Simone Weil

The Need for Roots

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

In 1933 English journalist and author George Orwell published the diary he kept while living (by choice) among the poor in Paris and London. Orwell said living among the poor formed his lifelong need to address injustice.

While Orwell revolutionized his own thinking, he ultimately returned to his status as a person without perpetual hunger. Orwell was unable to feel – and thus observe – rootlessness inherent in poverty.1

Photograph of David Oliveria's sculptures for #nowyouseeme campaign. Featured in Simone Weil's "The Need for Roots" in the Examined Life Library.
One of five wire sculptures by Portugues tri-dimensional artist David Oliveria which toured the UK as part of the #NowYouSeeMe campaign to end youth homelessness. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

By rootlessness I mean a feeling of deep insecurity in the moral, intellectual and spiritual space protected and administered by a country. A rootlessness that reaches the very sinews and cells of the embodied soul.

For example, while Orwell bore witness to individuals committing crimes, he did not see law-breaking as a means of resistance to alienation from that same law.

Poem by George Orwell Featured in Orwell's "Why I Write" in the Examined Life Library.
George Orwell’s poem, written when he was eleven and published under his real name, Eric Blair. The poem was published on Oct 2, 1914 as a rallying cry for patriotism. © Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard.

About a decade after Orwell’s romp, philosopher Simone Weil (April 3, 1909 – August 24, 1943) was asked by French patriots how France, as a nation embattled by occupation and psychological diminution, could move forward (triumphantly, one assumes). Weil finished the paper in 1942 and it was published in 1949 as The Need for Roots.

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

Photograph of tree roots featured in Simone Weil's "The Need for Roots" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Weil acknowledged that while we find ourselves organized by a nation-state apparatus, this structure is limited:

We find in the history of all countries the most surprising ups and downs, sometimes following quite swiftly upon one another. But if the country is subdued by foreign arms, there is nothing left to hope for, save the possibility of a rapid liberation. Hope alone, it is worth dying to preserve, when nothing else is left.

Thus, although one’s country is a fact, and, as such, subject to external conditions, to hazards of every kind, in times of mortal danger there is nonetheless an unconditional obligation to go to its assistance. But it is obvious that, in fact, the people will show all the greater ardour in its defence the more they will have been made to feel its reality.

National grandeur – a sentiment of patriotism or looking upon one’s country as a means of self-bolstering – is equally feckless.2

To rebuild any nation and grow roots, compassion – not pride – is needed.

Yet, there is one, no less vital, absolutely pure, and corresponding exactly to present circumstances. It is compassion for our country. We have a glorious respondent. It was Joan of Arc who used to say she felt pity for the kingdom of France.

[…]

This poignantly tender feeling for some beautiful, precious, fragile and perishable object has a warmth about it which the sentiment of national grandeur altogether lacks. The vital current which inspires it is a perfectly pure one, and is charged with an extraordinary intensity. Isn’t a man easily capable of acts of heroism to protect his children, or his aged parents?

If compassion is the metal of rootedness, how is that achieved?

How do you make people care?

Weil suggested moral, social and political orientation towards a higher code of obligations.

The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.

[…]

Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world… The realm of what is eternal, universal, unconditional is other than the one conditioned by facts, and different ideas hold sway there, ones which are related to the most secret recesses of the human soul.

Although Weil was deeply spiritual, a converted-Catholic, her notion of realms is universally applied. Mary Oliver called it “the eternal”; Emerson referred to it as “Something” and in my mind, W. B. Yeats referred to it as a “contemplation of what is difficult”. It is a belief that there is something outside mortal scope (a being, a body, a language, a law…) and that something is bigger, grander, purer and brighter than anything else.

To this something, Weil was convinced, we are obligated. But she admits that it could only grow roots when expressed through “the medium of Man’s earthly needs.”

On this point, the human conscious has never varied. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians believed that no soul could justify itself after death unless it could say: I never let any one suffer from hunger.’ All Christians know they are liable to hear Christ himself say to them one day: I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat.’… To no matter whom the question may be put in general terms, nobody is of the opinion that any man is innocent, if, possessing food himself in abundance and finding some one on his doorstep three parts dead from hunger, he brushes past without giving him anything.

So it is an eternal obligation towards the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has the chance of coming to his assistance.3

Weil enumerates additional eternal obligations: protection against violence, housing, clothing, heating, hygiene and medical attention in case of illness. And additionally, items related to the moral rather than physical side of Man’s need.

Photograph of Simone Weil.
Simone Weil

I mentioned, figuratively, that Orwell left poverty and went home and ate. Weil did not. A year after she completed The Need for Roots, Weil died from malnutrition because she had confined herself to the rations of French citizens during Nazi-occupation.

It is easy (even appealing) to categorize Weil in today’s – or even her own day’s – political terms, but Weil represented the complexity of mortal life put in alignment by the grace of eternal life.4 She advocates for private property and property access, for a state to administer our rights and the worker’s foremost needs. She contradicts herself and has some youthful folly.

Notwithstanding her complexity, the value of her work to our intellectual, spiritual and certainly moral being and social body is undeniable.

The only kind of introduction which could merit permanent association with a book by Simone Weil would be… an introduction by someone who knew her. The reader of her work finds himself confronted by a difficult, violent and complex personality… I lack these qualifications. My aims in writing this preface are, first, to affirm my belief in the importance of the author and of this particular book, second, to warn the reader against premature judgment and summary classification – to persuade him to hold in check his own prejudices and at the same time to be patient with those of Simone Weil. Once her work is known and accepted, such a preface as this should become superfluous.

From T. S. Eliot‘s Preface

I take those words “Once her work is known and accepted” to heart. I had never read Weil before beginning The Examined Life. Is she taught to the youth? Is she too difficult?5 Consequently, what role can I play in advocating for this foremost thinker and human?

Photograph of David Oliveria's sculptures for #nowyouseeme campaign. Featured in Simone Weil's "The Need for Roots" in the Examined Life Library.
As you circle the piece, the human elements become more visible and the effect of the sculpture’s weightlessness more meaningful. Artwork by David Oliveira. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Rebecca Solnit wrote that being lost could signify the entry to expanded consciousness. We ought to enter Weil’s work with a desire, in the words of Weil’s countryman and enthusiastic admirer, Albert Camus, “to inaugurate the impulse of consciousness.”6

The Need for Roots is well-companioned by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, the poetry of Ocean Vuong, the open-hearted salve that is Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart and even George Mikes’ How to Be a Brit, which uses humor (a form of compassion) to overcome the alienation of immigration.

They are all prophetic souls who live and write rootlessness with acute truth.

Illustration of Simone Weil. © The Examined Life