Intellectual history Think Piece

Simone Weil on Attention in Times of Affliction

by guest contributor Kelby Bibler

By Kelby Bibler

No matter where you direct your attention today—whether out your window or through a screen—the world seems to be in a state of decline. In the past year alone, poverty, war, disease, and natural disaster have been simultaneously dedicated their own news cycles and integrated into the background of everyday life. Some, like historians and philosophers, investigate the sources of these tragedies, others, like climate scientists and economists speculate how they will affect future generations. Still more common, it seems, is to disassociate and carry on, ignoring the realities of suffering around them.

As the philosopher, mystic, and political activist, Simone Weil (1909-1943), writes: “The secret of the human condition is that there is no equilibrium between man and the surrounding forces of nature, which infinitely exceed him when in inaction; there is only equilibrium in Action by which Man recreates his own life through work” (Gravity and Grace, 232). While this quote might initially confound someone unfamiliar with Weil’s writing, encapsulated here is a mysticism of action bred out of suffering. Like us today, Weil lived at a time of unprecedented suffering; however, instead of letting it incapacitate her, she turned to those at the margins and emptied herself so that their suffering might be diminished.

Despite being born into an upper-middle class French family in 1909, Weil’s passion for the marginalized started at a young age. At age 6, she refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched on the Western Front, and by the time she was a teenager, she described herself as a Marxist, trade unionist, and pacifist. Though, in her 20s, she became critical of Marxism—on several occasions trading heated letters with Russian communist, Leon Trotsky—Weil continued to support the German communists in opposing Adolf Hitler. In 1934, she took a leave of absence from her teaching post to work on a factory floor so that she could understand the plight of the working class, and in 1936, she gave up her pacifism and went to Spain to fight for the Republican faction against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The inter-war years were a formative part of her life. Indeed, it provided a testing ground for the profoundly difficult positions and actions she would take in the beginning stages of World War II and the rise of Nazism.

Shortly after her parents forced her to flee Nazi-occupied France to the United States, Weil traveled to the United Kingdom to create a brigade of women who would be parachuted onto the front lines of WWII to assist wounded soldiers. Before this transpired, she became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While this was by no means a death sentence, Weil gradually ate less and less as a form of protest against the treatment she thought the soldiers were undergoing in occupied France. Not long after her diagnosis, she died of starvation.

This short biographical sketch, on the surface, might suggest a political theory of public action centered on democratic ideals and French feminism. However, to understand Weil’s thinking requires going deeper into the subtleties of a religious thinker caught between finite political goals and metaphysical claims of truth. While her life makes it obvious that she cared deeply about those suffering, she was never interested in receiving public acclaim. Shortly before her death, she expressed the fear that people would ignore the depth of her philosophy and instead focus on political actions. She was right, of course, as people quickly latched onto her political work as both a means of systematizing and denouncing her broader philosophical and religious thoughts. Her writing, though, reveals a deeper meaning that informed how and why her actions took the shapes they did. For this reason, we will now turn to what she believed to be most integral to the ideas that inspired her actions: her mystical writings.

For its many wanderings and contradictions, Weil’s philosophy can be, in part, localized around the concept of attention. This concept, made difficult to fully interpret because of its paradoxes and religious inflections, is described both as a focused effort and a passive waiting. At several points in Waiting for God and Gravity and Grace, Weil’s writing demonstrates a conception of attention that involves an unwavering focus on the object of attention mixed with a view that the attentive subject should empty themself of desire and subjectivity (WFG, 63; GG, 171). While this might sound familiar to the phenomenological method invented by Edmund Husserl, Weil’s conception is not a mere exclusion of contextual modifications to experience. For Husserl, though the subject gradually reduces the contextual modifiers they bring to a given phenomenon, the subject necessarily remains a part of the method, lest the object of investigation falls outside the realm of experience. For Weil on the other hand, the subject should be almost wholly excluded so that God might be the primary actor in the state of attention. In fact, the subject should renounce even the desire that the attention be fulfilled or answered (GG, 171). This of course is only a redirection of intention since she writes, “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul” (WFG, 59). For a more comprehensive understanding of her view, we must turn to the analogy of meditative practice—a condition without which her notion of attention is impossible.

Anyone who has practiced meditation recognizes the tenuous relationship between activity and passivity. At once, the meditator must passively let things arise in consciousness while actively focusing their attention on something like their breath or the voice of a guide. Further, most forms of meditation advocate a detachment from the self. Here again, the analogy is maintained. Weil writes, “Attention alone, that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears, is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it onto that which cannot be conceived” (GG, 171-2). This is not a kind of detachment like that advocated by Meister Eckhart. For Weil, the individual’s subjectivity impedes the passivity required of attention. Even if what Eckhart calls “transitory things” elicit my attention, for Weil, it is not these things but my ego that gets in the way of perfect attention (“The Book of Divine Consolation,”61). Specifically, the attentive gaze Weil advocates should be a look not inward, but upward, so that God might pass through the one waiting in attention to love that which transcends the subject, especially the stranger afflicted by suffering.

It is here that we begin to see how the creative action of Weil’s life and attention are reconciled. She writes, “Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man…The amount of creative genius in any period is strictly in proportion to the amount of extreme attention” (GG, 170). For Weil, a person’s greatness comes through their creativity, with the caveat that it not be centered on themself. In other words, while Weil takes a passionately sympathetic view of the other, she thinks that the subject should, through attention, reduce themselves to the status of an instrument for God’s use. Such a radical humility contextualizes her sacrificial desire to suffer for those at the margins of society, displayed by her time on the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War and in departing her comfortable academic post to work on the factory floor.

It is also through this creative notion of religious consciousness that the charge for us today comes to light. For Weil, suffering is not only desirable but inevitable given a person’s relationship with time (GG, 133). It is this necessity of suffering that, for her, catalyzes a reorientation toward suffering whereby one comes to desire it. Weil writes, “I should not love my suffering because it is useful. I should love it because it is” and “We should seek neither to escape suffering nor to suffer less, but to remain untainted by suffering” (GG, 131-2). Taken together, Weil’s philosophy also closely mirrors that of the Buddha’s—something she would have no problem with—whereby the love of what is, informs one’s orientation toward it (GG, 58). In any case, this orientation should be a self-diminishment and a desire for more suffering. Just as Weil directed praise away from her sacrificial actions and, in many ways, desired to suffer to the death for another, her writing calls on others to do the same. When one comes upon the stranger or the overworked laborer, when one reads about those killed in combat or affected by natural disaster, one should desire to suffer for them. This is not a recapitulation of empathy where one noetically feels for the other person’s suffering. For Weil, when one encounters someone who is suffering, they should desire, and even go so far as attempt, to suffer in their stead. On the reverse side, though, when one suffers affliction of their own, they should not evade it, but rather, reorient their suffering into joy.

Practically, this means that while the world seems to be irreversibly changing, we should train our attention on those around us who are suffering the most, desiring simultaneously that we suffer in their stead and are ready to do so at any moment. On the other hand, though, this attentive desire ought not to be a static passivity or something that causes one to further dissociate from the world. As Weil writes in what has been compiled under “The Mysticism of Work,” “Man’s greatness is always to re-create his life, to re-create what is given to him, to fashion that very thing which he undergoes. Through work he produces his own natural existence. Through science he re-creates his universe by means of symbols. Through art he re-creates the alliance between the body and his soul” (GG, 232). Such a quote might sound like an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous charge for people to create their own value following the death of God; however, Weil’s uniqueness again appears in her desire to diminish the importance of the self.

Like Weil’s own life modeled, this creation should always be in service to another and with a focus toward increasing the love of God in the world. Because one can, through work, “fashion that very thing he undergoes,” one’s own suffering and the suffering of others should catalyze a reorienting action. If you suffer, look for the source in the past or future—since it is from there that suffering derives—and deny the chains of the non-present on your life (GG, 65, 133). If you are an artist or a scientist, leverage your craft to advance those at the margins of society. If you are religious, direct your love and attention to the source of love itself so that, in time, you might become an instrument by which that love can be transferred to another.

Overall, the synthesis of Weil’s life and work creates a model for how, amid unprecedented suffering, the individual can seek to be a force of and for good in the world. Like Weil, we should not seek validation in our service to others but should desire to become instruments or vehicles of love. While, in times of affliction, it is easy to interpret the evil of the world into the philosophy of chaos or meaninglessness. Weil recognizes this shadow-side of the human condition, but she argues that we ought to nevertheless seek to overcome it. Evil and suffering cannot take anything from someone who does not first have joy (GG, 136). Though suffering and joy appear in opposition, they are two sides of the same coin. This is why after a period of great joy, suffering seems all the more intense, and, during the darkness of suffering, the light of joy appears even brighter. Practically, this idea should reorient one’s perspective of suffering toward the equanimity that underlies it. While Weil says that one should not seek to escape suffering, she affirms this perspectival reorientation. This, fundamentally, is the power of attention.

In closing, it seems appropriate to quote Weil’s words on the relationship between affliction and mysticism since, in the context of her life and work, they appear even more profound. She writes,

It is in affliction itself that the splendor of God’s mercy shines, from its very depths, in the heart of its inconsolable bitterness. If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God (WFG, 44).

Because, for Weil, God’s love shines through experiences of affliction—evidenced by the experience of Jesus on the cross—affliction should not be viewed as a separation from God but rather the potential avenue for a more profound experience of love. The only thing for those who are suffering to do is to remain focused on a desire to be purified by their suffering and wait for the answer from God.

Kelby Bibler is a graduate student in philosophy at Boston College where he works at the intersection of phenomenology and philosophy of mind. His current research centers on the relationships between altered states of consciousness, perception, and belief. He tweets @kelby_bibler

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: Towards the Infinite. Creative Commons

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