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Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force

E. Jane Doering

Publication Year: 2010

Simone Weil’s philosophical and social thought during her short life (1909–1943) was intimately engaged with the nature of power and force, both human and natural, and the problems inherent in the use of force. Weil argued vehemently for pacifism, then moved toward a guarded acceptance of the use of force under very specific circumstances, in the context of the rise of Nazism. Ultimately she came to a nuanced and unique perspective on force and on the preservation of human dignity, in the aftermath of several profound mystical experiences during the last years of her life. E. Jane Doering carefully examines and analyzes the material in Weil’s notebooks and lesser-known essays to illuminate her evolving thought on violence, war, and injustice. In addition, Doering addresses Weil’s engagement with the Bhagavad Gita during her final years, a text that reoriented and enlightened Weil’s activist and intellectual search for moral value in a violent world. Apart from small excerpts, none of the four volumes of Weil's notebooks, only recently published in French, have been translated into English. Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force contains Doering's expert translations of numerous notebook entries. The book will interest Weil scholars, those in French studies, and those who explore interdisciplinary topics in philosophy, religious studies, history, and political science.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

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pp. ix

This study traces Simone Weil’s unwavering desire to lay bare to her readers the reality of seductive, death-dealing brute force, with the dreadful consequences that follow when one counters violence with violence. Through her exploration of history, sacred texts, literature, and close observation of contemporary events, as well as refl ection on her mystical experiences, she sought...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 14-25

On June 13, 1940, while Simone Weil was shopping at an open market with her parents, Nazi troops rolled into Paris, declaring the capital under German control. In the past, Simone had theorized about the effects of force imposed on the vulnerable but had not physically endured it. Now she was a war refugee within her own country. She felt anguish for her fellow Frenchmen, her...

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1. Simone Weil’s Rejection of Pacifism

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pp. 13-40

In her years as a pacifist, Simone Weil condemned war for the terrible physical destruction it wreaked and for the oppressive domestic policies it required. For her, only freedom and peace could sustain the value of every individual. In the decade before Hitler flouted the Munich Accords by marching into Prague, Weil tried every means within her power to sue for peace. She extolled...

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2. The Empire of Force

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pp. 41-68

Simone Weil now faced notions that were conflicting and difficult to reconcile: force is an inherent part of social interaction; force must be used, albeit on limited occasions; and force contaminates both wielder and sufferer. She began to explore this conundrum in her writing. In a brief sketch for an essay entitled “Reflections on Barbarity” she elaborated on the necessity of acknowledging...

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3. Love of Neighbor versus Totalitarianism

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pp. 69-95

Simone Weil’s encounter with Christ in the late 1930s opened new insights for her into the sacredness of the individual but sharpened her critiques of the Catholic Church and its acceptance of the God of power as portrayed in the Old Testament. Her experience with Hitler’s aggressive actions and propaganda offered proof of the intractability of raw force. His exploits signaled...

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4. Values for Reading the Universe

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pp. 96-121

Simone Weil’s religious conversion gave her insight into the notion that a positive force had the power to stop the spiraling of violence brought on by the attraction to brute force inherent in human nature. This revelation deepened her understanding of the underlying psychology behind human motivation and led her to imagine just social institutions inspired by the power of divine love. Her close observation of the rhythms of the universe...

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5. Reading and Justice

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pp. 122-150

Observing the movements of the universe had led Hitler and Simone Weil to diametrically opposed meanings. Hitler’s reading translated into chaos and terrible consequences for millions of vulnerable souls, whereas Weil’s reading signified a social order based on obedience to God’s love and shown through love of neighbor. The values that people used as criteria to determine their reactions to the sensations they received from the material world...

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6. Simone Weil and the Bhagavad-Gita

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pp. 151-182

Simone Weil sought religious truths about the human condition in millennia-old sacred texts. Wisdom flowing from the East had nourished the West and then flowed back to the East in a mutually enriching cycle, with the Mediterranean, in her view, destined throughout history to be the crucible for this fusion of Occidental and Oriental traditions. The backdrop of occupied France added pertinence and poignancy to her quest for answers to the spiritual...

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7. Justice and the Supernatural

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pp. 183-209

In the late spring of 1942, Simone, preparing to accompany her parents to New York, was counting on getting permission from the Free French Forces in London to reenter France so she could participate in the struggle of freeing her country. Her writings during this period between her agricultural work in southern France and the final months of her life in London testify to the crystallization of her thoughts around the power of charitable actions...

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8. Neither Victim nor Executioner

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pp. 210-239

Weil’s thinking is occasionally treated as idealistic and out of touch with the reality of human interaction. However, three mid-twentieth-century moral philosophers of very diverse backgrounds and cultures paid explicit homage to her insights into force and their applicability to contemporary social conditions. In so doing, they also signaled implicit respect for her faith in the existence...


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pp. 240-242


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pp. 243-264


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pp. 265-269


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pp. 270-280

E-ISBN-13: 9780268077709
E-ISBN-10: 0268077703
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268026042
Print-ISBN-10: 0268026041

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2010