Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 114th anniversary of the birth of Simone Weil (03 February 1909–24 August 1943), who was born in Paris on this date in 1909. Weil lived a short life and died at the age of 34 in 1943.
Recently in my birthday profile for John Lukacs I grouped Simone Weil with Karl Löwith as both being “non-philosophers of history,” i.e., philosophers who discussed history in some depth of detail but who distanced themselves from history in one way or another. We can add to this list Descartes and Jacob Burckhardt (who was himself an historian). Here we should distinguish between those who distanced themselves from philosophy of history, which they believed to be too Hegelian to be redeemed, and those who distanced themselves from history itself. I take Simone Weil to belong to the latter category.
St. Augustine — along with Hegel, the other great influence on Western philosophies of history — formulated both a philosophy of time and a philosophy of history. Since Hegel and his school of thought did not yet exist in Augustine’s time, Augustine did not have Hegel to react against, but Augustine belongs in some sense to those non-philosophers of history who have rejected history itself. Augustine had something better than history — eternity. Here we glimpse the connection between the two varieties of non-philosophies of history: the rejection of the project of a philosophy of history, however that project is construed, is shared by both, but those who reject history in favor of eternity go a step further. Löwith, for example, cannot be counted here, as his primary objection to the project of any philosophy of history is that it inevitably recapitulates theology and theodicy.
Augustine did not play a significant role in Weil’s thought, but E. Jane Doering and Eric O. Springsted have called her a “Christian Platonist” — a label frequently ascribed to Augustine — in their book The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, in which they write:
“It would, in the strictest sense, be a mistake to call Simone Weil an Augustinian. Though she quotes Augustine directly and cites him with occasional frequency, her citations are often mixed… On the whole, though, she does not seem to have delved very deeply into him. Augustine, for Weil, was chiefly to be cited — positively and negatively — as an authority of official Christianity, and was not somebody whom she herself read as a guiding intellectual and spiritual master the way she read Plato or St. John of the Cross. Nevertheless, Weil shares something at a very deep level with Augustine, as she did with Pascal whom she treated similarly, namely, Christian Platonism in general and more particularly the ‘inward turn’ of Augustine’s Christian Platonism. This, of course, is a point on which Augustine is most frequently misunderstood and most criticized. For example, his search for the inner self in Confessions is often claimed to be the beginning of our unholy individualism and our obsession with the self and with personality as the ultimate expression of ultimacy. Weil had much to say about that. Moreover, the ‘inner self’ is just as often criticized as an example of the sort of wrongheadedness that lies at the heart of metaphysics, the need to posit an inner entity to explain the outer workings of the world, or a privileged place of vision in which luminosity guarantees truth.”
While Augustine is only noted in passing in Weil’s writings, as Doering and Springsted explain in the above, the idea of eternity is a point to which Weil returns time and again, often in contrast to time, as we find in this passage:
“Monotony is the most beautiful or the most atrocious thing. The most beautiful if it is a reflection of eternity — the most atrocious if it is the sign of an unvarying perpetuity. It is time surpassed or time sterilized. The circle is the symbol of monotony which is beautiful, the swinging of a pendulum of monotony which is atrocious.” (Simone Weil, An Anthology, p. 159)
The implicitly present parallelism of time and history in Augustine, both of which he theorized in detail, are manifest here, with Weil rejecting time and affirming eternity, though both may be said to partake of monotony. And yet. And yet. One of Weil’s most fascinating works is her Factory Journal, from the period in her life when she abandoned teaching philosophy as a prestigious girl’s school to work in a factory in order to share the condition of the proletariat. Here Weil uses “eternity” in a colloquial way, though, as a philosopher, I am surprised that she did not pick up on this theme of her workplace monotony as a form of
“Going back to work infinitely more painful than I would have thought. The days seem an eternity to me. Heat… Headaches… These C4 by 16 screws disgust me. It’s one of the ‘cushy jobs’; I would have to do it quickly, and I can’t. Barely finished, I think, by 3:30. Prostration, bitterness at stupifying work, disgust. Fear also, all the time, of the cutter coming loose. Nevertheless, it happens. The wait to have the cutters changed. For the 1st time I succeed in changing a cutter myself, with no help at all, and Philippe says that it’s right in the middle. A victory, better than speed. I also learn, after another bad experience, to adjust the tightness of the screw and handle at the end myself. Lucien sometimes completely forgets to tighten it… The M.P.R. screws. Michel warns me. He doesn’t set them up, but ‘spectacles’ does it. I do the M.P.R.s a little faster than before, but still very, very slowly.” (Formative writings, 1929–1941, p. 223)
Every working class person knows all-too-well the working conditions that Weil here describes (though not the details of her work, which becomes a part of Weil’s Factory Journal narrative), and which she apparently thoughtlessly called “an eternity.” Weil, then, has not managed to entirely separate time from eternity in order to transcend history.
In lesson notes appended to her Lectures on Philosophy, Weil has three pages on time (pp. 197–200), which betrays some of the struggle to transcend time and history. She begins thus:
“Time is the most profound and the most tragic subject which human beings can think about. One might even say: the only thing that is tragic. All the tragedies which we can imagine return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time. Time is also the origin of all forms of enslavement.”
And ends thus:
“There are two possible attitudes: One can either let time roll by (like a little boy with a ball of wool), or one can fill it up; this gives to the passing moments an eternal value. If one thinks of death as a passing into eternity, one has, of necessity, to think that there was something eternal in life. Cf. Mallarme: ‘So that at last he is changed into himself by eternity.’ So, the only problem that man has to face, is the struggle against time.”
Even if the struggle against time is the only problem that man has to face, that is no guarantee that man will win in this struggle again time. Indeed, most of us are forced to acknowledge that time always wins in the end, though mystics — among whom we must count Weil — will deny this on principle.
The Introduction to First and Last Notebooks Richard Rees says, “She places the good outside history and does not see it as the term of an evolutionary historical process.” In the late London Notebook Weil makes this cryptic remark about history:
“History must begin with the Bull. God’s sacrifice. Sin and fall of the creature. Evil. Brute force. Justice. Equilibrium. The creature goes to immolate itself in God. God wounding his creature with love, by an arrow in its heart. Plenitude of God. Creation. Incarnation. God’s sacrifice. And it begins over again. God’s sacrifice is the beginning and the end of history.”
Here history is entirely and exhaustively contained within salvation history, nested within eternity.
Last year: https://philosophyofhistory.quora.com/Simone-Weil
Simone Weil was born in Paris on 3 February 1909. Her parents, both of whom came from Jewish families, provided her…
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The French philosopher Simone Weil is a confronting and disconcerting figure in modern philosophy. This is not simply…
Formative writings, 1929-1941 : Weil, Simone, 1909-1943 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming …
Includes bibliographical references