Simone Weil in 1921
ARCHIVIO GBB Contrasto / Redux

In 1949, France’s most prestigious publishing house, Gallimard, added a new book to a series called “Espoir.” At a time when espoir, or “hope,” in France was rationed as severely as bread, the name was an optimistic one. Barely risen from the ruins of a world war, France was now riven by the Cold War. The book’s preface, written by the series editor, was no more reassuring. It warned that the book, based on an unfinished manuscript, was austere, even pitiless, in its analysis of the desperate condition confronting Europe. Yet “to conceive of Europe’s rebirth,” it announced, would be impossible if we ignored the author’s message.

The editor happened to be the world-renowned voice of the French resistance and French existentialism, Albert Camus, and the book he introduced was titled L’Enracinement, or The Need for Roots. He never met its author, who died in 1943 in England while working as an analyst for the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle. In fact, the book was meant as a policy paper for postwar France. As was his habit with this particular analyst’s papers, the general seems to have ignored it. This would not have surprised the analyst, who wrote in a letter: “Naturally, I don’t think there is the slightest reason to suggest that what I am writing will have any effect. But as you can guess, that doesn’t stop me from writing.”

Since the book’s publication 70 years ago, scholars have not stopped writing about its author, Simone Weil. In particular, political theorists have explored what Camus calls Weil’s “exigences,” or demands, in The Need for Roots. Though the text is partial, its pertinence is greater than ever. In a world where 70 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, in an age witness to a violent surge in identity politics and ethnonationalism, at a time when the value of human rights has never seemed dimmer, Weil offers a curious, but compelling prescription. 

By the mid-twentieth century, it was impossible to discuss French identity without tripping over the notion of roots.

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” she writes. “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 of the future.” With this opening declaration, Weil employs a metaphor that was, well, deeply rooted in French political discourse. By the mid-twentieth century, it was impossible to discuss French identity without tripping over the notion of roots.

A master of the root metaphor was the reactionary and anti-Semitic thinker Maurice Barrès, famous for his 1897 potboiler Les Déracinés, or The Uprooted. The novel traces the trajectories of a band of provincial teens from Barrès’ native Lorraine who uproot themselves to study philosophy in Paris. Once there, they fall prey to a professor of Kantian ethics. Fatally exposed to the German philosopher’s abstract and absolute claims, based on a priori reason and not a posteriori experience,these French youths were like Gamay grape vines rooted in Parisian asphalt. The novel climaxes in blood-stained madness when two of the students, their “Lorraine souls” deformed by Kantian arguments, murder a woman. The moral is clear: having quit their native earth to become worldly, these youths withered instead.

Ultimately, Barrès portrayed the French nation as the work of untold generations tied to the land and one another. France was defined by la terre et les morts—by the people who worked and were buried in the same soil. Though Weil also insists on the crucial importance of rootedness, she scorns Barrès’ romantic irrationalism and feverish nationalism. What she means by uprootedness is more existential and elusive. Weil’s own experience during France’s military rout in 1940 was still vivid. She had been part of “great exodus” of 1940, when millions of French fled toward the south in advance of the German panzers. Leaving France for the United States and then Britain in 1942 in order to help her parents escape the anti-Semitic Vichy regime, Weil had ever since sought, unsuccessfully, to return to her native country. As she told a friend, she felt that her “roots had been torn up.”

Even before the chaos of military invasion, the churn of industrialization, bureaucratization and rationalization had pulled up great swaths of the French population. Though the victims remained in place through these processes, they were nevertheless, Weil states, “morally uprooted, banished and then reinstated, as it were on sufferance, as industrial brawn.” The assembly-line worker in Paris felt “less than a thing,” burdened with “the sensation of no longer existing,” just as farm workers in the provinces did. The catastrophic consequences, to her mind, were inevitable: France’s collapse in 1940 “simply showed to what extent the country was uprooted. A tree whose roots are almost entirely eaten away falls at the first blow.”

The lack of statistical rigor and sustained research in Weil’s account is made up for in sheer experience and sharp observation. The child of a bourgeois family and a graduate of France’s finest schools, Weil chose to work in Paris factories and harvest grapes in southern France, descend into coal mines, and volunteer on fishing trawlers. Allergic to abstract theories, which she (at times misleadingly) associated with Enlightenment thought, Weil rooted her thoughts in the lives of the same people whom the French sociologist Christophe Guilluy now assimilates to “la France périphérique.” As much a socioeconomic as a geographic marker, the “periphery” designates mostly exurban areas where blue-collar and low white-collar jobs threaten to be swept away by the great waves of technological, financial, and commercial innovation. At the same time, in “la France métropole”—urban centers like Paris, Toulouse, and Grenoble—the professional classes surf these waves. Last year, they were nearly swamped in turn when les gilets jaunesa popular movement from the periphery, generated a shock wave of its own that cascaded repeatedly into the nation’s metropoles. 

What Guilluy has called “fracturing” resembles Weil’s notion of uprooting. But to repair a bone or foundation that has fractured is fairly straightforward. The act of uprooting, on the other hand, is traumatic. In her landmark work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, a fellow exile who carefully read Weil, cites uprootedness as the modern condition par excellence. It has been, she wrote, “the curse of modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution [to] the breakdown of political institutions and social institutions in our own time.” According to Arendt, being uprooted means having “no place in the world, recognized and guaranteed by others”—it is to be deprived of “one of the fundamental experiences of every human life.”

The answer to uprootedness, for Weil, lay in embracing one of its principal causes: “The world requires at the present time a new patriotism. And it is now that this inventive effort must be made, just when patriotism is something which is causing bloodshed.” The nation was an imperfect vehicle for a shared sense of identity and meaning, but it was the best on offer. The nation, and the nation alone, would play “the part which constitutes the supreme mission of society toward the individual human being, namely, maintaining throughout the present the links with the past and the future.” In her diagnosis of the modern predicament, Weil anticipated Arendt’s powerful critique of rights, insisting that a renewed emphasis on universal rights was inadequate to the task at hand. 

Weil places human duties at the center of nationalism, and in so doing, displaces the nation from its traditional status among nationalists as the ultimate source of value.

In effect, Weil argues that the French, rather than dusting off the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, should demand a Declaration of the Needs of Man and Citizen. While the preamble to the revolutionary document of 1789 declares “that ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities,” Weil has her doubts. The simple fact that rights go unrecognized suggests that they are “not worth very much”—a truth grasped by authoritarians on both sides of the Atlantic. In her essay “Human Personality,” Weil presents an unexpected illustration of her point. If someone tries to force a farmer to sell his eggs at a lower price, the latter will reply, “I’ve the right to keep my eggs if you refuse to pay the asking price.” But now imagine a young girl who is forced into prostitution. “She will not talk about her rights,” Weil observes. “In such a situation, the word would sound ludicrously inadequate.” 

The dated wording and setting lend the impression that the negotiation over eggs is akin to a Saturday morning trip to our local farmer’s market. But Weil was undoubtedly thinking of her own life during the “exode,” watching desperate Parisians trying to buy eggs from farms along the escape route. Less dated, tragically, is her allusion to a young girl forced into a brothel. Sex trafficking is, of course, a global plague, one battled by numerous human rights organizations. While Weil would admire their dedication, she would also wonder if they grasp the full extent of the crime. To frame sex trafficking as a violation of a human right, Weil believes, and not a violation of a human need is to miss the enormity of the act. For Weil, rights are the reflection of the modern, commercial, and contractual societies in which they were conceived. As a result, to describe what is done to this young girl as a violation of her rights is to obscure rather than clarify what is at stake—which is to say her personhood. 

In her merciless treatment of rights, Weil treats nuance—as is so often the case in her writings and life—as a refuge for the intellectually and morally faint-hearted. At the same time, however, she obliges us to rethink the nature of obligation. For Weil, the corollary to another’s needs is our obligation to recognize them, regardless of conditions. Weil then lists fourteen “needs of the soul” that range from the political and material—liberty, equality, and freedom of opinion—to the rather immaterial, such as order, hierarchism, and honor. Each of these needs, Weil declares, entails obligation on the part of others. Indeed, with the same self-assurance shown by the writers of the 1789 declaration, who insisted upon the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, Weil asserts: “Duty toward the human being as such—that alone is eternal.”

Weil places human duties at the center of nationalism, and in so doing, displaces the nation from its traditional status among nationalists as the ultimate source of value. “The nation is a fact,” she writes, “and a fact is not an absolute value.” Unlike pride in one’s nation, which cannot be exported to other nations, compassion is, by its very nature, a universal impulse. To cultivate this sentiment is not only laudable but practical, because it tightens the bonds of fraternity both within and among nations.

The “terrible responsibility” assumed by the French resistance, Weil understood, was more than the defeat of Nazi Germany. The traditional understanding of the nation and nationalism must also be defeated, a task she saw as “nothing less than a question of refashioning the soul of the country.” Compounding the difficulty, she warned, was the miasma of mendacity that had settled on France: “Our age is so poisoned by lies that it converts everything it touches into a lie.” This was the work not just of the Vichy regime, but also of the Third Republic that had preceded it. As evidence, Weil cited the education of the nation’s youth. Children have been taught, she wrote, that “things concerning the country … have a degree of importance which sets them apart from other things.” But here’s the rub: “It is precisely in regard to those things that justice, consideration for others, and obligations assigning limits to ambitions and appetites never get mentioned.” 

Not then, and not now. More than a half century later, little has changed in school curricula and political discourse on either side of the Atlantic. Though there has been a raft of writings on human rights, there is a drought of books on human duties. While our mailboxes are stuffed with missives from organizations like Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and the Human Rights League, we never hear from, say, a Human Obligations Watch for the simple reason that no such organization exists.

Yet, as the historian Samuel Moyn argues, this absence is something of an historical anomaly. Until the twentieth century, the question of obligation and duty held center stage in juridical and philosophical debates, while rights were very much a sideshow. Now that these roles are reversed, he writes, the consequences are significant. “Human rights themselves wither when their advocates fail to cross the border into the language of duty; insofar as compliance with norms on paper is sought, the bearers of duties have to be identified and compelled to assume their burden.” On the 70th anniversary of Weil’s exasperating but essential work, this is a truth we ought to recall.

  • ROBERT ZARETSKY is a professor of modern French history at the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.
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