La Canapele by Anca Rosca

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.

Diotima bust

I have thoroughly enjoyed Robin Waterfield’s translation of Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2009 [1994]). He has also translated Republic, Timaeus, Gorgias, Phaedrus, and others, plus works from Euripides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plutarch, Plotinus, et alia. He conveys a charm and wit that I have not found in other translators — though I’ll leave it to the experts in Attic Greek to judge — and his annotations are often humorous. His introductory essay to Symposium, which should be read only after reading the dialog itself, is a fine probing of the text: appropriately cautious yet confident in his vast knowledge of Plato’s corpus.

Socrates’ speech about ἔρως is a retelling of insights given to him by Diotima, a female philosopher and seer. The argument is full of twists and turns, not easy to reconstruct. Plato is figuring how ἔρως — érōs, trans. “love” — remains continuous throughout the person’s ascent to the highest form of love, which is love of absolute beauty, not merely particular instances here below. We begin with the ἔρως felt toward a particular object of our desires, as in our desire for sexual consummation with a beautiful person. There is a lack within ourselves, which is why Love cannot be identified with the absolute (or God) according to Plato — since God does not lack anything. The precise nature of this lack is a bit obscure. Love (ἔρως) is not pursuing beauty for the sake of beauty per se but for the sake of happiness, which Plato elsewhere (Republic most famously) connects with absolute Goodness. Yet, what makes us happy? In Symposium, Plato connects our ἔρως with our desire for immortality, which compels us to procreate and thereby extend ourselves. Likewise, we want to “possess” the objects of our desire because we want the true object — happiness — to endure forever. So, this is why philosophy is better than sex (!) because we can “procreate” that which never perishes: virtue or goodness. Thus, Socrates rejects the sexual advances of his attractive male students, because he wants to procreate wisdom with them, thereby bringing them to a higher stage of eternal beatitude.

The “erotic” is never denigrated. Sexual desire and its consummation participate in the beauty that leads us to absolute beauty or goodness. The erotic impulse is not to be rejected or repressed but transferred to a greater and more expansive apprehension of beauty. At least, that is how Waterfield interprets it:

The temptation to talk about the ascent in terms of sublimation of erotic impulses has proved too strong for some post-Freudian commentators, but it is entirely inappropriate. Diotima is not talking about the unconscious repression of instinctive energy, but the conscious transcendence of it. Whatever precisely Freud meant by the term ‘sublimation’ (he changed his mind a number of times about it), it seems to involve a blockage of the erotic impulse; in Diotima’s speech, on the other hand, érōs is never blocked, even though it may be transferred on to different objects. Even here there is a difference between Plato and Freud: the new objects of érōs in Freudian sublimation are less satisfactory than the objects the person really desires; for Diotima, however, the further up the ladder of love one ascends, the more fulfilling the objects are. Finally, although it is clear that the passion of érōs is preserved throughout the ascent, it is not clear that the sexual element is, except as a metaphor (as in Eryximachus’ speech); for Freud, however, sublimated desires remained essentially sexual. [p. xxxi]

So, the “sexual element” is important at the early stages of our apprehension of beauty and desire for happiness, though it is not clear whether this persists — once our “eros” is directed toward the purer and enduring beauty of absolute goodness. Given that Plato elsewhere conceives of material reality as a lower “impression” of the eternal “forms,” it seems that Plato’s ideal is a transcendence beyond all sexual desire, even if he does not denigrate its importance in one’s ascent. The problem with an “erotic impulse” that never matures, remaining at the lower level of particular goods, is that it wants to unite with transience, instead of using this impulse to lead beyond transience.


Image: A bust of Diotima at the University of Western Australia. Click to enlarge.