Simone Weil and Donald Trump, the world as force and affliction.
Simone Weil wrote during the years leading up to the Second World War. She died in 1943. There is much that is curious and troublesome about her life—and death. She died of starvation by her own hand. Born a Jew, Weil is generally regarded as a Christian mystic. Until the end of her life she refused baptism. I see her as a woman with deep insight into the experiences of force and affliction. We all know who Donald Trump is.
“The Iliad, a poem of force,” her most well-known work, addresses the founding document of Western Civilization. Generally seen as an epic of war and heroes, Weil reads it as an account of what force does to people: those who use force, and those who suffer it. It subjects both to the empire of might.
Whoever does not know just how far necessity and a fickle fortune hold the human soul under their domination cannot treat as his equals, nor love as himself, those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. The diversity of the limitations to which men are subject creates the illusion that there are different species among them which cannot communicate with one another. Only he who knows the empire of might and knows how not to respect it is capable of love and justice. (p. 181)
We live in an age of force, and contempt for those who suffer it. “Loser” has become a common term of abuse. About the concept of a loser, Weil reminds us that Christ was the greatest “loser” of them all. He lost so that we might be saved.
Weil’s is a heretical reading of the New Testament. Christ is the incarnation of God, come to earth to suffer as men and women suffer, and to die as testimony to this fact. The resurrection, so central to Christianity, is unimportant to her.
If the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me. (Weil, Letter, p. 55)
Resurrection is not important because Christ represents not God’s power, but his willing weakness, a rejection of all who equate God with might. Instead of being a God of might, God is the one who becomes one with the victims of history.
The great mystery of human life is not suffering but affliction
It is not surprising that the innocent are killed, tortured, and displaced, put in concentration camps or prison cells. For there are always enough servants of might to do this work. Surprising is that affliction has the power to seize the souls of the innocent. “He who is branded by affliction will only keep half his soul.”
Our senses attach to affliction all the contempt, all the revulsion, all the hatred which our reason attaches to crime . . . Everybody despises the afflicted to some extent, although practically no one is conscious of it . . . . Thought is constrained by an instinct of self-preservation to fly from the sight of affliction, and this instinct is infinitely more essential to our being than the instinct to avoid physical death. (Affliction, pp. 443, 457)
It is, I believe, the proper task of politics to counteract this contempt, consoling and comforting the afflicted with justice, as well as the necessities of life. Both are the political version of love. Nothing is more important than that in everyday life.
Instead, contemporary politics seems to be a contest in who can inflict the most affliction, and so liberate himself from the forces of fate masquerading as political power. “Masquerading,” because even in the realm of politics, no one is immune to fate, ultimately the fatefulness of nature and death. The wealthy in the United States live about 15 years longer than the poorest among us. Nevertheless, we are all dead for infinity. Death is the great equalizer, and much of life is an attempt to deny this fact, as though we could get others to do our dying for us.
Affliction as gift?
For Weil, affliction is a gift. In this regard politics and religion are opposites. Politics should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable, as the saying goes. But we should thank God, says Weil, for giving us necessity.
Because Weil understands the soul in its Greek meaning, ψυχή, transliterated as psyche, the death of the soul is good. For the death of the self is good. This sounds a little bit like Buddhism, and perhaps it is. Weil was fascinated by Buddhism; that it might contain part of a truth about God is one reason she didn’t convert to Christianity.
It is impossible to accept the death of the soul unless one has placed one’s love and attention elsewhere, “in the hands of our Father.” The goal is that there be nothing left over that could be called oneself, one’s will, one’s “I.” The goal is to
become nothing other than a certain intersection of nature and God. (Affliction, p. 458)
An unselfie stick
Unselfing is actually not quite as weird as it sounds. The novelist and Oxford don, Iris Murdoch, influenced by Weil, recommended unselfing, which is in many ways simply the opposite of our selfie culture, in which everything I do is a reflection of me, a presentation of myself. Beauty, for both Murdoch and Weil, is an unselfie stick. (1) For Murdoch, wild beauty is an especially effective medium of unselfing (Sovereignty, p 82).
I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.
For Weil, attention to others is the unselfie stick. The Holy Grail, says Weil, belongs to the one who first asks its guardian, a king almost completely paralyzed by a painful wound, “What are you going through?” (Weil, Reflections, p. 51) Who would think to ask that today, especially when one is in hot pursuit of knowledge, power, or money? Most of our interactions with others are about trying to fit them into our familiar categories.
The difference between politics and religion
Religion is about unselfing, living as though one were forever exposed to God in His awesome, terrible mystery. In everyday life, unselfing is about paying attention to the reality of others. Beauty reminds us of this, but so do the needs of others.
Politics is about meeting the needs of others, which of necessity categorizes them into familiar classes, such as citizens, the poor, the abused, the widow, orphan, and stranger.
It’s easy to see how unselfing can prepare us to experience the needs of others, but we need enough self left to do the work of helping them. Starving oneself to death, as Weil did, eating no more (and often less) than her compatriots in occupied France, did no one any good.
Politics in the era of Trump (and to be fair, politics always tends in this direction) is about the exaltation of force, and the imposition of affliction on others. Not only Trump’s followers, but so many, respect only the empire of might, as though this might save the meaning of their lives, or life itself. Trump is unique in his worship of force, and his contempt of the powerless, offering his followers a chance to share in his immunity to affliction. But not for long. For as Weil reminds us, there is a geometry of virtue that, much like Karma, punishes automatically the abuse of strength (Weil, The Iliad, p 164). Too bad so many innocents get hurt along the way.
(1) A selfie stick is attached to a smartphone camera in order to better take pictures of oneself, generally with others.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Simone Weil, The Iliad, poem of force, pp 153-183, in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
Simone Weil, The love of God and affliction, pp 439-468, in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
Simone Weil, Letter to a Priest. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.
Simone Weil, Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God, pp 44-52, in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George Panichas. Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.