Tuesday my friend Marie (Ph.D., Oxford, 2002) gave an excellent talk on Simone Weil's dissection of the foundations of ideologies like Communism and Nazism.
For being such a brilliant early-twentieth-century intellectual, Simone Weil is remarkably little known. A description of her from the flier for the talk:
An iconoclast among French intelligensia of her day, SIMONE WEIL (1909-1943) remains a great paradox today. Though possessed of an incisive philosophical mind, she was likewise graced with mystical visions of Jesus Christ. Though a Jew convinced of the truth of the Catholic Faith, she refused to become part of a Church that was, in her analysis, too “Jewish.”
I thought it would be helpful to recap some of the points that struck me. Please note that my notes are pretty sparse, and what I include here is by no means meant to be a complete exposition, let alone a cohesive line of argument. All shortcomings are my own and should not be attributed to Marie or Simone.
Simone's critique of ideologies is that, instead of receiving the truth from reality, they try to impose themselves on reality.1 Further they claim to explain everything. She calls them idolatrous because, in the name of a false absolute, they claim to render good and evil meaningless. All ideologies are therefore religious in nature, even if (and even more when) they ostensibly reject religion.
Idols satisfy the fear of death to self. They try to plug up the "holes" by which God reaches us.
Simone reverse's Marx's dictum that "religion is the opiate of the people" by observing that Marxism is an opiate2; Marxism flees the demands of Truth by projecting an illusory utopia.
For Simone, the folly of love is necessary for justice (she was very much of an idealistic temperament) and she observes that if society dismisses the supernatural, it risks becoming ideological (the natural world is not sufficient). "Everything that is true is Christian," she says. At the same time she avoids self-righteousness by observing that barbarism (cruelty to the weak) is not the exclusive property of some other time, some other place, some other people but is a permanent universal characteristic of man, against which he must constantly struggle to maintain civilization. We can all become barbarians; and indeed for all our "civilization" we have enough barbarism to spare (abortion, euthanasia, etc.).
Coincidentally (there are no coincidences), the sermon at the next day's Mass reiterated some of the points of Marie's talk. It was the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. As you might recall, both of these men gave their lives in witness to the Christian Faith, particularly to the superiority of the Church over the state, of God over Caesar. More, who had been Lord Chancellor of England, summarized his position by calling himself "the King's good servant, but God's first."
The sermon pointed out the falsehood of the smug condescension of non-believers who denigrade religion as a comfort for the weak. We believe in Faith, the priest said, not because it makes us comfortable (martyrdom is notably not), but because it is true. The demand of Christianity is to conform our lives to this Truth, not to conform the truth to ourselves.
More and Fisher faced the choice that Simon Weil set out: either adore the idol or die to self. We honor them for choosing the latter.
1. Truth is not an ideology.
2. This one seems pretty obvious: Marx rejects the notion of truth—absolute truth—and says that all communication is manipulation for power; he actually says more about himself than anyone else: he's essentially saying that his words are manipulation for power.