Simone Weil's Idea of a Christian Society

I wish to talk about a Christian society. It is 3,500 words, so if nobody wants to hear, I don't mind. I will preach to the poor box.

About Simone Weil’s life and work I know only so much as can be gained from a single reading of ‘Simone Weil: An Anthology’, published by Penguin in 2005, and first published by Virago in 1989, edited by Sian Miles. I read somewhere in the Introduction that Weil feared that her life story and personal character would become more important than her works and ideas. In me she finds one fascinated by the ideas for themselves, someone largely indifferent to her biography.

Me and Georges Bataille - the Secret Society

Though I do not have a source for this saying, I understand that Georges Bataille said of Weil, after her death, that she was ‘a Don Quixote’. That is, she set out to put into effect an ideal, both in her personal behaviour, and when commenting on and dealing with the world. And, that the ideal was not suitable to the world around her, and that she could be considered a fool.

This is how, in fact, I perceive her when I compare her to myself. And, the comparison is valid, because I find myself in agreement with her ideas, but not with her quest. What differs between us is that I confine my spirituality to a realm strictly inhabited by myself, and God. Weil, on the other hand, made practical efforts and written recommendations to others with the aim of extending that realm beyond her private relationship between herself and God. But, in her, was that idiocy, or was it the correct thing to do?

That is the first valuable attribute of Weil’s work: she took her own vision of the human being as inherently the recipient of God’s grace seriously, and publically advocated a change in society; because it was not she alone to whom God meant something, but that, if her own self-understanding were valid at all, then it should be valid for everyone else, too. As for me, I take the ironic tone of voice, knowing that it is pointless to insist that the world should all of a sudden turn Christian. Ironically speaking: the crowd, the people, they don't know that they are stupid; not knowing that they are stupid is part of their stupidity.

Now, Bataille, who said she was an idealistic fool, with whose works I became familiar a long time ago, and whose work gave me a grounding in the world of letters and ideas, said of her that she was like Don Quixote. A couple of decades on from my extreme enthusiasm for his work, I now understand Bataille to have been in earnest, and a major philosopher and thinker, that is, a writer of great seriousness working on the theory of the person and on existence as a whole. But, today, I also think of his work as profoundly wrong. In fact, I can see the two of them, Weil and Bataille, working on the same themes, in the same style, using the same means, methods of expression, and in almost the same tone of voice. However, Weil recognised at the extreme limit of experience, God, and the soul as the friend of the Holy Spirit, while Bataille refused in the depth of his mind to believe in God; and, using religious terms for want of any others available, Bataille devoted his life to thinking about evil. So, they are similar, but utterly opposed with respect to evil and good. Effectively, one believed in God, and the other believed in limitless rebellion.

The reason for these similarities is not that there was a supernatural connection between them, not exactly; rather, they wrote and lived in the same period; generally, the period during and following French surrealism, the fascination with Communism, the pre-War period where Fascism was gaining many followers in Europe.

Bataille’s notebooks, published during his lifetime, under names such as ‘The Impossible’, ‘Guilty’, and ‘On Nietzsche’, and longer expository works like ‘Eroticism’ have a striking resemblance to the essays, and collections of aphorisms of Weil collected after her death, such as ‘Gravity and Grace’. While Bataille formed his secret society of the headless man, and wrote its manifesto centred on the denial of spirit and God in favour of freedom and human fulfilment through experimental base materialism and orgiastic self-destruction, Weil composed her manifesto on the rebuilding of France along Christian or at least religious and philosophical principles. She intended to have one of her manifestos submitted to De Gaulle and the French government in waiting, which was then preparing for the end of the War, in England.

Both Weil and Bataille also wrote aphoristically on a ‘method of meditation’ which they themselves believed brought to light the purity of existence within the heart of an individual. Weil’s is a slightly blind fumbling toward the practice of meditation which had already been formalised in the East centuries before, and which she called ‘attention’, saying that, when attention is focused on God, it becomes what we call ‘prayer’. Bataille on the other hand sought a similar overcoming of the body, forces external to him, and the gathering together of all of his spiritual energies, in a method which, as I recall, is something like an anguished, limitless and aimless seeking for ‘the Impossible’.

Back then, I never attempted to practice Bataille’s method of meditation. There was no method, strictly speaking. He had set out to kill God in his heart, and his mind, and this involved posturing, writing, and an attitude of absolute desperation that some kind of truth would emerge from his mind, if he only tried to erase from it all of his self-deception, and admit to his absolute weakness, his absolute isolation. Bataille’s aim of overcoming God, and his attempt to set up an example of an atheistic, materialistic kind of prayer, was not successful; it was not very convincing, either, although I found it intoxicating.

It was his right not to want to know God; his right to seek what he thought of as the real well-spring of man’s being. I suppose that Bataille laughed at the idea that Christianity contained the real historical truth, while wanting to retain the language and attitudes of the saint and the believer. He experimented his whole life with seeking the well-spring of life in evil, materialism and utter atheism – with the idea that to do so was a kind of new discovery for mankind, and something which would make a new social revolution, the foundation of a new age. His work in three volumes, ‘The Accursed Share’ in fact sets this aim out in a formal ‘system’. At the same time, he suspected that it was all self-deception, and was not going to make any effect of any kind. What he did not do was think that he was wrong; rather, again, he considered that he had found a new disposition for mankind: the active embrace of evil. In his private life, he worked at a tedious office job in Paris, involved in library work; he tried to form illegal and rebellious secret societies, and spent his money on prostitutes, and beautiful women friends.

To me, as a youth, the idea that a relatively obscure writer had discovered the absolute secret to existence, and that society and politics could be arranged around it, was very alluring. Youth seeks out a movement which is small, endangered and rebellious; but by virtue of being in possession of the truth, that same movement may one day attain spectacular results and improve the world. I took on Bataille’s method of writing, and his ideas. He was scientific, materialistic, without illusions; he offered a theory of economics, politics, and he offered a world without hierarchy or the need for possessions. His system also proposed that God and ideas do not exist, and that transgression and breaking of laws and taboos – effectively, doing evil – is the secret key to a transcendence of the merely human.

As it happened for me, I spent some years adhering more or less religiously to the principles developed by Bataille. After all, he set out to find the sources of religion, power, and the contradictions of human weakness and human ambitions and dreams. He laid out a groundwork for how to transcend the merely human by seeking the impossible in another world to come. And, when I joined the Army, and my interests became more conservative, I retained the same kind of theoretical notion about existence, but in a more meditative voice, in the work of Martin Heidegger, locked down as he was inside Nazi Germany for the best years of his life, and seeking a way out of the failures of the West. Both of them were interested primarily in avoiding the word ‘God’, and any Idea as an independent reality outside of time, any transcendental realm of the mind alone, any ‘Hegelianism’ or idealism.

I don’t suppose it matters so much to the reader, nor ought it, but having traversed this territory in my own life, the valleys of evil, and the slow movement upwards through pure thought to attain the absolute truth, I came to find meditation and prayer as the further step along the way.

One moves with time up this hill, so to speak, these mountains represented by the great thinkers; and at the summit, weary and disappointed, and still with a sense that there is further to go, one finds that the only way on is to take flight. And to do this, it was necessary for me to strip off the assertion and self-possession of the philosopher; the earthly ambition of changing society. To let go of the self entirely. And thereby to come face to face with the eternal self, or the soul. It would be possible for me, as for anyone else, to find isolated happiness, untroubled by events and other people’s errors, and to live daily communing with Christ and the Holy Spirit. The other world of eternity opens up for the one who prays and pays attention to the sources of the mind in the quiet of complete introspection. Residual questions such as: ‘What shall I do with my life, now?’ do not have a stimulating effect, because it remains for the one who has discovered his eternal soul and his happiness in being near to God only to live an ethical life, and to disregard the conditions around him. So it may be for me.

But not for Simone Weil. And not, I should add, for the true Christian. Let us say that a man learns to meditate slowly, painfully, but with enthusiasm for a year or two. Gradually, he retreats more and more where his strength lies: in his love of God and the nearness of the Holy Spirit. Only over some years does this revelation take place; the wrongs of his past life are only with time and continued application left behind; only with the effect of time, effort, and persistence does he let go of any inclination to repeat those infatuations, evils, and his old short-sighted way of life. Now, he is calm, Christian, gentle, wise; yet remorseful, and conscious of his afflictions. And so, day by day, year on year, he takes up a position of caring only for his duties to others, and the care of his eternal self. The residual problem: that others do not live in the same way, and that society is utterly contrary to how it should be, is a source of pride for him rather than of painful regret: he alone knows the truth, and society is doomed and mostly unconscious of its faults. So let society fail while he holds onto the truth. Western Europe will not persecute the Christian; and, if our land is a vast desert for the spirit, and on the verge of collapse from one disease or another, then let it be.

What makes this view natural is that, it seems to be impossible to insist to people who have no spirit or soul, nor any awareness of their existence as the floor of all being, that the right way to organise a society would be to insist on the existence of a suffering, human, and paternal God, and then organise everything else on that basis. Because a majority of people cannot even see this object, then speaking of it and hoping to build a future society on it as a principle, is more or less a comic act. So I do not attempt to think of a Christian society, one based on the relationship of an individual to God.

I console myself with the notion that the world is, in any case, an illusion. Or, that it can be saved, manipulated, and remade, by God, at any time. Yet, recently, I have come to think that, as a stage in the development of a Christian, this stage must also be overcome.

Me and Simone Weil - the Society of the Single Individual

The work of Simone Weil, supposing that we already share her view on attention, prayer, and the sanctity of the individual human soul; and that we share her strict view of ethical life; has the following to offer. In her contribution to the Free French movement’s post-war draft of a constitution, she submitted the document ‘Draft for a statement of human obligations’. I wish to briefly review this short document, and associated ideas, so as to conclude.

Let us summarise: any future or desired society will form a hierarchy; and, at the top of the hierarchy, there must be a class of people who have given a solemn vow that they recognise God and the Other World above this one. In addition, that class of ruling people will only be able to act or give orders which confirm this situation. Any ruling class will, furthermore, be forced to recognise that prayer and worship of God opens up a direct access to the other world; and that individual human beings have an eternal soul. That, by acts of evil it is possible to consume or damage the soul of human beings, and that the protection of the soul is the fundamental responsibility of government, after external security has been accounted for (i.e., the obligation not to crush human beings with unworthy tasks is important, but where for instance, soldiers are required, this obligation can be set aside temporarily).

As T.S. Eliot somewhere points out, this vision of political settlement is both more ultra right-wing, and at the same time, more left-wing, than anything we find anywhere else.

Weil elsewhere gives grounds for her belief that a hierarchical society is inevitable. She also shows that obedience and labour for the majority of people is not only inevitable, but essential to the soul.

And, she makes suggestions in this document in particular, but echoes the ideas elsewhere in her work, about how to manage the ruling class, and to maintain the state as formed in this way. In brief: it shall be considered a crime punishable with imprisonment to act contrary to the spirit of the principled belief in God by any member of the ruling caste. In effect, they will not be allowed to hold any public office unless they vow to protect the encourage the absolute and eternal worth of the individual human being. Because the human soul was made by God, and must be allowed to relate to God.

And, that it will be a crime to publish anything or to declare in public anything which is a lie or which is untrue, or contrary to this fact. Importantly, Weil insists on the domain of literature, philosophy, and perhaps, the University as places where lies and experiments in thinking may take place – but always on the explicit understanding that these ‘free thinking’ exercises (in, let us say, base materialism or atheism) are not to be considered grounds for any action and cannot be taught in the public space.

Weil insisted on a few facts of life which must also form the basis for any Christian society. Firstly, that there must be an economy or a way of understanding the dignity of the human soul, and how it can be harmed. Chiefly, harm is done to the human self by external forces acting on the human being in such a way that he becomes simply an object. All around us is nature and natural force. Humans, if they succumb entirely to nature, are dead. But if they continue to live, and yet are the mere object of other forces, they die spiritually. Like Bataille, she recognised the realm of nature and objects, forces, and the like, including the body, as the domain of evil, as far as the soul is concerned. The body is not a natural environment for the spirit or the mind, and the person linked to the other world.

Checks on any ruling caste in its attempt to thus enslave people by treating them as mere objects will be punishable, and considered crimes. Education of children will be conducted along the lines of teaching them how to increase their ability to pay ‘attention’ to the world and things, where attention to God is prayer. Effectively, the mind should be trained to hold fast onto the truth, and the source of all nature, rather than to let the mind be enchained in the forces and wiles of natural pressures. Workers will be coached into how to work while paying attention to the eternal and meditative aspect of their environment, so that their minds and bodies may be free from the constraints of repetitive or manual, but essential labour.

Weil states what is true, but what is usually accepted as fate, that defacing the human being is not something which in future should be considered a crime: it actually is a crime today; it simply goes unpunished. As for punishment itself, there is a religious value to punishment. Its purpose is to reform the criminal, and this means, making him recognise his own loss of justice, and inspiring him to cry out from the heart: ‘Why are you doing this to me, I don’t deserve this.’ Such a cry is the cry of the eternal part of us, which in order to exist, must have the feeling that it is not being crushed by imprisonment, necessity, mere forces of nature, or the will of others. When a criminal has made this realisation, it will be possible for full re-entry into society.

Her writing justifies in an apparently common-sense or rational way all of these things, and it is very enjoyable to read. She wrote at a time (1943) when it was possible to think that her vision might become a reality. To temper things, and make them more palatable, she framed her Draft in terms which made no mention of God or Christianity. But it was a Christian society which she had in mind.

Finally, note that she also forbade groups and associations in this future society, unless they were officially sanctioned. The group of people, the kind of thing where an individual gives up his own self and assumes the voice of the crowd, is a source of evil in the world. For as Kierkegaard says, ‘The crowd is untruth’. All reality, as an empirical fact, is only ever experienced by an individual; and only a single individual can express or hear the truth. So, the notion of a soul joining a Church (i.e., a group) was a contradiction, and she hesitated to join the Catholic Church at this time, though she wanted to do so. She did not live long after this Draft, in any case.

But any true contradiction of two principles which are both true is, she said, the sign that we have hit the level of reality where God only could intervene; He must intervene because existence does bring about contradictions of this kind, opposing forces without any possible resolution by taking either one side or the other. He would intervene with a supernatural gift. Any union of opposites must take place on a higher plane.

If we need a society which is similar to the Church, but we also rightly fear any crowd, then the attitude of detachment or distance from these needs intervenes to remove the painful contradiction: the Church should be made of individuals, each with sovereignty, protected by the law, perhaps.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.