Thursday, December 20, 2018

Simone Weil and the Need for Roots

Don't we all need roots?  A place where we can take hold, flourish, bear fruit?

Especially now.  Especially today.

In her book, The Need for Roots, French writer and philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943), writes about this. (It would be tempting to write just of her unconventional, agonized life, but it's the work that's most relevant.)  She begins the book with a section called, "The Needs of the Soul." And what are they? Surprising things, as far as I was concerned when I first read the book.  The first four she lists are Order, Liberty, Obedience and Responsibility.

What?  Liberty, certainly, and Order, yes.  But the soul needs Obedience?  What else is on her list?

She follows with Equality; Hierarchism; Honor; Punishment; Freedom of Opinion; Security; Risk; Private Property; Collective Property; and Truth.

Maybe not what you expected if someone asked you, What are the needs of the soul?

Here's what she has to say about Risk: "The absence of risk produces a type of boredom which paralyses in a different way from fear, but almost as much."

Even with the Internet, what she says about Truth still holds: "There are men who work eight hours a day and make the immense effort of reading in the evenings so as to acquire knowledge. It is impossible for them to go and verify their sources in the big libraries. They have to take the book on trust. One has no right to give them spurious provender."

The next section of the book is "Uprootedness." She believed uprootedness to be "by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed." She even hated the Roman Empire because of all the uprootedness it caused. To her it was clear: "Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself doesn't uproot others."

Having numbingly, and, at times, desperately, worked in a Renault car factory, she was most conscious of the vanishing of the traditional French guild worker and, potentially, even of the farmer. Central to guilds was the idea that young craftsmen would journey around the country learning from masters. No more: "Nothing demonstrates more clearly the essential failure of the capitalist class than the negligence shown by employers in the matter of apprenticeship."

And of those drones, like herself, working assembly line jobs: "Nothing in the world can make up for the loss of joy in one's work." Echoes of Thoreau's most men living lives of quiet desperation.  Echoes of today.

She died in England.  She was only thirty-four. 

She could be severe and intractable on her way to the betterment of mankind.  T.S. Eliot said, referring to Weil, "A potential saint can be a very difficult person." But, in the end, he said, "What she cared about was human souls."

She is a voice to listen to for our troubled, uprooted times.  It still rings.

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