Simone Weil: Passion and Philosophy
Described by Albert Camus as “the only great spirit of our times,” envied by Simone de Beauvoir for “having a heart that could beat right across the world,” and denounced by Susan Sontag as an anti-Semite, Simone Weil has been a subject of widespread fascination since her death in 1942 from (reputedly) self-starvation, undergone in solidarity with the people of occupied France. Activist, political polemicist, Marxist, and, late in life, Christian mystic, Weil’s thought defies easy categorization. But for what it lacks in systematicity, it shines in its passionate determination to identify the meaning and nature of justice, beauty, spirituality, and ethical and authentic life. How can we reconcile Weil’s varying religious, Marxist, and literary commitments? And, how can Weil’s work help us make sense, in the present day, of vexing questions of political commitment, authenticity, belief, and ethical obligation—to others and to ourselves?
This course offers an introduction to Simone Weil’s most important religious, aesthetic, ascetic, and political works. We will look at her life, from her early days as the child of an affluent French Jewish physician and her declaration at age 10 that she was a Bolshevik, to her time on the front of the Spanish Civil War and as a line-worker in an automobile factory, to her turn toward Christian mysticism in the years leading up to World War II. By reading her in the context of contemporary thinkers, such as Georges Bataille, Leon Trotsky, and Simone de Beauvoir, and the political events of her day, we will disentangle the reality of her life from the myth of “the Red Virgin” that sprang up after her death. Through close reading of her texts, we place Weil’s varying philosophical commitments—Marxist, Kantian, Cartesian, and Platonic—into conversation, and make sense of her famously slippery terms, such as “gravity,” “attention,” and “affliction.” In doing so, we will ask some of the following questions: How does she understand the relationship between beauty and justice? Why did she refuse to convert to Christianity from Judaism despite insisting that her worldview had always been fundamentally Christian? How should we understand her lifelong, occasionally troubling efforts to sacrifice herself in the Spanish Civil War and during World War II in relationship to her writing? Are critics like Sontag right to detect antisemitism in her religious thought? Readings will be drawn from Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, Waiting for God, Gravity and Grace, and The Need for Roots, as well as from works by Bataille, Trotsky, de Beauvoir, and Sontag, among others.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 18 — November 08, 2021