Simone Weil: visionary and profound philosopher

Four women seers in a time of strife

Eilenberger’s design is to present philosophy outside the lecture theatre in its life-transforming power


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“What would your good do if evil did not exist?” asks the Devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Faustian satire The Master and Margarita. For Wolfram Eilenberger, the light of intellect shines against the presence of evil in his genre-defying book The Visionaries. Neither biography, history nor fiction, Eilenberger’s work interweaves into a “constellation” the fates of four questing female figures (three of them Jewish): Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil in the decade after Hitler’s rise to power.

Founder of a popular philosophy magazine and television programme in Germany, Eilenberger is on a kind of Lucretian mission to interpret philosophy for the multitude; his previous volume Time of the Magicians (on Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Cassirer and Benjamin) was an acclaimed bestseller. Its sequel The Visionaries, entitled “Fire of Freedom” in German, continues the polyphonic quartet in a series of tableaux depicting four disparate but distinctive thinkers as war and totalitarianism descended over Europe.

Whether his subjects would have approved of their personal histories being entwined with their intellectual work is arguable, but Eilenberger’s design is to present philosophy outside the lecture theatre in its life-transforming power. With this compelling account he resolutely threads together the lives and writings of four women who came to embody their ideas.

The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil and the Salvation of Philosophy, Wolfram Eilenberger; translated by Shaun Whiteside (Allen Lane, £25)

Of these protagonists, only the profound and mystical Weil can really be classed as a visionary or philosopher (the scholarly Arendt described herself as a political theorist). The cult canons of De Beauvoir and the Russian-born Ayn Rand, strained by Nietzsche and Bolshevik bloodshed, have had dismal social impacts.

In the encounter between the two Simones one can wince sympathetically for De Beauvoir at her rival’s dismissal of existentialism, but The Second Sex and its chimaeras of gender are hard to bear. Yet her memoirs and imaginative prose rise higher. For a book centred on women, The Visionaries has rather too much detail on Jean-Paul Sartre. More could instead be made of Weil’s proposal to parachute a corps of front-line nurses (“women with a maternal solicitude”) as an inspirational antithesis to the SS.

The crosscurrents of exile and war that drove Hannah Arendt to flee Germany are depicted in the most sombre tones. Her critique of human rights — “an abstract conception of the human being” — later incorporated into her heroic Origins of Totalitarianism, reflects her predicament as a Jewish refugee, echoing Weil’s conception of moral obligations.

For Arendt, memory is the retrieval of meaning, saving “fragments” of human hope as the “pearl diver” brings them to the surface of the sea. The Visionaries is the seedbed of experience that three of these women would draw on for the work that won them fame.

With the great and tragic story of Simone Weil, The Visionaries discovers its soul. From the earliest, Weil sought darkness for illumination; as a child she recited by heart the lament for Hippolytus from Racine’s Phèdre; in 1932 she descended a coalmine to operate a pneumatic drill. She mastered Ancient Greek and Sanskrit and was one of the first women graduates of the École Normale Supérieure.

Gathering information on the Stalinist famines, she denounced the totalising ideology of the Soviet Union. Eilenberger’s account of her confrontation with Leon Trotsky, who was taking refuge in her family apartment, is magnificent.

Identifying with her ideals, Weil volunteered on the assembly line of a Renault factory. Arendt considered her analysis of the degradation of the working class — which pre-dates George Orwell — the finest example in existence. Eilenberger’s reproach that Weil has been neglected by academic philosophy is not quite right: she is appreciated as one of the most serious thinkers of the last century.

As the armies of five million soldiers faced each other across her homeland in the winter of 1939–40, no pen ever burned more brightly than Weil’s in her meditation on Homer’s Iliad, The Poem of Force: “for [those] who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors”.

On the eve of his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1957, Albert Camus stayed with Weil’s mother Selma. In Simone, whose works he helped publish, he recognised a kindred mind, taken by those “rare luminous moments” of Ancient Greece. She writes of suffering, decreation, kenosis (emptying), metaxu (separation and connection), beauty and more.

Eilenberger omits mention of Weil’s recently reconstructed play Venice Saved, about a Spanish conspiracy to overthrow the city of Venice in 1618; but its themes of sacrifice and the soul’s “need for roots” in an intense vision of the human are relevant not just then and now but eternally.

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