Three are certain reputations which seem to be in need of the seal of death in order to flourish. SIMONE WEIL is a case in point. When she died in 1943, at the age of thirty-four, she was known in her native land, France, as a somewhat eccentric writer on matters political, literary, and religious. In the United States, she has been known until recently primarily by a translation of her essay “The Iliad: Poem of Force,” in which she was revealed as a sensitive, eloquent, and uncompromising moralist. Since her death, her writings and her personality have attracted an increasing interest, until she is regarded at the moment as perhaps the most significant religious thinker to have been produced by France in the past two decades. In an article to be published in a future issue of COMMENTARY, Leslie A. Fiedler will provide a full-scale portrait of the life and thought of this ardent mystic who was born into a Jewish family and lectured from the doorsteps of—the Catholic Church. The essay printed here indicates some of the main aspects of Simone Weil’s thought: her detestation of force, her radical morality, her burning pen. It is excerpted from a posthumous work, L’Enracinement, published in Paris by Gallimard. It is translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman.
A method of education does not amount to much if it is not inspired by an idea of human perfection. Insofar as it concerns the education of a people, this idea ought to be shared by an entire civilization. One need not seek this idea in the past, which contains only the imperfect. Still less should one look for it in our dreams of the future, which are necessarily as mediocre as ourselves, and, moreover, much inferior to those of the past One must seek the inspiring idea for education, as for the method itself, among the eternal truths inscribed in the nature of things.
There are, above all, four obstacles which separate us from a form of civilization that might be worth something: our false idea of historical greatness; the degradation of the sense of justice; our idolatry of money; and the absence in us of a religious inspiration. It is possible to use the first person plural without hesitation, for it is to be doubted that at the present moment there is a single human being on the surface of the globe who escapes this quadruple defect, and it is still more to be doubted that there is a single one among the white race. But if there are a few—as we must hope, despite everything—they are hidden.
Our conception of greatness is the most serious of these defects and the one we are least conscious of as a flaw. At least, as a flaw in us. It shocks us in our enemies, but, despite the warning contained in Christ’s utterance about the mote and the beam, it never occurs to us to recognize it as being ours. For our conception of greatness is the same as that which inspired Hitler throughout his life. When we denounce it without the slightest reflection on our own conduct, the angels must weep or laugh—if there are angels who take an interest in our propaganda. . . .
The conquered—but only the temporarily conquered—often benefit from a sentimentality which at times is unwarranted. Misfortune has tremendous glamor only when it is the misfortune of the strong. The misfortune of the weak is not even an object of attention; unless, however, it is an object of repulsion. When the Christians acquired the strong conviction that the Christ, though crucified, was then resurrected and was shortly to return in glory to reward his followers and punish all others, they were no longer frightened by torture. But earlier, when the Christ was only an absolutely pure human being, he was abandoned as soon as misfortune touched him. Those who loved him most could not find in their hearts the strength to run risks for him. Torture prevails over courage unless the man who is tortured is sustained by the possibility of revenge. Revenge need not be personal; a martyrized Jesuit in China is sustained by the temporal greatness of the Church, despite the fact that he can expect no help from it.
Here below there is no other power than physical force. This might serve as an axiom. As for the power that is not of the here-below, contact with it cannot be bought at a lesser price than that of experiencing a kind of death.
Here below there is no other power than physical force, and it is force that moves the feelings, including pity. One might cite any number of examples. Why did pacifists after 1918 feel more kindly toward Germany than toward Austria? Why did the necessity for vacations with pay seem to so many people as obvious as a geometric axiom in 1930 and not in 1935? Why are there so many more people interested in factory workers than in farm workers? And so on.
The same is true for history. We admire the heroic resistance of the conquered when the course of time brings them a certain revenge; not otherwise. We have no pity for things totally destroyed. Who feels any pity for Jericho, for Gaza, Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, Numantia, Greek Sicily, or pre-Columbian Peru? But, it may be argued, how are we to weep over the disappearance of things about which we know practically nothing? And we know nothing about them because they have disappeared.
Generally speaking, the gravest errors, those which falsify all thinking, which corrupt the soul, which put it beyond good and evil, are due to the fact that certain things escape our attention. If they escape our attention, how can we give them our attention, however hard we try? So it is that the conquered escape attention. History is the battleground of a Darwinian process even more pitiless than that which governs animal and vegetable life. The conquered disappear. They are naught.
The Romans are said to have civilized Gaul. It had no art before Gallo-Roman art; it had no thought before the Gauls had the privilege of reading the philosophical writings of Cicero! And so on. We know practically nothing about Gaul, but the almost negligible indications that we do have prove sufficiently that this is all a lie.
Gallic art is not likely to be the subject of treatises by our archaeologists because its material was perishable wood. But the city of Bourges was such a marvel of beauty that the Gauls lost their last campaign because they did not have the heart to destroy it themselves. Caesar, of course, destroyed it, and massacred all of its forty thousand inhabitants. We also know from Caesar that the studies of the Druids lasted twenty years and consisted in learning by heart poems dealing with the divinity and the universe. Thus, Gallic poetry did contain, at any rate, a quantity of religious and metaphysical poems of a kind to be the subject of twenty years’ study. Compared to the incredible richness suggested by this indication alone, Latin poetry, despite Lucretius, is pitifully meager.
Diogenes Laertius says that a tradition attributed Greek wisdom to several foreign origins, among which were the Druids of Gaul. Other texts indicate that Druid thought was related to that of the Pythagoreans. Hence, there was in this people a sea of sacred poetry that disappeared when the Druids were completely exterminated by the Romans for the crime of patriotism.
It is true that the Romans put an end to the human sacrifices which, they said, were practiced in Gaul. We know nothing about what they were, about the manner and spirit in which they were practiced, whether it was a way of executing criminals or of putting to death innocent people, and in the latter case, whether it was with their consent or not. The testimony of the Romans is very vague and cannot be admitted without caution. But we do know with certainty that the Romans themselves instituted the practice, in Gaul and everywhere else, putting to death thousands of innocent people, not to honor the gods but to amuse the crowds. This was the Roman institution par excellence—they whom we dare regard as civilizers.
We have here simply a typical example. Despite the fact that Gaul was succeeded on the same soil by our nation, France; despite the fact that patriotism has a strong tendency among us, as elsewhere, to extend back to the past; despite the fact that the few documents that have been preserved constitute an unimpeachable testimony, the defeat of the armies of Gaul is an insurmountable obstacle to our recognizing the high spiritual quality of this destroyed civilization.
All the same, attempts have been made in this direction, such as that by the historian Camille Jullian. The city of Troy, however, has had no such good fortune. Before June 1940 one could read in the French press, for purposes of patriotic encouragement, articles comparing the Franco-German conflict to the Trojan War; it was explained that this was a struggle of civilization against barbarism, the barbarians being the Trojans. The fact is that there is not the slightest basis for this error, except the defeat of Troy. Because the territory of Troy has never since been the seat of a nation, who anywhere has taken the trouble to note the truth that is so glaringly evident in the Iliad, in Herodotus, and in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon? The truth is, that Troy’s level of civilization, culture, and spirituality was very superior to that of the people who unjustly attacked and destroyed it, and that its disappearance has been a disaster in the history of mankind.
If one cannot help falling into this error in the case of the Greeks, who were haunted by remorse for their crime against the Trojans and themselves testified in favor of the victims, how much more so is this true in regard to other nations, whose invariable practice is to slander those they have killed?
History is based on documents. A historian forbids himself, as a matter of professional practice, to indulge in hypotheses which have no foundation. On the face of it, this is very reasonable; but is it really so reasonable? For, since there are gaps in the documents, a balanced thoughtfulness requires that the mind work with hypotheses having no foundation, though always being aware that these hypotheses are unfounded, and that there may be several possible ones for each point. All the more reason, then, for reading between the lines in the documents, for transporting oneself totally, with an utter forgetfulness of self, into the events that are evoked, for letting one’s attention dwell at great length on the little meaningful things, thereby discerning their full significance.
But respect for the document, and the professional spirit of the historian, do not predispose the mind to this sort of exercise. The so-called historical mind does not pierce the paper to find flesh and blood; it subordinates thought to the document. Now, by the nature of things, the documents emanate from the victors. Thus, the study of history becomes nothing but a compilation of statements made by the murderers regarding their victims and themselves.
Regarding the Romans, we have absolutely nothing but the writings of the Romans themselves and of their Greek slaves. The latter have said enough in their servile reticences—if one took the trouble to read them with real attention. But why should anyone take the trouble? There is no motive for making such an effort. It’s not the Carthaginians who give out the prizes of the French Academy or chairs at the Sorbonne. Similarly, why should anyone go to the trouble of casting doubt on the information given by the Hebrews regarding the peoples of Canaan whom they exterminated or enslaved? It’s not the people of Jericho who make nominations to the Catholic Institute.
We learn from one of the biographies of Hitler that one of the books that had the deepest influence on his youth was a tenth-rate work on the Roman general Sulla. What difference does it make that it was a tenth-rate work? It reflected the attitude of those who are known as the cultural elite.
Who would write about Sulla with contempt? If Hitler desired the kind of greatness which he saw glorified in this book and everywhere else, there was no error on his part. This was the kind of greatness he achieved, the very kind before which we humbly bow as soon as we turn our eyes toward the past. True, we confine ourselves to a humble submissiveness before this greatness; we have not, like Hitler, tried to grab it in our hands. But therein he is better than we. If we recognize something as a good, then we ought to want to seize it. Abstaining is cowardice.
Imagine this miserable, uprooted adolescent wandering about the streets of Vienna, hungry for greatness. He had every right to be hungry for greatness. Whose fault was it if he was aware of no other kind of greatness than crime? Since the populace has known how to read and no longer has oral traditions, it is the people who know how to handle a pen who furnish the public with conceptions and illustrations of historical greatness. The author of this mediocre book on Sulla, as well as all those who, by writing about Sulla or about Rome, had made possible the atmosphere in which this book was written, and, more generally, all those who, having authority to handle word or pen, contributed to the intellectual atmosphere in which the adolescent Hitler grew up—all these are perhaps more guilty than Hitler of the crimes he committed.
We speak of punishing Hitler. But he cannot be punished. He wanted only one thing, and he got it; he wanted to go down in history. Whether he is killed, or tortured, or locked up, or humiliated, history will always be there to protect his soul from any assault of suffering and death. Whatever is inflicted upon him will inevitably be historic death, historic suffering. Just as for the man who has attained the perfect love of God, any event is a good since it emanates from God, so for this idolater of history, everything that comes from history is good. Even here he has far and away the advantage; for the pure love of God dwells in the center of the soul; it leaves the sensibility exposed to blows; it does not constitute an armor. Idolatry is an armor; it prevents suffering from entering the soul. Whatever is inflicted upon Hitler will not prevent, in twenty, fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years, a dreamy and lonely little boy, whether German or not, from thinking that Hitler was an awe-inspiring person and had an utterly awe-inspiring destiny, nor will it prevent him from hoping with all his soul for a similar destiny.
The only punishment capable of hurting Hitler and, in the centuries to come, of preventing little boys who thirst for greatness from following his example, is so total a transformation of the meaning of greatness that Hider is barred from it.
It is chimerical to believe—and this is because of the blindness of national hatreds—that Hitler can be barred from greatness without such a total transformation. And in order to contribute to this transformation, one must have achieved it within oneself. Everyone can, at this very moment, begin the castigation of Hitler within his own soul by modifying his sense of what it means to be great. This is far from easy, for it is resisted by a social pressure as heavy and enveloping as that of the atmosphere. In order to achieve it one must exclude oneself spiritually from society. That is why Plato said that the capacity for perceiving the good exists only in predestined souls that have received a direct education from God.
It makes no sense to try to determine just how far Hitler and Napoleon resemble and differ from each other. The only problem that has any interest is to know whether one of them can be legitimately barred from greatness without the other’s being barred as well; whether their claims to admiration are analogous or essentially different. And if, after having stated the question clearly and looking at it squarely for a long time, one allows oneself to slip into the lie, one is lost.
Marcus Aurelius said of Alexander and Caesar that if they were not just, nothing forced him to imitate them. Likewise, nothing forces us to admire them.
Nothing forces us to, except the sovereign influence of force.
Can one admire without loving? And if admiration is a kind of love, how dare we love anything other than the good?
It would be simple to make a pact with oneself to admire in history only the actions and lives through which there radiates the spirit of truth, justice, and love; and, on a far lower level, those within which can be detected, through what they have achieved, a real presentiment of this spirit. This excludes, for example, Saint Louis himself, because of his unfortunate advice to his friends to plunge their swords into the belly of anyone who uttered in their presence words tainted with heresy or unbelief.
It will no doubt be said in his defense that this was the spirit of his time, which, since it was seven hundred years before ours, was correspondingly unenlightened. This is a lie. Shortly before Saint Louis, the Catholics of Béziers, far from plunging their swords into the bellies of the heretics of their city, all died rather than deliver them up. The Church has forgotten to rank them as martyrs, a rank it grants to Inquisitors. Nor, in the course of the last three centuries, have the lovers of tolerance, enlightenment, and secularity commemorated this event; so heroic a form of the virtue they feebly call tolerance would have been embarrassing to them.
But even if it were true that the cruelty of fanaticism did dominate all minds in the Middle Ages, the only conclusion to draw would be that there is nothing to admire or love in that age. But that would still not put Saint Louis a fraction of an inch closer to the good. The spirit of truth, justice, and love has nothing to do with a date; it is eternal; an act of cruelty in the 10th century is exactly as cruel, neither more nor less, as an act of cruelty in the 11th.
We would feel this irresistibly if we loved, as if they were ourselves, all the unfortunates who two or three thousand years ago suffered from the cruelty of their fellow men. One would be unable to write, as does one distinguished historian, that slavery had become mild in imperial Rome because of the fact that it rarely involved a more drastic punishment than being beaten with rods.
The modern superstition of progress is a by-product of the lie by which Christianity was made the official Roman religion. It is bound up with the destruction of the spiritual treasures of the countries conquered by Rome, with the concealing of the perfect continuity between these treasures and Christianity, with a historical conception of the Redemption that makes it a temporal and not an eternal process. The thought of progress was later secularized; it is now the poison of our age. The dogma of progress dishonors the good by making it a matter of fashion.
It is only because the historical mind consists in taking the murderer’s word for things, that this dogma seems to correspond so well with the facts. When horror manages momentarily to break through the thick insensitivity of a reader of Livy, he says to himself, “Those were the mores of the time.” But one feels from the evidence in the works of the Greek historians that the brutality of the Romans horrified and paralyzed their contemporaries exactly as that of the Germans does today.
If I am not mistaken, among all the facts concerning the Romans that are to be found in ancient history, there is only one example of perfectly pure goodness. Under the triumvirate, during the proscriptions, the consular officials, consuls, and praetors whose names were on the list kissed the knees of their own slaves and begged their help by calling them their masters and saviors. The slaves repulsed them, and rightly so. There were very few exceptions. But a certain Roman, without having had to abase himself, was hidden by his slaves in his own house. Some soldiers, who had seen him going in, began torturing the slaves in order to force them to hand over their master. The slaves suffered without giving way. But the master saw the torture from his hiding place. Unable to bear the sight, he gave himself up to the soldiers and was killed immediately.
If anyone whose heart was in the right place had to choose between several destinies, he would choose indifferently to be either this master or one of those slaves, rather than one of the Scipios, or Caesar, or Cicero, or Augustus, or Virgil, or even one of the Gracchi. There you have an example of something that it is legitimate to admire. Few things in history are perfectly pure. Most of them concern people whose name has disappeared, such as that Roman master, or the inhabitants of Béziers at the beginning of the 13th century. If one were to look for names that evoke purity, one would find few. In Greek history one might name Aristides, Dion, the friend of Plato, and Agis, the little socialist king of Sparta who was killed at the age of twenty. In the history of France would one find any other name than that of Joan of Arc? I doubt it.
But it hardly matters. Is there anything that obliges us to admire a great number of things? The essential thing is to admire only what one can admire with all one’s soul. Who can admire Alexander with all his soul, if his soul is not already base?
Three are people who suggest that the teaching of history be eliminated. That would be disastrous; there is no sense of country without history. Others suggest that wars be given a very minor place in the teaching of history. That would be lying. We feel only too strongly today, and it is equally evident for the past, that nothing is of greater importance to peoples than war. War has to be spoken of as much or even more than we do speak of it; but it should be spoken of in a different way.
There is no other method for an understanding of the human heart than the study of history joined to the experience of life in such a way that they illuminate each other. It is our duty to provide the minds of adolescents and men with this food. But it must be a food of truth. Not only must the facts be exact, insofar as it is within our power to know them, but they must be shown in their true perspective in relation to good and evil.
History is a tissue of baseness and cruelty in which a few threads of purity gleam occasionally. If this be so, the reason is, in the first place, that there is little purity among men; and secondly, that most of this little is, and remains, hidden. We have to seek, if we can, its indirect testimony. In order to love France, one must feel that it has a past, but there is no need to love the historic envelope of this past. One should love its silent, anonymous, vanished part.
It is absolutely false that a providential mechanism transmits to the memory of posterity that which was best in an age. By the nature of things, it is the false greatness that is transmitted. There is indeed a providential mechanism, but it operates only in such a way as to mix a bit of genuine greatness into a great deal of false greatness. It is up to us to detect this bit Without it we would be lost.
The transmission of false greatness across the centuries is not peculiar to history. It is a general law. For example, it also governs letters and art. There is a certain domination of the centuries by literary talent which corresponds to the domination by political talent in space; they are dominations of the same nature, equally temporal, belonging equally to the realm of matter and force, and equally base. Hence, they can be objects of bargaining and exchange. Ariosto was not ashamed, in the course of a poem, to address his master, the Duke of Este, in somewhat the following terms: I am in your power during my lifetime, and whether I am rich or poor depends on you. But your name is in my power as far as the future is concerned, and whether people speak well or ill of you depends on me. It is to our interest to cooperate. Give me favor and wealth and I will hymn your praise.
Virgil had too much sense of propriety to expose publicly a bargain of this kind. But actually this was exactly the deal that was made between him and Augustus. His lines are often delightful to read, but in spite of this we have to find some other name than poet for him and his kind. Poetry is not for sale. God would be unjust if the Aeneid, having been composed under these conditions, had the same value as the Iliad. But God is just, and the Aeneid is far from attaining this equality.
It is not only in the study of history but in all studies offered to children that good is scorned, and when they grow up they find in the nourishment offered their spirit only further motives for hardening in this scorn.
It is obvious—and this is a truth that has become a commonplace among men and children—that talent has nothing to do with morality. Yet, in all fields, talent is the only thing offered to the admiration of children. In all manifestations of talent, whatever they may be, they see impudently displayed the absence of the virtues they are advised to practice. What conclusion is to be drawn, if not that virtue is characteristic of mediocrity? This conviction has penetrated so deeply that the very word virtue, which was once so charged with meaning, is now ridiculous, as are also the words honesty and kindness. The English are closer to the past than the other countries. Thus, there are no French words that accurately convey the meanings of the English words “good” and “wicked.”
Cruelty and ambition are glorified in the history class; egoism, pride, vanity, and a thirst for notoriety are glorified in the literature class; and in the science class all the discoveries that have convulsed human life are extolled without anyone’s taking into account either the method of discovery or the effect of the upheaval; how can a child who has been exposed to this learn to admire the good? Anything that tries to go against the current sounds false. In the atmosphere of false greatness it is futile to expect the genuine. False greatness must be scorned.
It is true that there is no connection between talent and morality; this is so because there is no greatness in talent as such. But it is untrue that there is no connection between perfect beauty, perfect truth, and perfect justice; there is more than a connecion, there is a mysterious unity, for the good is one.
There is a point of greatness where the genius that creates beauty and the genius that reveals truth, heroism, and sanctity are indistinguishable. As we begin to approach this point, we see the various kinds of greatness tending to merge. We cannot distinguish Giotto’s genius as a painter from the Franciscan spirit; nor, in the paintings and poems of the Zen sect in China, can we distinguish the genius of the painter or the poet from the state of mystical illumination; nor, when Velasquez puts kings and beggars on canvas, can we distinguish the genius of the painter from the burning and impartial love that transpierces the depths of the soul. The Iliad, and the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, bear palpable evidence that the poets who created them were in a state of sanctity. From the purely political point of view, regardless of any other, it is infinitely preferable to have composed the Canticle of Saint Thomas of Assisi, that jewel of perfect beauty, than the complete works of Victor Hugo. Racine wrote the only work in all of French literature that can approach the great Greek masterpieces when his soul was in a state of conversion. He was far from sanctity when he wrote his other plays; but then we do not find in them that excruciating beauty. A tragedy like King Lear is the immediate fruit of the pure spirit of love. Sanctity radiates from the Romanesque churches and the Gregorian chant. Monteverdi, Bach, and Mozart were pure in their lives, as in their works.
If there are geniuses in whom genius is pure to the point of being manifestly close to the greatness that characterizes the most perfect of the saints, why waste one’s time admiring others? Why grant one’s heart to anything other than the good?
The love of the good will never be kindled in all the hearts of a population, as is necessary for its salvation, so long as we go on thinking that greatness in any sphere is the result of anything other than goodness.
That is why Christ said, “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” Either the inspiration that produces a perfectly beautiful work of art is close to sanctity, or the work is an evil fruit.
If pure good were never capable here below of producing real greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, and public action, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these fields everything was despicable, and thereby blame-worthy, there would be no hope for secular life. There would be no possible illumination of this life by the other.
This is not the case, and that is why it is essential to distinguish real greatness from false, and to offer up only the former to love. Real greatness is the good fruit that grows on the good tree, and the good tree is a disposition of the soul that is close to sanctity. The other pretended kinds of greatness should be examined coldly as one examines natural curiosities.