Simone Weil on the Paradox of Friendship and Separation
“It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”
By Maria Popova
Friendship is one of life’s greatest graces, and yet we hardly understand the gossamer threads of sympathy and love by which it binds us together. C.S. Lewis likened it to philosophy, art, and the universe itself in that “it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Aristotle saw it as a mirror we hold up to one another. For Emerson, it was the product of truth and tenderness. John O’Donohue found its essence in the ancient Celtic notion of anam cara. For David Whyte, it is “a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness.”
One of the most profound meditations on friendship comes from French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a woman of immense insight on such complexities as how to make use of our suffering and what it takes to be a complete human being.
In the indispensable Gravity and Grace (public library) — which also gave us Weil on attention as a form of prayer — she writes:
It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.
To desire friendship is a great fault. Friendship should be a gratuitous joy like those afforded by art or life. We must refuse it so that we may be worthy to receive it; it is of the order of grace. It is one of those things which are added unto us. Every dream of friendship deserves to be shattered… Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).
Friendship cannot be separated from reality any more than the beautiful. It is a miracle, like the beautiful. And the miracle consists simply in the fact that it exists.
In keeping with this Zen-like notion, Weil argues that the sympathetic communion of friendship is a complement, not a counterpoint, to our essential capacity for solitude:
Keep your solitude… When you are given true affection there will be no opposition between interior solitude and friendship, quite the reverse.
But Weil’s most striking stance of friendship bridged the philosophical with the practical — the very survival of her ideas is the direct product of friendship.
In June of 1941, when the antisemitic laws of the Nazi administration barred her from teaching philosophy at the University, Weil decided to work on a farm in the country for the same reason she had labored incognito at a car factory some years earlier — to better understand the human experience and its most trying dimensions. A friend of Weil’s introduced her to a farmer named Gustave Thibon, six years her senior, who she hoped would take her on as a worker. (“Farm work is one of the best jobs for getting to know people as they really are,” young Sylvia Plath wrote just a few years later.)
In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon — who eventually became a philosopher himself and lived to be ninety-seven, outliving Weil by nearly six decades — recounts his initial skepticism:
I am a little suspicious of graduates in philosophy, and so for intellectuals who want to return to the land, I am well enough acquainted with them to know that, with a few rare exceptions, they belong to that order of ranks whose undertakings generally come to a bad end. My first impulse was therefore to refuse.
Still, he relented and took a chance on this earnest young woman. The relationship, Thibon writes, was “friendly but uncomfortable” at first and the two “disagreed on practically everything.” But he soon came to see that Weil was indeed one of those rare exceptions — her combination of sincerity, goodwill, and genius won him over and the two developed a deep friendship that outlasted Weil’s weeks on the farm.
In 1942, as the Nazi occupation drove Weil out of her homeland and she reluctantly headed to New York, Thibon met her at the train station. She handed him a giant portfolio of her papers with the instruction of taking care of them during her exile. And so he did, binding them with the thread of friendship into a lasting volume of ideas that continue to ennoble and illuminate long after Weil’s untimely death — Thibon curated her writings for posterity, in the truest sense of the word, which has its roots in the Latin cura, “to care for.”
In a letter to Thibon, included in his book Simone Weil as We Knew Her, Weil writes from America:
The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation … we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be. Meeting and separation are two forms of friendship that contain the same good, in the one case through pleasure and in the other through sorrow… Soon there will be distance between us. Let us love this distance which is wholly woven of friendship, for those who do not love each other are not separated.
In the introduction to Gravity and Grace, Thibon shares another 1942 letter from Weil, which further speaks to her idealism about friendship:
It seems as though the time has now really come for us to say goodbye to each other… Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling.
I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow … and that if you should sometimes happen to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book one read in childhood. I do not want ever to occupy a different place from that in the hearts of those I love, because then I can be sure of never causing them any unhappiness.
A few months later, Weil left for England, where she died on August 24, 1943, at the age of only thirty-four. Her ideas, collected in Gravity and Grace, endure as the book one is always reading in childhood — that is, in the sincerest, truest, most ennobled part of the psyche.
Published August 24, 2015