Lecture 30-36 Notes
This lecture begins with a biographical sketch of Weil’s life, which reveals a complex identity full of contradictions, and then goes on to examine the principal influences on her intellectual formation and early writing. Among the factors examined are her passionate attachment to Greek culture and philosophical thought, especially Plato, and an equally passionate, almost driven commitment to radical reform and social justice. Outline 1. With the introduction of the secular saint we break new ground, both in this course and, to some extent, in cultural discourse. . Question and commitment and looking at search for meaning in a new way. b. We may characterize secular saint as an ideal type of person who lives the question of meaning in human existence fully open to its mystery and fully committed to searching for meaning along the paths of both the hero and the saint. c. We must acknowledge that, as we have presented these two paths and their historical development, they are mutually exclusive opposites that resist synthesis or assimilation d.
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This makes the figure of the secular saint an embodiment and affirmation of the human person primarily in terms of his or her freedom of conscience exercised as an absolute responsibility for one’s identity in relation to the mystery of reality as a whole. e. Binocularity –seeing from two distinct perspectives to allow depth of field f. Walking erect – an evolutionary stage of human development – moving from 4 legs to 2 – requiring the capacity to balance constant shifts of weight and momentum – opposites, contradictory shifts in stance or place in the world, yet something over millennia that humans have learned to do 2.
Simone Weil has been widely regarded as a creative genius by figures as diverse as Albert Camus, T. S. Eliot, Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt, Dorothy Day, Robert Coles, and Charles de Gaulle. a. Weil was born in Paris in 1909; she died at age 34 in a sanatorium in Kent, England, of tuberculosis, complicated by her refusal of food to demonstrate solidarity with those in Nazi-occupied France. b. Parents were nonreligious Jews, brother Andre illustrious mathematician c. She suffered from a weak constitution and severe physical ailments throughout her life, especially chronic debilitating headaches.
She was born both physically and socially awkward and a ruthless strain of self-criticism. d. Her brief life was bracketed by the two world wars and shaped by the political, social, and economic dislocations that dominated the years between them. She registered the anguish of her times with exquisite sensitivity and felt obligated to rethink Europe’s collapsing civilization. e. In the last five years of her life a mystical spiritual perspective unexpectedly opened to her. She came to know the love of God as intimately, she said, as the smile of a friend. 3.
Simone Weil’s thoughts on the political and economic dynamics of society have their roots in Greek philosophy and reflect the characteristics of the heroic worldview and the concept of heroic citizenship that evolved from it. a. Weil’s conception of justice is simple and straightforward: Justice, she says, consists in seeing that no avoidable harm is done to any person. b. Weil understands human existence as a whole, and questions of justice specifically, in the context of the impersonal worldview of Greek philosophy. c. She articulates this vision most clearly in one of her last works, the essay “Draft from a Statement of Human Obligations. Weil designates the essay a “profession of faith. ” d. The essay’s worldview, like Plato’s, is divided into the separate realms of body and of soul. e. The only possible link between the two realms of body and soul is human freedom, the capacity every person always has to consent or withhold consent to direct attention beyond the world to that transcendent good, which alone can wholly satisfy the fullest desire of the heart. f. Human experience is both meaningful and absurd g. Consenting is the fundamental act of human freedom 4.
Weil’s conception of justice is based on the strict obligation of every person to do all in his or her power to meet the needs of both body and soul of every other person. a. The notion of obligation is pivotal for Weil’s idea of justice because it is the expression of absolute respect for that desire for transcendent good in the soul of every person. i. Desire is sacred and inviolable, and is the source of everything that is meaningful and powerful in human beings b. Respect for the universal desire for total good cannot be shown directly; it is not tangible. On the other hand, unless the respect is enacted it is meaningless. . Respect can be shown indirectly c. The needs of the body are food, shelter, clothing, and physical security. The needs of the soul are meaning and value, rooted in freedom of conscience. d. Weil distinguishes sharply between human needs and preferential desires. e. Weil uses the term “affliction” to designate an intensity of suffering, whether naturally or deliberately caused, that does harm not only to personal sensibility but to the universal human desire for good, which is the center and basis for a sense of the dignity and significance of every human life. Lecture Thirty-One
Simone Weil—A New Augustine? Scope: This lecture examines Simone Weil’s religious sensibility and writings through a parallel of comparison and contrast with Saint Augustine. Both figures stand at the cultural and personal intersection of classical secular humanism and scriptural religion. They both struggle to respond to the claims of human truths they found in each of these traditions and to mediate the values of both to their contemporaries. But the differences between them in this shared pivotal role are equally telling: Augustine chose to interrelate the two cultures and traditions through the process of onversion; Weil passionately refused to accept conversion because it meant giving up the reality of one ideal for the sake of the other. In so doing she made herself a paradigmatic figure of the 20th century. She appears as a hero without the hope of justice, and a saint without the sustaining bonds of religious community. The tension which her life embodies brings into focus the question of forgiveness at the center of the contemporary search for meaning: Can the impossibility of wholeness which human death both symbolizes and seals be authentically and freely affirmed as the meaning of life?
Outline 1. In this lecture we examine the saintly dimension of Simone Weil’s extraordinary identity. 2. Like Saint Augustine, Weil experienced her whole life as a search for the truth of reality as whole; the truth of that transcendent mystery beyond time, space, and matter, which shone with the radiance of perfect beauty and overpowered the heart with unquenchable desire. a. As we have seen, memories of her own childhood held premonitions of the secret she discovered and lived in the last five years of her life. . It was not until she was motivated to read the Christian Gospels, prompted by the simplicity of faith of many of the works she taught and a few humane and intelligent clergy and friends, that she gradually came to discover what she had been searching for all her life. 3. Simone Weil completely rejects the dynamics of conversion and with it any dream of “catholicity” as universalization of the culture of faith in the secular order of society. a.
Weil refused personal conversion to Catholicism and would not accept baptism despite her recognition that she had lived her whole life in the spirit that she discovered in her reading of the Christian Gospels. b. Weil explained her reason for refusing conversion in terms of the demands of love. c. She further explains that what frightened her about the Catholic Church, and by extension all other forms of organized religion, was that as institutions they necessarily fell subject to the forces of collectivism. . Weil’s situation, caught between the universality of justice and the personal intimacy of love, is a powerful example of what we have termed the “forlorn” condition of existence in context of a world dominated by totalitarian forces. a. Weil heroically refused to prioritize the truth of a personal existence enlightened by love at the expense of the universality of justice. b.
Weil’s personality is undoubtedly most characterized by the extremism of her uncompromising demands on herself and others which produced a profound physical, psychological, and spiritual burden that many have noted and some have harshly criticized. c. On the other hand, many claim to recognize a saint for the modern age based on Weil’s willingness to forego the consolations of religious faith in order to keep faith and solidarity with the poor, all those to whom she believed she had an obligation to show respect because they suffered the misery of affliction. Lecture Thirty-Two Identifying the Secular Saint
Scope: Without attempting to offer a fixed definition, this lecture explores further the identity of the secular saint by examining the mark made on contemporary society by two other figures who challenge the boundaries between the traditional types of hero and saint: Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Martin Luther King Jr. Although each life portrays a unique identity formed in response to significantly different societal crises, both reveal a shared urgency to address the shared human condition of affliction and vulnerability to the immediate proximity of death as the central focus of the search for meaning.
Although both functioned within the mainstream of the Western scriptural religious tradition, they emphasized, each in their own way, the necessity to integrate the absolute reality of death into the very center of the human search for the meaning of life. Mother Theresa did this through her mission to uphold the dignity of the dying homeless, as did King through his advocacy of nonviolent resistance as a response to social injustice. Taken together with Simone Weil, they help identify the secular saint as the metaphor that we use to try to draw our considerations to a conclusion. Outline 1. Although the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. nd Mother Teresa clearly qualify them for inclusion in the category of saint as we are using the term, this lecture explores whether their identities might be more authentically revealed through the designation of secular saint. a. Freedom with two possibilities b. We propose the notion of the secular saint as a counterbalance to the violence against humanity gendered by the dynamics of totalitarianism. c. The point made here is not to misappropriate the motivations and identities of King and Mother Teresa, but rather, the to probe more deeply their profound contributions to the human search for meaning. . Martin Luther King Jr. ’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail makes clear the dual sources of his inspiration and ideals: both the Christian spirit of agape, or universal love based on the love of God; and the arete, the heroic virtue of citizenship. a. As with Simone Weil, King’s language makes clear that the traditions and values of both ideals, hero and saint, have been so thoroughly intertwined in the Western tradition as to be inseparable even though they are ultimately incommensurable. b. King appeals directly to Socrates as he does to the Gospels to explain and vindicate his course of action. c.
At the same time, King impugns racial segregation on moral grounds, which in turn are grounded in divine law. d. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere i. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly ii. Recalls Socrates – universal good, a good which is impersonal – genuinely the same for all, despite differences of perception, naming, etc 3. In his Nobel lecture, King articulates the necessary connection of opposition to racism with opposition to all forms of violence against humanity. . King uses his own version of Plato’s body-soul distinction to identify a type of poverty of spirit, which he claims is particularly characteristic of our time. b. His diagnosis of spiritual failure to thrive in Western culture is rooted in the dynamics of violence and oppression which he detects in the interrelation of racism with poverty and war. c. The practice of nonviolence and its efficacy in overcoming all forms of totalitarian violence is rooted in the heroic virtue of self-respect and self-mastery. 4.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta gained international recognition for her ministry to the poor, orphaned, sick, and dying. a. Mother Teresa experienced early in her religious life a series of personal revelations that convinced her it was absolutely imperative that she refuse Jesus nothing he might ask of her. b. Mother Teresa made it clear in everything she said and did that her purpose was not primarily to alleviate suffering but to recognize it, and thus to communicate to those suffering that they were loved by God through fellow humans. . She had no small number of critics who charged that her priorities were misplaced, that by not working for justice as King did, by not militating for a change of conscience and of institutions, the consolation she offered was merely palliative, not curative of the disease. d. Interiorly, however, Mother Teresa lived immersed in spiritual darkness. i. Entirely abandoned and shut out from Jesus’ presence e. Only in her ministry to the poor, especially the dying, did Teresa experience her existence as meaningful. f.
Teresa is the opposite of Weil: outside a saint, within a hero; through recognition she made of death not simply a friend but a divine lover. 5. The common theme uniting Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King is the capacity of human freedom to transcend violence and give meaning to life my making peace with death. Lecture Thirty-Three The Secular Saint at the Movies Scope: This lecture seeks to test the emergent identity of the secular saint as a focus of the popular imagination by charging its appearance in the artistic genre most characteristic of the 20th century: film.
Using a variety of particularly successful films, including Casablanca, Shane, The Godfather, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings, this lecture surveys the ways film draws on isolated fragments of the secular saint archetype to pose the contemporary problematic of the search for meaning: How can life be whole when our culture’s experience of it yields only images of trauma, fracture, and fragmentation? Outline 1. Sense of humor and recreation – share characteristics a. What part of life experience of human existence is at work in these? . One way of understanding is play – play of freedom – freedom plays i. Freedom is what it is for its own sake ii. 2. The emergence of film as the characteristic genre of both art and popular culture in the 20th century offers a distinct and important perspective on the notion of the secular saint. a. The medium of film is uniquely characteristic of 20th–21st-century culture because of its distinctive blending of electronic technology with traditional elements of artistic imagination and expression. . Film combines the imagistic richness and depth of texture of the plastic arts with the dynamism and movement of music and dance. c. Competes with live drama – theater 3. We begin with a whirlwind tour of the dazzling but also bewildering diversity of images of heroes and saints with which the basic genres of film present us. a. The Western offers perhaps the most specific example of the distinctively American version of heroic identity as articulated in the Myth of the West. i.
Western heroes embody the worldview of harsh, impersonal necessity and the warrior’s code, “A man has to do what a man has to do. ” ii. Iconic examples of this figure of the hero are found in films like Shane and films of director John Ford. b. The genre of war films not only explores the traditional image of the warrior-hero in complex ways, but also registers and reinforces the infiltration of total war into contemporary consciousness and conscience. i. This genre of film provides a useful lens through which to bring the problematic theme of sacrifice into sharper focus. ii.
Examples of heroes “sacrificing their own lives” for comrades or for their country include Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and Vietnam War films such as Deer Hunter and Platoon. c. The genre of Biblical and classical epics offers paradigmatic evidence of the degree to which “In God We Trust” functions as coin of the realm in 20th century American public cultural values. d. Christmas films offer another portrayal of religion and culture. The iconic film It’s a Wonderful Life demonstrates saintly identity as a normative article of faith in popular culture, independent of explicit religious commitment. . The success of certain fantasy genre films such as the first Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas and The Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrates the power of mythic heroic identity as an archetype of human cultural imagination in each of its major elements. 4. The character of Rick Blaine in Casablanca effectively embodies the identity of the secular saint and forces us to examine what the character tells us about the search for meaning in the popular imagination. a. At the beginning of the movie, Rick is a kind of disillusioned saint.
He has become a loner who makes a living from gambling without taking risks himself. b. Rick has been disappointed in love and has renounced relationship as a source of meaning. c. Rick is caught up unwillingly in events larger than him and receives a hero’s call. d. Rick discovers the truth about the enduring fidelity of love and in so doing finds the courage to sacrifice that personal relationship for a higher cause. e. Rick ascends to the hero’s Valhalla as he strides off to a “beautiful friendship” with Captain Renault. 5.
The images of heroes and saints presented on the big screen document both the degree to which the figures have become blended and blurred together in the popular cultural imagination and the extent to which both of ideals need continual reaffirmation in the communal consciousness. Lecture Thirty-Four Ernest Becker—The Denial of Death Scope: In this lecture, we consider whether, in the light of the traumatic experience of contemporary culture, we must recognize that this troubled contrast between hero and saint parallels the question of the relationship between life and death.
If so, this recognition would require us to reformulate not only both these dichotomies but also our leading question to ask: What is the meaning of life and death taken together, inseparably interconnected as a whole? Outline 1. We have arrived at a new starting point, a more satisfactory reformulation of our original question: Should the human search for a meaningful life be pursued along the path of the hero or the way of the saint? Does meaning lie in self-fulfillment – or is it the gift of love? . The work of Ernest Becker is a basis for asserting that the relationship between the hero and the saint is strictly analogous to the relationship between human death and life. b. One specific corollary of this is that the search for meaning is inseparable from the disillusionment born of the recognition of absurdity as an irreducible reality. c. Every exclusion or partialization of death from the meaning of human identity is a distortion and loss of its reality. 2.
At the basis of Becker’s argument in The Denial of Death is his contention that the dynamics of heroism, which he claims are universal to human culture, are inseparable from the even more primal universality of terror in the face of death. a. Death is under our control – Stoics b. Agon – struggle – is a mythical hero system where people serve to earn a feeling of primary value, cosmic specialness, unshakeable meaning – building an edifice that exemplifies human value – a building, a family, whatever c.
Becker argues that the heroic self-esteem is a psychological necessity of human identity. d. Culture, according to Becker, is to be understood as the outgrowth of the necessity that self-esteem be sustained by recognition won from others. e. For Becker the so-called life drive expressed as heroism is absolutely correlative to the terror arising from the specifically human self-awareness of the necessity of death. f. The source of all religions and cultural institutions g.
Freud->Kierkegaard h. Transcendence is never an escape from finity – it never represents leaving limits or death behind – always signifies the transformation of life drives via lived experience of death – life having a new meaning, aka afterlife, after an old meaning has died i. Those who are saved or chosen remain the same human beings j. Their identity is new 3. Becker introduces as one of his main contributions the idea of character and identity as what he calls the “vital lie. A sense of identity and self-esteem require the constant repression of the terror of self-knowledge and the certainty of death. a. Repression is a constant, and a necessity in human experience b. We are constantly lying to ourselves – repressing terror – fear of death – so we can live c. It is a vital lie d. Hero represses dependence on others for transcendence and self-mastery e. Drivenness – Less of a burden on others – passionate human being – how to be a man? f. No one can satisfactorily advise someone else on – ambiguity impossible to resolve – has roots in freedom 4.
For Becker the recognition of the life/death relationship as one of both incommensurability and complementarity, and ultimately of freedom as the source of all meaning and identity in human existence, leads to what he offers as a kind of distinctly contemporary spirituality, appropriate to the secular saint, which I would characterize as “humiliated hope. ” a. For Becker all ideal types including hero and saint are “creative illusion,” and the relations among them are irretrievably ambiguous. b. Becker insists that the only legitimate ground upon which human hope can stand is the “humiliation” of death. . Both the humiliation and the hope must be constantly pressed to their limit in order to be realistic. Lecture Thirty-Five Terror and Hope in a Planetary Age Scope: This penultimate lecture endeavors to put to the test our reformulated question of the meaning of life and death as a whole, as well as the hope which sustains it. The arena for this final agon of questioning and commitment is the contemporary scene of human culture, marked as it is especially by three characteristics, each symptomatic if the evolutionary imperative of adaptation.
First, we consider the specter of worldwide terrorism that has supplanted the mushroom cloud as the seal of mutually assured self-destruction. Next we consider the phenomenon referred to as globalization signaling the ambiguity at the heart of capitalism, particularly in its current evolutionary form loosely characterized as “late capitalism,” in which economic competition for scarce resources reveals itself to be a more powerful generative force of both societal well being and social conflict than either political or religious dynamics.
Finally, we engage the issue of a planetary ecological crisis which credibly threatens to precipitate human culture as whole into the evolutionary catastrophe of species extinction. Outline 1. This penultimate lecture is dedicated to testing whether the reformulation of our central question about the search for meaning in life is adequate to the distinct and extreme circumstances of the beginning of the 21st century. a. Reformulation of hero vs. saint b. Live the question now, so we can live into an answer c.
Prototype model is metaphor of secular saint, evolutionary adaptation of both as it has been passed down from our cultural heritage and into our current environment d. Terrorism e. Globalization f. Environmental degradation 2. Following Becker, we have proposed that human existence is always a question of both life and death and a commitment to search for the meaning of life in death and the meaning of death in life. a. This mysterious reality of existence as a whole therefore must be understood as the origin of freedom of the Fundamental Human Question: Is human existence meaningful or absurd? . Meaning and absurdity are both present c. We look to find ourselves at the center, at peace d. There must be a real possibility for meaning and for absurdity in both the way of the hero and the path of the saint, and the human experience of living this question must be genuinely and significantly different for each. e. Therefore, we are proposing reformulating our original question so as to ask: Is it possible—and how is it possible— to live the human search for meaning by following both the path of the hero and the way of the saint, without doing violence to either identity? . The first of the totalitarian forces to which humanity is exposed in the 21st century is the crisis of worldwide terrorism. a. The threat of large-scale global terrorism as we know it today has its roots in the specific trauma of total war. b. Traditionally, war is the province of the hero; peace is the homeland of the saint. c. The total war of World War I first defined the cultural space of no-man’s-land. No-man’s-land now has become everywhere human beings are forlorn as the result of exposure to the extremities of affliction. . Is the secular saint adapted for survival in no-man’s-land, on the heath with Lear, Vladimir and Estragon, and the Compson family? Such adaptation would require not simply endurance but hope born of the vital desire to be precisely there where affliction lives, not out of compassion, or of obligation, but in the lived experience of the contradiction between the two. 4. The second crisis of totalitarian force that we are exposed to in the 21st century is globalization. a.
Globalization is a term without a broadly agreed-upon definition, but can be understood as a cluster of interrelated dynamics and issues. i. Financial markets and multinational corporations out of the control of individual nation-states ii. Digitalization of information allowing instantaneous transfer of financial and data knowledge capital creating alternative centers of power iii. Heightened accessibility of communication media – society of the spectacle iv.
Characteristic ambivalence towards meanings and values – skepticism intellectually, ambivalence on values b. The most central impact of globalization may well be its characteristic of ambivalence regarding meaning and values. c. The secular saint may be considered well-adapted for survival in the absurdity of globalized markets that transcend the regulatory authority of either national sovereignty or moral systems. 5. Finally, the third exposure of contemporary humanity’s search or meaning is to the environmental crisis, the progressive degradation of the planet as the organic whole of which humanity is a part. a. It is no exaggeration that the planet as a living organism is dangerously diseased and may be headed toward crippling or even lethal conditions. b. Only an identity that is not simply prepared to endure death—or even to sacrifice its own life so that others might live—but has the total freedom to embrace death, may be capable of spiritual resurrection of humanity’s relationship to the planetary life. c.
The necessity of this call to learn to embrace death, which Mother Teresa exemplified, is rooted in Becker’s unmasking of the source of all human terror and all hope for life in the “organization” of death in human living. d. Death is the source of all totalitarian forces in human existence insofar as it is the primal source of terror which is an instinctual and evolutionary necessity before it is psychological as the energy of dread or anxiety that is projected onto objects of fear. Lecture Thirty-Six The Secular Saint—Learning to Walk Upright
Scope: What do heroes and saints have to do with you and me today? Should I commit my time and energy, my trust and hope, and the substance of my relationships to a lifelong search for meaning? There is good and bad news: The bad news is that there is no answer to these questions; the good news is that, for that very reason, because the questions are universal and fundamental to all human beings, we are absolutely free to respond to them as we decide best according to our responsibility to that freedom to be forever, in life and in death, the singular person whose identity is so decided.
Heroes and saints are those who have chosen, no matter how they understood the choice and no matter how they went about living it out, to put all their trust and all their hope in seeking the meaning of their freedom and to fulfilling the responsibility which that freedom imposed on them. The search for a meaningful way of life here, today, for ourselves, has led us to freedom and responsibility for one’s own identity as the way of all its paths, and to binocular vision and a practice sense of balance to alk the way of both hero and saint, despite the impossibility of doing so in the hope of being human. Outline 1. In the last several lectures we have sketched the identity of the secular saint, used that identity to reformulate the leading question of this course, proposed that this renewed experience of the question gives us a new starting point and a humiliated hope. 2. As we review, ask yourself if you recognize yourself in the memory of the journey. a. We began with mystery, not as an idea or a proposition but as the experience of the human condition. b.
Beginning with mystery was a decision; in a sense, all that followed proceeded as it did because of the decision to start with mystery. Mystery is the other of freedom. c. Freedom and its necessary other, mystery, have this sort of relationship to one another linguistically, because together they articulate what we mean by language. d. We saw a clear example of this structure of meaning in the opening of the book of Genesis. e. It was not long before someone realized that this was the result of God speaking: the world is God’s creative word; God speaks the language of the world, the language of history. . The word is God. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. g. Christianity uses this formulation to identify Jesus as the incarnate word of God, but for our purposes it also expresses a universal human truth. h. The truth of metaphor – metaphor is the way that truth happens. i. Death is the experience of conscious suffering – it’s the experience of suffering freedom, the freedom of another 3. The human search for meaning is embedded in the history of the identities of individual persons and societies. a.
Responsibility is the answer to the human search for meaning, the only possible answer for a question framed as ours is, especially after having traced the evolution of heroes and saints to the present. b. Our answer in this course—our response, more accurately—has been the figure of the secular saint, which presents a way of articulating the experience of human responsibility as it is happening here and now. 4. At this point each of us must ask how to go on from here. The question to be decided seems to be something like: Do I see myself in the image of the secular saint, and whether I do or do not, how do I go on from here? . My goal has been to help you equip yourself to live the question and commitment of the human search for meaning differently from here onward. b. Terrorism, globalization, planetary mutation, and other forces will continue to produce traumatic events that will require evolutionary personal and cultural adaptations that effect real changes in humanity as a whole. c. Our situation is different than it has ever been before because, as a result of historical change, we are more consciously aware of the dynamics of human cultural evolution than previous generations have been, less than future generations will be. . But we remain human: We live here and now, in one place and time, which is the culturally situated time and space of our freedom and responsibility. e. The secular saint does not live human questions in terms of their truth or falsehood, but rather in terms of the way his or her participation in the dialogue shapes that one human identity for which he or she alone is responsible, and for the meaning the one life and death that is given to them within the condition of human existence.