The Mountain View of the Mind: Simone Weil on the Purest and Most Fertile Form of Thought
By Maria Popova
Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) is both among the twentieth century’s most magnificent minds and its greatest cultural oddities. Born into a family of nonreligious, freethinking Jews from the French bourgeoisie, she became a philosopher — placing first in France’s competitive national university entrance exam, with Simone de Beauvoir placing second — and got involved in radical left-wing politics. She advocated for worker rights, labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year to better understand the reality of her working-class compatriots, and even served in the anarchist militia during the Spanish Civil War.
Then, in her mid-twenties, Weil experienced something akin to Philip K. Dick’s famous exegesis — a hallucinatory mystical experience that turned her toward spirituality. Due to the tragedy of her early death — itself an act of modern sainthood — her work penetrated the world only posthumously, but it went on to influence such intellectual titans as Susan Sontag and Albert Camus. The latter famously declared Weil “the only great spirit of our times.”
Even for those of us who identify as nonbelievers and disagree with her theological ideas, Weil’s Waiting for God (public library) is a masterwork of human thought — her philosophical investigations and the intellectual elegance with which she delivers them are immeasurably rewarding in their own right.
In one particularly piercing passage, she considers the art of thought in its purest, most elevated, and most fertile form:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.
Waiting for God is a powerful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with John Dewey on how to think, then revisit Weil on attention and grace, science and our spiritual values, making use of our suffering, the true measure of genius, and how to be a complete human being.
Published September 28, 2015