The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Simone Weil on Temptation, the Key to Discipline, and How to Be a Complete Human Being

“The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating our moral responsibility as human beings. This relationship between morality and attention was a primary concern for French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most incisive thinkers of the past century, who dedicated her short life to the dual task of refining the truth of the human experience and alleviating its suffering, then pursued that task with the uncommon combination of transcendent idealism and piercing lucidity. Her ideas influenced such luminaries as Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. At the age of nineteen, she placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. Albert Camus — himself a man of strong opinions on our greatest moral obligation — referred to her as “the only great spirit of our times.” But what makes Weil’s mind so miraculous is that no matter the passage of time and the changing conditions of each era, hers remains one of the great and necessary spirits for all time.

Her death was a continuation of her life — that grand act of love and sympathy for the suffering of others: After joining the French Resistance in London and toiling tirelessly for the cause, she came down with tuberculosis; in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, despite the doctor’s orders to eat heartily, she consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation. Most scholars believe that this sympathetic starvation was the cause of Weil’s death. Although other theories have emerged, her first English biographer, Sir Richard Rees, puts it best in concluding: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”

The deliberate architecture of Weil’s character comes alive in First and Last Notebooks (public library) — a rare, revelatory, and infectiously unselfconscious self-portrait of this extraordinary mind-spirit. As Rees writes in the introduction, she “is not so much making notes as meditating, coherently and lucidly, with a pen in her hand.”

In 1933, shortly before taking a yearlong leave of absence from her teaching position to labor incognito at a car factory in order to better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil penned a notebook entry reminiscent of young André Gide’s rules of conduct, capturing the incredible moral vigor and ethical ambition with which she set about becoming the person she aspired to be — the person she ultimately was.

Weil writes:

List of temptations (to be read every morning)

Temptation of idleness (by far the strongest)

Never surrender to the flow of time. Never put off what you have decided to do.

Temptation of the inner life

Deal only with those difficulties which actually confront you. Allow yourself only those feelings which are actually called upon for effective use or else are required by thought for the sake of inspiration. Cut away ruthlessly everything that is imaginary in your feelings.

Temptation of self-immolation

Subordinate to external affairs and people everything that is subjective, but never the subject itself — i.e. your judgement. Never promise and never give to another more than you would demand from yourself if you were he.

Temptation to dominate

Temptation of perversity

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

In an entry shortly thereafter, she adds:

Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie — don’t keep your eyes shut…

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Some days later, Weil revisits this moral framework and considers the particularly problematic issue of time — that peculiar dual pull of hurrying and waiting, that elastic ongoingness:

Two internal obstacles to be overcome

—Cowardice before the flight of time (mania for putting things off — idleness…)

Illusion that time, of itself, will bring me courage and energy…. In fact, it is usually the contrary (sleepiness). Say to yourself: And suppose I should remain always what I am at this moment? … Never put something off indefinitely, but only to a definitely fixed time. Try to do this even when it is impossible (headaches…). Exercises: decide to do something, no matter what, and do it exactly at a certain time.

You live in a dream. You are waiting to begin to live….

This discipline, she goes on to reason, is best cultivated through the transformative power of habit. Echoing William James’s memorable wisdom, she writes:

One must develop a habit. Training.
Distinguish between the things I can put off, and those [I cannot].
Begin the training with small things, those for which inspiration is useless…

Every day, do 2 or 3 things of no interest at some definitely appointed time.

Reach the point where punctuality is automatic and effortless. — Lack of flexibility of imagination. An obstacle to be methodically overcome. The second screen between reality and yourself. Much more difficult. What is needed is something quite different from a methodical training… But precious.

She considers the trifecta of faculties necessary for attaining the optimal habit of mind:

Discipline of the attention for manual work — no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess even the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

Of special interest to Weil is the subject of the will, which she sees as the great mediator between body and mind, between the conditions of the present and the aspirations of the future. A few days later, in a related meditation, she examines its role in the carrying out of those moral resolutions:

The will. It is not difficult to do anything when one is inspired by the clear perception of a duty. But what is hard is that when one is suffering this clear perception vanishes, and all that remains is awareness of a suffering which it is impossible to bear.

But the converse is also true: at the moment of taking the decision, the duty is present and the suffering is still far away. The will could not triumph if it had not fight against forces stronger than itself. The whole art of willing consists in taking advantage of the moment before the struggle begins to contrive in advance that one’s objective situation at the moment when one is weak shall be as one desires it to be…

The will’s only weapon is that it is able, in so far as it consists of thought, to embrace the different moments of time, whereas the body is limited to the present. Therefore, in short, it is simply a matter of withholding the assistance of thought from the passions.

It is not a question of “making resolutions” but of tying one’s hands in advance.

Complement First and Last Notebooks, which is deeply out of print but well worth the hunt, with young Leo Tolstoy’s search for moral direction, André Gide’s rules of conduct, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

Published April 7, 2015




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