I can, therefore I am. From the moment that I act, I make myself exist…What I am is defined by what I can do. Simone Weil
The life of Simone Weil has always been a test to me, a test to translate my beliefs into action, one that I have rarely met. During these times when people everywhere are putting their life on the line, I wanted reread Francine Du Plessix Gray’s Simone Weil, one of the Penguin Lives series of short biographies.
I was reminded what a complex person she was, how gifted she was, her struggles to understand the poor and make life easier for them and her various efforts to come to grips with philosophical and spiritual issues. And in each of these endeavors to put whatever conclusions she was led to into practice.
Simone Weil was born into a prosperous, educated family of secular Jews in Paris. Both she and her brother Andre were childhood prodigies. Simone finished first in the entrance examination for the elite Ecole Normale Superieure, graduating to become a professor of philosophy and a teacher in a series of French towns.
She moved from school to school primarily because the school administrators objected to her participation in labor protests. She lived with a family in each town and, in spite of her life-long battle with migraines, began living as consistently as she knew how with her beliefs.
In each of the homes where she lived, she spent her evenings teaching the children of the family that hosted her and helping them with their homework.
At every chance, she also taught classes to the workers in the factories in the towns she inhabited.
At various times, she took a leave of absence from her teaching position to work as a laborer in a factory. In one year it was at an electrical parts manufacturer, then later, in two different automobile factories.
She believed that labor work is the truest road to self-knowledge and understanding the plight of the working class, whose suffering became perhaps the central theme of her life and, as Gray notes, “her strong tendency to cultivate her own.” Later she writes:
“But she was convinced that hard physical work was essential for an intellectual, lest the mind become all too taken with itself, all too removed from the concrete realities of everyday life, the burdens that rest upon the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population.”
With every farm family with whom she lived, Weil helped them during the harvest season, milking the cows in the early morning, peeling the vegetables, and cleaning up the barns.
In 1936 she fought in the Spanish Civil War as part of anti-fascist militia group from France. It was there that she badly burned herself and left Spain to recuperate in Assisi Italy where she claims she had the first of several subsequent mystical experiences that led to a difficult and ambivalent relationship with Catholicism.
During World War II, she joined the French Resistance until she and her parents were able to flee France for the United States. Not long after, she eventually returned to London where she joined the Free French group. While in London, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitarium.
However, as always, even when she was a child, she refused to eat scarcely anything in the belief that it was wrong to eat more than then the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population, as well as her countrymen who struggled to survive in occupied France.
Weil’s condition quickly deteriorated and she died in 1943 at the age of 34. The coroner reports said, “the deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat…”
Philosopher, teacher, writer, laborer, activist, religious eclectic, a rich and paradoxical life, always questioning, worrying about the poor and their suffering and above all trying to do something about it, even if meant suffering herself, and in the end tragic.
In writing about Weil, T. S. Eliot characterized her as a “…mind of occasional flashes of inspiration…personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.”