Peter Winch’s Simone Weil: The Just Balance was one of the important books of graduate school for me. I am now reading it with a student who has done some work on Wittgenstein and who is independently interested in Simone Weil’s thought. I am going to try to write a post on each chapter for the blog; we will see how that goes.
I read this book with Winch for a Philosophy of Religion class. I wrote a fairly good if overly personal paper on it, the philosophy mixed up with an extended interpretation of Luke 10:25-42 (the connections Simone Weil draws between affliction, attention, and charity receiving light from and perhaps shedding light upon the juxtaposition of the story of the Good Samaritan with that of Mary and Martha) and the entirety of Isaac Peretz’ story “If Not Higher” appended to the conclusion as a kind of example of “earthly things [as] the criterion of spiritual things” (just go read it if you haven’t, it’s better than anything you’ll find on this blog).
There is a lot going on in The Just Balance. If I had to briefly characterize its overall thrust, I would say that it is an extended essay in the epistemology of religion. Winch traces the development of several important lines of Simone Weil’s thought from her early, more obviously philosophical work as it extends first into social theory and then into religious writing. He writes: “Often her religious observations are continuous with, or developments of, ways of thinking which earlier had not had this religious dimension, at least not obviously or to the same degree.”
Winch takes a very cautious approach to Weil’s thought in this book. This leads to a portrayal which is in certain respects one-sided, although Winch is very clear about that one-sidedness throughout the book.
There is a way, for example, in which one can gain a pretty fair perspective on at least some strands of Weil’s religious and social writing by representing her as a kind of anti-Nietzsche. On this view we might characterize her as essentially agreeing with Nietzsche (and Augustine and the Reformers, perhaps) that the will to power (gravity, force that turns people into things, etc.) is the governing mechanism of the human world, but standing as she does with the afflicted rather than ‘life-affirmation,’ interprets what Nietzsche sees as weakness and corruption as the point of entry for supernatural grace, divine love, and higher justice into human relations. Like Nietzsche she develops this metaphysic and her corresponding value judgments into some interesting essays on social theory, a ‘Christian’ counterpoint to Arendt, Habermas, Foucault, etc. that is seriously in dialogue with (and was in fact part of) their tradition.
That is not Winch’s way with her at all; in fact at many points in the book he critically engages the tendency towards this sort of “metaphysicalizing” (maybe it’s lazy to use that word here? I don’t have a better one offhand) tendency in Weil to try to recover what he sees as the genuine philosophical insights that underlie these occasional adventures into (what I think he saw as) overstatement.
The tension of this approach makes itself especially felt in the later chapters, in the following way: if these uses of language were only “metaphysical,” Winch would I think simply try to have taken them apart to try to find the interesting philosophy (as he saw it) underneath – or just tried to show them to be wind eggs. But the “metaphysical” turns of phrase in question are also, I think, used to communicate religious ideas and feelings for which Winch has considerably more sympathy. So much later in the book, in Chapter 14, we find him writing:
I have throughout [this book] emphasized a particular philosophical theme concerning what I have called concept formation. And at more than one point I have treated ideas which quite obviously have a strong religious significance for her in a determinedly “secular” way. This has been, in a way, all the more absurd in that the frequently striking and beautiful character of these ideas is entirely due to the intensely religious attitude to the world which they express.
I freely admit the perversity of this procedure. It is justified only to the extent that I have succeeded in drawing attention to a series of links between different aspects of Simone Weil’s thinking that are not usually noticed; and to the extent to which these links are interesting in themselves.
As I recall I felt that he did succeed in this task, and hopefully we’ll be able to bring some of that out as we read through the book.
But I am also having a certain kind of trouble returning to this text. At the time I was working with Winch I often felt that I was stumbling lost and blind through a kind of spiritual wasteland. In that context The Just Balance gave me a rare opportunity to connect religious ideas to my own experiences and activity – a hand up for a drowning man. But this meant that the book was also serving a function for me that was not strictly philosophical at all – I was using Winch and Weil to refine my own sense of what might be called the sacred dimension of human existence.
When Winch wrote, therefore, that
My own procedure…has been to try for as long as possible to display these late thoughts in “secular” philosophical terms. This is not because I regard such terms as in any way more acceptable than the religious language which she increasingly speaks. It is in part, I expect, because I feel much more at home operating with such terms. But, more important, it is also because I have wanted to see how far one could go in terms acceptable to philosophers who do not wish to, or find themselves unable to, use the language of religion.
I was when I first read the book very much in the audience this targets, a person of some spiritual sensitivity and religious yearning, often sad when reflecting on this charnel house of a planet we inhabit, the son and grandson of atheistic men of science, a student of philosophy. And from that point of view I felt that the book was a great help.
But it would nonetheless be almost two decades after this work that I finally heard the call.
For me at least, from this side of the water the relationship to certain forms of language is very different. So I now find myself sometimes impatient with Peter’s carefulness; sometimes regarding the important dimensions of Weil’s thought as theological rather than philosophical and so being tempted to regard his precision as punctilio; sometimes even regarding the distinction between secular and sacred itself as entirely false, a relic of the ‘enlightenment’ aimed at putting off our encounter with truth, which entirely undermines the rhetorical space The Just Balance tries to occupy.
So we’ll see how it goes. I still feel very grateful for the time I spent with this book and I’m glad to be able to share that with my students.