Weil’s hypothesis

In a poignant passage of her last letter to Father Perrin, Simone Weil expresses “an absurd hypothesis”: that if she were to die without serious sin but find herself fallen into hell, she would not or could not blame God, who had always extended his infinite mercy to her in her earthly life.

Weil had already proposed that obedience must reconcile one to infinite acceptance. She makes a human analogy: a mother’s loves for her child is infinite and that joy is everything, and all else is “superfluous.” Yet that mother cannot infinitely safeguard her child from accident, circumstance, danger, or destruction. Thus, in the hypothesis, God’s love and mercy is everything, is infinite. Yet God does not intervene. The only relevant fact is God’s love. “The rest is the affair of God alone and does not concern us.”

There are complex themes to Weil’s simple hypothesis, but these were the sorts of statements to her correspondent Father Perrin that reinforced her simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Catholicism. Here God’s capacity to express mercy is thwarted, and God’s ability to intervene in the universe is unmasked.

But the “absurd” hypothesis is not incompatible with theological speculation; it is, however, completely at odds with the fragile premises of the churchmen about what God is. Infinite is the condemnation of one in hell, and irreducible is the universal order that condemns the given soul to hell. Weil only takes that premise to its logical or “absurd” conclusion, that God can condemn one to hell for no apparent reason (like Kafka’s antihero in “The Trial”) and one will have to accept that it is for something one did but does not remember or cannot deny not matter how absurd. Another possibility (which is perhaps emblematic of Weil’s whole life) is that the condemned stands in the place of others — not as Christ does in saving humanity and himself, but as the poor and ignorant condemned one who lives and dies in vain in the unconscious quest to save others if not himself.

What sort of love and mercy is this, let alone the proposition that it constitutes “infinite” love and mercy? Weil gives the churchmen the backdoor psychological (but not theological) solution: that obedience overrides logic, reasonableness, or discernment. Obedience is an infinitely compelling necessity in theology. Obedience overrides mystery — the usual kindness given to absurd or illogical or unreasonable behavior on the part of God. And obedience overrides love, or rather reciprocated love, like that of the child toward its parent. How many children really do not love their parent, given the complex of instincts and urges and identity frustrations that plague childhood? Obey but not necessarily love.

Obedience, together with poverty and chastity, became the third virtue of the cenobite, but must necessarily be transformed by the solitary or religious hermit because obedience is clearly presented by the church as a way of frustrating will, reason, and logic, even love.

Weil has exposed this flaw at the heart of Christian theology. And yet she resolves nothing theological, for the dilemma remains even for non-believers. Rather than God, we may say that the universe nurtures us with infinite love and mercy (like the mother’s love for a child). Over the course of millions of years, the universe labors to create us, specifically us. And in the end, the universe casts us into old age, infirmity, suffering, and death — our earthly hell. And we have no choice but to obey. The non-believer cannot even pray to hope to enter heaven instead of hell, cannot pray for mercy or solicit God’s love, for these have all been exhausted in creating the conscious creature that is a human being. And like the existential coreligionist, the non-believer joins his side in sighing, “Why?”

So Simone Weil, infinitely conscious of her solitude, strikes the reverberating chord that shatters the hope and acquiescence of belief. We have no choice but to obey, meaning that we have no choice but to accept our fate, however “absurd.”

What a gadfly was Simone Weil, even to the last moments of her young life, rabidly ethical and ascetic, rivaling any believers’ piety, outdoing many a comfortable saint.

I feel that it is necessary and ordained that I should be alone, a stranger and an exile in relation to every human circle without exception.


Travel always disrupts a form of identity. Animals always prosper in a given habitat even when they must rove within it, but humans contrive annoyance at stability within a habitat and long to drift here and there, in search of adventure, discovery, or idle curiosity.

The appeal of travel is ubiquitous. Homer’s The Odyssey is a perennial favorite of writers ancient and modern. The classic embodies adventure within an acknowledged requirement or inevitability of returning home to stability, identity, domestication. The adventures are tantalizing because we know that the hero, after pleasure, will return to a warm fire or dry shelter, there to savor memories. This is the masculine dream that mingles rakishness with the hearth, reconciles the raging and final denouement of both hormones and instincts.

An Asian tale postulates a question put to a Tibetan yogi: “How do you get enlightenment?” “Leave your country,” the yogi replies. Bodhidharma left India for China, and Japanese sages left Japan for China (but returned). How many emigrants have imagined a promised land, from the Hebrews of Egypt to those journeying from Europe to America, or some version in history even since? But is the yogi’s reply true?

A few sociologists postulate that the genetic makeup of emigrants and adventurers leans toward the same material rapacity, the getting-rich, the finding of gold, the embodied crusader, explorer, mercenary, or risk-taking financier. All live with the goal of movement, change, and progress, a value that came to embody virtually every scientific and social paradigm throughout the last five centuries. Even the average person is eager to see new things while savagely defending their narrow world view.

Perhaps the hunter-gatherer instinct survives in this ironic way. Primitivism extols the virtues of the untrammeled and uncivilized, making the point that, after all, look at to what brink of collapse and extinction technological civilization has brought us. But is this remark not the primitivist’s very weakness? — to have projected the wandering, adventurer’s restlessness onto what evolved from their eventual weariness as civilization. The hunter-gatherer bequeathed aimless extermination (several species were probably hunted to extinction by them), ever in search of new prey, to modern civilization.

The historical agriculturalist or peasant does not trust travel, or even the inhabitants beyond the mountain within their purview. Their distrust is not founded on animosity but is more akin to the animal’s instinct to maintain its habitat, knowing subconsciously that change can be irrevocable, that the place where one is presently situated can be the universe. Not that the typical peasant will articulate this, any more than the animal will. Nor will the adventurer reduce his restlessness to mere genetics, though he has clearly lost touch with the present and with nature itself.

Travel by bus or train (not on a fast and mindless jet akin to the fictional time machine) in a distant or foreign land. A sense of wonder may well up, translated now into a sense of amusement, alienation, bewilderment, or fear, according to vicissitudes of life that now prompt the travel. Comfortable people project a sense of extension, like the happy child who accompanies the parent without fear as long as the parent is within sight. Perhaps the pilgrim will be focused on a specific goal, regardless of circumstances. But the less comfortable may sense the inherent restlessness that strange sites project, a sudden rootlessness, a not-belonging. This feeling is deeper than the heroic adventurism of Odysseus.

The experience is not merely of being out of habitat or without a home. The experience can encapsulate a rootlessness embedded within life itself, within the universe, where everything ought to be home, everywhere ought to be habitat, at least to humans no longer “mere” animals, no longer dependent on the mechanics of life but on the mind’s ability to abstract ways of living. But except for the adventurer and the comfortable — and for the modern mind — this sleight of hand about being a citizen of the universe cannot hold up. We have failed to transcend our animal nature, failed to get to that point of consciousness that does not need anything, less a home. But in the name of ideology we insist, and in the name of progress destroy our very habitat.

The restless try to cheat the ill feeling, and many succeed, often at the expense of others who suffer at the hands of the hunting-preying instinct of the mobile. But the restlessness, which is rooted in religion but contradicts nature (which, however, we will never appropriate) is not a failure of evolution. It is only a continuity of animal being, added to which is the wound of consciousness. Our destiny is to always feel this restlessness, to always long for a habitat that is familiar, congenial, recognizable.