It’s no secret that many evangelical Christians are searching for a different political philosophy than the libertarianism and free-market capitalism that seemed to define conservative political thought for decades. In this new post-liberal milieu, many evangelicals are turning to forms of Christian progressivism on the one hand or different kinds of Christian nationalism on the other. What is clear is that the time is ripe for fresh political perspectives in conversation with older political ideas.
Enter Simone Weil. Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher who wrote her seminal work The Need for Roots in the middle of the Second World War as her native France was under Nazi occupation. Her desire was to provide a vision—a “prolegomena to politics” as T.S. Eliot claimed—for how France could be rebuilt and re-rooted after the war. More than this, The Need for Roots provides a vision for how a country can find its spiritual nourishment once again by attending to interpersonal obligations and the needs of the soul.
Here, I am not attempting to discuss Weil’s entire project, nor to encourage its full implementation. I am simply attempting to glean from her challenging claims as one might wander through a vineyard, picking some fruit and leaving others, stopping along the way to admire and reflect. And along the way, I will offer my own perspective on how these ideas might be relevant to the conservative political vision of the twenty-first century. While her project is not one that could ever be fully implemented, it is one that will always offer relevant challenges and critiques to every current political movement if people have ears to hear. So with curious reverence, I would like to offer up her voice.
Obligations vs. Rights
Weil begins with something of a thesis for her entire work: “The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former” (3). From her notion of obligations comes her description of the needs of the soul. Just as the human body possesses material needs to be nourished and to survive, so the soul has spiritual and moral needs that are necessary for its vitality. In a commonwealth in which everyone fulfills their obligations, all of the needs of the soul will be met and the society will be healthy and functional. A commonwealth founded on the protection of certain inherent rights will necessarily, according to Weil, lead to sickness and perhaps death. She seems to challenge the enlightenment notion that we are fundamentally bound to one another by a social contract, one formulated for material survival or the protection of fundamental rights. Rather, prior to this social contract each person carries certain obligations to his fellow humans, rooted in nature and the divine law.
For Weil, rights are not independent of obligations, nor are they superior. Obligations stand on their own and possess power on their own, for those obligations provide a goad to action. Rights depend upon the effective exercise of obligations. A person may in some sense possess the “right” to own private property; but this right means nothing in a society that does not recognize that it has an obligation to respect and defend that person’s possessions. Personal rights are effectively realized in the obligatory act of the other. It is the “recognition” of an obligation, not the recognition of a right that gives the right any power of its own (3). In this way, obligations describe the subject of the act, while rights refer to the object of the act. From the point of view of the subject who has obligations, the object may be said to possess rights; but only insofar as there is a subject to act upon him. Because of this, Weil argues that personal obligations are primary because they are not contingent: a person alone on a deserted island still possesses obligations (most notably to himself), but he has no rights (4). Thus, a person as subject only has obligations, whereas a person as object of other people’s obligations has rights—fundamentally the right to be respected as a human being with an eternal soul (4-5).
Weil argues that obligations are of a higher order than rights because rights are always subject to certain conditions and particular situations in time and place, whereas obligations are unconditional, always binding, and originate in the spiritual realm. Whereas a person’s right to life or liberty can be forfeited given certain conditions—such as committing crimes—a person is never exempt from fulfilling their obligations to their neighbor, even if circumstances determine the means and method of their fulfillment (4).
The Problems with Rights as the Center and Foundation
Weil has much more to say about rights and obligations—which we will explore in due time. But it is worth reflecting on the way that she frames this distinction. One of the more current expressions of this recognition of universal human obligations is the “confused” and “imperfect form” of positive rights. Rights are the modern expression of universal obligations that, while not a perfect expression, reflect the existence of divinely given obligations. Insofar as the idea of positive rights are contradictory to the notion of obligations, they are “illegitimate” (6). She claims that, while God has neither rights nor obligations (contra Maritain), obligations correspond more closely to our reflection of the divine:
The notion of right is infinitely farther removed from pure good. It is mixed up with good and evil; for the possession of a right implies the possibility of making either a good or bad use of it. While, on the other hand, the performance of an obligation is always, unconditionally, a good from every point of view. That is why the men of 1789 made such a disastrous mistake when they chose the notion of right as their chief source of inspiration. (275)
If one’s personal rights are the foundation of society and the beating heart of free democracy, then the citizen’s chief duty becomes the active preservation and protection of those rights at all costs. While obligations are still recognized, those obligations are defined by personal rights: simply not infringing on the rights of others. In such an environment, there is no virtue in giving up one’s rights (cf. Ayn Rand), no reward in looking after the interests of one’s neighbor. In such an environment, the things that seem the most worthwhile are self-interest, self-defense, and simply leaving people alone (cf. classical liberalism). The fundamental orientation of the citizen becomes what personal rights he can demand others respect, rather than what obligations he has to his neighbor.
When considering universal human rights, it is theoretically possible to understand them apart from any assertion of divine dispensation, contingent upon certain historical or situational conditions; but not so with obligations. In order for obligations to be universal and binding, they must “belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because [they are] situated above this world” (4). A society founded on human rights need not have any transcendent or universal foundation, and thus any appeal to universal rights rises or falls by the will of the people. Weil references the French Revolution as an example of this phenomenon.
As Christians, we can relate Weil’s ideas to the dual reality of the imago dei and the imitatio dei. Many have argued that the image of God in mankind provides the theological ground for inherent rights, and this may be true; but it is also true that the image of God carries with it certain obligations, namely to imitate God in our human calling to be vice-regents and co-heirs. Just as God made man as image-bearer, he also made man as imitator, one who would imitate the works of God within human society: works of relationship, service, and creativity—or, in a word, love. Because we bear God’s image, we must also act as God acts.
While in one sense, the law is meant to protect the rights of image bearers, it is also an ethical imperative that informs the obligations of citizens to each other. Because one’s neighbor bears God’s image, he is owed love, a love of neighbor rooted in the love of God, for we are made like him. Thus, the imago dei and the imitatio dei cannot be separated; these two must be held in tension in order for society to avoid extremes of selfishness and decadence on the one hand (overemphasis on rights) and oppression and totalitarianism on the other (overemphasis on obligations).
The balanced pairing of rights and obligations is most beautifully portrayed in the biblical understanding of hospitality and generosity. A cursory reading of the Old Testament law indicates the immense significance that God places on protecting an individual’s life and property. Not only does the Law prohibit murder, but it also prohibits theft of all kinds. The admonitions against theft—moving property markers, stealing livestock and possessions, man-stealing, adultery, and covetousness—all indicate a person’s property and family are in some ways an extension of their personhood, for an attack on one’s property is an attack on one’s self, on one’s freedom and self-possession—which is essential to personhood.
In this sense, one may conclude that the freedom to hold or protect one’s property is a fundamental human right, rooted in personhood and the imago dei. It is important to understand that the intrinsic freedom of personhood provides the context not merely for individual rights, but also for ethical obligations. And these obligations are, in some sense, prior and more transcendent. The obligations to love one’s neighbor are not arbitrary, but are rooted in the personhood of both parties and emerge from the freedom to love, which is ultimately the freedom to be a person. Thus, these rights of personal property are joined with the obligation of generosity and hospitality, rooted in the imitatio dei and the freedom of personal love.
Because everything a man owns is fundamentally a gift from the Creator who owns all things, man is thus obliged to give from what he has been given. The call to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is carried out by giving as your Father in Heaven gives—whether that be personal property or personal forgiveness for a debt owed.
Obligations and the Collective
If obligations come first, we must reflect on the purpose of collectives—whether that be institutions, commonwealths, or countries. All human beings are bound by these obligations, but Weil argues that collectives as such are not the object or subject of obligations, for collectives are not eternal beings—they are circumstantial and man-made. Nevertheless, the collective demands the utmost respect, because it is through collectives that we fulfill our obligations to meet the needs of the body and the soul—just as we might respect a cornfield because it provides food for people (8). We owe collectives respect for three reasons:
- Each collective is unique and cannot be replaced (8).
- Collectives are continuous in time, moving toward the future, and thus they always possess, in seed-form, provisions for the souls not yet born (8).
- As continuous things, collectives are rooted in the past: “It constitutes the sole agency for preserving the spiritual treasures accumulated by the dead, the sole transmitting agency by means of which the dead can speak to the living” (8).
Collectives are judged by how the social order is set up to foster the carrying out of obligations. There may come a time when two obligations are incompatible and the citizen must choose which obligation he must follow. It is not that the transcendent obligations are contradictory, but that the social structure makes it difficult or impossible to practically carry out both obligations at the same time (10-11).
In this formulation, the collective will (expressed in legislation and social structures) is not fundamentally aimed at preserving a few spare “rights”, but rather to aid in the carrying out of human obligations. A collective can, instead of feeding souls, devour souls by demanding a total sacrifice of the individual to the State. A collective can also be malnourished or it can be dead (10). Each individual has a responsibility to do all that is in their power to help the collective be a soul-nourishing place—a place rooted and grounded in love and virtue.
The Needs of the Soul
Because human beings have eternal souls and an eternal destiny, our obligations extend beyond providing for our neighbor’s physical needs. But Weil regards the notion of hunger and the obligation to feed the hungry (cf. Isa. 58:10; Matt. 25:35-40; Jas. 2:15-16) as a proper model “on which to draw up the list of eternal duties towards each human being” (6). Our obligations correspond to what is vital to the human soul, the fulfillment of which is nourishment to hungry souls (7).
Weil lists many needs of the soul, and the majority of them are paired with a contrasting need that ensures the soul is balanced between extremes. Below are the major needs of the soul she delineates:
Freedom of Opinion
While Weil does not describe any needs related to the divine realm—such as the need for divine forgiveness or the salvific knowledge of God—she properly outlines many of the needs that can be met in the temporal realm through the proper administration of collectives, whether that is the commonwealth, institutions, or the family.
This perspective–that the collective is formed for the needs of the human soul–seems to be supported by aspects of Protestant political theology, notably in T.S. Eliot’s penetrating and prescient essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Here, the great Anglican poet, playwright, and literary critic affirmed that society must be concerned with the needs of the human soul. He claims that modern liberalism and the over-industrialization of society has led to a grave diminishment of the human soul, and society is no longer structured for the sake of virtue, well-being, or the beatific knowledge of God. Eliot claims:
The Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society—which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians. It would be a society in which the natural end of man—virtue and well-being in community—is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end—beatitude—for those who have eyes to see it.
While Weil doesn’t put her arguments in as distinctly Christian terms as Eliot—most notably she doesn’t talk about salvation or the knowledge of God—the notion that society and government should be oriented toward fulfilling the obligations to love one’s neighbor and meet the needs of the soul as well as the body finds resonance with Protestant Christian social thought in the twentieth century. More broadly, similar arguments can be made from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’s arguments about how happiness and virtue are the chief concerns of the commonwealth. In one sense Weil seems to be in line with the almost universal notion that the general welfare and the common good are the aims of political association, but Weil’s framing of this in terms of interpersonal obligations and the needs of the human soul—and what she considered the needs of the human soul—are illuminating and challenging.
Rootedness and Uprootedness in the Modern West
Weil spends the majority of The Need for Roots, unsurprisingly, examining that titular need. While she admits that “rootedness” is hard to define, she claims that, “A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future” (43). She defines “natural” in terms of automatic association by virtue of birth, place, profession, and social surroundings (43). So strongly does she believe in the importance of rootedness in multiple environments, she claims, “it is necessary for [a person] to draw well-nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part” (43).
No one is born in isolation, but rather from the beginning is joined in body and soul to several communities—the family, the political community, and the religious institution most directly; these communities are the “roots” of his spiritual life and the relative health of these communities directly affects the health of the individual’s soul. A rooted community is one that draws fresh nourishment from its continuous connection with the past as well as its good and beautiful desires for the future.
Weil claims that there are five major causes of uprootedness:
- War. One of the great evils of war is that it invariably leads to the uprooting of its victims.
- Money-Power. At its most basic, this describes a society that makes economics the center of its social and political concerns, such that money becomes the chief consideration and the most powerful motivator.
- Economic Domination. This is primarily associated with unemployment or underemployment—or a society marked by unstable economic conditions—causing the wage-earning class to be dominated solely by the desire for money to make ends meet.
- Bad Education. The modern project of education has divorced ideas from concrete reality, cultural history, and—ultimately—Truth. (46).
- Destruction of the Past. This preservation of the past may be the most significant component of rootedness in Weil’s philosophy; thus, the destruction of the past is the greatest threat to the soul’s ability to be rooted: “to be able to give, one has to possess; and we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasure stored up from the past and digested, assimilated and created afresh by us” (51).
Uprootedness is self-propagating because there are only two outcomes for uprooted people (47):
- “Spiritual lethargy resembling death” like the slaves of the Roman Empire.
- Participation in activities that further their own uprootedness and are designed to uproot others: “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others” (48). Examples would be the slave trade and the French Empire.
One of the most poignant examples of uprootedness she gives is prostitution. It is uprootedness to an “extreme degree,” which then leads to uprootedness in everyone who engages in it; even a few prostitutes can cause large-scale uprootedness (86). The problem is even worse with pornography, which adds an extra layer of uprootedness because it is devoid of context, space & time, human connection, or any form of relational continuity. There may not be one single social phenomenon that is more uprooting and damaging to the human soul than pornography.
In the face of this rootlessness, she argues that purely legal changes cannot solve the problems of uprootedness and the many proposed solutions from the working class for their own rescue from uprootedness will not actually help them. Examples of this would be: nationalization of industries, abolition of private property, added power given to trade unions, etc. Because the real problems aren’t on the “legal plane,” purely legal remedies will not solve the problems. And the people suffering from rootlessness—while they are keenly aware of their suffering—do not know what they need in order to become rooted again (53).
Weil’s emphasis on the importance of continuity with the past and knowledge of history coheres with the heart of conservative political thought, but she also emphasizes that a rooted community must be always aspiring toward higher ideals, never content to perpetuate tradition for its own sake. A rooted society is both conservative and progressive, for its progress toward the future comes from the soul of its own tradition. It is like a skilled painter who encounters an art gallery—he is stimulated and nourished while his own originality is confirmed (43-44). What is most important is that every rooted community—as its own unique entity designed for the soul-needs of its own unique people—should aim to help her members recover and nourish her roots; this should be the aim of all political, legal, and technical innovations (51).
Whatever institution or collective a Christian is a part of, his aim should be to take seriously the major threats to human rootedness: war and immigration, money-power and economic domination, bad education and loss of tradition, and—very relevant to our own time—rapid technological development. Besides the spreading of the Gospel and the worship of God, these are the chief concerns of Christians in society, for these are the sorts of things that any neighbor-loving person has to contend with in one form or another.
The State, Patriotism, and Compassion
Space does not permit us to explore many of Weil’s ideas related to education and the spiritual nature of work. But I do want to expound her ideas about the state, the nature of patriotism, and the Christian call to compassion for one’s nation.
While there used to be many different kinds of geographical collectives, now the only real one is the “nation,” which she defines as, “A territorial aggregate whose various parts recognize the authority of the same State. One may say that, in our age, money and the State have come to replace all other bonds of attachment” (99). Only the state maintains the “links with the past and the future”—and that not very well. The family doesn’t even do this well because it has been reduced simply to the nuclear family, and it has lost its link with ancestors and ancestral land on the one hand or a clear familial vision of the future on the other. The reason why people are so attached to the nuclear family is because “there alone people could find a little living warmth against the icy cold which all of a sudden had descended on them” (99).
Because of the loss of roots in other natural communities in which people normally share a vital part, the state has become the sole and supreme collective who holds the fate of everyone in its hands (100). She says it’s hard to define the State, but it demands entire loyalty over and against the commonwealth, the country, or the king: “The State is a cold concern which cannot inspire love, but itself kills, suppresses everything that might be loved; so one is forced to love it, because there is nothing else. That is the moral torment to which all of us today are exposed” (114). Thus, two things are readily apparent:
- The total State can never replace the lifeblood of the more traditional collectives of the commonwealth, the family, professional communities, and the church. Thus, the soul of the people is suffering and malnourished.
- Patriotism has become redefined, leading to either an idolatrous fealty to the State or a rejection of the love for one’s country altogether.
She argues that while patriotism has always existed, because the nation-state as connected with hard land boundaries is a recent phenomenon, patriotism has taken on new contours that are not always healthy or good. With kingdoms, patriotism was mingled with fidelity to the office of king and sovereign nations with national sovereignty (104ff). But ultimately patriotism in the modern era has been reduced to fealty to the State. This has led to two primary effects:
- The total secularization of society.
- The transformation of patriotism to totalitarian aims.
In Weil’s time, the obvious examples of the demands of the total state were the totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Russia, but even liberal democracies lost a sense of a commonwealth in favor of the coldness of the State and its mechanistic demands on the people. Attendant to this is the bifurcation of justice and politics, such that its preservation becomes the chief goal, regardless of the demands of justice or the welfare of the people within it. Very practically, the concerns of wealth and power become its only motives and its only ends.
With such a distasteful prospect as the godless secular State, one would assume that she might be in favor of a contra mundum approach to society—perhaps encouraging Christians to tend to their spiritual lives and leave the state to its own self-destruction. Rather, she argues that Christians should engage society and political action as consciously Christian and compassionately patriotic.
She says that patriotic pride is pagan, having its roots in ancient Rome (140-41). It should be replaced by compassion for one’s country (168). Rather than be concerned for a country’s prestige or economic and military greatness, the true patriot is concerned for the soul of the country, for it is in the country, community, and commonwealth that the souls of individuals are nourished or starve. The example she gives is Christ and his love and compassion for Jerusalem (168-69). She claims that the only love-attachment Christ had was a love wrapped in compassion—a desire to see Jerusalem healed of its sin and a sorrow that it would be destroyed.
This compassion can be one of happiness and not merely sorrow, and it can be fed by rejoicing in the “pure and genuine grandeur” of the past as well as the country’s “hopes and ideals” (171). But because it is a love borne out of compassion rather than pride she says,
Such a love can keep its eyes open on injustices, cruelties, mistakes, falsehoods, crimes and scandals contained in the country’s past, its present and in its ambitions in general, quite openly and fearlessly, and without being thereby diminished; the love being only rendered thereby more painful…Thus compassion keeps both eyes open on both the good and the bad and finds in each sufficient reasons for loving. It is the only love on this earth which is true and righteous (171).
The true Christian patriot loves his country because it is the community in which he forms a vital part, and from this love comes concern for the country’s soul and delight in the things of its past that nourish and sustain it.
This brief exploration of the political philosophy of Simone Weil leaves much to be desired. Her political ideas are not easily synthesized and even more difficult to practically apply. If one were to read the entirety of The Need for Roots, it would become readily apparent that no country could ever fully implement her ideas—or would even want to. In fact, she admits as much, but argues that we should not be drawn away from high ideals because of the inability to practically carry them out. We must be inspired by unattainable ideals—for this is a Christian maxim: “One of the fundamental truths of Christianity is that progress towards a lesser imperfection is not produced by the desire for a lesser imperfection. Only the desire for perfection has the virtue of being able to destroy in the soul some part of the evil which defiles it. Hence Christ’s commandment: ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven if perfect’” (215). Weil calls us all to an impossibly high standard, one that should be pondered and integrated into the soul so that whatever practical decisions we make for the sake of our neighbor and our commonwealth cannot help but emerge—however imperfectly—from the high calling of love for the soul of our neighbor. This is ultimately what must drive a Christian political vision in the twenty-first century.
Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics and Professor of Moral Philosophy at New College Franklin, a Christian Classical Liberal Arts College in Franklin, TN. He is also Provost of Davenant Hall.
For the sake of ease, I’m using “evangelical” to mean anyone who broadly adheres to Protestant theological and social teaching. ↑
T.S. Eliot, “Preface,” in Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. Arthur Willis (Oxford: Routledge Classics, 2002), xiv. ↑
All quotations cited in-text from this point are from The Need for Roots, cited above in footnote 2. ↑
It could be argued, of course, that France’s attempt to establish universal rights without appeal to the divine was philosophically incoherent. ↑
As image-bearers, one of the chief ways of being human is as God’s vice-regents and kingly representatives within God’s kingdom. Many scholars affirm that part of this image consisted of bearing the authority of God as ambassador or representative. In the Ancient Near East, the king was commonly understood to be in the “image” of God or the gods and he bore God’s authority. Moreover, the image of a god or king was understood to carry the god’s or king’s authority; the spirit of the gods was even understood to indwell the image. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), 30. ↑
For more on gifts, gratitude, and hospitality as rooted in God’s gifts to men and man’s subsequent obligations, see: Peter Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History; Christine D Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). ↑
T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society in Christianity and Culture (London: Harcourt, 1939), 18. ↑
T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 27. ↑
Cf. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics book 1 and Politics book 1 ↑
This again speaks to the misguided sort of patriotism in the MAGA movement. But it also speaks against the progressive hatred of the country and its past. This is compassion, not shame and not glory. Note: it doesn’t preclude pity for a problem that the country has brought on itself (cf. Christ’s pity of Jerusalem). ↑