Simone Weil was born in Paris, France, in 1909. Her father and mother were well educated and her brother André, a brilliant mathematician, would develop foundational and influential ideas in algebraic geometry and number theory. Weil often felt herself laboring in her brother’s shadow, but she soon differentiated herself from him by the intensity of her religious and moral imagination. For her, neither purely abstract worlds and models, nor the engineered forms and homages to power of modern technology, answered to her questioning spirit. A brilliant student, she was among the first women to graduate from the École Normale Supérieure. Whether writing on Descartes or Marx or performing routine factory work, Weil remained preoccupied with ultimate questions. Rejecting Marx’s thoroughgoing materialism, Weil searched for her spiritual identity in pacifism, in anti-Fascist political action during the Spanish Civil War, and in reading and writing on philosophy, ethics, and social justice.
The Weils were Jewish—Simone Weil’s attitudes toward her Jewish heritage and Judaism as a traditional faith are highly complex—and as the political ideologies of Communism and Fascism with their overt anti-Semitism and violence dominated the war-ravaged European landscape, in 1942 the family immigrated to America. Simone, however, stayed in New York only briefly. Appalled by Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, in touch with the Free French forces, and seeking to oppose the Nazi war machine by sending nurses to the front lines as moral witnesses to the power of love and compassion, she returned to London. Suffering from tuberculosis, consistently eating only the equivalent of the meager rations of the poor in occupied France, still preoccupied in mind and heart with God, justice, and salvation, Weil died at the age of thirty-four at Ashford, Kent, in August 1943. On her deathbed, she was baptized by a non-ordained friend into the Catholic faith.