I am indebted to renowned theologian Dr. David Tracy for providing me access to his personal notes from a speech he presented at the Chicago Cultural Center on May 18th, 2008 entitled “Nietzsche and Simone Weil, Two Tragic Philosophers.” Being granted access to these writings has provided me with a treasure that I will mine continually throughout my studies.
Previously, I made an attempt at showing how Simone Weil’s tragic understanding of life can serve as a nice example of what Christianity stands to gain by taking Friedrich Nietzsche seriously. In this post I will further explore this connection, but before we go on, a quick recap of Nietzsche’s tragic outlook in in order.
Nietzsche infamously declared, “God is dead” a statement that has been woefully misunderstood by religious practitioners. It does not mean that God literally died. A non-existent God could not die, neither could one who exists. Nor does it mean that any sort of religious practice, worship or spiritual experience is impossible. Rather, it speaks to the fact that meaning is no longer guaranteed through the transcendental (we will devote much more study to this topic in upcoming posts). If meaning is no longer guaranteed through the transcendental, then it follows that living one’s life for an “afterlife” would be a denial of the precious time we are actually given. To do so would result in the denial of life. Nietzsche wants to affirm life. He accepts the whole of it. Every pain fits alongside every joy. There does not have to be a happy ending. We should consider our daily action in light of the eternal return.
Now with Dr. Tracy’s invaluable help we can bring Weil and Nietzsche together again.
If Weil’s outlook can be described as “tragic” it is surely due to the role of the human body in her philosophy. Though Weil was a Platonist, as Dr. Tracy states, “she insisted on body, social conditions, history… far more than most forms of Platonism.” One could say she had a platonic materialism that avoided Socrates’ nihilism . As Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy, “there is… a profound illusion that first saw the light of the world in the person of Socrates: the unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of causality, can penetrates the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being but even of correcting it.” Weil affirmed this life by viewing every aspect of it, whether the beauty of nature or the horror of “affliction,” as blazing pathways toward a mystical union with God. As an example of her praxis, one could recall the time she spent laboring with and teaching factory workers in France. Without sacrificing the possibility for revolutionary political action, she showed them how their labor could allow them to feel “necessity” in a way that transmitted profound knowledge of God. As Tracy termed it, she was “mystical-political.” The point here is that “necessity” could only be felt in the body. Unlike the typical Platonist, Weil’s God awaited discovery in our created bodies as a result of direct contact with creation. Just as body could not be separated from mind, neither could passion be divorced from intelligence nor theory go without practice.
Tracy claims Weil was able to balance the “philosophical” with the “tragic” outlook because she accepted the whole of the “forms and expression of the ancient Greeks” (only taking issue with parts of The Odyssey and certain aspects of Aristotle). Nietzsche really only accepted the Greek tragedies and thus his tragic outlook is different than Weil’s. For Nietzsche the world is chaos and power. For Weil it is chaos and grace. However, both know that tragedy is not hopelessness, it is acceptance of reality in all its complexity.
In this acceptance tragedy can have a corrective effect on unhealthy attitudes. Nietzsche used tragedy to combat those that would say “no” to life. For him, tragedy led individuals into acceptance of their lives regardless of how it unfolds. Weil saw tragedy as having a corrective power over triumphalism in Christianity. By having a tragic outlook, no one collectivity can lay claim to pain or joy. Her stunning essay on The Illiad showed how much Weil valued justice for all people. Every victory is tied up with every defeat and no one has a right to a happy ending.
Through her wedding of “tragic Christianity” and “Platonic materialism,” Weil was able to restore love back into religion. Most importantly, this outlook allowed her to live a life of radical love towards all people. With today’s Christianity preaching a gospel that creates entitlement to prosperity and encourages nationalistic triumphalism, perhaps Weil’s (and Nietzsche’s) tragedy could still have a corrective effect.