Compassion in the Face of Force

Compassion in the Face of Force December 16, 2013


For Simone Weil, justice is primarily an act of paying attention, which protects the sacred cry in every human being not to be hurt. 

“It would seem that man is born a slave and that servitude is his natural condition.” So concludes Simone Weil’s Analysis of Oppression. The essay is a study of political history,  but throughout her short life, Weil also encountered human slavery far more immediately. Born in Paris in 1909 to an agnostic French-Jewish middle-class family, she was, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “a great soul and brilliant mind,” “a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” Though she was a scholar, teacher, writer, Christian mystic, and political activist, Weil could never remain at a distance from the humanity she analyzed.

Weil worked in a French electrical factory in the mid-1930s. It was there that she encountered firsthand the disappearance of her humanity and the universal condition of servitude that stood revealed. She wrote to a friend during this time:

The affliction of others entered into my heart and soul… What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being, whoever he may be and in whatever circumstances, speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave.

It was this experience of slavery and shared affliction that drove Weil’s recurring meditations on justice, a virtue that she believes consists, in its essence, in paying attention to the afflicted.

Weil’s thought cuts through standard political discourse, because justice is not limited to one particularly afflicted sector, nor does it require more than what is owed to secure every human being’s basic humanity. Yet Weil’s is also no shallow, minimalistic account of what is due to each person: the act of attention required by justice is creative and costly. It has the power to set human beings free from the condition of servitude that Weil perceived to be their common state throughout history, and which she experienced so profoundly as a brute laborer. Weil understands this servitude in relation to what she calls “force,” the power that enslaves human beings from within and without.

Weil’s essay on “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” crystallizes the relationship between force, justice, and beauty that is present throughout her writings. Her visionary mind finds in the Iliad one of the clearest mirrors of history, and one of the best teachers of justice. This essay is a fitting guide for developing, in Weil’s terms, what it means to pay attention to someone in affliction, and why this act is the heart of justice.

The Greek genius, according to Weil, was to avoid self-deception. Human beings have historically treated power in the same way that men in the Iliad treat it. Force is worshipped as a god, either by the hero who glories in his own might, or by the soldiers who let themselves be sacrificed on the altar of violence. The poet (Homer), on the contrary, exposes the naked truth that Weil sees played out in history. As she puts it, “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it.” Unlike other peoples, the Greeks (Homer, in this case) are able to be honest about the harm force does to everyone.

To Weil’s eyes, the afflicted lay bare the truth of force’s sway in the world, for she defines force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” Those in affliction are human beings who have been turned into things while they are still alive. Before it is something positive, Weil maintains, “justice consists in seeing that no harm is done to men” by the force that enslaves their bodies and souls. Justice towards those in affliction must truthfully confront force bearing down upon them “absolutely undiluted,” without the intervention of any “comforting fiction.” This is the miracle of the Iliad: “Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.”

Justice protects those in affliction from force by paying attention to their hidden, childish cry not to be hurt, not to be turned into a thing. “It is this above all that is sacred in every human being,” writes Weil. In the afflicted, however, this cry can no longer be heard. Just attention creatively protects the sacred point in the human heart which “goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him.” This point in the heart is not something subjective, transient, or functionalistic: it is present in every human being, irrespective of what we can do, who we are, what we will contribute.

The afflicted thus specially reveal human beings to themselves. Their perilous nearness to inhumanity reveals what constitutes the deepest reality in every person, and the danger that threatens this sacred thing. Weil links justice to the Greek sense of equity:

Subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is. No one who succumbs to it is by virtue of this fact regarded with contempt.

Practicing justice by paying attention sounds easy, but Weil insists that in the love of neighbor, “attention alone—that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears—is required of me.” Giving another person our attention is always an act of renunciation: “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” I depart from my own center to stand in the same place as the one I am beholding.

This act of attention is also always an act of creation. Where there was one, there are now two: seeing the same thing, standing in the same place. When one’s power of attention is turned towards someone in affliction, it creates two human beings where one did not seem to exist, for “humanity does not exist in the anonymous flesh lying inert by the roadside.” The natural reaction is to keep as far from him as possible, “for the sight of a human being pushed to such an extreme of suffering chills us like the sight of a dead body.” Thus to pay attention to someone in affliction is nothing short of a miracle:

To desire the existence of the other is to transport [one- self] into him by sympathy, and, as a result, to have a share in the state of inert matter which is his… In denying oneself, one becomes capable under God of establishing someone else by a creative affirmation. One gives oneself in ransom for the other. It is a redemptive act.

According to Weil, the essential act of justice is affirmation that the sacred, innocent point in another human being’s heart still exists, an affirmation given through simple attention, which answers the other’s silent cry not to be hurt. This look of love, which is not blind to force’s sway over the other, combats his darkness, even before anything else is done for him.

Weil insists that a true act of attention is something we have to learn, and practice. Real affirmation of another’s existence costs something, especially in the case of the afflicted, since their humanity is under attack. For the unpracticed, it is often impossible to discern the sacred point in someone who is afflicted, or to believe in its presence.

Weil turns to beauty to teach us how to pay attention. Beauty gives us confidence that the childish cry still exists in those who are afflicted. Something beautiful radiates a light that helps us to distinguish what is precious from what is hideous in another, and comforts us when our attention costs more than we are able to give. Weil points out the Iliad, the book of Job, and certain folk poems, and especially the accounts of the Passion in the Gospels, as candles of beauty that educate us in justice.

Weil explains how Homer’s epic teaches us to see others with a gaze of truth and love:

It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its colouring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation… Nothing precious is scorned, whether or not death is its destiny.

By learning to see as the poet of the Iliad sees, we can learn how to distinguish what is sacred in another person, and what has succumbed to force’s lies and perversions. “Whatever is not war, whatever war destroys and threatens, the Iliad wraps in poetry; the realities of war, never.” The poet confronts a world of horror and violence, but chooses to sing of it anyway, because it remains too precious to be ignored. Even here, where force seems to have triumphed, the poet refuses to respect force’s dominion. This refusal is manifested in the Iliad’s rare but luminous moments of beauty, and these make the poem’s violent confrontation with force bearable.

As Weil tirelessly repeats, and her life witnesses, justice is no more than the duty that human beings owe to one another, particularly to those in affliction. But she also recognizes that, like the Iliad, loving attention to the afflicted is a miracle, for it is beyond our nature:

Our senses attach all the scorn, all the revulsion, all the hatred that our reason attaches to crime, to affliction. Except for those whose whole soul is inhabited by Christ, everybody despises the afflicted to some extent, although practically no one is conscious of it.

Just attention to someone in affliction is a miracle because this attention is divine. Where goodness and light seem to be absent, God Himself becomes present among men, since He alone is able to take the full measure of force and refuse to respect it. Justice is the unique intersection of human and divine perspectives. When human beings pay just attention to one another, they do no more than affirm one another’s existence, without which there is no possibility of relationship. But they also allow God to come and protect them both from harm, whether they are aware of this or not, and they look at one another as God looks at them.

The afflicted particularly call forth this true act of attention, for as the Psalmist reminds us, “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In the final analysis, but in a hidden way, justice is paying attention to Christ, the derelict on the Cross, as He saves the world. This is where Weil steadfastly looked. Her political philosophy is criticized because it sets forth the common state of human servitude throughout history, and offers no clear vision of a social order where freedom reigns. Yet, although she offers no large-scale bureaucratic solutions, Weil illuminates how just one act of just attention to an afflicted human being can open the world to freedom from within.


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