Weil, the facts
Simone Weil was born in Paris in 1909 into an affluent close-knit Jewish family. When she was ten years old she informed her middle-class parents that she had become a Bolshevik and would be reading the communist party newspapers from now on. By the time she entered college, however, she was writing incisive critiques of Marxist thought. Nonetheless she continued to oppose capitalist systems of production, not so much because the elite own the means of production but because another more fundamental conflict had been added, "by the very means of production, between those who have the machine at their disposal and those who are at the disposal of the machine." (In this regard, I'm endlessly grateful for the personal computer, the internet and the world wide web. These three recent inventions put a powerful machine at the disposal of workers like me.)
From her undergraduate days on, Weil not only taught free classes to workers on the railroads, in the mines and in the fields, but she donated large portions of her small salary and her time to aid them in their struggles for economic justice.
Weil's fellow student, the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, wrote of Weil in her book Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter:
She intrigued me because of her great reputation for intelligence and her bizarre get-up; "A great famine had broken out in China, and I was told that when she heard the news she had wept: these tears compelled my respect much more than her gifts as a philosopher. I envied her having a heart that could beat right across the world. I managed to get near her one day. I don't know how the conversation got started; she declared in no uncertain tones that only one thing mattered in the world: the revolution which would feed all the starving people of the earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence. She looked me up and down: 'It's easy to see you've never been hungry,' she snapped.
Simone Weil, however, was not a typical non-conforming left-wing philosophy student. She had at adolescence embraced, once-and-for-all, the idea of chastity. Her classmates called her the "Red Virgin."
After college Weil taught Secondary School for a year in Le Puy. She shocked the city fathers by immediately organizing and marching with the town's unemployed workers. At the time of the school's mid-year exams when even her best students were failing the official tests, she was asked to resign. She refused. Her students rallied around her even though her unorthodox lessons were damaging their academic careers. When she was fired she thanked her superiors and declared that she had always regarded dismissal as the normal culmination of her career. Weil taught again at a school in Roanne where she continued to help organize unemployed and exploited workers. At Roanne one of her students, Anne Reynaud-Guérithault, preserved the notes she had taken in Simone Weil's turbulent second year as a school teacher. Those student notes were published decades later, and are now used as textbooks in college-level courses in philosophy. My introduction to Simone Weil concludes with a page from the miscellaneous notes that are among those collected at the back of the book of that student notebook (Lectures on Philosophy.)
After a few more teaching assignments and union organizing efforts Simone Weil quit teaching to work and live for a year at the lowest level of the French factory system -- as an unskilled women workers. She did piece-rate factory work. Because she had poor manual dexterity and an over-active mind she could not work efficiently enough to pay rent and buy sufficient food. Unlike Henry David Thoreau, who also made an experiment in living by manual labor, Simone Weil paid her affluent parents for every meal she ate with them and went hungry when she ran out of money. During this time the migraine headaches she suffered from often debilitated her for days.
New biographies of Weil usually go on a binge at this point about how her life was destroyed by her so-called eating disorders. I just refer the reader to Weil's own words about the profound impact the deprivation of this year of factory work had on her. After reading the second page of this biography I suggest that you read in part 2 of the spirit section Weil's story in her own words before you let some amateur psychologist stick labels like "anorexia" all over the mystery.
NEXT page: To fight Fascism Weil enlists in the army as an anarchist