An Impersonal Liberalism: Simone Weil and the Sacred
Simone Weil in her essay “Human Personality,” asks her audience to think about liberalism’s response to Nazi Germany through the “United Nations Declaration of Human Rights,” posed as a struggle between the personal and the impersonal. Weil was a notable Marxist, and was a Catholic who never joined the Church; she lived and thought in liminality. Weil’s work as a political theologian is often forgotten; however, her critique of liberalism resonates in a world in which responses to neoliberalism are often a calling back to liberalism.
Liberalism asks us to consider human life as worthy of being protected because we are individuals. Our differences, our individual distinctiveness, make us deserve protection. But it is not the fact that you are an individual that prevents me from hurting you. There is nothing within your personality that makes you worthy of protection. Weil contends that there is something beyond our personality and physicality that makes us important and beings who ought to be protected and cared for — there is something sacred which the Nazis deliberately ignored.
After the Nuremberg trials, liberalism struggled to conceptualise a morality that would prevent such horrors from ever occurring again. The “Declaration of Human Rights” was a step forward in addressing these wrongs. The first article states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” According to the Declaration, there are certain aspects of life which we are due because of our shared humanity. By laying out these tenets the UN set forth a universal standard for human welfare. However, these tenets rely upon liberal premises — that individuals have reason, and they ought to be supported as ends and not means among other contentions. In contrast, Weil argues that we require shared protection because of an inherent quality that transcends our particular characteristics — sacredness. She states:
“It is neither his person, nor the human personality in him, which is sacred to me. It is he. The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything. If it were the human personality in him that was sacred to me, I could easily put out his eyes. As a blind man, he would be exactly as much as human personality as before.”
Respecting human personality has nothing to do with protecting a person’s body; violating a body does not stand against the liberal argument for why we should respect others. Weil contends that it is impossible to define what it means to protect human personality. Because of this, if we want to prevent atrocities against human beings, we need a basis for a public morality that can be defined. For Weil, this is sacredness. Human being is sacred because of a natural morality. Humans are innately moral, which we see through the childlike assumption that we will be respected. The everyday person going throughout their lives, even if they know they are more likely to experience violence, will not assume that the person they pass will harm them. Weil describes this sacredness as something “that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experiences of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him.” The innate morality which we are born with, compels us to assume the best of others.
Sacredness is clarified by affliction, a form of suffering that robs us of our dignity — it is a suffering in which we are told “you do not matter.” Weil describes affliction as something which is fundamentally inarticulate: “The afflicted silently beseech to be given the words to express themselves.” If we experience affliction we lose our own individuality. The positive aspects that liberalism attaches to human personality — freedom, rights, dignity — are negated by affliction. By erasing the “I” we experience a void. Liberal values, “such as democracy, rights, personality…offer them something which can bring them no good and will inevitably do them much harm.” Liberalism harms the afflicted because it focuses on the individual, and in their existential suffering — they have lost themselves. Affliction erases everything that makes us human. Weil describes the pain in relating to the afflicted person as, “To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction, or in near danger of it, is to annihilate oneself.” The non-being experienced in this state of suffering, kills the soul. The horror of seeing a person who is living in death comes from our innate sacredness. The moral response to this decimation must be rooted in the ultimate grounded value in all of us, the impersonal.
The impersonal is the only thing which can ameliorate the harm caused by the violation of the sacredness of human being. Weil grasps onto the notion that we share the impersonal, and that in looking for a reason to respect humanity we ought to look at this transcendent quality. The impersonal is something we all share, a notion of humanity which transcends the ontological characteristics that liberalism begins with. It is the soul. The impersonal, rooted in the soul, connects truth, beauty, and “the anonymous.” Pursuing the impersonal, involves attentiveness. Weil describes this through the example of a child doing a math problem. When they do it incorrectly it is a mark of their personality. However, “if he does the sum exactly right, his personality does not enter into it at all. Perfection is impersonal. Our personality is the part of us which belongs to error and sin.” As the child pays attention to the problem that they are solving, the correctness of it reflects that level of attentiveness. When a person does something perfectly, there is no unique stamp upon it — it is anonymous. Their personality has vanished. In attending to the afflicted, the moral response should be impersonal. Our personality, our own stamp, would only appear if we further harmed the afflicted person.
The impersonal response to affliction is loving attention. It involves concrete actions, which the discourse of democracy does not necessitate. Discussing the importance of democratic institutions and human rights is not an action that helps people who are suffering. Loving attention involves meeting the other person’s needs, often psychological and emotional. Affliction keeps a person trapped in partial truth. They are unable to experience the entirety of truth, a part of the impersonal. Our reaction of giving attention to those who are suffering, stems from a shock at the violation of the sacred. In responding to them, we react in anonymity — it is an unnoticeable act to attend to a person whose being has been violated. Responding to another’s pain is an ordinary action.
Weil never attaches the word “dignity” in describing how we are expected to respond to another person, or to that other person’s being. The language of dignity, similar to the language of democracy, is corruptible. Weil wants to get away from language which can be used to do harm. In the discourse of rights, human dignity is often cited; however, it is equally used by persons who wish to discriminate against others. We cannot use language that is used to harm others as a means of lifting them up. She uses this reason for why discussing “democracy” can be ineffective. If democracy does not ensure that goodness will not be protected, then we must be skeptical of such language. Likewise, conversations on dignity have been used both to uphold justice, but also injustice. Thus, if dignity is something that can be given or taken away, we should be skeptical of using that in arguing for a deeper good.
In moving away from language that can harm another, we return to attentiveness. Because affliction and truth both require attentiveness, Weil contends that justice is a key part of this. Justice, attuned to the impersonal, is “endowed with the radiance of beauty.” The question of justice that is utilized in liberal society, revolves around rights. Questions like “Is it just for someone to have more than me?” are not connected to impersonal justice. Matters of rights are formed according to law schools and codified norms. But, the question of “Why am I being hurt?” is distinctly connected to the impersonal justice. Impersonal justice upholds the sacredness of a person and is interested in ethical truths. The goal of impersonal justice is to protect human beings from affliction.
Preventing individuals from being harmed or put into a state of affliction requires that we are reintegrated into the good, which stems from our sacredness. By attending to the afflicted with love, we can hope to help their “laceration of the soul.” But, in looking at those who caused the affliction — there must be an awakening of their soul. Weil argues that this awakening requires that they ask themselves “Why am I being hurt?” When this question is asked the “innocent part of the criminal’s soul must then be fed to make it grow until it becomes able to judge and condemn his past crimes and at last…to forgive them.” Once this process is complete, they should publicly reintegrate with society. Impersonal justice is focused on returning an individual to an awareness of their own sacredness and the sacredness of others. It is innately connected to the moral sense that we are born with that renders us open to the world.
The formation of justice that Weil draws on is akin to contemporary theories of restorative justice, in which the goal is for the person who harmed someone to repair that harm. Restorative justice is an alternative to criminal justice systems; within the restorative justice framework the person who harmed someone must recognize what they did and take steps to repair that injury. Weil’s argument for a justice that rejects the contemporary criminal justice system which looks solely at personality and attends to the deeper issue encapsulates the philosophy of restorative justice.
The four qualities of truth, beauty, justice, and compassion are sacred and inherent to the divine. The ability to touch these four elements of impersonalism is an experience of holiness. The problem with the “Declaration of Human Rights” is that it focuses on the person and not the potential to connect with impersonalism. Liberalism, for Weil, will never be able to see that in respecting a person as an end, they are respecting the person and not an ontological good within them. Human rights will not solve the issue at hand, namely understanding how to protect persons from genocide and violence. The “I” of liberalism can be contaminated. Individuals can derive pleasure from hurting others. Weil acknowledges that slavery and war can make people feel joy, but this is not so different than institutional violence. Institutional and individual violence both see the expression of the sacred as irrelevant. If a system, for example, upholds racism through laws because it believes that these laws are just and do protect people, it ignores the cries of those who suffer. The judicial system, in particular, exemplifies this problem as those who are harmed often do not have the ability to speak as eloquently for themselves as those who are in power. “Nothing, for example, is more frightful than to see some poor wretch in the police court stammering before a magistrate who keeps up an elegant flow of witticisms.” In other words, institutional violence utilizes the state to suppress and harm those who suffer. Thus, we cannot give precedence to any single person or institution and believe that because they are individuals they will hold themselves to a standard to not hurt others. Our world, Weil contends, shows us that we will not respect people based off of their personality. It is not the fact that a person is a woman that she will be respected. In fact, it may be because she is a woman that she will experience discrimination, and she will not be heard due to her being a woman. Particular people, according to Weil, are more likely to experience particular forms of violence due to personal characteristics. Because of this, we must turn toward impersonalism which is unconcerned with the particulars of a human being.
Liberalism is ill equipped to deal with wrongs that go against the impersonal because an ethics based on personalism denotes social privilege. As Weil demonstrates in her example, persecution is interconnected with who a person is. A woman is more at risk of gendered violence than a man. Likewise, a person who is impoverished is more likely to die of lack of food and shelter than a person who is middle class. These unprotected classes, for Weil, exemplify why liberalism depends upon social privilege. Social privilege can be dealt with in two ways. One is to say that I deserve it and you do not. The other is to say that I deserve this privilege as do you. Both formations, according to Weil, imply that the oppressed are envious of the privileged. The oppressed envy others’ abilities to express their rights, and thus are crying out for them. To return to the example of a person being forced into sex work, when she cries out it is not because of envy. It is because she is in pain because she has been shown that she does not matter and is forced into a form of work that she did not choose. Weil finds liberalism at odds with knowing that the oppressed already have access to what is good. If individuals are trying to lift others up it is with a patronizing eye that is unable to recognize that perhaps that person is in fact more aligned with a higher good than the privileged person is.
The answer to liberalism’s inability to respond to atrocities is relating public life to the impersonal. Weil sees this as not necessarily being tied to any political regime. There is never a guarantee for democracy. There is never a guarantee for peace. However, when public life is oriented towards truth, beauty, justice, and compassion Weil believes that the human being would be understood as sacred in and of itself. However, when we use the words “God, truth, justice, love, good” we draw on words which have a meaning outside of our human understanding. Due to these things being transcendent of political regimes we should not attribute them to our institutions. Rather, we should associate them with ideas and actions that are derived from goodness. Weil does not believe that we should disavow institutions, but she argues that “others must be invented for the purpose of exposing and abolishing everything…which buries the soul under injustice, lies, and ugliness.” Substantiating the impersonal good requires that we invent institutions which are currently unknown, or are being explored, and that we do that starting by thinking of the public good. One example of this being restorative justice, which reflects Weil’s argument that justice must go beyond what is learned in institutions. Justice must attend to harm, with the goal of reintegration.
Weil’s essay “Human Personality” looks to the future as a way to concretize her arguments against liberalism’s response to the Holocaust. Her fundamental contention with liberalism is that it is impossible to understand what harming human personality is. A person’s innate being is not necessarily touched by physical wounds. There is an aspect that touches on something deeper within us — a moral sense that others are good and will not harm us. Thus, a truly just world which protects us from affliction of hearing that we do not matter, will focus on preserving this moral sense, the sacred. It will do so through an attentiveness to those who suffer, as well as those who cause suffering, and attempt to bring them back to that childlike interaction with the world. By resting on principles grounded in the impersonal, they will not attempt to give someone a higher level of social privilege. It will restore their lives to a balance that is so perfect, it will be unnoticeable. A truly just society will reflect the beauty of this impersonal anonymity, that reflects the good.
A public good grounded in impersonal goodness relies upon a radical renegotiating of public life. We may fail, but we can begin by presenting a standard in which the potential and not the person is seen as what must be protected. Weil’s criticism of liberalism draws on the belief that liberalism alone cannot prevent the everyday violence towards the oppressed, and if these is injustice in any capacity, society must be innovative in its solutions. It must reorient itself. If liberalism is to revive itself, it must reconsider whether the individual is what should be protected, or if it there is something else.
Assembly, UN General. “Universal declaration of human rights.” UN General Assembly 302, no. 2 (1948).
Weil, Simone. “Human Personality,” in: Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, London: Virago (1986): 69–98.