Simone Adolphine Weil (1909-1943) was perhaps the greatest moral and spiritual philosopher of the 20th Century. Born in Paris, her father, Bernard, was a doctor, his wife, Selma, the driven Jewish mother, showering Simone and her older brother, Andre (who would become a famous mathematician), with love and encouragement to achieve great things.
Simone could read a newspaper at five. A year later she could recite long passages by Racine, standing on a chair as though it were a stage, to the delight of her parents. The two gifted children were inseparable. They laughed, fought, competed for bragging rights in memorizing poetry, and debated philosophy. Andre was even tempered, eager to please, but Simone was willful, maddeningly stubborn, and her mother’s favorite.
At the Sorbonne, Simone acquired the nickname, “the red virgin,” because of her radical politics, mannish clothes, and asexual nature. She was often described as a kind of alien being, not one of us. And yet, what issued from her pen, often in the form of epigrams, spoke with an authority that transcended argument: Absolute, unmixed attention is prayer….Belief in the existence of other people as such is love…We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise…Beauty is the harmony of chance and the good…Humility is the only permitted form of self love…God can only be present in creation under the form of an absence.
After university, she taught philosophy, and was active in the labor union movement. For a time, she labored in unskilled factory jobs to understand the plight of the working class. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, she fled to Marseille with her parents, who obtained visas for them to travel to New York. From there, Simone went to London in hopes of joining General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. She died of tuberculosis and self-starvation in a sanitarium in Ashford, Kent, on August 24, 1943. Today, most scholars agree that Weil displayed all the classic signs of anorexia, a disease that was little understood during her lifetime. Her premature death was brought on, in large part, by her refusal to eat more than the starvation rations of her countrymen in France.
Although she died in obscurity, having published little, friends who revered her, and to whom she entrusted her notebooks, lobbied for their publication after the war. In the decades that followed, the fame she never sought as a philosopher grew into cult-like status. T.S. Eliot declared her a genius, Andre Gide called her “the most spiritual writer of the century,” and Albert Camus—a cult hero himself—pronounced her the “only great spirit of our age.”