The depth and complexity of Plato’s reception in the thought of Simone Weil (Paris, 3 February 1909 - Ashford, 24 August 1943) have been investigated by various scholars over the last twenty years (see, inter alia, Doering, Springsted 2004; Narcy 2009a). However, recent studies have also tried to fill the «relative gap in continental scholarship on/with Weil» (Rozelle-Stone 2017, p. 1) and have begun to develop the possible unexplored connections between some Weilian themes and the authors of the continental tradition. What remains to be investigated is precisely the relationship between the Platonic legacy, Weil’s thought and the resonance of these two aspects in the broader context of contemporary continental philosophy.
In this contribution I would like to touch on some aspects of Simone Weil’s reading of Plato. I propose to analyze the significance of her return to ancient Greece as a decisive resource of the post-war European culture, and to consider the specificity of her reading of Plato, particularly with regard to her interpretation of the Image of the Cave described in the Republic (see Plat. Resp. VII 514a-516c) and to the role she assigns to the Timaeus.
My hypothesis is that Plato is a key reference in the evolution of the author’s thought between the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, and that, in particular, the category of impersonnel and the theme of the «passage to the impersonal» (both developed in Weil’s later writings), can be read as the author’s re-elaboration of certain Platonic themes.
By virtue of this, I would propose to analyze Weil’s interpretation of three Platonic moments: the captivity in the cave, the exit and the return to the cave. I will therefore try to demonstrate how these three platonic movements concerning the soul present, in Weil’s appropriation, some assonance, on a lexical, theoretical and phenomenological level, with three major themes of her thought: the condition of affliction (malheur), the development of attention, and the transition to the impersonal. Finally, the analysis of these concepts will allow me to grasp the discrepancy between Weil’s appropriation of Plato and the discontinuity in Weil’s reception of her source.
1. Going towards Ancient Greece. A Source of Inspiration for a Troubled Europe
The reference writers of young Weil in Alain's class (1925-1928) are without doubt Plato, Descartes and Kant. In particular, the Plato that Weil finds in the academic culture of her time is that translated by V. Cousin (Narcy 2012), which is a «Platon précurseur» (see Périllié 2016; Narcy 2009a), rationalist and transcendental, read through the Cartesian and Kantian lenses. In the few references we find in historical and political writings prior to 1940 (OC II 1-3), Plato has a discreet and tacit presence. Descartes, on the other hand, is at the center of Weil 1930 thesis for the Diplôme d’études supérieures (OC I, pp. 159-221), under the direction of L. Brunschwig, and Kant had a stable and clear influence over the years, as M. Vet has shown (see Vetö 2009).
In the Marseilles period (1940-1942) something changes: the two modern masters disappear and Plato absorbs all the attention of Weil, who takes up the Dialogues, translates them and comments on them. Already in the letters of 1940 to her mathematician brother André (OC VII 1) and in the political writings of 1939 (OC II 3, pp. 168-219), it is possible to see that this reprise of Plato is parallel to two movements of reflection in Weil: the criticism about modern science and algebra, and the disapproval of Hitlerism and the cult of force. Weil thus begins to detect the roots of the crisis of European civilization, which she links to the scientific and political vision of the primacy of force (OC V 2, pp. 304-307; see Gabellieri 2003, pp. 281-288).
In both cases, Weil seeks alternative sources of inspiration for contemporary culture and finds them first in Greek geometry and then, more generally, throughout Greek civilization. The latter is considered alongside several ancient and extra-European civilizations, according to a cross-cultural and multi-focal perspective linking Greece to Egypt, Mesopotamia and Eastern traditions. To all this, we must add the meeting and the beginning of a dense collaboration with the Dominican father J.M. Perrin, for whom Weil prepares a series of conferences concerning «God in Plato». She also brings together texts of different civilizations for a book that her friend was preparing on the theme of the «love of God» (Weil 1996, p. 143; Pétrement 1973, pp. 582-583). These stimuli will motivate Weil to go deeper into the Christian tradition and to read Plato in the broader background of different spiritual sources.
The writings of the same period reveal to us the meaning of this approach towards the past, animated by the search for an inspiration for the present, a time of trouble (désarroi, OC II 3, p. 93). Weil rejects the notion of progress in philosophy and knowledge. Indeed, Plato's interpretation and criticism of modern science go hand in hand with a reinterpretation of philosophy itself, described as form of wisdom (sagesse, OC IV 2, p. 85), as «something exclusively in act and practical» (OC VI 4, p. 392), which is not a mere knowledge, but «requires a change of the whole soul» (OC IV 1, p. 57). According to Weil, «strictly speaking there is no novelty possible in philosophy, [because a new thought] can only be a new printed accent to a thought not only eternal in principle, but ancient in fact» (ivi, p. 58). Moreover, she notes that any real progress requires an «effort of invention» (Weil 1957, p. 168): it is therefore necessary to understand in what sense a true invention can be developed.
If it is true that «the imperfect cannot produce something perfect» (OC IV 2, p. 415; allusion to Plat. Resp. VI 504e), we must look for an inspiration that cannot come from the present, which is always confused and where good and bad are mixed. This inspiration cannot even come from the future, because the future is the field of projection of our illusory imagination, where «the perfection we imagine is to our measure; it is exactly as imperfect as ourselves» (ivi, p. 416). The past, on the other hand, is a dimension already purified by the passage of time and where the discrimination between what is relative and what has lasted has already been done. That is why the past «presents to us something that is both real and better than us», something «absolutely out of our reach [...], to which we can only orient ourselves so that an emanation of that comes to us» (OC VI 3, p. 131).
It is because of this that, according to Weil, «it is not a question for us of returning to Greece [...]. It may be a question for us of going towards Greece» (OC IV 1, p. 66) so that its inspiration may guide the present. The author, therefore, does not establish the primacy of the past over the present but she stresses the centrality that the past has in inspiring the concrete and active construction of a new present.
What is the specificity of the inspiration that comes from ancient Greece? According to Weil:
La Grèce eut sa révélation propre : ce fut la révélation de la misère humaine, de la transcendance de Dieu, de la distance infinie entre Dieu et l'homme. Hantée par cette distance, la Grèce n'a travaillé qu'à construire des ponts. Toute sa civilisation en est faite. Sa religion des Mystères, sa philosophie, son art merveilleux, cette science qui est son invention propre et toutes les branches de la science, tout cela, ce furent des ponts entre Dieu et l'homme (OC IV 2, p. 417).
The inspiration offered by ancient Greece civilization concerns the capacity of mediation between the divine and the human, between perfection and limit, between contemplation and action. According to Weil, it is precisely this unity that Europe has lost (OC V 2, pp. 186-190).
The highlighting of Plato’s role must therefore be conceived in this context, that of Greek civilization as a source of inspiration characterized by the vocation to mediation (médiation, OC IV 2, p. 76) that unites all the manifestations of its culture. Weil's thesis is:
Platon. Savoir deux choses à son sujet: 1. ce n’est pas un homme qui a trouvé une doctrine philosophique. Contrairement à tous les autres philosophes (sans exception, je crois), il répète constamment [...] qu’il ne fait que suivre une tradition [...]. 2. Nous ne possédons de Platon que les œuvres de vulgarisation destinées au grand public. [...] Il faut essayer de pénétrer à l’intérieur en s’attardent sur des indications parfois très brèves, en rapprochant des textes dispersés. Mon interprétation: Platon est un mystique authentique, et même le père de la mystique occidentale. (OC IV 2, p. 78)
Weil then approaches Plato in 1940 in the civilizational framework of Greece as a culture of mediation: he is no longer a precursor or an inventor, but an «heir» (héritier, OC IV 2, p. 75) of a wider tradition, that of Greek spirituality. Classical Greece is also seen as a tradition that has multiple roots and is linked to the East (see Narcy 2009b, pp. 565-580). Its role is not limited to the establishment of the primacy of theoretical reason, but it also includes a spiritual dimension. Weil consequently describes Plato not as the founder of a speculative system, but as a spiritual Plato, who should be read through the hermeneutical key of Pythagoras (see OC IV 2, p. 244) and the religious key of the Mysteries. Finally, he is no longer a «transcendental Plato», the precursor of the Copernican revolution of criticism, but a «mystical Plato», a thinker of the relationship between natural and supernatural. It will now be necessary to analyze in some points the aspects of this Greco-Platonic legacy in Simone Weil.
2. From the Cave to the Timaeus. Developing and Practicing Attention
By analyzing the three main writings in which Weil re-elaborates and assimilates Plato (Dieu dans Platon, L’amour divin dans la création et À propos de la doctrine pythagoricienne), all written between 1940 and 1942, we realize that her interpretation is articulated around two main poles: the image of the Cave of the Republic and the painting of the Timaeus, a dialogue that the author continued to annotate until the end of her life. Weil selects and collects fragments of the other dialogues around these two poles. These two great images describe in effect the heart of Plato's wisdom which, according to Weil, «is nothing more than an orientation of the soul towards grace» (OC IV 2, p. 85).
The Republic, in Weil’s analysis, describes the two moments of, firstly, the condition in the cave and, secondly, the escape from captivity, when the prisoner becomes capable of seeing the Good. On the other hand, the Timaeus seems to indicate the effects of the return in the cave. According to the author, this dialogue shows a vision of the world from the perspective of the Good: the world is no longer a prison, but a divine work of art, characterized by beauty and capable of showing its transcendent trace.
These three moments and the path of the soul that unites them are commented by Weil with references to three central themes of her thought. I therefore propose to analyze these three movements by interpreting them through Weilian original re-elaboration. The captivity in the cave is described by the author as a condition of affliction (malheur), the exit path and the contemplative moment are interpreted in analogy with the development of attention, the return in the cave is finally associated to the practice of the impersonal. The combination of these three themes are indicators that help understand the original core of Weil’s Platonism.
2.1 Facing Affliction
Affliction (malheur) is a theme that keeps coming back after Weil’s factory experience of 1934 (see Weil 1966, pp. 31-49). It is seen, first of all, as a consequence of social oppression, then it becomes a key factor of human existence in all its dimensions, as well as a mystery to explore: «Malheur: admirable word, without equivalent in other languages. We did not take advantage of it» (OC VI 1, p. 223).
The writing of the Cahiers at Marseille begins with a reflection on affliction in relation to suffering and pain. Weil then begins to distinguish two aspects: «Physical pain. Some makes you lose the world, while it lasts. Others are a contact with the world. In the same way fatigue, hunger, obedience, death. Etc.» (ivi, p. 224). Affliction, thus, is conceived as an event of rupture which can make someone lose the world, and thus which causes a degradation of the soul. However, it can also become a «lever» towards a higher level of contact with the world (see Vetö 1997, p. 73). This is why Weil uses the Platonic term of μεταξύ (metaxy, intermediary) in order to describe the revealing capacity of malheur:
Ne pas franchir trop tôt les μεταξύ. Grand règle. Ou on oublie que ce sont des μεταξύ, ou on les franchit trot tôt. La douleur est un μεταξύ. La mort... (une certaine manière de croire à l’immortalité lui ôte son efficacité de μεταξύ). Tout ce qui arrache. Il ne faut pas lutter contre, au contraire (OC VI 1, p. 294).
Affliction is not only an obstacle: it also assumes the function of an intermediary, if one makes an adequate apprenticeship. Thus, this theme joins all Plato’s philosophy: in the writings of 1942, affliction describes, in various senses, the situation of the prisoner inside the cave and the condition of his exit. An intermediary (metaxy), in Plato’s Dialogues, is in fact something that is capable of putting the sensible experience in contact with the truthful and transcendent dimension of unchanging ideas (see Souilhé 1919; for a non-dualistic interpretation of Plato, see Candiotto 2015).
Human existence in the cave, according to Weil interpreter of the Republic, is at first a condition of misery. It is, in fact, characterized by a situation of deception and passivity and by the unconsciousness of misery itself (OC IV 2, p. 96-97).
The two main causes of the prisoner captivity and state of illusion lie in the ambiguity of the flesh and of the community. «The peril of the flesh» comes from the fact that it is the «site of desire» (ivi, p. 83). The desire, for Weil, is the heart of the ego and it is linked to the imagination that continually seeks to fill the void that desire brings with itself, as it comes from a lack (see Vetö 1997, pp. 51-56). She links this image to the words of Socrates, referring in the Gorgias to the soul of the fool as a pierced barrel, «because of his disturbance and his inability to keep anything» (Plat. Gorg. 493b). The community is then described, according to a Platonic image, as a big animal (mega zōon, Plat. Resp. VI 492a-493c), which determines good and evil according to its instincts.
At the heart of these dimensions, desire and the collective beast, the prisoner confuses «the necessary and the good» (Plat. Resp. VI 493a-d) and does not know how to distinguish them: the desire makes relative goods necessaries for him and the community determines good and bad without criteria. Awareness of one's own misery begins with this distinction: one must see one’s own distance from the good they're looking for.
The exit of the cave is not simply an epistemological path, from the doxic appearance to the epistemic truth (for a global analysis, see Ferrari 2017, pp. 865-898): it is not only a path that concerns the intellect, but it invests the whole soul, therefore also desire and its relationship with things. This is why Weil says:
L’illusion concernant les choses de ce monde ne concerne pas leur existence, mais leur finalité et leur valeur. L’image de la caverne a rapport à la finalité. Nous n’avons que des ombres d’imitations du Bien. C’est aussi par rapport au Bien que nous sommes passif, enchaînés (attachement; OC VI 3, pp. 263-264).
Within the cave man lives in idolatry, attaching himself to things and confusing them with the Good. Thus Weil finds that, as they describe the overcoming of the ambiguity concerning the Good, «the books VI and VII of the Republic have for object the detachment» (ivi, p. 189).
Malheur, this time conceived as an event, also represents the irruption of a forced detachment. It leads in fact to a clear distinction between the necessary and the good: «the extreme affliction that seizes human beings does not create human misery. It reveals it only» (OC VI 2, p. 367). Affliction, thus, acquires a revealing dimension. In resuming a passage from the Gorgias (Plat. Gorg. 523a-525a), Weil recognizes that «the truth is manifest only in nakedness, and nakedness is death, that is, the breaking of all the attachments that constitute for every human being the reason to live, the relatives, the opinion of others, the material and moral possession, everything» (ivi, p. 82).
Weil therefore arrives at this conclusion: «in the ancient Mysteries, in Platonic philosophy, in Sanskrit texts, in the Christian religion, and most probably always and everywhere, detachment has always been compared to death and initiation into wisdom regarded as a kind of passage through death» (OC IV 1, p. 57). The «painful and blind walk out of the cave» (OC VI 2, p. 472) must therefore go through malheur as an event and as a condition, to then attain wisdom. This is finally presented as the first aspect of the Greco-Platonic legacy according to Weil.
Is there any pessimism or Gnostic dualism in Weil, as some have said (see, inter alia, Goldschmidt 1952)? In this regard, it should be noted that this same cave is also a world, not just a prison. However, to be able to recompose the fracture between the necessary and the good revealed by affliction, it is necessary to change the perspective while leaving the cave, in order to return there.
2.2 Developing Attention
In order to pass from malheur to the vision of the Good, indeed, it is necessary to change the levels of reading of reality. The notion of lectures superposées (ivi, pp. 206-207) is at the heart of Weil's thought during this period. As F. Rey Puente points out (Rey Puente 2009), the interpretation of Plato and Ancient Greece is summarized in this program: «read necessity behind the sensation, read order behind the necessity, read God behind the order» (OC VI 2, p. 373). Given the fact that, according to Weil, God coincides with the Good (OC IV 2, p. 91; OC VI 3, p. 123), it is a matter of reducing the necessity felt through affliction to an order that leads to the Good.
Now, the passage from sensation to necessity sums up the whole of the reflexive philosophy and of the school of perception, inherited from Alain. This tradition is illustrated by the image of J. Lagneau’s cube (see OC IV 2, p. 273, 429; OC VI 3, pp. 384-385): it is necessary to grasp the cube intellectually through the different surfaces that present themselves to sensation. Similarly, in the Image of the Cave according to Alain and Weil, it is necessary to grasp, behind the shadows, a network of necessary relations, the “ideas”, which are essentially mathematical (Chartier 1939, pp.33-39; see Narcy 2018). In this way, the work of the subject consists in grasping the necessary structure which is present in the perception of appearances.
However, the Alainian legacy is subjected by Weil to a twist. “Effort”, a key term in the Birainian tradition, is necessary for the subject to work on his reading of appearances, but it is valid, according to Weil, only in the inner part of the cave, where knowledge is finally confronted with contradictions. However, once the natural intelligence has reached its limits, because it cannot dissolve or overcome the contradictions present in the cave, the exit from the cave is no longer a matter of effort of the will by the subject of knowledge.
The path of the intellect stops in fact in front of contradictions. However, according to Weil, contradictions are not only a stopping point, but they can also become an intermediary, a metaxy. They work like a blind man's stick (OC VI 4, p. 391) through which the intellect can touch, without seeing and grasping it, the domain of mystery. Contradictions must no longer be understood, but contemplated. The effort in reading thus becomes a negative effort, an effort transformed into total receptivity. The intellect is then suspended between the contradictory domain of the natural and that of the supernatural, and it is expected to develop supernatural intelligence in order to continue (see Périllié 2018, pp. 177-198; Negri 2009).
In the transition from the natural to the supernatural (OC VI 4, p. 182), the will ceases to be effective: «once out [...] there is no more to do efforts of will, it is only necessary to maintain a state of waiting» (OC IV 2, p. 91). This wait is described, elsewhere, as proper to the faculty of attention, which corresponds to the intelligence of the supernatural (OC IV 1, p. 260). In this field the effectiveness of desire comes into action. Where, in the cave, desire represented a sort of danger, it now shows all its fruitfulness (in this respect, it is significant to read the very experience of Weil in the 14-year-old episode: Weil 1966, pp. 38-39).
Not finding adequate goods inside the cave, experiencing the distance that separates the necessary from the Good, the desire begins to be exercised «à vide» (OC IV 2, p. 98): it aspires to the Good without having any particular objects. This is the moment when desire becomes able to orientate and direct intelligence, which has come to contemplate contradictions. As soon as the desire consents to its own lack, it becomes love (amour). Here Weil again refers to Plato: it is not a question of tyrannical love (erōs tyrannos, Plat. Resp. IX 573d), which seeks to possess its object (OC VI 1, p.125; OC IV 2, p. 107), but of true «platonic love», an intermediate between lack and research, between human misery and the divine fullness (Plat. Symp. 202e-204c).
This is how the prisoner comes to contemplate the sun outside the cave. The famous image described by Socrates (Plat. Resp. VI 507b-509b; for a critical analysis see, inter alia, Fronterotta 2017, Lisi 2007, Vegetti 1993), which associates the sun with the Good, the sight with the intelligence and the visible things with the intelligibles, is thus commented by Weil as follows: «the sight is the intelligence, but the right orientation is the supernatural love» (OC IV 2, p. 91). She specifies: «The use of intelligence has supernatural love as its condition (not an intellectualist doctrine, but the contrary)» (ivi, p. 93). At the same time it isn’t an irrationalist doctrine either and Weil remains faithful to her Cartesian roots: the intelligence must scrupulously follow its path and the intellect must remain active so that love can turn it into attention, pure receptivity, giving it guidance and orientation.
The «reading of necessity behind the sensation» must therefore be completed by the desire, after it has been transformed into love through the lack. This passage towards the reading of the Good coincides with non-reading, the abandonment of the self as the center of perspective. In this later interpretation of the cave, Plato's modern twist is grasped towards the problematic of the subject:
Si on suit [l’analogie] l’image de la caverne, on doit voir sur le mur de la caverne une ombre de soi correspondant à la lueur du feu – et, sorti, mais regardant encore à terre, une ombre de soi, mais produite par la lumière du soleil et une image de soi dans l’eau. Quand on lève la tête, on ne voit plus rien de soi-même (OC VI 1, p. 322).
Thus Weil goes beyond the Platon précurseur (ivi, p. 87) and finds the mystical Plato. According to the author, Plato’s description of the exit from the cave must in fact condense «a mystical experience accumulated over generations» (OC IV 2, p. 99).
2.3 Assimilation to God and the Practice of the Impersonal
«But in Plato it is not the end» (ivi, p. 99): there is another step and it is the return to the cave. At this stage, the real challenge arises: what is the prisoner to do after he has become wise?
Après avoir arraché l’âme au corps, avoir traversé la mort pour aller à Dieu, le saint doit en quelque sorte s’incarner dans son propre corps afin de répandre sur ce monde le reflet de la lumière surnaturelle. Afin de faire de cette vie terrestre et de ce monde une réalité, car jusque là ce ne sont que des songes. Il lui incombe ainsi d’achever la création. Le parfait imitateur de Dieu d’abord se désincarne, puis s’incarne (ivi, p. 101).
There is a whole program here. First of all, the sage acquires, through the attention and the exit from himself, a new ability to read the world: after having separated the necessary and the Good, he now reads the Good behind necessity. This perspective, which is that of the delivered prisoner, according to Weil is expressed in the Timaeus’ picture. The Timaeus shows «the city inhabited in a state of waking: the world is no longer an underground prison. It is beautiful» (OC VI 2, p. 445). The author summarizes her interpretation as follows:
L'idée essentielle du Timée c'est que le fond, la substance de cet univers où nous vivons, est amour. Il a été créé par amour et sa beauté est le reflet et le signe irréfutable de cet amour divin. [...] La seconde idée du Timée, c'est que ce monde, en même temps que le miroir de cet Amour qui est Dieu lui-même, est aussi le modèle que nous devons imiter (OC IV 2, pp. 177-178).
Here we find the Platonic idea of imitation and the theme of assimilation to God of the Theaetetus (Plat. Theaet. 176b). To describe the task of the wise man who enters the cave, Weil uses the terms incarnation, imitation, assimilation, co-création. These terms are part of the same conceptual network, that of the “mediation” exercised by the “intermediaries” (metaxy). These latter occupy the space “between” two terms, «in the manner of a proportional average» (ivi, p. 101). The wise man must also inhabit this dimension, between natural and supernatural: he must himself become a bridge between God and human misery.
The theme of assimilation to God, read through the cosmogony of the Timaeus, undergoes an interesting reinterpretation by Weil. This interpretation is played through two keys. First, the Pythagorean, geometric key: the assimilation of man to God does not coincide with a deification of man, since it is interpreted through the notion of proportional average. The mathematical average is a number that puts two different numbers in a relation of equality: in the same way, assimilation is a mediating relationship between two opposites that remain such, namely man and God (see OC IV 2, p. 169). So geometry not only explains the mathematical necessity, but also shows the possibility of mediation: it shows itself capable of explaining supernatural truths (see ivi, p. 328).
At this level comes the second key, namely the Christian idea of the Incarnation of God. In Weil's thought, Incarnation, Passion, and Creation even find a meeting point, because all three of them involve a kenotic movement. To assimilate to God means, according to Weil, to imitate his creative act, which is an act of abandonment: God lets the world exist and withdraws. This act finds its fulfillment in the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, the mediator par excellence: Christ incarnates himself by renouncing his divinity and he fully lives out in the cross the absence of the Creator God.
Attention imitates this kenotic withdrawal and thus acquires a creative potential: to be attentive means to renounce the sovereignty of the self (according to the movement of the incarnation of God who renounces his divinity) and to let the world exist (according to the creative act of God who withdraws). Moreover, «it means to know that the afflicted exists» (OC IV 1, p. 262). In other texts contemporary to the reflections on the Timaeus, Weil deploys the full ethical dimension of the faculty of attention: «creative attention consists in really paying attention to what does not exist». Attention consists in a privileged relationship with the afflicted and with affliction, because it arises from the acceptance of malheur. The paradox of the sage is thus that his incarnation and his return to the cave after having reached the Good, coincides with the maintenance in itself of a movement of kenotic attention, of active withdrawal.
In the Écrits de Londres, in 1943, this movement will be described as a «passage to the impersonal». The theme and the concept of impersonnel appears in two parts of Weilian writings: first in the texts of 1940-1942, where the term is used mainly as an adjective and above all in relation to God (see Gabellieri 1998; Gabellieri 2003, pp. 307-336; Gabellieri 2009). The term then reappears, also as a noun, in a 1943 text that Weil dedicates to the themes of “collectivité - personne - impersonnel - droit – justice” (OC V 1, pp. 212-236). In this last phase of her thought, the author takes up the political stance that animated her thinking in the early 1930s.
The concept of person, which is central to the anthropology of those years and to the elaboration of the doctrine of human rights (Maritain 1942), appears undermined to Weil by various misunderstandings. Etymologically linked to the theater of social roles and to Roman law, for Weil the person is first of all an abstract concept, incapable of establishing an effective ethic of human respect. This idea, in Weil's eyes, appears as the synonym of a stance of individual development, as it is at the base of a culture of promotion of personal épanouissement (see OC V 1, p. 218; Maritain 1942, p. 15, 48); moreover, it constitutes, according to the author, the implicit assumption of a logic of claim, as it is synonymous with the juridical subject that can claim rights. The idea is therefore potentially connected to a logic of appropriation and, consequently, strength and prevarication (OC V 1, p.221). This logic is opposed to the non-appropriable and transcendent dimension of the authentic Good, that follows, as we have seen, Platonic ethics.
The author thus introduces a polemical term, the impersonnel: the allusion to this concept occurs whenever Weil insists on stressing the instance of dispossession of the subject that comes from experiencing the limit, especially in the form of malheur (see specifications in Fulco 2020, pp. 38-58). The same concept also has the role of strengthening the bond between humans and the impersonal dimension, in Weil’s words, of truth and beauty. Art, science, literature, far from being fields of expression of individual development and personalities, are instead ways of accessing the dimension of truth and beauty, where authentic genius can only express itself in the impersonal form and where humans come into contact with an irreducible perfection that surpasses them (OC V 2, p. 346).
In the description of the «passage from the person to the impersonal», Weil resumes her reflections on the Platonic movements of escaping the Cave, contemplating the Good and assimilating to God. In La personne et le sacré, the reflection on malheur and attention, both understood as intermediaries (metaxy), capable of bringing man beyond himself towards the impersonal, is crucial. According to this vision, those who develop attention are able to embody a kenotic movement by going beyond their person and claims (see Kühn 2007; Cameron 2003). In this way, they testify within the community and within its relationships the reality of the Good which is «out of this world» (hors de ce monde, OC IV 2, p. 176).
This can be interpreted as a further Weilian elaboration of the Platonic legacy, towards its more explicitly ethical-political declination. Those who become aware of their own misery must not abandon the world in order to divinize themselves; on the contrary, they must incarnate themselves by going out of themselves, imitating God through the practice of the impersonal within the political community and trough their relationships.
The exit of the Platonic Cave is subject to various possible «superimposed readings» (lectures superposées), one of which coincides with the passage from the confusion between the Good and the necessary, towards the love of the real, where contemplation of the Good and ethical-political action are unified. This love of the real, according to Weil, is possible only if one has assumed affliction (malheur). Only love gives all its effectiveness to intelligence, turning it into attention.
Weil then reinterprets the platonic gesture of contemplation (theōria) - the soul that turns itself entirely in order to contemplate the sun (strephein syn holē tē psychē, Plat. Resp. VII 518c9; OC IV 2, p. 93) - as being explained in a fully active detachment, in a practical declination of the impersonal, that of cognitive-ethical attention involving the whole soul. Attention will in fact be thoroughly explored in the writings of 1942-1943: it will be the condition of listening to the malheur of others and the sole source of inspiration for justice in the community. The contemplative capacity that underlies attention will then show all its ethical and political value. Platonism is thus at the deepest root of the last Weil's political proposal, also with regard to the central role that work (travail) will play in it (see Mariz 2014).
3. The Platonic Legacy, between Appropriation and Discontinuity
We are now able to briefly assess the discrepancy between appropriation and discontinuity of Weil’s Plato, read through the re-elaboration of the three major concepts: that of malheur, attention and assimilation to God as a practice of the impersonal.
First, there is a movement of assimilation of Plato. Weil finds in the Greek philosopher Alain's teachings and their inadequacies, but she also finds her own ideas, to the point that there is an intimate interweaving between exegesis and personal reflection. Plato’s legacy helps Weil to move from the political critique of oppression to a broader vision, where the necessity expressed by force and by the scientific vision of the world, enters into relationship with an unappropriable and transcendent Good. So the Greek «father of Eastern mysticism» helps Weil to ponder over the mediation between natural and supernatural. What is interesting is that this appropriation restores to the “rationalist Plato” of the time (i.e. that of Brunschvig 1953, Chartier 1960, but also Robin 1908), so to speak, his “religious” dimension, which is essential access to ancient texts with respect for their contextualization.
At this level we also discover the discontinuity established by the Weilian exegesis. She passes from the «Platon précurseur», a rationalist and transcendental Plato, to the «mystical Plato», «heir» of a wider civilization. This mystical Plato is not simply a contemplative one (as in Festugière 1936). Weil's Plato is not the inventor of a “world beyond” this one, he is not a proponent of a dualistic system, but one who emphasizes the importance of everything that constitutes a bridge between human misery and the divine, between reason and spirituality, contemplation and action. This is what makes Weil present a new Plato in relation to her time: he is not seen as the disease of the contemporary age, but as its therapy and as a source of inspiration for rebuilding Europe after the war. It is indeed by taking again the gesture of the platonic sage who re-enters the Cave, that Weil will write her political testament, L'Enracinement.
Without doubt, the reflection on malheur as a contradiction which belongs to the human condition is a major vector of discontinuity with the rationalist and voluntarist Alainian legacy (Gabellieri 2006) and, therefore, with Alain’s Plato: according to Weil, a self-referential concept of soul salvation is no longer possible when one experiences radical suffering. The role of affliction is also crucial in order to understand the importance of the development of attention. This latter aspect is seen, in fact, as the passage of intelligence through contradiction and through the transformation brought about by desire.
As we have seen, the Platonic theme of contemplation (to which the intellect comes when the soul leaves the Cave) is interpreted by Weil as the development of attention through contradiction and through desire «à vide». The practice of attention, in later writings, is also interpreted as a «passage to the impersonal». The impersonal is seen by Weil as an anthropological dimension which is open to the transcendence of the Good. Moreover, only those who made this passage are really capable of relating to the suffering of others. The impersonal thus becomes the practical translation of the Platonic idea of “assimilation to god”, which implies a transcendental reference within the ethical telos.
The impersonnel, therefore, expresses the highest maturation of Platonic psychology, within the anthropology of the last Weil. It is a category that has been taken up and deepened in its political and impolitical scope (Esposito 1999, pp. 237-244; Zanardo 2017), or in its spiritual dimensions (Vetö 1997, pp. 21-52; Gabellieri 2003, pp. 491-524; see also Di Nicola, Danese 2009), but its Platonic roots have not yet been illuminated. In Plato, and in Weil's Plato, psychology and politics find their connecting key.
Weil considers Ancient Greece and Plato in particular as a privileged source of inspiration for post-war European civilization. The author assimilates Platonic texts, images and themes to the point of incorporating them into her own thought. The heart of Weilian Platonism consists of a theory of mediation capable of connecting contemplation and ethical-political commitment to reality. Weil finds in Plato a thought capable of dealing with human affliction (malheur), relating it to a transcendent Good and developing an ethic of attention. In her last writings, the author will describe this ethic by associating it with an anthropology of the impersonal.
Through these vectors of interpretation, Weil thus passes from the rationalist Plato whom she herself had inherited from the academic culture of her time, to a spiritual Plato, «father of mysticism». This mystical Plato is surely not new: it is part of the Platonic tradition itself. What is new in Weil is the re-appropriation of Platonic “spirituality” in relation to the analysis of contemporary affliction. This is what makes Weil re-read the gestures of leaving the Cave and contemplate the Good in all their ethical and political effectiveness. At the base, Weil transforms the very meaning of philosophy, from a «search by means of reason» to a form of «wisdom», «something in action and practical» (OC VI 4, p. 392), which is first of all a «work on oneself» (OC VI 1, p. 174).
This is why, according to Weil, «the path of the cave is made for us today» (OC VI 3, p. 395): it is a gesture that is always renewed. There is no progress on this, we always need to «go towards Ancient Greece» to find this inspiration and, thereby, to find ourselves. In this sense, «to be original is not to think otherwise than Plato. It is to do on his behalf, what Plato did twenty-five centuries ago and turn to the truth with all one's soul» (se tourner avec toute l'âme, OC IV 1, p. 67): here is the meaning of the Platonic legacy according to Weil and the very invention which is required in every time and in each generation.
Even if this analysis is limited to a study of Weilian texts and concepts, it aims to be a first step in the broader exploration of the links between the Platonic tradition and a deeper reading of the contemporary continental philosophy, which should serve as a reassessment of Simone Weil’s writings and legacy. Some studies have already been moving in this direction. I hope that this contribution demonstrates that exploration is worth continuing further.
Cited Works by Weil
OC I = Weil S. (1988), Œuvres complètes, t. I: Premiers écrits philosophiques, ed. Devaux A., de Lussy F., Gallimard, Paris.
OC II 1-3 = Weil S. (1988-1991), Œuvres complètes, t. II, vol. 1-3: Écrits historiques et politiques, ed. Leroy G., Devaux A., de Lussy F., Gallimard, Paris.
OC IV 1-2 = Weil S. (2008), Œuvres complètes, t. IV, vol. 1-2: Écrits de Marseille, ed. Castel-Bouchouchi A., Devaux A., de Lussy F., Gallimard, Paris.
OC V 1 = Weil S. (2019), Œuvres complètes, t. V, v. 1, Écrits de New York et de Londres (1942-1943), éd. Chenavier R., Riaud J., Rolland R., Chenavier M.-N., Durand-Échard F., Paris, Gallimard.
OC V 2 = Weil S. (2013), Œuvres complètes, t. V, vol. 2: Écrits de New York et de Londres (1943): L’Enracinement. Prelude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain, ed. Chenavier R., Rolland P., Gallimard, Paris.
OC VI 1-4 = Weil S. (1994-2006), Œuvres complètes, t. VI, vol. 1-4: Cahiers, ed. Degrâces A., Kaplan P., de Lussy F., Narcy M., Gallimard, Paris.
OC VII 1 = Weil S. (2012), Œuvres complètes, t. VI, vol. 1: Correspondance familiale, ed. Chenavier R., Devaux A., Gallimard, Paris.
Weil S. (1996), Deux lettres inédites à Joe Bousquet, «Cahiers Simone Weil», 19, 2.
English translations, where not specified, are mine.
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Brunschvicg L. (1953), Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale, Vol. I, PUF, Paris.
Cameron S. (2003), The Practice of Attention: Simone Weil’s Performance of Impersonality, in “Critical Inquiry”, 29, 2.
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Chartier É. (1960), Les Passions et la Sagesse, Gallimard, Paris.
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Di Nicola G.P., Danese A. (2009, eds.), Persona e impersonale. La questione antropologica in Simone Weil, Rubbettino, Soveria Mannelli.
Doering J., Springsted E. (2004, eds.), The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.
Esposito R. (1999), Categorie dell’impolitico, il Mulino, Bologna.
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Festugière A.J. (1936), Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon, Vrin, Paris.
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Lisi F.L. (ed., 2007), The Ascent to the Good, Academia Verlag, Sankt Augustin.
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Pétrement S. (1973), La vie de Simone Weil, Fayard, Paris.
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