Against History: A Lesson from Simone Weil

Weil said progress is a myth. Should we listen?

“My fellow Americans,” Barack Obama said in a speech late in his presidency condemning terrorism, “I am confident in this mission because we are on the right side of history.”  When I heard him say that, I immediately thought: what’s history got to do with it?  I recalled Obama’s fondness for Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A moving sentiment, indeed; but is it true?  I’m dismayed by Obama’s penchant, by no means unique to him, to see history as the arbiter of justice, by the tendency to subscribe to a belief in “the judgment of history”. I wasn’t alone in my dismay. In an article in The Atlantic in 2015, “The Wrong Side of ‘The Right Side of History’”, David Green expounded at length on the fallacy of awaiting the judgment of history, of time, to which Obama, and many others, has apparently succumbed. It is a dangerous fallacy. “Everything that is threatened by time,” wrote the mystical, Christian-Platonist French philosopher Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace, “secretes falsehoods in order not to die.” What, one must ask, is the source of this fetishism of history, and more generally, of the march of time? 


One source, clearly, is the idea of progress. And where did this idea come from? “Christianity,” said Weil in her Letter to a Priest, “was responsible for bringing [us] this notion of progress … and this notion has become the bane of the world.” Why the bane of the world? Because “there is no reason to establish any connection between the degree of perfection and chronological sequence.” Worse, as she put it in her late book, The Need for Roots, written as she languished in London toward the end of WWII, disgusted by the Free French for whom she agreed to write the book: “History is a tissue of base and cruel acts in the midst of which a few drops of purity sparkle at long intervals.” But as a Christian, didn’t Weil think history forever changed after the ministry of Christ? No. “The content of Christianity existed before Christ”, she said in Letter to a Priest, for “if the Redemption … had not been present on earth from the very beginning, it would not be possible to pardon God.” Indeed “since [Christ’s] day there have been no very noticeable changes in men’s behaviour.”


"At the heart of Weil’s argument against history resides a lesson we today need specially to heed. The lesson concerns the fundamental question of whether the meaning of the world can be found within it”


At the heart of Weil’s argument against history resides a lesson she tried over and over again to teach those who would listen, a lesson we today need specially to heed. The lesson concerns the fundamental question of whether the meaning of the world, as one might put it, or its value, or its significance, can be found within it. That it can is the message of so-called humanism, a child of The Enlightenment, the view that the key to our destiny lies within us. Call that view immanentism, in contrast with transcendentalism, or if you prefer, the horizontal vs the vertical perspective, or, perhaps most perspicuously, naturalism vs. supernaturalism. On this question, one cannot avoid taking sides. As T.S. Eliot, an early champion of Weil, said in “Second Thoughts About Humanism”: “Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above.  There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must either be a naturalist or a supernaturalist.” Wittgenstein, strikingly, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — ironically, the “bible” of the positivists of the Vienna Circle — made his position on that dilemma perfectly clear. “The sense of the world,” he wrote, “must lie outside the world.  … [I]n it no value exists — and if it did exist, it would have no value. … Ethics is transcendental. … God does not reveal himself in the world.”  


Wittgenstein’s challenge was the positivists with whom he laboured; for Weil it was the Marxists. Herself a sometime Marxist — “I was a Bolshevik by the age of 10” — Weil came to see Marxism as a world-view, in spite of her deep sympathies with its concern with the plight of the working class, as a distant child of the humanistic Enlightenment, a full flower of naturalism. The naturalist believes the good resides inside the world, a by-product, as it were, of our good intentions, “the better angels of our nature”, as Lincoln put it. By contrast, as the Platonist Weil, a supernaturalist, put it in Oppression and Liberty: “That movement towards the good, through contradictories, which Plato described as being that of a thinking creature aided by a supernatural grace, was attributed by Marx purely and simply to matter, but to a certain kind of matter — social matter.” And it was a certain kind of materialist Marx described himself as, a “dialectical-materialist.” Still, “[t]he materialist,” said Weil, “is a man. That is why he cannot prevent himself from ultimately regarding matter as a machine for manufacturing good.” The belief in History to which we saw Obama subscribing in our opening is part of a widespread, if unspoken, conception that by moving “horizontally”, the material world manages somehow to raise itself up “vertically”. The theory of evolution — a paradigmatically historical theory — as ideology more than biology, has contributed to the popularity of this conception (though Darwin himself would have objected). “I have not,” however, said Weil in Gravity and Grace, “the principle of rising in me. I cannot climb to heaven through the air. It is only by directing my thoughts towards something better than myself that I am drawn upwards … No imaginary perfection can draw me upwards by a fraction of an inch.”


"Though genuine beauty can be found in the itself, it is not of this world; it does not really “belong” here.  It is a “disruption”'


That is why Weil, like her admirers Iris Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good and Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just, attached such importance to our sense of the beautiful — a non-imaginary perfection — though her ultimate quest, like Plato’s before her, was for the good. Though genuine beauty can be found in the world — inside and outside museums and concert halls — in itself, it is not of this world; it does not really “belong” here. It is a “disruption”, a crack or a fissure in the natural scheme of things through which, for a moment, one catches a glimpse of what lies beyond. A disruption, perhaps, like Weil, herself, as I hinted in my book, Simone Weil, or like the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose Bach, for many, is a revelation, whom Yehudi Menuhin described as “[t]his great phenomenon … [who] presented a great rift in the continuity of the expected and the ordinary.”


The beautiful serves, therefore, or can serve, as a “bridge” to “the next world”, to God or the Good (if one has one, one has the other). Not for nothing was the theme of the recent exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts entitled, “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine”. Of course, one cannot “prove” this about the beautiful, but for all that, one can still see it. “[B]eauty,” said Murdoch in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’”, following Plato, “appears as the visible and accessible aspect of the Good. The Good itself is not visible.” Indeed, the very word, “aesthetics”, suggests a close relationship to sense experience. As Weil, with her Platonic predilection for the ontological, put it in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks: “Beauty is the son of God. For he is the image of the Father, and the beautiful is the image of the good.”  The beautiful, thus, points in two directions: toward man and at the same time toward God. That is why Weil wrote that, “[t]he artist of the very first order works after a transcendent model which he does not represent, which is only for him the supernatural source of his inspiration.”  Why the emphasis on “the very first order”? Because, Weil affirms, “true genius, unlike talent, is supernatural.” (Wittgenstein, too, drew a sharp line between genius and talent.)


One must not, however, Weil insists, cling to the bridge itself — making a fetish out of the beautiful, as the “aesthete” does — but seek to cross over it.  “The bridges of the Greeks,” she wrote in Gravity and Grace, “we do not how to use … We thought they were intended to have houses built on them … We no longer know that they are ... made so that we may cross over them … so that we may proceed to God.” We cannot, however, make God or the supernatural the object of our search.  “The object of our search,” she wrote, “should not be the supernatural, but the world. The supernatural is light itself; if we make an object out of it, we lower it.” That is a perennial danger of religion, the official “house of God”. As we’ve seen, out of this danger came “the bane of the world”, the idea of progress, the worship of history, of time.  Guided by the light that is granted to us (if we are able to open our eyes), we must do God’s work here, “below”, for  “[i]t is only through things and individual beings on this earth,” Weil wrote in The Need for Roots, “that human love can penetrate to what lies beyond.” As she put it in Intimations of Christianity, following Plato: “man is a plant whose root penetrates heaven”, but at the same time, as she insisted in The Need for Roots, as earthly beings, we need to be firmly rooted in mother earth in order to find our true roots in heaven. A painter who, like Botticelli, is engaged in “the search for the divine,” cannot be faulted for using earthly materials in his paintings. “To reproach those mystics,” Weil wrote in one of her Notebooks, “with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love is as though one were to reproach a painter [for] making pictures by means of colours composed of material substances. We haven’t anything else with which to love.”


"As a political leader, of course, Obama would be expected to focus his attention on the world of time, on the course of history. But at the same time, this pre-occupation, though necessary, represents a danger"


This double meaning of rootedness is an essential component of Weil’s thought. It serves as a warning against thinking of her supernaturalism as an attempt to flee from this concrete world, to embrace the consolations of abstraction. “Absolute beauty,” she wrote in Intimations of Christianity, “is something as concrete as sensible objects, something which one sees, but sees by supernatural sight.” Similarly, when she wrote in Gravity and Grace of “[m]oney, mechanisation, algebra [;] the three monsters of contemporary civilisation”, her idea was that these “monsters”, these “levellers”, as she described them, reduce things of value, incommensurables, to the same valueless, neutral abstractions. The spirit of “money, mechanisation, algebra” permeates our whole culture. Crime, for example, becomes merely the object of a commercial transaction, a trade. How much time are you willing to spend for your crime?  Recall the theme song for the old ‘70s crime drama, Baretta: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”.


Thus, as Christy Wampole writes in her recent study, Rootedness, “… Weil’s fear of rootlessness can be attributed to her general fear of abstraction.  Rootedness for her meant to turn one’s full attention toward the concrete, spiritually infused world.  … [She feared, for example,] the conversion of labor into abstract value.”  By contrast, attention to the supernatural, for Weil, as it was for Plato, represented a flight toward, not away from reality. Thus, “[d]espite his immateriality”, writes Wampole, “God was no abstraction for Weil.”  Indeed, “[i]t was the tendency of capitalism, intellectualism, and bureaucracy to multiply abstractions,” says Wampole, “that disquieted her. I imagine that cyberwarfare and electronic trading would have terrified Weil much more than a drone.”


With drone warfare before us, we’ve now come full circle, beginning with our response to Barack Obama and the fight against terrorism. As a political leader, of course, Obama would be expected to focus his attention on the world of time, on the course of history. But at the same time, this pre-occupation, though necessary, represents a danger, lest those, like Obama, whose search for the good cannot but take a concrete, this-worldly form, neglect the fact that, as Weil has insisted, the meaning of the world, and the good itself, does not lie within it. That it is not too much to expect our leaders to heed Weil’s advice can be seen from the fact that the new President of France, Emmanuel Macron, in a recent speech, urged his (no doubt surprised) listeners to recall a lesson from Simone Weil. To be sure, Macron, it turns out, studied at university with the distinguished philosopher Paul Ricœur, but the fact remains that being a political leader does not exclude heeding the advice of a philosopher. It must, of course, be the right philosopher. I have tried to give an indication of why Simone Weil is just such a philosopher to whose advice it would be well for those who lead us through the march of history — those who would be a drum major in this parade, but as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a drum major for justice” — to attend. 




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Otto Gleichner 29 November 2022

Leaving a comment in one of these articles is a waste of time because the author never bothers to react. Does this mean that people who leave comments are beneath us?

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Abraham Joseph 15 October 2017

Commenting here in these columns, a futile exercise; I have never seen an author showing minimum social courtesy of responding to a comment! Are those who comment, lesser mortals?