Weil and justice

Jacqueline Rose:

As Zaretsky points out, there is no one thread running through [Simone Weil’s] writings, a difficulty he responds to by picking out the five themes he considers most representative of her thought: affliction, attention, resistance, roots, and “the good, the bad, and the godly” (the last referring to her version of mysticism, in which spiritual apprehension was the one true source of a viable ethical life). This has the advantage of focus but, as he is aware, compartmentalizes her ideas, creating distinctions and separations whereas, more often than not, her concepts slide into and out of one another in a sometimes creative, sometimes tortured amalgam or blur…. Nonetheless, the absence of “justice” from the list strikes me as a strange omission in what I read for the most part as an informative and attentive book. Weil’s heart was set on justice. It was her refrain. A recurring principle in pretty much every stage of her writing from start to finish, the concept of justice renders futile any attempt — though many have tried — to separate Weil the mystic from Weil the activist, or Weil the lover of God from Weil the factory worker, who felt that the only way to understand the wrongs of the modern world was to share the brute indignities of manual labor, which reduced women and men to cogs in the machines they slaved for.

In a sense this is clearly true, and yet … it is odd how rarely Weil uses the word. It turns up occasionally but (to my recollection anyway) is never emphasized. She is much more likely to speak of “the needs of the soul,” the “obligations” we have to meet those needs when we see them in others, the affliction (malheur) that people experience when deprived of their most elementary needs. I think “justice” is too abstract a term for her, too denuded of relational human context, too bloodless.

And if I am right about this, then Weil by avoiding the language of justice makes an important point about how impoverished our usual understanding of justice is. It’s common today to think of justice (or the word that now often replaces it, “equity”) as a condition, a state of affairs, whereas Weil — despite the shocking anti-semitism that defaces her character, something I write about at some length in The Year of Our Lord 1943 — is clearly profoundly influenced by the Jewish understanding of justice (tzedek) and charity (tzedakah) as commandments. One must act justly and charitably. Similarly, in New Testament Greek dikaiosuné may be translated as “justice” but also as “righteousness” — a virtue, a divine virtue.

(It’s interesting that in common parlance today “equity” is treated as a synonym for justice, and is implicitly or explicitly contrasted with equality, which while giving the appearance of justice may in fact, so the argument goes, be a means of denying justice. In ancient Greek, equity [epieíkeia] is typically seen as a kind of moderation of the demands of justice [dikē] — in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says we need equity to judge individual cases rightly, because all laws are defective insofar as they are, necessarily, general and therefore not ideally matched to every individual case. In New Testament Greek to be epieikés is to exhibit mildness, gentleness. Paul instructs the Philippians to “Let your moderation [epieikés] be known unto all men.”)

So maybe there are reasons why Weil doesn’t often speak of justice, but rather of our obligations, and the virtues or dispositions that make it possible to carry out those obligations; also of the guilt we ought to feel when we do not offer to people what they are owed — when we fail those who suffer. All of this is miles and miles away from how people speak of justice and equity today.

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One of Simone Weil’s notebooks, in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris