Work, especially manual labour, is the most sacred thing in this world.
Valuing work is the only original contribution made by western civilisation since the Greeks; “we should create a civilisation founded upon the spiritual nature of work” and take inspiration in that respect from the work of “Rousseau, George Sand, Tolstoy, Proudhon, Marx, the Papal Encyclicals and elsewhere, the only original thoughts of our time”.
Simone Weil means by original thoughts, thoughts not borrowed from the Greeks.
Freedom of opinion
Only the individual is capable of forming an opinion; having an opinion of one’s own is a vital thing to be able to do. There are too many organisations whose aim is to impose thought. Before the war, the working man was pulled in three directions, invited to fight for higher wages, invited to continue the “old trade-union spirit of former days, idealist and more of less libertarian in character”, and lastly, invited to join political parties.
Trade unions cannot flourish if the workers’ only concern is money, or if the union has been transformed into “a single, compulsory, professional organization, obliged to toe the line in public affairs.”
“As regards freedom of thought, it is very nearly true to say that without freedom there is no thought. But it is truer still to say that when thought is non-existent, it is non-free into the bargain. There has been a lot of freedom of thought over the past few years, but no thought.”
Weil means the absence of fear. The workers at the factory lived in fear of hunger; they would go hungry if they could not work, because of an accident, because they displeased the foreman and lost their job, or because the factory no longer had work for them to do, as happened at the time, the economic crisis of the thirties. The degree of fear was not the same for all workers: “Even if permanent fear constitutes a latent state only, so that its painful effects are only rarely experienced directly, it remains always a disease. It is a semi-paralysis of the soul.”
Constant fear is bad, but the absence of any fear is also bad:
“The absence of risk produces a type of boredom which paralyses in a different way from fear, but almost as much.”
One can imagine a factory where a worker could propose a different way of making a particular thing, and risk failure. The risk in this situation is a stimulant.
“All men have an invincible inclination to appropriate in their own minds anything which over a long, uninterrupted period they have used for their work, pleasure or the necessities of life. Thus, a gardener, after a certain time, feels that the garden belongs to him. But where the feeling of appropriation doesn’t coincide with any legally recognized proprietorship, men are continually exposed to extremely painful spiritual wrenches.”
This explains the joy of the workers during the 1936 occupation of the factories. For a few days, they felt they owned their place of work and their machines, and they shared this joy with their families who visited them at work for the first time in their life.
One could object that there are Indian tribes who cultivate a patch of forest and move on, without a thought of property; but it could be argued that the Indians considered that the land was theirs to cultivate. They could certainly be deprived of it. J.S. Mill, acknowledging the right of the first occupier, said that adding labour to the land made it yours; not cultivating it disqualified you from owning it. There was a relationship between the land and the tribes, not formally ‘ownership’ but there certainly was ‘extremely painful spiritual wrenches’ when the white man severed that relationship.
“Participation in collective possessions—a participation consisting not in any material enjoyment, but in a feeling of ownership—is a no less important need. It is more a question of a state of mind than of any legal formula.” For example, in cities with a strong civic life, people feel the public gardens, the monuments, the public displays, to be theirs.
A great modern factory is a waste from this point of view, says Simone Weil: the workers don’t feel it belongs to them, and the owners, the shareholders, are not even aware of its existence, except as a name: only their money connects them to the factory.
“There are men who work eight hours a day and make the immense effort of reading in the evenings so as to acquire knowledge.” It is therefore a sacred duty for writers to tell the truth. Anyone discovering an avoidable error should be able to report it to a special court that would try the author of the falsehood. It is essential to protect the soul against suggestion and falsehood.”
Simone Weil did not foresee the overwhelming power of the State today in the matter of truth: there are in Europe and America no independent bodies capable of thinking and expressing the truth, if the truth is not what the State wants; when such bodies exist, they are in no position to compete with the overpowering influence of advertising and the media.
Simone Weil wrote The Need for Roots with a purpose in mind, the recreating of France after the 1940 defeat and the Occupation. Her religious beliefs gave her a direction. Architects of a united independent and social-democratic post war Europe, De Gasperi, Robert Schuman and Adenauer, were also supported by religious beliefs. Could The Need for Roots have been written by someone not thinking in religious terms?
I have sketched out some of Simone Weil’s ideas. They are opposed to the Enlightenment, according to which what you inherit from tradition is a hindrance to your right and duty to develop yourself freely. Religion can be ignored, or at least kept as a private pursuit, because it is not rational and only the rational should be public. As Simone Weil pointed out, this last point leads to difficulties, because justice for example is not something that exists in the world, it is an ideal, which should be excluded from a rational and scientific world, and yet it is not. Simone Weil does not believe in progress, and she does not share Enlightenment optimism about man and the future: she thinks that force rules the world, the strongest win, and that what states do is prepare themselves for war.
The Enlightenment puts freedom first, but has little to say about what to do with this freedom, which makes sense, since giving it a content would be to limit it. Perforce it has to ignore the needs of the soul.
Popular psychology addresses the question of the needs of the soul: you want to feel useful? You could do voluntary work. You want recognition? You could apply to go on the television. Social science research surveys the happiness of the population and comes up with well being indexes. Journalists sometimes allude to the needs of the soul: on the question of young people joining jihadist groups, they sometimes say that Jihadism is a cause, and young people need a cause. Surely there is a need for more in depth consideration, but psychology, social science and journalism are not up to it.
At a time when individualisation of society has reached a maximum, the notion of the common good is hardly ever mentioned and not even paid lip service, at a time when the effective moral principle is ‘helping oneself and one’s friends and harming enemies’, when the beautiful and the spiritual are strictly private, Simone Weil offers ideas from which to imagine a better society. What is a better society? Lenin suggested ‘Soviets and electrification”. What have socialists proposed since? Do they have more to say than Enlightenment thinkers? Is socialism a brand of liberal thinking?