Consenting to die

Thoughts on consenting to die.

Do not go gentle into that good night;

Old age should burn and rave against the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

These lines are from a famous poem, but Dylan Thomas is wrong.  Simone Weil gives us some of the reasons.  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).  Why?  Because we no longer belong to a world in which the self and its desires come first.  Or as Weil put it, “The self is only the shadow of sin and error cast by stopping the light of God, and I take this shadow for a being.” (GG, p35)  

When I consent to die, I thank God for my existence, the tremendous, miraculous fact and privilege of existing.  I did not have to be; nothing that exists had to be.  My existence on this earth is a gift beyond measure.  But because I live, I must also die.  Not just every living thing, but every thing that exists must die.*  Only the time scale varies, from minutes for some insects, years for human beings, to aeons (a billion years) for the earth itself. 

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Simone Weil is not a Christian mystic. She’s not Christian period.

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.

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Simone Weil: The Need for Roots

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).

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Paying Attention with Simone Weil

Paying Attention with Simone Weil.

Well known, at least among those who study Weil (perhaps a few thousand), is her concept of attention.  Less well known is the way in which Iris Murdoch, Oxford don and novelist, adapted the term.  The idea is a good one, but Weil gets it mixed up with self-denial, her desire to be nothing more than “a certain intersection of nature and God.” (Love of God, pp 462-463)

For Weil, attention (attention) means to suspend thinking, leaving one’s mind detached, empty, ready to be entered by the other.  Attention means not always trying to know, not categorizing, but waiting, as though the other could participate in forming the idea we have of it.  “Attention is the highest and purest form of generosity.”  Attention is the opposite of a thought that has seized upon some idea too hastily, and thinks it knows (Weil, Reflections, pp 48-49).  For Weil, attention requires self-emptying.  In attention,

the soul empties itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all its truth. (Reflections, p 51)

Weil is mistaken.  I have no other way of knowing an other’s suffering (or joy) except by trying to find comparable experiences in myself.  It’s the only way we can know: to be open but not empty.  I know others not by knowing myself, but by feeling myself resonating with the experiences of others.  The more in touch with my feelings, the better I can experience the feelings of others.

Iris Murdoch

The term “attention” was adapted and adopted by Iris Murdoch, who was deeply influenced by Weil, more so than by any other woman.

The enemies of art and of morals, that is the enemies of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis.

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“The great mystery of life is not suffering but affliction.”

“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.

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Christianity and technology

Christianity and technology.

Beginning in 1943, a small group of Christian intellectuals began to think seriously about the post-war world.  The United States and Britain had talked about victory since the beginning of the War, but no one was certain, and many had grave doubts.  But by 1943 victory was in sight, even if its details were not. 

These Christian intellectuals included Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and T. S. Eliot.  Auden and Eliot were poets, and Lewis, an Oxford don, is probably best known for his for his children’s fiction, Chronicles of Narnia.  I’ve posted about Lewis and Weil  elsewhere on this blog.  The relationship among these men and woman was rich, complex, and varied.  Some worked together, some alone.

The Problem

The problem they worried about is what sort of people the winners of this war of civilizations would become.  What values could substitute for that of winning the war?  Would the technological thinking that won the war destroy the values we fought for?  It might, they argued, and they only thing that could stop it was an education that fosters humanity, sensibility and pity.

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The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question

The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question.  “How do you believe in God?” comes closer to the mark. 

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, saw religion as an infantile illusion, one in which God would comfort and protect us from the harshness of the world as our parents once did (Future, pp 30-31, 43).  But this is not all psychoanalysis has to say about religion.

Jung and myth

For Carl Jung, a follower of Freud in his younger years, a rebel in his later years, religious myth is a great achievement.  As myth, religion is neither true, nor false.  The categories don’t apply.  A myth is generally the story of an epic hero sent on a journey to found or save a people, either by defeating an enemy, or solving a problem.  Moses did both.  So did Jesus Christ: the enemy is sin and death; the solution is believe that Christ is the Son of God, and act accordingly.

It is no repudiation of God to reject him because almost all of what we know about God and Jesus comes through stories.  We live by and through narrative.  Stories are how we make sense of our lives, and our world.  The Bible is a series of stories, one reason it prospered while the gnostic gospels failed.   Not enough good stories.  About religious myths, Jung says

The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe (Jung, Collected Works, vol. 5, para. 343)   

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Simone Weil and Donald Trump, the world as force and affliction

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.

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