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Simone Weil on hierachy - liberal and traditional

Monday, 9 Feb 2015

Simone Weil on Dr John Dunn. In the aftermath of the Second World War, T. S. Eliot expressed concern that ‘centuries of barbarism’ lay ahead, ushered by the supremacy of technology. In Simone Weil he discovered a kindred spirit in the countering of barbarism with a vision of a cohesive social structure, firmly rooted in tradition. Writing the preface to Weil’s The Need for Roots, Eliot described Weil ‘as a stern critic of both Right and Left; at the same time more truly a lover of order and hierarchy than most of those who call themselves Conservative, and more truly a lover of the people than most of those who call themselves socialist’.

Weil, like Eliot, believed that an effective social organism can only be founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity, with all contributors considered as equally important to its progress. Everyone, everything,must be considered to be in a relationship with someone or something else in conformity with their respective natures, and thus in conformity with the right to fulfil those natures. This right is not expressed as an absolute, as it is under liberalism, but as a relation.

Simone Weil expressed this insight in The Need for Roots, her blueprint for a new post-war social organism. She wrote that ‘a right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him’. Her point was that it is the relative nature of a right which makes it effective. ‘An obligation which goes unrecognised by anybody’, she wrote, ‘loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognised by anybody is not worth very much’. Under liberalism, it is the one-sided understanding of each right as an absolute and possessed equally by everyone, that has actually destroyed rights, i.e. the right of a nature to be what it is.

‘Rights’,Weil wrote, ‘are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.

‘The men of 1789’ (in other words Weil meant the progenitors of modern liberalism), ‘did not recognise the existence of such a realm. All they recognised was the one on the human plane. That is why they started off with the idea of rights. But at the same time they wanted to postulate absolute principles. This contradiction causedthem to tumble into a confusion of language and ideas which is largely responsible for present political and social confusion’.

Weil is making the point that it is a belief in a ‘realm situated ... above this world’ that will determine whether or not men will submit willingly to the obligations of the social organism. It will demand a reorientation of all values to the vertical, rather than a horizontal human plane, where submission to a higher principle is necessary if rights are to mean anything at all.

French theologian Jean Borella has contrasted this vertically orientated thinking with modernity’s veneration of equality, in which an individual...

...‘right is always absolute and therefore excludes all others. But it is impossible to translate this absoluteness into equality and to say, since all rights are absolute, that they are all equal, for equality destroys rights. This right is in fact the right of a nature to be what it is. Now equality is realised only on the purely quantitative pane of numerical unities (1 = 1); thus, under its sway, everything tends to numerical juxtaposition, which is only possible through the destruction of all the qualitative differences that specifically make up these natures, so that, with equality, a right is the right to nothing’. (Jean Borella - The Secret of the Christian Way)
Borrela argued that hierarchy has to be accepted as a way of preserving this right, which must renounce its absoluteness and consent to its own relativity. One right will have more of a right to something than another; but this renunciation is not to be felt as resignation and compromise, it must be based on something other than constraint.

Nevertheless, the prevailing view in the West is that there is a hierarchy of sorts in the modern democracies, a hierarchy founded on individual merit. This attempt, however, to render equality and difference compatible reflects the ‘political and social confusion’ that Weil observed. Meritocracy justifies differences of social status defined quantitatively by wealth, by money, in a world where money makes more money. It also encourages the perversity of individuals who strive to be materially different, whether for honour, reward or survival, which has led to a world of increasing sameness, uniformity and conformity. To apply wealth as the defining factor circumscribes status within the measure of human estimation, to that which is easily calculable. It renders beings uniform, so that there can never be anything singular. Everything, everyone, now conforms with the standard of universal measurement. ‘Money destroys human roots’, wrote Weil, ‘wherever it is able to penetrate, by turning desire for gain into the sole motive. It easily manages to outweigh all other motives, because the effort it demands of the mind is so very much less. Nothing is so clear and so simple as a row of figures’.

Not surprisingly, Simone Weil expressed economic activity as being subordinate to ‘the needs of the soul’. In addition to the necessity of obligation, she also cited order, obedience and hierachism as essential to the soul’s well being. Equality was included in her list too, but this was not the destructive 1=1 equality of liberal ideology. Weil was specific in recommending that a ‘way of rendering equality compatible with differentiation would be to take away...all quantitative character from differences’. In Weil’s vision, natures would have access to a qualitative equality as souls, not horizontally amongst themselves, but vertically with regard to God.

*First published in 1949 as L’Enracinement and in English translation with Eliot’s preface in 1952 as The Need for Roots.

John Dunn.

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