Simone Weil and affliction

By Christopher Wink | Feb 9, 2007 | Existentialism

The life of French philosophical writer and activist Simone Weil made a noticeable impact in many spheres of intellectual thought despite her politically-orientated, voluntary starvation little more than three decades after her birth. Despite her attachment to 20th century philosophy, perhaps her most powerful mark is her use of the idea of affliction.

As Weil (1909-1943) wrote, very few souls are able to attain affliction, which she described as broad suffering as a means to unite with God, yet it is through it that we can come closer to our Creator. One avenue for approaching her use of affliction is to view it as a theodicy.

Since the Greek term’s German beginning in the early eighteenth century, theodicy, which is an attempt to rectify the existence of evil with the idea of a benevolent God, has been a popular theme for thinkers of every breed. From German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to French Protestant theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) and his eponymous movement of accepting all acts as part of God’s just plan, legends of intellectual thought have wrestled with this spiritual paradox, rectifying a benevolent Creator and a painful existence.

Countless stations of thought on the matter have been set. Often those exercising theodicy will suggest that God’s divine plan is so widespread as to be incomprehensible to man. You can’t, of course, see the whole sky through a bamboo shoot. Others argue that the Creator is so superior to man that his actions cannot be judged by man, while others contend that God must do evil, in order to be without lacking of any quality. To scribe one last of the many arguments, there is no absolute evil, some have posited, but rather just a lack of good. There are lighted rooms and there the very same rooms in which the lights have not yet been switched on.

In another fashion, Weil suggests that the world is the very manifestation of God’s love, encompassing the evil, brutality and affliction she recognizes as a part of life. The base necessity of human existence, codified by the chance that plagues all of our plans and goals is as much a part of that love as is the joy that we all cherish. In that way, well beyond simple suffering, to feel pain, a very raw emotion that is part of a large array of God’s creations, is to become nearer to him. As she famously wrote in Gravity and Grace, Weil suggested that a man facing affliction should not understand his pain as punishment but rather, he should see that, “it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard.”

“For, if he remains constant,” The precocious activist went on to say, “what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God.” It is in this way that Weil’s account differs from much of Christian thought on the matter. In no way should affliction simply follow an immoral act, but rather find its way to our beings by chance, in the way that chance encounters of misfortune find us all. Ignoring this is to ignore so much of what is God. These thoughts may be Weil’s lasting legacy.

The woman who is said to have finished second in her class at École Normale Supérieure, the elite Parisian university, narrowly beating out fellow French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), had rejected a life of relative privilege and chosen instead to work in a factory, expose injustice and fight social ills. After 34-years of frailty, Weil, who had not long before been diagnosed with tuberculosis, died of a heart attack, an attack that is most often attributed to her refusing to eat more than what she felt her fellow French were offered while under German occupation. This was a final act of civil disobedience, taking on affliction and holding her Creator’s hand tightly and noting his righteousness all the while.

Prepared for a class on Existentialism taught at Temple University by Lewis Gordon.

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