Simone Weil is not a Christian mystic. She’s not Christian period. Nor Jewish.
Often called a Christian mystic, nothing could be further from the truth. Wikipedia labels Weil’s “school” as “modern Platonism,” which is only slightly less misleading. Weil developed a post-Christian, post-Western theology in her later work. Lissa McCullough argues that Weil’s universalism can be characterized as religious pragmatism, and that seems about right
Religious conceptions prove their value by their effectiveness in bringing about an attitude of amor fati — perfect humility, obedience, longing for justice, and action that is consistent with the ineluctable truth of finitude and death. (p 236)
Weil was particularly interested in Buddhism.
Weil is a harsh critic of the institutionalized church, likening it to the Great Beast, a collection of egos bent on the sanctification of their satisfaction.
Not your ordinary Christian
The crucifixion of Christ is where force meets submission to force, and submission is made holy. Weil shares this view with several contemporary theologians. God wins by losing, Christ’s power made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). The incarnation and crucifixion are enough for Weil. Resurrection spoils it; sacrifice not salvation is what religion is all about.
For Weil, heaven and hell are essentially the same. Both are a cover for nothingness. We come from the void and we return to the void. Heaven is the nothingness of consent to the void. Hell is the refusal to accept nothingness as the destiny of the soul. The only difference is whether we accept or refuse this nothingness. In consenting to die we share in the transcendent value of God (McCullough, p 188).
Absence is Weil’s key theological category. God is perfect goodness, like Plato’s form of the Good (Republic 505a-509c). Trouble is, in a universe filled with perfect goodness there would be no room for humans, no room for anything else. God didn’t create the world so much as depart from it, so that the world could be.
On God’s part creation is not an act of self-expansion but of restraint and renunciation. . . . God accepted this diminution. He emptied a part of his being from himself . . . God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself and worth infinitely less than himself. By this creative act he denied himself, as Christ has told us to deny ourselves. (Weil, Waiting, p. 89)
Force and affliction
The result of God’s withdrawal is that we live in a world of force and affliction. But this can be good if we let it. War, oppression, severe illness, extreme poverty, and much more besides creates affliction. With the term affliction (malheur), Weil means a state in which we question all we had previously believed: that life is good, that life is worth living, that the pursuit of happiness is possible. McCullough puts it well.
Human thought is unable to acknowledge the reality of affliction. To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstance over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things that are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am might be abolished . . . (p25)
Weil puts it simply. “Human life is impossible. But affliction alone causes this to be felt.” (N, p 311) The world is necessity not purpose, and the function of society, including most religion, and virtually every church, is to conceal this fact from us.
The nail of necessity
For Weil, affliction is good, for it nails us to the wall of necessity.
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. (Weil, 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. Like Job, you are no longer the center of even your own life. You belong to the void. The only question is whether you accept this fact.
Attention and decreation
“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” (Weil, N, p 205) Through attention we learn that others exist. Our ego no longer gets in the way, and we learn what is granted to few people: that other people and things exist (McLellan, p 181).
Attention is the way we decreate ourselves. Decreation means that the ego is no longer present. Another way of saying the same thing is that we consent to the void.
We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say “I.” That is what we have to give to God, in other words, to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act which it is given us to accomplish, only the destruction of the “I.” (Weil, Gravity and Grace, p 26)
God withdrew from the world so that we might be. Decreation is the human complement; I withdraw my I, my ego, so that God’s goodness can take its place.
Weil gives good quote, but we should think seriously about whether we want to sign on. Most of us can’t in any case, and that’s probably a good thing.
The ego is only the shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light and which I mistake for being. (N, p 419)
May I disappear in order that those things that I see may become more perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things that I see. (Gravity & Grace, p 42)
Conclusion: politics or purity?
Some say Weil turned to religion later in life because of her disappointment with radical politics. I think her religious views were implicit all along, but her religious views are incompatible with radical politics, indeed with any politics at all.
No one works for a just cause (or any cause) without the involvement of the ego. The ego is what brings energy to the cause. Otherwise expressed, helping people requires other people who pay not just sensitive attention to the other, but bring their own agenda of what help means, such as food, water, security, opportunity. While perhaps unfortunate, action and the suppression of the ego are an impossible combination. Even if the ego is identified with a just cause, it is still ego, still a commitment of the self. Not all ego is bad; it depends on the values it identifies with.
Weil’s religious view is so anti-ego that it deprives just causes of the energy and people they need to succeed. In Weil’s late work, the goal of decreation is to disappear. Weil did so at the age of 34, starving herself to death in sympathy with the occupied French, or whomever. That didn’t do anyone any good. You have to live and have a fair amount of ego involved in your cause or you just won’t have the psychic investment to get the job done.
Weil became increasingly interested in personal purity, understood as liberation from the burden of the ego. But this is an individual goal, not a social one. One might even say it was self-ish.
Lissa McCullough, The Religious Philosophy of Simone Weil. I. B. Tauris, 2014.
David McLellan, Simone Weil: Utopian Pessimist. Palgrave, 1989.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace. Routledge, 1952.
Simone Weil, The love of God and affliction, in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George Panichas. Moyer Bell, 1977, 439-468.
Simone Weil, Waiting for God, translated by Emma Craufurd. HarperCollins, 2001.
Simone Weil, The Notebooks of Simon Weil, translated by Arthur Wills. Routledge, 2013. (abbreviated as N in text)