In the previous two posts, we explored the possibility that Nietzsche’s thought was haunted by the residue of his Christian upbringing, In doing so, we took a look at his criticism of the “Christian moral order” of life. That is, the belief that distress, suffering, and transience are errors. Nietzsche emphasized that life is inextricably bound up in joy and sorrow, it is in a constant state of becoming, and cannot be rendered clearly intelligible. Thus one cannot choose what to affirm or deny about life. Every moment of life occurs as a result of, and therefore with, the moments before and after.
Of course, Nietzsche’s criticism was of a certain Christian theology. In truth, there is no universal Christian theology. Evident of this is today’s post featuring the writings of one very unique Christian thinker who took an affirmative attitude towards all that life brought her. Simone Weil was one of the most interesting and original figures of the last century. Her life story is riveting. I highly recommend diving into one of the many biographies avaiable (I particularly enjoyed Petrement’s Simone Weil: A Life).
Weil’s essay, “The Love of God and Affliction” is a sober, at times terrifying look at the the fragility of human existence. Simone Weil believed that “to be a created thing is to be exposed to affliction.” (463) Weil’s “affliction” is a state wherein one’s whole being is destroyed through physical pain, humiliation, and distress. She calls it a “pulverization” by the “mechanical brutality of circumstances.” (462) Our flesh, soul (that is, spirit or morale), and social personality are never safe, they are constantly under threat.
Yet, for Weil, affliction is a sure sign that God wishes to be loved by us. “The universe where we are living, and of which we form a minute particle, is the distance put by the divine Love between God and God. We are a point in this distance. Space, time, and the mechanism that governs matter are the distance.” (447) Weil sees the whole of material reality as a distance created by God through the work of Jesus Christ that allows for God to desire himself. The circumstances we experience in our lives are the products of a sort of chaos machine constructed by God. Matter is perfectly obedient to the instruction God programmed into this machine. Thus it is perfectly obedient to God and a perfect example for us. When one feels the pain of affliction, one feels the obedience of creation to its Master enter his or her body. For Weil, we can feel the love of God even in this. Once all our physical strength, ambition, and personality is stripped we are very near the nothingness that we are. We are also very near the silence of God.
Weil says, “The speech of created beings is with sound. The word of God is silence. God’s secret word of love can be nothing else but silence. Christ is the silence of God.” (467) When we ask the question”why”, the answer God gives us is his silence. “When the silence of God comes to the soul and penetrates it and joins the silence which is secretly present in us, from then on we have our treasure and our heart in God; and space opens before us as the opening fruit of a plant divides in two, for we are seeing the universe from a point situated outside space.” (467) In other words, affliction helps us overcome ourselves and hear the word of the Lord.
Affliction is not the only means for a human to connect with God in this way. Awe before the beauty of his handiwork also allows us to hear him.
“The man who has known pure joy, if only for a moment, and who has therefore tasted the flavor of the world’s beauty, for it is the same thing, is the only man for whom affliction is something devastating. At the same time, he is the only man who has not deserved this punishment. But after all, for him it is no punishment, it is God himself holding his hand and pressing it rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentation is the pearl of the silence of God.” (468)
Unquestionably, Nietzsche would have many problems with Weil’s outlook (in a broader scope, she was a decided, but still unique, Christian Platonist) and he would certainly have some scathing attack aimed at her decadence. Still, one has to admit that Weil does say “yes” to every joy and every sorrow. Neither does she view “transience, distress, or suffering” as punishment for sins or errors of life. For her, the ending did not have to turn out well and in that she possessed a tragic wisdom of her own.