by Thomas Merton
[This essay, written in 1968, was first published in Faith and Violence
Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968). Later it was included in Thomas Merton on Peace and in the revised edition brought out by Farrar Straus and Giroux under the title The Non-Violent Allternetive.]
Like Bernanos and Camus, Simone Weil is one of those brilliant and independent French thinkers who were able to articulate the deepest concerns of Europe in the first half of this century. More controversial, perhaps more of a genius than the others, certainly harder to situate, she has been called all kinds of names, both good and bad and often contradictory: Gnostic and Catholic, Jew and Albigensian, medievalist and modernist, platonist and anarchist, rebel and saint, rationalist and mystic. De Gaulle said he thought she was out of her mind. The doctor in the sanatorium at Ashford, Kent, where she died on August 24, 1943, said, "she had a curious religious outlook and (probably) no religion at all."
Whatever is said about her, she will perhaps always be treated as "an enigma," which is simply to say that she is somewhat more difficult to categorize than most people, since in her passion for integrity she absolutely refused to take up any position she had not first thought out in the light of what she believed to be a personal vocation to "absolute intellectual honesty." When she began to examine any accepted position, she easily detected its weaknesses and inconcistencies.
None of the books of Simone Weil (seventeen in French, eight in English)
were written as books. They are all collections of notes, essays, articles,
journals, and letters. Though she has conquered a certain number of fans
by the force of her personality, most readers remember her as the author
of some fragment or other that they have found in some way both impressive
and disconcerting. One cannot help admiring her lucid genius, and
yet one can very easily disagree with her most fundamental and
characteristic ideas. But this is usually because one does not see her thought as a whole.
The new biography by Jacques Cabaud1 not only tells of her active and tormented life, but studies in detail a large number of writings (of which a complete bibliography is given), together with the testimony of those who knew her. Cabaud has fortunately avoided treating Simone Weil either as a problem or as a saint. He accepts her as she evidently was. Such a book is obviously indispensable, for without a comprehensive and detached study it would be impossible for us to see her in perspective. In fact, no one who reads this book carefully and dispassionately can treat Simone Weil merely as an enigma or a phenomenon, still less as deluded or irrelevant: few writers have more significant thought than she on the history of our time and a better understanding of our . . .calamaties.
On the other hand, probably not even Mr. Cabaud would claim that this
book says the last word on Simone Weil or that it fully explains, for instance,
the "Christian mysticism" that prompted her to remain deliberately outside
the Church and refuse baptism even on the point of death because she felt
that her natural element was with "the immense and unfortunate multitude
of unbelievers." This "unbeliever," we note, was one who had been "seized"
by Christ in a mystical experience the marks of which are to all appearances
quite authentic, though the Catholic theologian has trouble keeping them
clearly in a familiar and
traditional focus. (Obviously, one of her charisms was that of living and dying as a sign of contradiction for Catholics, and one feels that the climate of Catholic thought in France at the time of Vatican II has been to some extent affected by at least a vague awareness of her experiences at Solesmes and Marseilles.)
Though her spirit was at times explicitly intended to be that of the medieval Cathars and though her description of her mystical life is strongly Gnostic and intellectual, she has had things to say of her experience of sufferings of Christ which are not only deeply Christian but also speak directly to the anguish and perplexity of modern man. This intuition of the nature and meaning of suffering provides, in Simone Weil, the core of a metaphysic, not to say a theology, of nonviolence. And a metaphysic of nonviolence is something that the peace movement needs.
Looking back at Simone Weil's participation in the peace movement of
the thirties, Cabaud speaks rather sweepingly of a collapse of pacifism
in her thought and political action. It is quite true that the pacifism
of the thirties was as nave as it was popular, and that for many people
at that time pacifism amounted to nothing more than the disposition to
ignore unpleasant realities and to compromise with the threat of force,
as did Chamberlain at Munich. It is also true that Simone Weil herself
underestimated the ruthlessness of Hitler at the time of the Munich crisis, though her principles did not allow her to agree with the Munich pact. Cabaud quotes a statement of Simone Weil accusing herself of a "criminal error committed before 1939 with regard to pacifist groups and their actions." She had come to regard her earlier tolerance of a passive and inert pacifism as a kind of co-operation with "their disposition towards treason"-a treason she said she had not seen because she had been
disabled by illness.
This reflects her disgust with Vichy and with former pacifists who now
submitted to Hitler without protest. But we cannot interpret this statement
to mean that after Munich and then after the fall of France, Simone Weil
abandoned all her former principles in order to take up an essentially
new position in regard to war and peace. This would mean equating her "pacifism"
with the quietism of the uncomprehending and inactive. It would also mean
failure to understand that she became deeply
committed to nonviolent resistance. Before Munich her emphasis was, however, on nonviolence; after the fall of France it was on resistance, including resistance by force where nonviolence was ineffective.
It is unfortunate that Cabaud's book does not sufficiently avoid the
cliched identification of pacifism with quietist passivity and nonresistance.
Simone Weil's love of peace was never sentimental and never quietistic;
and though her judgment sometimes erred in assessing concrete situations,
it was seldom unrealistic. An important article she wrote in 1937 remains
one of the classic treatments of the problem of war and peace in our time.
Its original title was "Let us not start the Trojan War all
over again." It appears in her Selected Essays as "The Power of Words." Cabaud analyzes it in his book (pp. 155-60), concluding that it marks a dividing line in her life. It belongs in fact to the same crucial period as her first mystical experiences.
But there is nothing mystical about this essay. It develops a theme
familiar to Montaigne and Charron: the most terrible thing about war is
that, if it is examined closely, it is discovered to have no rationally
definable objective. The supposed objectives of war are actually myths
and fictions which are all the more capable of enlisting the full force
of devotion to duty and hatred of the enemy when they are completely empty
of content. Let us briefly resume this article, since it contains the substance
of Simone Weil's ideas on peace and is (apart from some of her topical
examples) just as relevant to our own time as it was to the late
The article begins with a statement which is passed over by Cabaud but
which is important for us. Simone Weil remarks that while our technolocgy
has given us weapons of immense destructive power, the weapons do not go
off by themselves (we hope). Hence, it is a primordial mistake to think
and act as if the weapons were what constituted our danger, rather than
the people who are disposed to fire them. But more precisely still: the
danger lies not so much in this or that group or class, but in the climate
of thought in which all participate (not excluding pacifists). This
is what Simone Weil set herself to understand. The theme of the article
is, then, that war must be regarded as a problem to be solved by rational
analysis and action, not as a fatality to which we must submit with bravery
or desperation. We see immediately that she is anything but passively resigned
to the evil of war. She says clearly that the acceptance of war as an unavoidable
fatality is the root of the power politician's ruth-
less and obsessive commitment to violence.
This, she believed, was the "key to our history."
If, in fact, conflicting statesmen face one another only with clearly defined objectives that were fully rational, there would be a certain measure and limit which would permit of discussion and negotiation. But where the objectives are actually nothing more than capital letter slogans without intelligible content, there is no common measure, therefore no possibility of communication, therefore, again, no possibility of avoiding war except by ambiguous compromises or by agreements that are not intended to be kept. Such agreements do not really avoid war. And of course they solve no problems.
The typology of the Trojan War, "known to every educated man," illustrates
this. The only one, Greek or Trojan, who had any interest in Helen was
Paris. No one, Greek or Trojan, was fighting for Helen, but for the "real
issue" which Helen symbolized. Unfortunately, there was no real issue at
all for her to symbolize. Both armies, in this war, which is the type of
all wars, were fighting in a moral void, motivated by symbols without content,
which in the case of the Homeric heroes took the form of gods and myths.
Simone Weil considered that this was relatively fortunate for them, since
their myths were thus kept within a well-
defined area. For us, on the other hand (since we imagine that we have no myths at all), myth actually is without limitation and can easily penetrate the whole realm of political, social, and ethical thought.
Instead of going to war because the gods have been arguing among themselves, we go because of "secret plots" and sinister combinations, because of political slogans elevated to the dignity of metaphysical absolutes: "our political universe is peopled with myths and monsters-we know nothing there but absolutes." We shed blood for high-sounding words spelled out in capital letters. We seek to impart content to them by destroying other men who believe in enemy-words, also in capital letters.
But how can men really be brought to kill each other for what is objectively void? The nothingness of national, class, or racial myth must receive an apparent substance, not from intelligible content but from the will to destroy and be destroyed. (We may observe here that the substance of idolatry is the willingness to give reality to metaphysical nothingness by sacrificing to it. The more totally one destroys present realities and alienates oneself to an object which is really void, the more total is the idolatry, i.e., the commitment to the falsehood that the nonentity is an objective absolute. Note here that in this conext the God of the mystics is not "an object" and cannot be described properly as "an entity" among other entities. Hence, one of the marks of authentic mysticism is that God as experienced by the mystic can in no way be the object of an idolatrous cult.)
The will to kill and be killed grows out of sacrifices and acts of destruction already performed. As soon as the war has begun, the first dead are there to demand further sacrifice from their companions, since they have demonstrated by their example that the objective of the war is such that no price is too high to pay for its attainment. This is the "sledge hammer argument," the argument of Minerva in Homer: "You must fight on, for if you now make peace with the enemy, you will offend the dead."
These are cogent intuitions, but so far they do not add anything, beyond their own vivacity, to the ideas that prevailed in the thirties. In effect, everyone who remembered the First World War was capable of meditating on the futility of war in 1938. Everyone was still able to take sarcastic advantage of slogans about "making the world safe for democracy." But merely to say that war, in its very nature, was totally absurd and totally meaningless was to run the risk of missing the real point. Mere words without content do not suffice, of themselves, to start a war. Behind the empty symbols and the objectiveless motivation of force, there is a real force, the grimmest of all the social realities of our time: collective power, which Simone Weil, in her more Catharist mood, regarded as the "great beast." "How will the soul be saved," she asked her philosophy students in the Lycee, "after the great beast has acquired an opinion about everything?"
The void underlying the symbols and the myths of nationalism, of capitalism, communism, fascism, racism, totalism is in fact filled entirely by the presence of the beast-the urge to collective power. We might say, developing her image, that the void thus becomes an insatiable demand for power: it sucks all life and all being into itself. Power is then generated by the plunge of real and human values into nothingness, allowing themselves to be destroyed in order that the collectivity may attain to a theoretical and hopeless ideal of perfect and unassailable supremacy: "What is called national security is a chimerical state of things in which one would keep for oneself alone the power to make war while all other countries would be unable to do so.... War is therefore made in order to keep or to increase the means of making war. All international politics revolve in this vicious circle." But she adds, "why must one be able to make war? This no one knows any more than the Trojans knew why they had to keep Helen."
Nevertheless, when Germany overran France she herself found a reason
for joining the resistance: the ahirmation of human liberty against the
abuse of power. "All over the world there are human beings serving as means
to the power of others without having consented to it." This was a basic
evil that had to be resisted. The revision of Simone Weil's opinion
on pacifism and nonviolence after Munich does not therefore resolve itself, as Cabaud seems to indicate, with a practical repudiation of both. Munich led her to clarify the distinction between ineffective and effective nonviolence. The former is what Gandhi called the nonviolence of the weak, and it merely submits to evil without resistance. Effective non-violence ("the nonviolence of the strong") is that which opposes evil with serious and positive resistance, in order to overcome it with good.
Simone Weil would apparently have added that if this nonviolence had no hope of success, then evil could be resisted by force. But she hoped for a state of affairs in which human conflict could be resolved nonviolently rather than by force. However, her notion of nonviolent resistance was never fully developed. If she had survived (she would be fifty-six now) she might possibly have written some exciting things on the subject.
Once this is understood, we can also understand Simone Weil's revulsion
at the collapse of that superficial and popular pacifism of Munich, which,
since it was passive and also without clear objective, was only another
moment in the objectiveless dialectic of brute power. And we can also understand
the passion with which she sought to join the French resistance. But she
did not change her principles. She did not commit herself to violent action,
but she did seek to expose herself to the greatest danger and sacrifice,
nonviolently. Though her desire to form a "front line nursing corps" (regarded
by de Gaulle as lunacy) was never fulfilled, she nevertheless worked-indeed
overworked-until the time of her death, trying to clarify the principles
on which a new France could be built. She never gave up the hope that one
might "substitute more and more in the world effective nonviolence for
1 Simone Weil, a Fellowship in Love (New York: Channel Press, 1964).]