Simone Weil: The Need for Roots
Because she concentrates on the relationship between the individual and the universal, man and God, Weil generally regards the collectivity, society, as an idol. Whether we know it or not, most of us worship this idol, which means thinking and acting the way people in our position in society are supposed to think and act. The world begins and ends with the society in which we live.
The need for roots
It comes as a surprise, then, to see how important the community is to Weil. The Need for Roots, was written during the early months of 1943; she would be dead by the end of that summer. Weil argues that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” The damage that springs from rootlessness is the curse of contemporary life. “Whoever is uprooted, himself uproots others.”
Though she spent a lifetime arguing against “the collective,” the Great Beast that is society, she recognizes that the collectivity is “the sole agency for preserving these spiritual treasurers accumulated by the dead.” (Roots, 41, 45, 8).
Between earth and eternity
Weil faces a dilemma. We cannot survive without the horizontal, the familiar, the institutions of everyday life. We need protection from criminals, as well as foreign enemies. In The Need for Roots, Weil recognizes that the nation is really the only collective that remains that can fulfill this function. Written when the outcome of World War Two was still in doubt, she writes that our obligation to our country co-exists with other obligations.
It does not require that we should give everything always; but that we should give everything sometimes. (Roots, 155)
In other words, we should be prepared to die for our country, our heritage, our traditions. Getting carried away, she imagines all sorts of demeaning rituals for cowards. Whatever else one may say, Weil was always ready to die for something.
But why, then, is patriotism itself necessary? In the opening sections of The Need for Roots, Weil . . . makes the point that ‘we owe respect to a collectivity, of whatever kind – country, family, or any other – not for itself, but because it is food for a certain number of human souls’, and that ‘the food which a collectivity supplies . . . has no equivalent in the entire universe.’ (Simone Weil, 76; Roots, 6)
The community is not a supreme value, but it is an ultimate value, in the sense that no other entity can replace it. Nevertheless, “it is certainly forbidden to love one’s country, using the world ‘love’ in a certain sense. For the proper object of love is goodness, and ‘God alone is good.'” (Roots, 129)
Always the Beast
However much society is necessary, for Weil it always remains the Great Beast, an image from Plato’s Republic (493a-e).
The real sin of idolatry is always committed on behalf of something similar to the State. (Roots, 112)
There is and should be a chasm between the social order and God. But compare these two statements. The first is from Weil, the second from Václav Havel, Czech dissident, poet, and its first president after the fall of communism.
It is only by entering the transcendental, the supernatural, the authentically spiritual order that man rises above the social. Until then, whatever he may do, the social is transcendent in relation to him. (Great Beast, 166)
The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences . . . do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect . . . . Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God. (pp. 49-50)
For Weil we must enter into the transcendent. For Havel, remembering the transcendent is the way we protect ourselves from the idolatry of humanism—the worship of humanity and its creations. In many ways, his is the more acute observation. The danger is not the State; the danger is ourselves. We need not, and perhaps cannot, enter the transcendent, but we can respect it as a barrier to human ambition and folly.
Weil is both right and wrong. Idolatry is the great human flaw, but we need not enter into a transcendent (whatever that means exactly) relationship with God to overcome it. We need only remember—and it is no small thing—that we are not gods. That is the single most important reason to believe in God.
PS, In my last post on Weil (on attention) I said that I ended up being disappointed with parts of her argument. Here I am not. We simply disagree on how most of us can, and should, relate to God: through transcendent union, or God as a limit to human vanity.
Václav Havel, Forgetting that we are not God. First Things, 51 (1995), 49-50.
Simone Weil, The great beast, in Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr. Routledge, 1952, 164-169.
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. Arthur Will. Routledge, 1952.
Palle Yourgrau, Simone Weil. Reaktion Books, 2011. [very helpful]