For those, if there are any, who think about politics, Simone Weil is an especially useful guide. All of her works – mostly the core of notebooks, published since her death in 1943 – approach this topic, characteristically from “outside.”
In the one book that was positively commissioned, The Need for Roots, she examines the rootlessness of modern society – a déracinement that is historically unprecedented. Modern man is disoriented in space, but more profoundly, disoriented in time.
The subtitle of that book is Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind. It looks towards the reconstruction of France that must follow after the Second World War (she never doubted the Germans would lose it), and thus also, necessarily, back upon the débacle of 1940. (What lead to it?)
Miss Weil surprised and rather scandalized her patrons by suggesting, indeed more than suggesting, that the defeat of France was deserved. This is the sort of thing that got people lynched in the time just after the War, when what was being restored was not so much French honor, as French pride. But she did not live to see or comment upon that.
It was Weil’s insight to find the tragedy of France in the paysan (peasant, farmer, countryman) – who could think that he was a peasant because he wasn’t smart enough to be a teacher. Reciprocally, one might say, the arrogance of the teacher was to think himself smarter.
She had an acute, intensely critical appreciation of the modern concept of “equality,” which excludes the old idea of equality in the presence and judgment of God. In the face of Christ, king and scullery wench stand equal. This cannot be changed by changing their positions.
Ours is not quite the Bolshevik account. Rather, our idea of equality is the more destructive notion that everyone belongs in the social order one step above the position he now occupies. It is the anarchic notion shared by socialist governments – and commercial advertizers alike.
Space and time are correlated, and to Weil, the loss of that sense of place, within the whole, undermines each individual psyche. The anxieties and resentments we feel, are manipulated in the public sphere, in the cynical machinations of what I call “democracy” (in quotes) – with its empty slogans promising liberty, equality, fraternity, and what else in a farrago of logical contradictions, through which each opposite is consistently delivered.
But here I am carrying away from Weil’s actual writing. She focused upon that high treason: the rootlessness caused by the destruction of the past. She called this destruction, “perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”
I emphasize this to contradict the glib account sometimes given of Weil as a “political activist.” She was no such thing, in our present understanding of that term. She worked in factories, she lived among the “lower orders,” not for the purpose of organizing yet another revolution, but to gain an understanding of them. For her, “the people” were actual people.
She mixed, so to say, “as an equal,” which is something no other intellectual I can think of has ever done – if we except the evangels for Christianity through the last twenty centuries. Notoriously abrasive in the higher society from which she came, she seemed much happier in the company of the humble, who, she somewhere dryly observed, probably liked her less than she liked them.
I started this column with an intentionally shocking statement, implying that hardly anyone is interested in politics today. Let me double-down on that.
The least interested are the politicians. One does not get into that trade as the result of some deep meditation on the constitution of the state, and the constitution of society. One gets in to win. It is a utilitarian exercise, of no intellectual, nor spiritual, nor even moral significance. Many are called, by their own voices, to advance one public policy or another, or represent a constituency with a grievance. Few have any living contact with those they claim to represent.
A vision of the whole, and thus the arrangement of its parts – the kind of thing that animated Thomas More – is anyway almost impossible in or near today’s political order. To be perfectly intransitive, it beggars belief. And this is because falsely presented ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the like have laid down their mucky sediment through several centuries.
The realities have been buried, and the intellectual effort to exhume them is beyond the normal range of human mind and will. Even to begin thinking about politics today is to acquire the skills of an archaeologist.
Which is the more reason we should start digging.
Weil referred to the state as the Great Beast. It does not exist for the people, but the people for it. This did not make her a libertarian or anarchist, but the opposite. She was clear in stating that the order of society, as the order of nature, must be hierarchical; in the phrase I like to use, “a place for everyone, and everyone in his place.”
The real anarchists are those who seek to impose an arbitrary order – who promise “equality” and other rubbish like that. For that equality already exists, in the service of the divine, and is served in turn through the ministration of religion.
A bold and courageous skeptic to the last, Weil could nevertheless summon from the mystical Catholic teaching images and metaphors from the Body of Christ.
True freedom is not the freedom to move elsewhere, but freedom just where we are. To know the truth and live freed by it.
Sticklers among Catholic traditionalists deny Weil a hearing on the grounds that, so far as we know (and we cannot know her mind as she died), Weil was never received into the Catholic Church. Yet it was her gift, and her value to us, that she lived at the knife-edge of all dogmas.