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Comparative Studies, Part 1: Simone Weil
Gravity, Grace, Attention
See other writers/thinkers I drew inspiration from for my Force of the Soul series.
The first writer I need to mention is Simone Weil (pronounced “Vay”). She is perhaps everyone's favorite “most underrated 20th century philosopher,” in that she is not your canonicized Kant or Sartre or Camus, yet Camus nevertheless described her as, “the only great spirit of our times.” In contrast to other philosophers, who were more analytical in their writing, Weil wrote with penetrating prose and insight that cuts to the the most tender and vulnerable aspects of what it means to be human.
Forces of the Soul
Weil came of age in the first half of the 20th century, a turbulent time marked by war and the destruction of institutions. It was in this setting that she wrote “The Need for Roots: Prelude Towards a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind.” In this book, she described the uprootedness we feel in modern society, and explored how a post-war France may rebuild itself in more humane ways.
The Forces of the Soul series was directly inspired by Weil's book, and specifically Part I, titled “Needs of the Soul.”She argues for the fundamental nature of human obligations, and the inhumane effects of a language based on human rights. Imagine you are in a world with no other people — in such a world the language of “human rights” is meaningless. If you are afflicted, or suffering in this hypothetical world, it makes no sense to petition yourself to respect your own “human rights.” Instead, the more natural way of being is to pay attention to your needs, both of the body and of the soul, and to do your best to sate those needs. There is no use for human rights.
Weil was concerned that “human rights,” though perhaps a necessary construct in a brutal reality, obfuscates the critical human faculty of paying attention to suffering, both of our own and of others. The language of human rights is often wielded combatively and self-centeredly. Her language of obligations is meant to recapture the skill of listening not just to others but to our most vulnerable selves.
Our obligations to ourselves and to others, Weil argued, was to nourish the “The Needs of the Soul.” Akin to Martin Luther King Jr. and recent philosophers like Peter Singer, she used food and hunger as a fundamental analogy for reasoning about needs. Her prose is striking: just as lack of food leads to emaciated bodies, neglecting the needs of the soul leads to withering souls. Secondly, just as hunger can be sated, the needs of the soul are needs only insofar as they can be sated. We have obligations to feed, but not obligations to satisfy gluttony. Third, the obligation is to individuals, not groups: it is only individuals that hunger, and we feed collectives only insofar as they feed individuals. Fourth, the image of hunger strikes home our responsibilities to our fellow people and living beings.
What struck me the most about Simone Weil's Needs of the Soul was that she doesn't just articulate familiar needs like love, liberty, autonomy, and truth. She also articulates the many ways in which humans need a graspable world with order, structure, and security. This inspired and deepened my understanding of the role of constraints and patterns in human flourishing, and became an integral part of what I called the the “first force of the soul.”
Of course, there are divergences between how I now frame things and how Weil presents her ideas (most notably, how I now use the word “force” instead of “need”), but her impact on me is indelible, and I still credit Weil with deepening my appreciation for aspects of the soul that I had not paid attention to.
Gravity, Grace, Attention
“All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.”
-Simone Weil, in her essay “Gravity and Grace”
For Weil, gravity describes how we usually act. For her, this is not a neutral thing — following gravity is baseness itself. This baseness is how we expect the world to naturally operate. Grace, by comparison, is that which lifts us, that which works against gravity.
The language of “grace” reflects Weil's Christian influences, but she presents it in a way that actually made sense to me. Her elaboration of grace is different from more common ones that I've seen— as an “unmerited gift from God.” For me, the typical presentation of grace always felt confusedly mired in worldly concerns. A quick perusal through the history of Christianity shows a lot of the arguments about grace over the centuries: Does depending on the grace of God effectively deny people's free will and responsibility to do better? Do we really have a “treasury” or “bank account” of grace that we can debit or credit by our actions? The presentations and arguments over grace seem to devolve into intricate sets of rules, as if God's grace were a game.
Weil takes a different tack. Her presentation of grace does not dwell on the will and preferences of God. Instead, her presentation is rooted in attention.
Weil trains her attention on myriad things: on society, on art, on beauty, on God, on suffering, on math, on learning. She meditates on chance and impermanence, and chastises us for wanting things to be eternal, or only valuing eternal things. This desire for eternity blinds us to the task in front of us. She writes:
The beings I love are creatures. They were born by chance. My meeting with them was also by chance. They will die. I have to know this with all my soul and not love them the less. I have to imitate God who infinitely loves finite things in that they are finite things.
... everything which has a value is the product of a meeting, lasts throughout this meeting and ceases when those things which met are separated.
…The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence… The fall of the petals from fruit trees in blossom. To know that what is most precious is not rooted in existence—that is beautiful. Why? It projects the soul beyond time.
-In the essay, “Chance”
Ultimately, Weil's intense attention to the world leads her to find the limits of the self, and this informs a deep sense of humility:
“... in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise... the virtue of humility is nothing more nor less than the power of attention.”
-In the essay, “Intelligence and Grace”
What is under our immediate control is limited to the movements of a few muscles. If we change, we do not change overnight. If we desire to change there is no switch for our will to flip. If we are moved by art it was not so much an act of will on our part, but because we directed and opened our attention to beauty. If we aren't moved by art, we need patience, and “we have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”Changes that appear sudden are the product of quiet accumulation over time (e.g. imagine filling a bucket, drop by drop, until the “sudden” moment when the bucket is full and water over flows).
The recognition that we have limits, and that often the best we can do in the moment is to pay patient attention, dispassionately and with clarity... is when we open ourselves to grace.
In an earlier essay I talked about how I had been captured by the rhetorical power of the word “need”. This was largely because I was moved by the power of Weil's writing in her book chapter, “Needs of the Soul.”
Granted, I am not Christian, so I'm only speaking of what I have been presented with from having attended church casually in the distant past and from personal research. Do let me know if I’ve misinterpreted anything!
I do think I have a better sense now of what this phrase means and common impulses it shares with other religions, but the wording is still terribly loaded and prone to miscommunication and misunderstanding for a casual listener not versed in Christian jargon. What does unmerited mean? Who is God?
There’s a chance you might be confused and asking, “but don’t you control your attention? Isn’t that technically your will?” The rhetorical sentiment that Weil is going for is that the gaze of our “will” is often misplaced. It wants results now. It is often placed on things outside of our control. And when this will is misplaced, it often gets temperamental.
An example: there is no “off switch” for sadness or grief. You can’t simply “will/wish sadness away” (you can certain try to forcefully suppress it, but deep down you know it’s still in you). What you can do is to carefully place your attention and effort to dislodge the grief. It may happen quickly, but more often than not it takes time, and a lot of observation to make sure you’ve paid attention to all the right things.
And this is when grace can then “lift” us from gravity!
I also love this related Rilke quote:
“…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
This touches on grace, on how even though there are things that we can not change today, we persist anyway, allowing change to accumulate.