Weil’s problem of particularity
January 2, 2014
Is a particular human being valuable in her particularity?
A recurring difficulty in Simone Weil’s work is the way particularity is (seemingly) rejected, falsified, and made unreal. This is especially true of the peculiar qualities that differentiate one person from another. In the comments to a previous post, I expressed the problem this way:
The universal sacred in each individual is his or her desire for good (to fill the void of God’s absence). If the sacred in each person is universal, and absolutely identical in all, then there is nothing peculiar about the individual that makes her special or valuable, such as personality traits or certain talents. Thus, even if the individual is not erased, the peculiar is seemingly erased. As such, this philosophy becomes another form of tyranny, even though Weil develops it as the only antidote against tyranny/oppression/idolatry. In Weil’s philosophy, I value you because of this universal capacity within you (the universal sacred in all), not because of anything peculiar about you. All “discrimination,” even if seemingly benevolent, is wrong. Nothing peculiar about you is real (in the eternal, Platonist sense).
I am using “discrimination” here in a broad sense, of valuing someone for certain unique qualities which she may possess. For Weil, this is to value something “accidental” about the person, finite and transient, not the universal within the person. The universal is identical in all, thus no individual person is “special” except insofar as she possesses this universal. (On a side note, this would make first dates enormously difficult to navigate — you can only compliment your date’s universal essence!)
Yet, as I noted in the same previous post, the universal for Weil — goodness, beauty, truth — is:
“an unfathomable marvel” that is too often desecrated at the hands of novelists and artists who render it cliché and portray evil as sensational and mysterious. We “envelop [the truth of the Good] in a fog in which, as in all fiction, values are reversed, so that evil is attractive and good is tedious,” when in fact, “nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.”
Nothing is so “continually fresh and surprising” as the universal goodness and beauty. Unfortunately, Weil does not elaborate upon this theme, at least not in the writings that I’ve read (and I’ve read most of her English translated works). This may in fact be a way for Weil to account for the particular manifestations of the universal essence in every person, instead of reducing everyone to something common or shared by all. In other words, it may be a way to account for variety, in joyful wonder no less!
But as it stands, Weil’s thought shares many of the characteristics associated with Gnosticism, and her own enthusiasm for the Cathars tends to confirm this association. However, Weil is genuinely trying to overcome the dualism of Gnosticism, between the finite and the infinite. The created world is capable of participating in the infinite and conveying the truth of the universals. But the struggle, in my reading of Weil, is whether the created as such is valuable — or is it only valuable insofar as it points toward or conveys the universal. Likewise for our problem with particularity among humans: can the distinguishing peculiarities be valuable (the finite) or only the universal essence (the eternal)?
This is a difficulty, of course, that is common to most philosophical systems, the ones worth studying. This includes the Platonist tradition from which Weil learned and practiced, long before her conversion to Christ in her late twenties. It is significant that Weil’s christology is entirely formulated in terms of the cross, not the resurrection. Christ mediated the eternal within creation through his perfect self-abnegation, culminating at the cross. That is the entire truth of the incarnation. As she once wrote: “… if the Gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s Resurrection, faith would be easier for me. The Cross by itself suffices me.” Yet, can the dualism described above be overcome without the resurrection? If we trust Chesterton or Balthasar or any number of Catholic figures (they seem to grasp this better than most Protestants), the resurrection is integral to the incarnation’s gospel — the good news of finitude’s redemption. Creation is assumed (taken up) forever into the eternal life of God, through the ascension of Christ’s body. In some way, the peculiar is now made holy.
Unfortunately, Weil died when she was 34 years old from tuberculosis, aggravated by her rigorously minimal food intake. If she had lived longer, she may have eventually discovered the Catholic (Christian) synthesis, just as it took Augustine years to overcome his own philosophical dualism.