‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’
In her short life, Simone Weil (1909–1943) fought in the Spanish Civil War, worked as a machine operator and farm laborer, debated Trotsky, taught high school students and union members, and was part of the French Resistance. The daughter of affluent Jewish parents, she spent her life advocating for the poor and disenfranchised in France and for colonized people around the world, bravely organizing and writing on their behalf. A consummate outsider, who distrusted ideologies of any kind, Simone Weil left behind a body of work that fills fifteen volumes and establishes her as a brilliant political, social, and spiritual thinker.
In her writings, she analyzed power and its dehumanizing effects, outlined a doctrine of attention and empathy for human suffering, and critiqued Stalinism long before most of the French left-wing. She believed intellectual work should be combined with physical work, and that theories should evolve from close observation and direct experience. And, after three Christian mystical experiences, she began grappling with religious faith, its role in human history, and the shortcomings of organized religion. Her best-known works, all published posthumously, are Gravity & Grace, Oppression & Liberty, Waiting for God, and The Need for Roots.
Simone Weil died in obscurity in London in 1943. She was just 34. Her reputation rested mainly on her involvement in left-wing politics in France during the 1930s. Then after the war, she was discovered. T.S. Eliot introduced her to English readers, with the claim that she possessed “a genius akin to sainthood.” A lot of attention was focused on Weil’s extreme personality and her extraordinary life. Now, scholars and readers are paying attention to the enduring significance of her political and religious thought.
The New York Times described her as “one of the most brilliant and original minds of twentieth-century France.” But by far her biggest advocate was the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus who played a major role in getting her work published after her death. He even made a pilgrimage to her writing room before leaving for Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in 1957. Yet, despite these luminary supporters, Simone Weil is a little-known figure, practically forgotten in her native France, and rarely taught in universities or secondary schools. Slowly that is starting to change.
Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”.