Campbell Corner Language Exchange

Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace:
A study of Henry LeRoy Finch's book of the same name

by Matt Matros

Simone Weil wrote elegant prose, using simple terms and economical sentences. Yet her writings are not simple. To understand Weil’s work requires much careful reflection, independent thought, and a willingness to see things in a way most people do not. No one understood this better than Henry Leroy Finch, who dedicated much of his life to studying Simone Weil. Mr. Finch passed away almost five years ago. Though he didn’t publish a book on Weil during his life, he was working on a manuscript containing all his Weil essays until the day before he died. His daughter Annie went through the painstaking process of taking her father’s work to an editor and seeing it through to publication after his death. The result is Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace, a compact, profound, and complex volume explaining Weil’s life and philosophy with the rigor it deserves.

This paper serves as an introduction to Simone Weil, expounding on the key points from Finch’s book, and seeing how they apply to certain dilemmas of modern society (something Finch does as well). Although Finch divides his manuscript into twelve chapters, each concerned with distinctly different ideas in Weil’s writings, there are several themes, or at least concepts, that appear in many places throughout the book. One is Simone Weil’s idea of the sacred, or The Good. We will see that, for Weil, The Good is an otherworldly phenomenon, and she uses this as an axiom from which she makes many other claims about humanity and civilization. Another theme is that Weil finds proof of love in places almost no one else would—specifically in things like affliction, absence, and abandonment. The same thinking applies in all cases, that because humans continue to love despite these hardships, love must be otherworldly. We will go into some detail on this point, I hope even mirroring Finch’s precision. A final recurring idea is that God is bigger than any one religion. This becomes an easy mental step once the reader has become familiar with Weil’s ideas of love and the supernatural. Keeping these threads in mind as we examine Finch’s book, we will see that Simone Weil’s writings, though about a myriad of subjects, are remarkably consistent in their philosophical underpinnings.

One of Simone Weil’s most distinguishing aspects is her attentiveness. Finch opens his book by telling us Weil approaches religion with the same level of rigor as scientists approach their areas of expertise. “To say that Simone Weil is a simple writer is only to say that she is simple in the way that Einstein’s equations are simple,” he writes. “Simone Weil delivers formulae as impersonal and enigmatic as the formulae of mathematical physics.” Finch reveres Weil for this, and makes clear that her readers need only put forth the same effort they would in any other area of academic study to see the brilliance in Weil’s ostensibly simple writings.

The similarity between religion and mathematics was particularly apt. For Weil, the supernatural demands clear thinking in the same way mathematics does. Further, mathematics is a perfect analogue to the supernatural, or religion, in that their essences lie in paradoxes, and that theological, philosophical, and mathematical propositions should be more clear in their languages than they would be in simple narrative form. Mathematics has, for example, precise ways of referring to different levels of infinity. Even though it seems paradoxical for something to be “more infinite” than something else, some beautiful mathematics has been done working within these realms of greater infinities. Or take the classic logical paradox, “this sentence is false.” That sentence can be neither true nor false, but that hardly makes it useless. The idea behind the sentence has been used in some of the most important mathematical proofs, including Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. In the case of religion, it is not enough to say God is invisible and supernatural, and therefore we cannot understand him. We must, in Weil’s view, take the same pains mathematicians do, and study the supernatural until we can put its paradoxes to use. This is the only route to greater understanding of the divine.

Mathematics deals in cold, impersonal truths. For Simone Weil, so does God’s love, something she refers to as The Good. Weil’s conception of The Good—a force essential to true reason and true enlightenment—is at the core of all her writings. The key idea is that Weil’s conception of God, i.e. The Good, is as a force external to us. But it goes beyond that. This Good is not only external, but otherworldly, supernatural, transcendent. How does Weil arrive at this conclusion? She does it in a most peculiar way. She asserts that this Good shows itself primarily through affliction and absence. In these two brutal everyday realities of human existence, Weil finds the proof of the proposition that God is love.

The first step in understanding her logic is to accept that showing love even while suffering affliction at the hands of another is not a human trait. In suffering affliction, humans are deprived of physical necessities, which should mean they are deprived of emotional and intellectual necessities as well. But since humans often express their love and their ability to reason even when suffering, Weil concludes that this Good must be an inhuman kind; it must be this external and transcendent Good. Take, for example, Prometheus. He is bound to a rock as punishment for choosing to give man the gift of fire. This puts him in obvious physical pain. Yet he still maintains his powers of intelligence, so much so that his prophecies ultimately frighten the Gods enough to bring about his release. This is proof of the separation between material and intellectual necessity, which in turn, is how Weil declares that in affliction we see proof of God’s love.

It is similar with absence. Every day humans cry out to God, and almost never receive an answer in return. But they continue to cry out to God despite these continuing signs of his absence. This is further proof that the love which makes people cry to God is supernatural, for it is certainly not human to persist in pleading to an entity that has done nothing but ignore these pleas. In Weil’s view, nowhere do we see the Good more than when Christ says, “O God, why have you forsaken me?” God is absent for Christ on the cross, and yet Christ still calls out to his father. So paradoxically, the moment at which Christ seems to have finally been abandoned, is the moment of the surest proof of Weil’s conception of God as The Good.

We have spent some time now examining Weil’s ideas of the supernatural which, as was mentioned earlier, is crucial to understanding her writings on virtually any subject. But in studying Weil’s Good, it is instructive to note that Weil believes in and distinguishes between two different types of knowledge—episteme and gnosis, to borrow Plato’s terms. Episteme is knowledge obtained by measurement using human instruments. Gnosis is knowledge “learnt” through inner appropriation, knowledge not measured or taught. Weil rejects the idea that knowledge becomes more and more exact through finer and finer instruments of measurement. Do we understand a circle better because we know Pi to more decimal places? Weil would argue no, we understand a circle better by appreciating it as a gift from The Good. This is one of many issues for which Weil believes modern science has gone far astray. Technologists focus on bigger, more exact, more accurate models, where their accuracy is not of the right kind. Rather than creating out of knowledge that they are contributing towards the Good, technologists are creating so that their work will seem superior when measured by human instruments. We will return to Weil’s dissatisfaction with modern science and technology later in the paper.

Once we understand Weil’s conception of knowledge it is not difficult to accept another of her more deeply held contentions—“that any human being, even though practically devoid of natural facilities, can penetrate to the kingdom of truth reserved for genius, if only he longs for truth and perpetually concentrates all his attention upon its attainment.” One does not need to be brilliant, in Weil’s view, to obtain the deepest level of understanding. In this realm of deepest understanding reserved for geniuses and those most devoted, lies truth. For Weil, this truth is a gift given on the condition that we don’t use it in this world. This is what Finch means by what he so elegantly calls the “intellect of grace.” Weil finds grace everywhere, as she succinctly describes in this statement: “It is impossible that the whole of truth should not be present at every time and every place, available for anyone who desires it.” This should come as no surprise to the careful reader, who can see that this is consistent with Weil’s conception of knowledge. After all, if essential knowledge, truth, “only comes to us from outside, and it always comes from God” and is not learned, then how could the highest knowledge be reserved for only a select few? Weil’s truth is universal and open to all, which makes it very attractive to those who take the time and energy to understand this.

A logical extension of Weil’s universal conception of truth is her idea that “all religions are wonderful.” Many readers misunderstood this, and some even accused her of having a deep antagonism towards the Jewish faith in particular. But as Finch puts it, “it would be nearer to the truth to say she had a deep antagonism to antagonism itself.” Weil feels all religions have something to offer, because they all have something worthwhile to say about how to reach truth. Even though Weil was a Christian and a believer in the divinity of Christ, she believed Christ’s teachings should be added on to other religions, not replacing them. The only thing Weil feels a “deep antagonism” for was violence and destruction carried out in the name of religion—any religion. In Finch’s words, Weil believes “no human beings are appointed by God to annihilate other human beings.” It is easy to see how many could mislabel Weil, as she has written much on the spiritual power of the Christian faith, but to call her intolerant or unaccepting of other faiths would be a tremendous mistake.

One thing Weil is intolerant of is modern science and its applications. While she accepts and loves all religions, she despises, almost without exception, the goals, creations, and philosophy of modern technology. That last might seem strange, that Weil actually rejects the philosophy of, and the very spirit behind, science and technology, because how can one reject the idea of an evolving and productive civilization, or of a deeper understanding of the laws of science? First understand that, for Weil, science and technology are inextricably linked, because science is not neutral. Then, we must note that Weil believes that humans profoundly misunderstand the proper uses of science and technology in a more spiritual (and supernatural) context. By that she means science has no connection to The Good. Weil makes the striking observation that humans substitute means for ends, and have become obsessed with the proliferation of means at the expense of ends. All this manifests itself in the modern class system—workers and bosses, the oppressors and the oppressed. Humans have become so caught up in production that the individual is being sacrificed for the “collective good.” Machines, weapons, power, war, these are all products of modern technology contributing to this frightening phenomenon—means and not ends. Instead of helping individuals to think more clearly, science dictates the condition of life for the masses. And since for Weil, the only way to obtain knowledge is through inner appropriation by an individual, science is working against Weil’s idea of knowledge. Worse, the few attempts humans have made to rectify this problem have attempted to use technological solutions (we will soon look at an example of this). But Weil recognizes that “to the problems of technology, there is no technological answer.”

The accumulation of power and weapons in select places on this planet, along with the many wars of the past decades, are the realization of Weil’s fears. The most recent war with Iraq is an almost too-perfect example. This was a war fought by machines and computers as much as it was fought by men and women. But take a step back and notice that the very logic for fighting the war in the first place was the exact logic Weil objects to. The United States went to war because it suspected its enemy of harboring weapons of mass destruction. But this problem cannot be solved through the further use of weapons—in fact this defeats the whole purpose of trying to solve the problem. If Weil were alive to witness this war, she likely would have described it as a real-life deadly appearance of the evil of modern science: a science that leads only to destruction and despair, and never to knowledge. She would also agree that we live in an age where weapons are telling us what to do. She would pray that some day, maybe 100 years from now, maybe never, there would come a time when we would finally be the ones giving the orders.

While it seems clear that love and respect for her fellow human beings is a constant theme in Weil’s writings, sometimes one has to wonder if she has the same love and respect for herself. Weil discounts her own afflictions after eight brutal months of hard labor in a metal factory, as purely “biological.” Further, she says that since her time in the factory, “I have always regarded myself as a slave.” But how can one live as a slave? How can one have any self-respect? Indeed, Weil recognizes this problem and claims that one had to build a new kind of self-respect, a different kind than the one traditionally recognized by society. She asks slaves to “substitute acceptance for submission.” Of course, this is one of her flimsier arguments, as it is nearly impossible to do. And in the end, Weil herself could not do it.

Simone Weil admitted that she thought death to be “the instant when, for an infinitesimal fraction of time, pure truth, naked, certain and eternal, enters the soul.” She even prayed to Christ “that I may be unable to will any bodily movement, or even any attempt at movement, like a total paralytic.” This idea, combined with her fanatical will power, ultimately led to her death. She did not die out of vanity or martyrdom, but out of an unrelenting belief that she was waiting for the call of God. While waiting, she was confined to the Grosvenor Sanatorium in England and refused to eat any more than meager portions. Her death was ruled a suicide by starvation “while the balance of her mind was disturbed.” But as Finch notes, this is hardly accurate. Weil was fanatical, obsessed, even stubborn. But the rigor of her thinking that had been her hallmark throughout her life was very much evident in the way her life ended. She believed in depriving herself, so that is what she did. Indeed, the balance of her mind may well have been least disturbed on August 29, 1943, when she finally passed away. And for all we know, she achieved the moment of unaltered truth she had been seeking.

It is interesting to compare Weil to the modern movement of Islamic extremism, and its most noted philosopher Sayyid Qutb. Both Weil and Qutb advocate death on Earth for the purposes of spiritual fulfillment. They both consider the corporeal body secondary to some higher understanding (what Weil called The Good and Qutb Allah). The difference is that Qutb wants a global acceptance of his philosophy, whereas Weil, as we mentioned earlier, finds knowledge put forth by the masses irresponsible. Weil believes that individuals should appropriate knowledge on their own, while Qutb has global visions of life under Shariah. In this, the two philosophers cannot be more different.

Simone Weil wrote of truth, death, beauty, The Good, absence, affliction, abandonment, knowledge, and love in a completely unique way. Her conception of the intellect is so stunning, and so counterintuitive to modern Western thinkers, that it is easy to dismiss as irrelevant. It is even easier if one considers the source of the idea is a woman crazy enough to starve herself to death. But as Finch rightly notes, all that is required to appreciate Weil is a seriousness of mind when approaching her work. Her ideas are seen not to be just strange babblings, but profoundly original work. Give Weil the attention and study she deserves, and the careful reader will be rewarded tenfold.

Finch’s book provides a thorough analysis and explanation of Simone Weil’s life and writings. It is, however, curious that his work is titled Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace. It is curious because it seems to imply that it will discuss grace’s intellect, or God’s intellect. Of course, it does do this. But more importantly, Finch goes to great pains to explain Weil’s position that our intellect, human intellect, is a form of this greater Good, grace. So why not name the book Simone Weil and the Intellect as Grace? We can’t say for sure, but it is also clear that Weil considers human intellect, the intellect she lets us think of as grace, a gift of God, a gift of grace. Perhaps it is less important for Finch to define human intellect as grace than it is for him to tell us the intellect is a gift of grace. Weil would probably think so, as she wrote of how grace did not belong to anyone, of how it was supernatural and meant to be shared by all. She was not interested in seeing the intellect from the human perspective, she was interested in describing its otherworldliness. Perhaps, then, Finch’s title is his final and most significant tribute to Simone Weil and her work.