One of her “big ideas” was that the sickness of the modern world is caused by “uprootedness.” We are, Simone Weil believed, lost. The only antidote is a social order grounded in physical labor. Only manual work can save us.
Weil herself was preternaturally a worker by brain, not by hand. Small, myopic, physically awkward and weak, it is difficult to think of anyone less suited to toil in a factory, workshop or field. Weil was a French intellectual of the purest sort. Considered a prodigy from childhood alongside her brother Andre, who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians, she had mastered classical Greek by age twelve, was steeped in advanced mathematical physics by fifteen and at twenty came top in the entrance exam to the super-elite École Normale Supérieure. That was the same year, 1928, that Simone de Beauvoir had finished second.
Part philosopher, part activist, part mystic, Weil is almost impossible to classify. A youthful Marxist who abandoned the faith in favor of liberal pluralism. A lover of all things ancient Greek who equated the Roman Empire with Nazi Germany and Hitler with Caesa, she was a mass of contradictions. Yet her reputation has grown over time as one of the most original and uncomfortable thinkers of the twentieth century. T.S. Eliot, a great admirer, considered her “a woman of genius, a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” “A genius,” added one of her many anthologists, “of immense revolutionary range.”