I count myself among those Canadians in awe of anything written by Simone Weil, the French philosopher, mystic and political activist. The philosopher/theologian, George Grant (Lament for a Nation) put Weil beside the four gospels as his highest moral authority. He felt unworthy to interpret or critique her writing, only to summarize for the sole purpose of inviting others to read Weil herself. Best selling Canadian poet Anne Carson (The Beauty of the Husband) praised Weil for her spiritual daring and wrote a libretto with Weil as a main character.
I suspect Weil’s appeal to Canadians lies in her belief that human relations are fundamentally about our obligations to each other rather than respect for each other’s rights. Canada is after all the confluence of the Indigenous values of inclusion and hospitality; French humanism, with its emphasis on tolerance; the British concept of the commonwealth and reinforced by waves of newcomers fleeing conflict and seeking peace. All point in their own way to interconnection, cooperation and mutuality.
Weil believed rights were too important to rely exclusively on arbitrary human behavior. Her reading of history and her experiences under the Nazis led her to conclude that rights are “subordinate and relative” to obligations. They become manifest only when we live up to our obligations. Rights are also conditional and dependent on context. In other words dictated by the powerful and their priorities. Think about this in the context of Syria, the war on terror and the European refugee crisis. Rights aren’t serving the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed in those places or elsewhere. “You can die with your rights on,” declared disability theorist Wolf Wolfenberger. That’s why Weil appealed to a higher moral order, our obligations to others.
According to Weil, obligations are universal, eternal and “situated above the world.” They are givens. For everyone. “The object of any in the realm of human affairs is always the human being as such,” she wrote. No other condition is necessary. Obligations include respecting the needs of others for food, warmth and medicine, honouring their rights and preventing them from suffering, starving or dying needlessly. Even more fundamentally they include the duty to respect the needs of the soul.
You can see where she’s leading us can’t you? To wholeheartedly embrace the material and the spiritual dimensions of our work. To set our course toward human flourishing.
Weil, who was writing during the horrors of WW2, believed “the intellect is enlightened by love.” Before she died in 1943 she was working with Charles de Gaulle on a Charter of Human Obligations in anticipation of France’s regeneration. See her book, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Humankind, published after her death. Roots such as belonging, community, culture, meaningful work, freedom, equality, truth, goodness, reciprocity, interdependence …
Which brings us back to the values that shaped us as a country.
I wonder what Canada would be like if we had developed a system based on the obligations that enable us to live together?
I wonder if it’s gotten dark enough to seek illumination from the full force of those principles once again?
I’m confident reading Weil directly will help with the answers.
At the centre of the human heart is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world. (Simone Weil)
In an extraordinary time, the stakes are existential. (Chris Kutarna)