Politics

Simone Weil’s Conservatism

The 20th century anarchist philosopher and mystic could point the way forward for today’s right.

Black and white portrait of Simone Weil
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Wikipedia.

Caught between the shrinking of the GOP’s traditional base and the ballooning of Trumpian populism, the American conservative movement’s future seems dire—which presents an uncommon danger for the country as a whole.

In 2012, the political theorist Corey Robin observed in his book The Reactionary Mind that the American right was “trying to find a winning formula.” The problem was that conservatives are “cycling through all these ideas, faster and faster, and they’re running out of options.” Ten years later, we see the terrifying consequences when one of America’s two major parties, having in fact run out of ideas, risks running our democracy to ruin.

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As they seek a path forward, American conservatives might consider an option they probably did not know was on offer: the writings of the French thinker Simone Weil. Admittedly, Weil is an unexpected option. Her biographers tend to sum up her life with a series of contradictions. She was a pacifist who fought in the Spanish Civil War, a saint who refused baptism, a mystic who was a labor militant, a French Jew who was buried in the Catholic section of an English cemetery, a teacher who dismissed the importance of solving a problem, the most willful of individuals who advocated the extinction of the self—these are but a few of the paradoxes she embodied.

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Yet one more paradox, though: Weil was an anarchist who happened to espouse conservative ideals—ideals that, while strange to today’s GOP, have been praised by contemporary conservative thinkers ranging from Roger Scruton to Pope John Paul II.

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Clearly, all of this calls for a bit of background. Born into a well-to-do and secular Jewish family in 1909, Weil graduated from the same elite institution, the École normale supérieure, that trained the likes of her contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron. Dissatisfied with a career in teaching, Weil worked in factories and on farms, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and through her journalism became a voice for the oppressed. When Weil died in 1943, she had been working as an analyst for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement in London. Her desk job required that she write policy proposals for France upon its liberation. They revolved around what France’s political ideals should be, why they could unite a people traumatized by defeat and four years of occupation by a fascist power, and how they could be implemented in a restored democracy.

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Among the papers Weil submitted was one titled L’Enracinement, or The Need for Roots. Like the dozens of her other proposals, amounting to hundreds of pages, this one went either unread or unremarked upon by her mostly uncomprehending superior officers. But toward the end of the 1940s the manuscript found its way to Albert Camus, who quickly grasped its significance. He saw to its publication and, in his introduction, declared that it was one of the most important books to appear since the end of the war.

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It happens that 2022 will mark the 70th anniversary of the English translation of The Need for Roots. With Penguin publishing a new translation next year, what better way for conservatives to celebrate the date than by considering its relevance for their current predicament?

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Weil was not the first to use this metaphor. “Roots” had been all the rage among fin de siècle French reactionary thinkers like Maurice Barrès, author of a bestselling novel titled The Uprooted, who believed the French nation was defined by la terre et les morts—those who were buried in the same soil they had spent their lives cultivating. Yet these irrationalists—a term they gladly embraced—also held that republican values were as alien to French soil as were Jews. As Barrès affirmed, “the patrie is the soil of the ancestors, the earth of our dead. For Jews, it is wherever they find their greater interest.”

Ever the rationalist, Weil scorned such fantastical depictions of rootedness. For her, the state of being rooted was as simple as it was natural. “Human beings have roots by virtue of their real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape particular treasures of the past and particular expectations for the future.” When it is shorn from the past that has molded its character—the countless connections and complicities that become ever more entwined over generations—a community is deprived of a future. William Faulkner notwithstanding, Weil knew that the past can not only die but become irrevocably the past.

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For this reason, Weil warned that uprootedness was the “most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed.” It often follows military conquests, which entail “deportations on a massive scale, as in Europe under the German occupation.” But this violent action is not limited to the displacement of peoples; it also applies to the “brutal suppression of all local traditions,” including what French colonial authorities, Weil argued, were doing in the colonies. (An observation that, had he read it, would have irked her boss, for whom national grandeur entailed imperial greed.)

But Weil adds a crucial proviso: We can be uprooted without ever having moved or having been moved. This happens, in part, from the automation and rationalization of the workplace, creating a world where “each thing is looked upon as an end in itself.” We come to embrace ends, not means; to see others as objects, not subjects; and to accept what Weil calls idolatry, forgetting the integrity that once defined our relationship to work, to others and ourselves. With this word, she thus captured modernity’s defining characteristic: the fact and feeling of homelessness.

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In effect, Weil anticipates Robert Putnam’s notion of social capital. In his landmark study Bowling Alone, the Harvard political scientist marshaled vast amounts of statistical evidence to reveal the decay of American civic institutions that many observers had already intuited. With the decline in civic associations, and unable to fall back on the traditional organizations or institutions that once formed and informed our lives, we now mostly go bowling alone.

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Or play boules alone. Weil saw firsthand the atomization and anomie bred in the factories, as well as the sense of being forgotten or invisible on the farms. Foreign invasion is not the only driver of the uprooting of a people. While less immediate and dramatic in its impact, industrialization, and the accompanying rationalization of work, also ripped men and women from their habitual places. Weil asserts that workers, reduced to extensions of machines, “have experienced the sensation of no longer existing, accompanied by a sort of inner vertigo, such as intellectuals or bourgeois, even in their greatest sufferings, have very rarely had the opportunity of knowing.”

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Similarly, both Putnam and Weil also finger mass media as principal culprits of this lamentable state of affairs. While Putnam concludes that television is the “single most consistent predictor” of civic decay (the internet was still in its infancy when Bowling Alone appeared in 2000), Weil’s observation of radio, movies, and magazines is even harsher. Uprooting is enabled, in part, “by the setting up of the wireless and cinemas in the villages, and by the sale of newspapers like Confidences and Marie Claire compared with which cocaine is a harmless product.”

Ultimately, The Need for Roots reflects Weil’s persistent attachment to principles that were deeply conservative, though not at all Barrèsian. Though in love with English literature, it is not clear if Weil ever read the work of the Anglo-Irishman with whom she nevertheless had much in common, Edmund Burke. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke offers what we can call, without irony, a brand of compassionate conservatism. “To make us love our country,” he declared, “our country must be lovely.”

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Similarly, Weil argues that empathy, not pride, is the lifeblood of patriotism. “Compassion for our country is the only sentiment which does not strike a false note at the present time.” Whereas pride erects a wall between people, Weil believed, compassion erases such barriers. Responding with compassion to the afflicted of one’s own country strengthens not only the bonds of fraternity within the nation, but given the universal quality of this sentiment, it also deepens one’s ties to other peoples and other nations.

Finally, like Burke, Weil ripped apart the millenarian promise of revolution, declaring that it is a “word for which you kill, for which you die, for which you send the laboring masses to their death, but which does not possess any content.” Just as Burke dismissed the revolution’s call for equality in France—“Those who attempt to level never equalize”—Weil saw all too clearly that the revolution in Russia led to a new and even more oppressive hierarchy.

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Though Burke does not speak of roots, its meaning nevertheless undergirds his thought. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society,” he declares, “is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards our love of country and to mankind.” For both thinkers, rootedness entails a sense of obligation and call to duty to the past and the present, to one’s ancestors and one’s descendants. Indeed, when Weil declares that “all human beings are bound by identical obligations, although they are performed in different ways according to particular circumstances,” she seems to be channeling Burke.

Yet she did so in a world unimaginable to Burke and wrote about events with an urgency he would have found inconceivable. Equally important, Weil does not romanticize, as does Burke, the goodness of the “little platoon.” Having seen too much in a life too short, she opts for the notion of “life environment.” Such a term allows us to avoid “the contradictions and lies” corroding the idea of patriotism. There are countless other such environments, Weil observes, and each is “the product of a tangle of causes in which good and evil, justice and injustice are mingled and, as a result, it is not the best possible.”

Rather than making one’s nation great again, we are all better off if we try to make it good again. And do so fully aware that we will inevitably fall short of the goal. With her eyes fixed on her descendants, including those of us who consider ourselves conservatives, Weil leaves us with a dire challenge. We face the “terrible responsibility of re-creating the country’s soul, and there is such a strong temptation to do this by resorting to lies or half-lies that it requires more than ordinary heroism to insist on the truth.”

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