A Good Mind and the Good
The Need For Roots.
by Simone Weil. Translated from the French by Arthur Wills.
Putnam. 302 pp. $4.00.
I First read The Need for Roots in Paris when Gallimard issued it in 1949, and at once told my Parisian friends that I thought it the deepest work to come out of France during the whole war period. They were as surprised by my enthusiasm as I was perplexed by their coldness; in Paris, you expect your friends to agree with you, and when they do not you know something real is at stake. Now most of the persons to whom I spoke about Simone Weil had known her, having contributed during the 30’s, along with her, to La Condition Ouvrière, a left-wing review edited by Georges Bataille and Boris Souvarine. These people would not praise her or hear her praised. They did not want to admire her; moreover, they were convinced they did not have to. I do not think they were much influenced by the fact that the Catholics were then bruiting her name. (The same persons admired Claudel. It would be so much nicer to despise him, but seeing that one couldn’t, wasn’t he admirable?) But nothing could make them accept as inevitable the mounting interest in Simone Weil. One, a historian, did not scruple to attack his own views when they happened to coincide with hers. “Where considerable goodness is present,” he told me, “I can never believe there is much intellect.”
Simone Weil was committed to the very opposite view. She did not expect to find much intellect where good was not abounding. What is more, she did not find it even where the whole world does. She did not find great beauty in Racine’s plays, which, except Phèdre, were not written in “a state of holiness”; and she did not find great thought in Descartes, to whom she denied the title of philosopher: it seems that he showed a petty, property-minded interest in his own ideas, and sometimes left out steps in his demonstrations just to keep other savants from guessing what he was about. Now these judgments are self-defeating. We ask at once: what is the intellectual meaning of purity if with impure motives one may be Descartesr? What artistic meaning has “holy” inspiration if, lacking it, one may write Andromache and Bérénice?
But I do not want to argue here against Simone Weil’s case for the identity of intellectual and moral perfection. My point is simply that her attitude cuts under the presuppositions by which most intellectuals justify their lives, namely, that man is limited, and can achieve one kind of excellence only by sacrificing others, and must choose, as Yeats has put it, between “the perfection of the life or of the work.” For Simone Weil, to make such a choice was to consent to imperfection, intellectual as well as moral.
So, paradoxically, it becomes of ethical interest to justify the value of Simone Weil’s work solely on its intellectual side. But can one do so successfully? Did she indeed touch that “focal point of greatness” she speaks of in The Need for Roots, “where the genius creating beauty and the genius revealing truth, heroism and holiness are indistinguishable”? From T. S. Eliot’s admirable introduction to her essay, it would appear that in his judgment she did not, for he quotes with approval Father Perrin’s remark that “her soul was incomparably above her genius.” His judgment may be qualified—Eliot qualifies it finely—but I do not think it can be set aside. A restatement of the leading ideas in The Need for Roots would not show Simone Weil to be a great or even an important political thinker. If she is important, it is because she makes drastic distinctions that are deeply meant. If she is great, it is because when speaking on the great questions her whole soul is in what she says. She may well seem more important when she is speaking to you than when you are speaking of her. And yet. . . .
In The Need for Roots we read: “In Giotto, it is not possible to distinguish between the genius of the painter and the Franciscan spirit; nor in the pictures and poems produced by the Zen sect in China between the painter’s or poet’s genius and the state of mystical ecstasy; nor when Velasquez places on the canvas his kings and beggars, between the painter’s genius and the burning and impartial love that pierces to the very depths of people’s souls.” Similarly, it is not possible, I think, to distinguish in Simone Weil between the purely intellectual ardor that wishes to see clearly, and the sisterly concern for the human soul that is always the object of her regard.
The Need For Roots was essentially an act of goodness. Let us recall the circumstances in which the essay was written. Simone Weil was in London during the war. She had requested that the Free French Committee have her parachuted into occupied France so she could participate actively in the Resistance. Only when convinced that she could serve no useful purpose in France, did she take up the task of examining what should be said there. It is probable that the intelligence is keenest when detached; but perhaps detachment, to be human, ought not to be deliberate, but fated; and the example of Simone Weil suggests that when detachment is really fated, it may be anything but cold.
In discussing what should be said to the French under the conditions of occupation, Simone Weil was led to consider the whole question of modern society. Yet I hardly think that what counts most in The Need for Roots are its generalizations, often speculative, on religion, the state, science, tradition (or, as she calls it, “rootedness,” from which concept her essay takes its name). It is when she touches on specific, immediate questions that she is incomparable: confronting them, she is able, undismayed by urgency, to maintain a sure and intuitive grasp of the structure of the valuable. She suggests Antigone, not Plato.
Take, for instance, her solution to the problem of how to renew French patriotism. For the traditionalists, of course, the problem was simple: one had only to stress France’s past glory. But Simone Weil saw that the past glory was inseparable from past crimes—committed by the French as a nation as well as a state. She did not hesitate to note in this essay, written at the request of a political group whose symbol was the Cross of Lorraine, that because of Jeanne d’Arc’s connections with the Monarchy “fallen into despotism,” the people of Paris had not supported her. Even less acceptable than the attitude of the traditionalists was that of the liars, of those who said, “France is the truth.” “France,” said the truthful Simone Weil, “lies and needs to lie.” Yet patriotism was necessary, even morally necessary, for if it acts as “a dissolvent of morality” in time of peace, “the contrary takes place during wartime.” How to be a patriot without endorsing the misdeeds of the French state? How admit them, and be a patriot?
Here Simone Weil put forward a completely original solution, and one perfectly appropriate to the conditions in which “the souls and bodies of Frenchmen found themselves”; she elected for a patriotism based not on achievements, military, scientific, or literary, but on “compassion.” “One can love France,” she said, “for the glory which would seem to insure for her a prolonged existence in space and time; or one can love her as something which being earthly, can be destroyed, and is all the more precious on that account. These are two distinct ways of loving. . . .” She pointed out that the second way of loving France was the only one now possible to the mass of the people: “. . . if their country is presented to them as something beautiful and precious, but which is in the first place imperfect, and secondly very frail and liable to misfortune, and which it is necessary to preserve and cherish, the people will feel more closely identified with it than the other classes of the population. For the people have a monopoly of a certain sort of knowledge, perhaps the most important of all, that of the reality of misfortune.” Such a patriotism would not be likely to degenerate into chauvinism, for, she writes, “compassion tends to universalize itself.”
On This question of patriotism, something more than intelligence was required for a solution satisfying to the intelligence itself; that “something more” was Simone Weil’s moral intuition of a content in national feeling that was deeper than self-love. Her whole moral attitude, in fact, was based on the conviction that if, on the one hand, self-love was very powerful, on the other hand it was not a fundamental reality. She never accepted the view, so widespread nowadays, that egotism “properly” directed is itself a positive value. In politics, one must struggle against the self-love of the nation, but also
against the self-love of the class, even of the working class. But to struggle politically against the self-love of the class or of the nation one had first to conquer one’s own. The destruction of the ego, she believed, was fundamental to the assumption of a true social attitude; political understanding rested on the capacity of a person to depersonalize himself, to become an “impersonal person.”
Let us note how much more intelligent is this criticism of self-love than the anti-individualism of the Bolsheviks, with which it is not to be confused. The Bolsheviks were indeed opposed to the self-love of the individual, but not, like Simone Weil, on intellectual grounds. They wanted the individual to sacrifice himself for the party or the class; but this was a matter of practical necessity; they did not believe self-love to be superficial; their point was not that the individual should arrive at a deeper vision of reality; what they wanted was merely to make use of him. And when the individual is regarded in this way, it appears at once that, in fact, he can never be of any real use at all. This comes out in the following story I have heard told of Lenin: To a young Communist who exclaimed: “I would give my life for the party!” Lenin replied mockingly: “That’s easy. But would you pimp for the party?” Which is as much as to say, “And even if you did that, it would be nothing.”
We Read in Simone Weil’s Cahiers: “Learn to give as if you were begging.” Evidently the struggle against self was a hard one. I think we must bear her whole attitude in mind if we are to understand what prompted her in England, during the war, to refuse to nourish herself better than could the lowest-paid workers in France. It is said that her death was induced more quickly by this course, and some people have found this action bizarre. But if we consider the monstrous force and myriad disguises of self-love, and take into account her view that it is the main obstacle to any real truth in personal as well as in political life, and above all, if we have been illuminated by any insights she derived in struggling against self, we should be able to see her death as an unfortunate accident befallen in the line of duty. We read recently of a star baseball player, valued by his team, breaking his leg during training in making a slide not even needed to win a game, and we do not find the player’s daring wilful. We should see her death, I think, as a consequence, not of sternness towards herself, but of something more like zest, and we should see such zest as an eminently intellectual thing.