The Social Beast
It’s May 1942 in the city of Marseilles, in what was then Vichy France, and thirty-three-year-old Simone Weil has for the past year been engaged in work for the French Resistance. Though physically frail and wracked by migraines, she has among other things helped distribute the underground journal Cahiers du témoignage chrétien, launched by three clergymen in early 1941, delivering three hundred copies of each of its first three issues. The personal risk is considerable. As Robert Zaretsky tells us in his absorbing new book, The Subversive Simone Weil, one of her fellow couriers was arrested and deported, and Weil herself was twice hauled in and interrogated by the police. But the calm, formidable philosopher and activist was released both times. When she was sent home, Zaretsky notes, “the sense of relief at the station must have been palpable.”
Now, as she reluctantly prepares to leave for the United States with her parents (for their safety, not her own), Weil writes a series of long letters to an anti-fascist, philo-Semitic Catholic priest named Joseph-Marie Perrin. The young Father Perrin, about the same age as Weil, has become her friend and de facto confessor, though she has not accepted baptism into the Church—and never will—and thus, according to Catholic dogma, cannot receive the sacraments. In her intensely intellectual, profoundly personal letters to Perrin, published posthumously in Waiting for God (1951), Weil relates her rather unusual “spiritual autobiography.” Raised, as Zaretsky puts it, in a “fiercely nonobservant” haute-bourgeois Jewish family in Paris, having never entered a synagogue, Weil was attracted early to Catholicism, its liturgy, music, and art. But it was only in her late twenties—first while visiting an impoverished fishing village in Portugal, then a Romanesque church in Assisi, and finally, climactically, the Abbey of Solesmes in northern France, famed for its monks’ Gregorian chant—that she experienced a spiritual, what many have called mystical, awakening to Christian faith.
Most important, though, in these letters she wants to explain to Perrin why she has chosen to refuse baptism and remain outside the Catholic Church, whatever the consequences for her soul. Pointing to “an absolutely insurmountable obstacle” that stands in her way, Weil writes to Perrin, “It is the use of the two little words anathema sit. . . . I remain beside all those things that cannot enter the Church . . . on account of those two little words. I remain beside them all the more because my own intelligence is numbered among them.” For Weil, what that Latin phrase represents—the sentence of excommunication, banishment, and even, historically, torture and death imposed upon those deemed heretics—carried more than religious significance. A few pages later, she writes, “After the fall of the Roman Empire, which had been totalitarian, it was the Church that was the first to establish a rough sort of totalitarianism in Europe. . . . This tree bore much fruit. And the motive power of this totalitarianism was the use of those two little words: anathema sit.” It was by that same kind of power, transposed into secular use, Weil tells the priest, “that all the parties which in our own day have founded totalitarian regimes were shaped.”
Weil had little more than a year to live when she handed down that judgment—she died in August 1943 of tuberculosis (and her own refusal to eat) in a sanatorium outside London, where she had gone to work with de Gaulle’s Free French. And while she’s remembered as much today for her secular political and moral philosophy—not to mention the sheer force of her indomitable personality—as she is for her deeply, weirdly Christian theological writings, the letters to Father Perrin seem to hold a key to her life and thought. And what she meant by that word totalitarian—whether referring to the Roman Catholic Church, Nazism and Stalinism, or the tendencies of political parties and organizations in general—hangs over it all. Like others in her own time and since, Weil not only used totalitarian in a literal sense, to refer to specific all-powerful and controlling state systems. She also used it in a more figurative or cultural sense, as a repressive mindset, a coercive social and institutional tendency, an intrinsic characteristic of the all-devouring “collective passions,” what she sometimes called the “social Beast.”
And Weil’s use of this charged term, in particular what she called the “totalitarian spirituality” of the medieval Church, feels uniquely relevant to our own moment, with our contemporary plagues of white “Christian” nationalism and colonialism (which Weil fought against in her own day), Big Tech hegemony, and even, ultimately, our planetary environmental catastrophe. It has to do with how Weil saw both theology and ideology, combined with power, as dehumanizing forces—in the way they treat human beings as abstractions (something our social media take to a whole new level), and then turn them into things, cogs in the machinery, mindless slaves, and finally, corpses. Zaretsky’s book reminds us that not just Weil’s ideas but her life as well offer a bracing, often unsettling challenge to any of us who would resist our own totalitarian tendencies, individual and collective, today.
It’s hard if not impossible to imagine a figure of Weil’s stature in the intellectual and political culture of today’s left, the only region of the political spectrum where she might possibly fit. And not just because of her religiosity, which would of course instantly ghettoize her. It’s also because she’s so hard to pin down with any neat, easy label—or rather, because the labels are too many and apparently conflicting. (She’d be eaten alive on Twitter from all sides—or, worse, simply shunned and ignored.) “An anarchist who espoused conservative ideals,” Zaretsky writes in his opening pages, “a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self: here are but a few of the paradoxes Weil embodied.”
The key word there is embodied. As Zaretsky succinctly puts it, “Simone Weil fully inhabited her philosophy.” To understand Weil one has to see her whole, in three dimensions, as a full and fully engaged human being, even if she at times comes off as incoherent—a lot like life itself. Then again, a little incoherence may not be such a bad thing, especially when the alternative is the enforced false coherence of a totalizing theological or ideological system.
What Weil meant by that word totalitarian—whether referring to the Catholic Church, Nazism and Stalinism, or the tendencies of political parties and organizations in general—hangs over all her work.
Much as he did for Camus in 2013’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, Zaretsky guides us through Weil’s complexities with impressive lucidity, keeping it lively and accessible, which is no small feat. Because as much as there is to admire about Weil, she can be confoundingly difficult and, as Zaretsky admits, irritating, even insufferable, in her uncompromising judgments. No one, herself included, could live up to her standards. She was a philosopher and mystic who revolted against any merely abstract ideology or theology. For Weil, it was always about the actual person, the actual experience, the immediate world, whether a classroom, a factory, or a farm; a battlefield or a church. Philosophy, ethics, and religion had to be lived in order to be worth anything—and she tried to put this exacting ethos into practice, which often led her to extremes (she rationed her own meals in solidarity with the malnourished). When it came to resistance, for Weil, mouthing slogans was never enough—it required rigorous thought, moral clarity, and action. Fitting, then, that it was Camus who championed and published her posthumously when he was at Gallimard in Paris following the war. When he was asked upon receiving the Nobel, in 1957, to name the writers to whom he felt closest personally, Weil was one of only two (the other was René Char). Though he’d never met her in life, he considered her a friend.
And it was from Weil’s own experience that her most distinctive and perhaps most important concept—malheur (affliction)—emerged, without which we can’t grasp what she meant by totalitarian in the fullest sense. In the early 1930s, after graduating from the elite École Normale Supérieure, where she was flamboyantly absorbed in revolutionary politics (with strong anarcho-syndicalist sympathies, she never joined the Communist Party), Weil taught philosophy to lycée students in provincial towns and tirelessly kept up her engagement in the labor movement, teaching night classes for workers in small industrial cities. And as she deepened her contact with the workers, she began to lose faith in revolution. While she admired Marx’s analysis of capitalism, she found the Marxist theory of history a sort of fable, or as Zaretsky aptly puts it, an abstract “millenarian eschatology,” detached from the realities of working-class life.
By late 1934, coming to see that an effective working-class politics would need to be rooted in the actual experience of working-class people, she took a fateful and characteristically drastic step: she got a job on the floor of the Alsthom electronic equipment factory in Paris, working long hours operating a stamping press and other heavy machinery under brutal and demeaning conditions. Always physically awkward and weak, eating little and prone to searing headaches, Weil pushed herself to exhaustion and despair alongside her fellow women workers. Inevitably, the job didn’t last (whether she was fired or just physically worn out is unclear), yet she managed to get work in two more factories over the course of a year, seriously compromising her health. She emerged a changed person and thinker. She believed that she had gained insight into the dehumanized condition of a slave, and she called this condition malheur.
There’s no word in English that truly captures the meaning of Weil’s malheur, but translators have settled on “affliction.” In a lengthy essay she left with Father Perrin, Weil offers her best description. “In the realm of suffering,” she writes, “affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. . . . It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery.” While affliction always involves pain or the fear of pain (including mental or emotional), she goes on to clarify, “There is not real affliction unless the event that has seized and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical. The social factor is essential. There is not really affliction unless there is social degradation or the fear of it in some form or another.”
By the time she wrote that essay, with the Nazi Wehrmacht bearing down, Weil believed “affliction is hanging over us all.” And affliction for Weil in the deepest sense, unsurprisingly given her mystic turn, is somehow more than the sum of its identifiable parts: its effect is also inescapably spiritual. Affliction, she writes, “deprives its victims of their personality and makes them into things. It is indifferent; and it is the coldness of this indifference—a metallic coldness—that freezes all those it touches right to the depths of their souls. . . . They will never believe any more that they are anyone.” When Christ on the cross cried out to God, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”, Weil tells us, he was afflicted. “Extreme affliction . . . is a nail whose point is applied at the very center of the soul. . . . [Affliction] introduces into the soul of a finite creature the immensity of force, blind, brutal, and cold. . . . He struggles like a butterfly pinned alive into an album. But through all the horror he can continue to want to love.” Love itself, which for Weil means love of God and neighbor, is the only thing that can still reach the afflicted, if they can only hold on to it themselves.
Affliction is the consequence of all-consuming, soul-crushing external force. It is what dehumanizing power—physical, psychological, spiritual—does to a person, whether that power is wielded by a church, a state, a corporation, a political party or movement, or an entire political and economic system. The force that afflicts—that which enslaves, literally or figuratively—is totalitarian.
It seems safe to suggest that there are many today who would recognize what Weil was talking about, or who at least have some inkling of how it feels. Indeed, it’s frightening how closely her concept of affliction fits what our techno-capitalist, social-media saturated existence is doing to us politically and culturally. When a person is reduced, by outside forces beyond their control, to an abstract category—a race, a gender, a sexual orientation, a class, a religion, a nationality, a political label, a demographic—they begin to feel the cold steel of affliction. Whatever our various identities, wherever we may fall on the ideological spectrum, we’re in the grip of a dehumanizing force.
When American churches—largely white evangelical Protestant— and other religious institutions, preach a form of religion, so-called “Christian” or otherwise, that defines human beings in abstract theological terms as worthy and unworthy, included and excluded, they effectively employ those two little words, anathema sit. And when those same churches and religious institutions align with a political party that defines itself in terms of racial and religious nationalism, affliction is the result—whether it looks like caged migrant children; or incarcerated, pandemic-stricken bodies; or members of Congress hunted by neo-fascists in the hallways of the Capitol.
When a political and economic system degrades and dehumanizes workers, the unemployed, and the unhoused, regardless of race or gender or religion, there is affliction. When large segments of a society are abandoned to “deaths of despair,” there is affliction.
When technology companies design all-pervasive social media platforms to prey algorithmically upon human weakness, neurological and emotional and moral—and to profit from the exponential amplification of institutionalized mendacity through ever-multiplying echo chambers of mindless collective abuse of the abstract other, so that no one, of any identity or ideology, is spared the coercive pressure of conformity and fear of punishment—something very like affliction becomes the general condition of a society.
It was those uprooted and afflicted global masses, both far and near, with whom Weil stood in solidarity to the end of her short, subversive, and tragic life.
It even begins to look as though affliction is now our planetary condition. When the prevailing technocratic carbon-industrial regime that runs the global economy pursues a nihilistic course of limitless fossil-fueled growth, or a greenwashed version of the same, so that entire populations of human beings—first and foremost across the Global South—are rendered superfluous (Hannah Arendt’s term) for the sake of profit and power, then we see that the climate catastrophe itself is driven by a kind of totalitarian force. Weil, who was a fierce anti-colonialist, argued in her final work, The Need for Roots, that the uprooting of peoples, the destruction of cultures and traditions and entire histories—as the colonizing powers of white Christendom had been doing for centuries—counted as crimes of the largest magnitude. Historical and cultural rootedness, Weil firmly believed, is a fundamental human need. In our time, fossil-fueled capital turns indigenous homelands into wastelands or drowns them under the waves.
It was those uprooted and afflicted global masses, both far and near, with whom Weil stood in solidarity to the end of her short, subversive, and tragic life—a life, as Zaretsky suggests, that was a fully embodied act of resistance. Weil’s whole purpose, philosophically and morally, was to know her fellow human beings as human beings, not abstractions—to understand what they experienced and suffered by living and working alongside them in farm fields, factories, and fishing boats; devoting her time to tutoring those she came in contact with, opening their minds; risking her life alongside them in Spain and with the French Resistance. In both the literal and the broadest sense, she lived an anti-totalitarian life.
But we can’t leave it there, tempting as it may be. That’s because Weil’s most unsettling contradiction was her attitude toward her own Jewish heritage, as seen in several of her comments on Israel and Judaism that are widely read as anti-Semitic. Zaretsky, who is Jewish and has written movingly of his own struggle to speak about the Holocaust, squarely confronts this disturbing aspect of Weil’s thought. What’s clear is that Weil saw the ancient Hebrew religion as a form of oppressive and at times genocidal religious nationalism, based on the core dogma of Israel as “chosen people”—a concept Weil abhorred in any context. (“There is no such thing as a holy nation,” she writes in The Need for Roots.) She considered both ancient Israel and her other great enemy, the Roman Empire, as precursors to twentieth-century totalitarianism. But it also seems clear—given Weil’s staunch opposition to Nazism and its oppression of Jews—that her horror was directed at the theology and national ideology of ancient Israel, not at Jews as people, which would obviously negate everything she wrote about the sanctity of each human being. Zaretsky tells us that Father Perrin tried to convince her that she was mistaken in her readings of Hebrew scripture, but whatever the case, there’s little doubt she was deeply alienated from Judaism.
All of which leaves a bad taste—and can’t help but color Weil’s attraction to Christianity. And yet this is also why her inner struggle with Roman Catholic dogma and the Church as an institution is crucial. Because as we know, it wasn’t just Israel and Rome that she saw as totalitarian precursors, it was every bit as much the medieval Church, with its persecution and extermination of heretics and infidels. “What frightens me is the Church as a social structure,” she wrote to Perrin. “I am afraid of the Church patriotism existing in Catholic circles. . . . I am afraid of it because I fear to catch it. . . . There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. . . . they were blinded by something very powerful.”
Zaretsky notes that Weil’s theological turn in her later years “marked a rupture” for many readers. “But for others,” he writes, “it is less a break than a broadening of the same concerns that had always driven her thought.” So it’s surprising that Zaretsky makes little of Weil’s decision to remain outside the Church—even though, for a Christian believer, no decision could be weightier. Alan Jacobs, in a moving portrait of Weil in his recent book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, sees greater significance in Weil’s refusal of baptism, framing it as central to her life and moral commitments. Indeed, it was perhaps her ultimate and most profound act of human solidarity—and perhaps her most subversive. In one of her letters to Father Perrin before leaving Marseilles with her parents, Weil makes the astoundingly bold confession: “It seems to me that the will of God is that I should not enter the Church at present.” In fact, she tells the priest, when she thinks of baptism and entering the Church, “nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of unbelievers.”
“I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation,” Weil continues, in what could be a summation of her faith and philosophy, “to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.”