“The great mystery of life is not suffering but affliction.”—Simone Weil
Simone Weil (1909-1943), born Jewish, stood on the edge of converting to Christianity for most of her adult life. Perhaps she was baptized, perhaps not, the evidence is unclear. She is best known as a Christian mystic, though that ignores her very down to earth work, such as her involvement in the trade union movement, and with the international volunteers in Spain. Weil starved herself to death in sympathy with the occupied French. If you think that makes sense, you may stand closer to Weil than you think, closer than you should.
If biography were philosophy, we could dismiss Weil as emotionally disturbed. Disturbed or not, she wrote brilliant essays on a variety of topics. As she grew older, most were about God. It is her essay on “The Love of God and Affliction” that I am concerned with. It’s a brilliant essay, and it’s quite wrong.
The mystery of affliction
What does Weil mean by the mystery of affliction (malheur)? It is not surprising, she says, that the innocent are killed, or that people suffer from disease. Criminals and germs (nature) account for that. But it is surprising that God would have given affliction the power to seize the souls of the innocent and possess them as though they were the worst people on earth.
Affliction is the infinite distance between self and God. Affliction is an awareness that the world was not made for the human being and has not become more human. Affliction is the feeling that we are strangers in this world.
Affliction can only be experienced when we are subject to an immense force, blind, brutal, and cold, that separates us from all that is human and divine: the rape victim, the subject of a ravaging disease, the victim of extreme social injustice. All this and more constitute the type of force that first makes affliction knowable as the infinite distance between God and man, between ourselves and others.
Many people suffer afflictions greater than Christ
At the moment of his death, Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) This was Christ’s experience of affliction. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Christ suffered the worst affliction (this is, of course, my opinion). Christ suffered affliction for a terrible moment. The earth trembled, a darkness came over the land, and Christ doubted his special relationship to God, to himself.
Many people suffer worse afflictions, and they suffer affliction almost their entire lives. Christ knew what he was living for, and what he was dying for. His suffering had a purpose which he understood. He came to earth to die on the cross. Most who suffer affliction do not understand why. That’s what affliction means: suffering that endures and has no conceivable purpose.
I don’t know if it is heresy, or just plain common sense, to claim that millions of people suffer from affliction worse than Christ’s. Docetism, the belief that Christ only seemed to be human, means that he did not, could not, suffer on the cross because he was literally not there. But, docetism is not in accord with current Christian doctrine, and that is good. Christianity is a more powerful religion when one believes that God truly became man, suffering as humans do.
This is the framework of my claim that Christ suffered less than millions of others. As a human he knew that his death had a purpose; millions of humans have no idea of the purpose of their suffering. Indeed, that is really the definition of affliction: suffering that has no purpose and no meaning. Sheer and mere necessity has taken us over.
A short story about affliction
Imagine that you are walking down the street, talking animatedly with a dear friend, devoting all your attention to your conversation. Suddenly you step out into the street, where you are run over by a car and almost killed. It takes months to recover, and not only your body, but your mind (soul) is affected—only slowly do your memories return, but never quite in the same way. Forever after there is something about your friend and your family that is a little strange. Not that you love them less; on the contrary, you love them more. Just thinking about them makes you cry. But they occupy a different place in your mind. For you know (not just think, or imagine, but know) that you, or they, can be snatched away in an instant, that they are not yours, and never were, nor are you theirs. First of all, everyone belongs to eternity. When you finally do recover it is as though you have returned to a different world. You have.
You have experienced affliction, though one would have to say that you were fortunate, for throughout much of the experience you were unconscious, or not fully aware, as though a protective fog had descended over you. Had you been lucid, you would have experienced a world in which all goodness had fled, in which everything you valued—not just your health, but your family and all your attachments can be snatched from you in a moment. Henceforth, you live in a world in which force and fate cast its shadow over all goodness. As it is, you have experienced that world in retrospect, which makes it a little easier to bear. As you return to the light, you discover that who and what you value still lives. But their position in your personal universe is forever changed.
Affliction has done you a favor, says Weil.
Extreme affliction, which means physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, all together, is the nail. The point of the nail is applied to the very center of the soul, and its head is the whole of necessity throughout all space and time. Affliction is a marvel of divine technique. It is a simple and ingenious device to introduce into the soul of a finite creature this immensity of force, blind, brutal, and cold. (1977, p 452)
Affliction has done you a favor because it compels you to consent to a universe you don’t control, forcing you to bend your knee to it.
Mine is not a great story because it omits the social degradation that almost always accompanies affliction. It is set in a limited time, whereas the affliction that many suffer begins almost at birth and continues their whole life long. Mine is a middle-class story about affliction. Nevertheless, it raises the issue addressed by Weil. That necessity and tragedy teach us all that we need to know as humans: that we are at the mercy of circumstances at every moment of our lives.
Why Weil likes affliction, and why we shouldn’t
Weil thinks this is good. Affliction kills the psyche, the self, all that is selfish in us. It kills almost all of the soul, and almost all the body. All that is left of what used to be the person is “a certain intersection of nature and God.” That’s good, what Weil calls de-creation. God’s glory is not diminished by affliction. But our attitude changes. “It is our function in this world to consent to the existence of the universe.” (pp 458-463).
I truly don’t know what this means. What other choice do we have? Nietzsche wrote that we must embrace our suffering, and wish that it happen again and again. In that way we might become its master. Theodor Adorno called this “ignominious adaptation” to one’s prison. Adorno was right. Most of us must accept affliction at some point in our lives. Millions, perhaps billions, accept it daily. And Weil is correct that there is something to learn from the experience, and that it has to do with the littleness of the self.
Many of the world’s problems are caused by people who seek to expand their egos so that there is no room left for anybody else. Accepting the truth of affliction means accepting human limits. This was the lesson of Greek tragedy (Alford). It is a lesson that devotion to God teaches. But to wish affliction upon oneself in order to learn this lesson again and again makes no sense.
I have previously posted on Weil, and I will post a couple of more times. She has much of importance to say, but it is equally important to see the cardinal flaw in her thinking. There is quite enough suffering in this world. There is no reason to go looking for more, and no reason to idealize this suffering as divine.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. New Left Books, 1974, 97-98.
C. Fred Alford, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy. Yale University Press, 1992
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, § 285, 341
Simone Weil, The love of God and affliction, in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George Panichas. Moyer Bell, 1977, 439-468.