Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Reading Romans 13 with Simone Weil: Toward a More Generous Hermeneutic

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Reading Romans 13 with Simone Weil: Toward a More Generous Hermeneutic

Article excerpt

Among the few works French intellectual Simone Weil published during her lifetime is a 1941 essay entitled "The Iliad, or The Poem of Force."1 The title of the essay contains the thesis in nuce, which is that the "true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force." She goes on to define force, or perhaps we would say "power," as "that which makes a thing" of whoever is subjected to it.2

That "force" is crucial to the Iliad is, in one sense, so obvious a statement as to be trivial. The literal use of force runs throughout the epic and results in death time and again. Noble chariot drivers lie on the ground "much dearer to the vultures than to their wives" (Il. 11.162).3 As the wife of Hector orders water heated for his return from battle, the poet comments:

. . . She knew not that far indeed from warm baths

Achilles' arm had beaten him down. (Il. 22.445-446)4

Death is only the first, most obvious instance of force that Weil finds in the Iliad. There is also force that does not kill immediately but already transforms human beings into "things." The human being is turned "into stone," when the warrior who is "disarmed and exposed ... becomes a corpse before being touched." This is force "which does not kill, or rather does not kill just yet. It will kill for a certainty, or it will kill perhaps, or it may merely hang over the being it can kill at any instant."5 Even when force does not kill, it paralyzes.

Force can make human beings into things off the battlefield as well. Agamemnon insists that he will not return the young woman he has taken as a prize of war:

I will not return her. Before that old age will seize her,

in my home, in Argos, far from her homeland,

moving along the loom and lying in my bed. (Il. 1.29-31)6

Later a mother anticipates her child's future of "degrading labor, toiling under the eyes of a pitiless master" (Il. 24.733-734).7 This is, Weil comments, life "that death has frozen long before putting an end to it."8 "The mind [of the victim of force] should devise a way out but has lost all ability to devise such a thing. It is occupied entirely in violating itself." "Each morning [the soul] amputates itself of all aspiration."9

Force devastates its victims without pity, but the wielder of force scarcely escapes. Force may crush the victim, but it intoxicates those who possess it, leading each side to regard the other as so alien as to belong to a different species.10 As a result, force destroys everyone: both those who use force and those who endure it are destroyed.11 Yet no one actually "possesses" force in the Iliad, since every agent is subject to it at one time or another. Weil describes war in the Iliad as having the movement of a seesaw.12 The work breathes throughout such "an extraordinary sense of equity" between the Greeks and the Trojans that readers are scarcely aware the author is Greek, observes Weil.13

This remarkable essay is cast entirely as a study of the Iliad. Although it was published in 1941, there is not a single reference to Adolf Hitler, to Germany, or to the French occupation. At the same time, every line bears the marks of the period in which it was written. Weil might well have cited the apostle Paul, "Whatever was written earlier was written to instruct us" (Rom 15:4).

This brief summary provides a glimpse into the depths of Weil's essay. Classicists have occasionally quibbled with it, noting its neglect of the poem's preoccupations with glory, with heroism, with the gods.14 Nonetheless, many readers have recognized the intensity of Weil's insight into the Iliad, indeed into human life.15 To read Weil's essay is to be caught up in the destructive folly of the human quest for power.

Turning from Simone Weil's essay on the Iliad to Rom 13:1-7 creates the readerly equivalent of whiplash. In that notorious passage, Paul admonishes followers of Christ in Rome to be ordered under human authority. …

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