In a Lonely Place: Born a Century Ago, the Ascetic French Philosopher Simone Weil Spent the Last Months of Her Short Life Exiled in London Working for De Gaulle's Free French. but, as Paul Lewis Explains, Her Strange, Austere Vision for a France Reborn after the Tragedy of the Second World War Was Very Different from That of the Country's Future President

By Lewis, Paul | History Today, February 2009 | Go to article overview

In a Lonely Place: Born a Century Ago, the Ascetic French Philosopher Simone Weil Spent the Last Months of Her Short Life Exiled in London Working for De Gaulle's Free French. but, as Paul Lewis Explains, Her Strange, Austere Vision for a France Reborn after the Tragedy of the Second World War Was Very Different from That of the Country's Future President


Lewis, Paul, History Today


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But she's mad' was General de Gaulle's comment early in 1943 I after scanning a proposal from a brilliant young philosophy professor, Simone Weil. She had just arrived in London via New York to join de Gaulle's Free French organisation after fleeing Occupied France.

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Weil's proposal was to send teams of front line nurses into battle alongside Allied troops to aid the wounded where they fell, even though many of the nurses were sure to be killed. She thought their very presence would encourage soldiers to fight harder by reminding them of 'the hearths they were defending', so doing for Allied morale what unswerving loyalty to the Fuhrer--she called it 'idolatry'--did for crack Nazi units.

The proposal had already been turned down by the US government while Weil was in New York. Its rejection by de Gaulle was just another in the string of disappointments she suffered during the last eight months of her life when she was working as a kind of in-house philosopher with the Free French.

Philosophers and generals can get on well together. Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, teaching him that all non-Greeks were barbarians and the Persians should be destroyed. Weil fully shared de Gaulle's determination to see Hitler defeated and Nazi-occupied France set free again. Like him she also had unecertaine idee de la France. But her aim was not 'to restore the independence and greatness of France', the objective de Gaulle had set himself in his August 1940 agreement with Churchill which established the Forces Francaises de l'Interieur or Free French in London. Rather she wanted a France reordered to remove all she held responsible for the catastrophes that had overwhelmed it in her short lifetime--the economic depression of the 1930s, the political incompetence of the faction-ridden Third Republic, and the spread of totalitarianism across Europe--leading to the humiliating defeat of 1940. Her view was a far more radical one than de Gaulle's and it was not to come about.

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By the early summer of 1943, Weil's frustration with the Free French was so great that she resigned, quarrelling with her former classmate and mentor, Maurice Schumann, de Gaulle's information supremo who later became Foreign Minister of France. Her health, never robust, was deteriorating rapidly due to overwork, incipient tuberculosis and self-starvation caused by a refusal to eat more than what she (wrongly) believed the French ate under German occupation.

Hospitalised in London, she was moved to a sanatorium near Ashford in Kent, where she died on August 24th, 1943. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed, a verdict strongly disputed by her official biographer and friend, Simone Petremont. Born on February 3rd, 1909, Weil was just 34 when her life came to its unhappy end. She was virtually unknown beyond family and friends. She had published a few articles in left-wing French periodicals but no books, and she left only a bundle of notebooks and manuscripts. It was not until after the war that her unpublished writings began to appear in print, thanks largely to the efforts of Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who admired her greatly and, like her, was of the left but not sympathetic to Communism. Gradually, she has acquired an international reputation as a mystical political and social thinker who charted a unique course from Jewish atheism towards a Christianity that precluded baptism or membership of any church.

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Her writings on subjects such as the knowledge of God and the nature of freedom and oppression helped inspire postwar movements seeking to reconcile religion with concern for the poor, ranging from the Worker Priests in Europe to Liberation Theology in Latin America. Her manuscripts have been bought by the French state and placed in the Bibliotheque Nationale. …

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In a Lonely Place: Born a Century Ago, the Ascetic French Philosopher Simone Weil Spent the Last Months of Her Short Life Exiled in London Working for De Gaulle's Free French. but, as Paul Lewis Explains, Her Strange, Austere Vision for a France Reborn after the Tragedy of the Second World War Was Very Different from That of the Country's Future President
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