Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Readings: The Heart of the Matter

At about this time last year I was finishing up my slow, but extremely rewarding reading of Simone Weil’s two-volume Notebooks. A couple of random posts that I put up on my then brand-new blog during the time of that reading can be seen here and here. From these it can be discerned why reading the Notebooks soon branched off into readings of the Bhagavad-Gita and Plato’s Republic.

It happens that the anthology of Iris Murdoch’s writings on philosophy and literature which includes the essay “The Fire and the Sun” (about which I have recently posted below) also contains a review by Murdoch of Weil’s Notebooks. It is a short, dense piece which briefly lays out some of the recurrent themes of Weil’s thought as picked out by Murdoch in her reading. It occurred to me in reading the review that these identified insights could profitably be listed as bullet points, as I will do below. Of the Notebooks, Murdoch writes that

We are presented with a psychology whose sources are in Plato, in Eastern philosophy, and in the disciplines of Christian mysticism, and yet which bears upon contemporary problems of faith and action.

It is here that the bullet points may begin:

  • The soul is composed of parts, and justice, and also faith consist in each part performing its own role;
  • 'The baser parts of myself should love God, but not too much. It would not be God';
  • We do not know what we are -- (the lesson of psychoanalysis);
  • Until we become good we are at the mercy of mechanical forces, of which 'gravity' is the general image;
  • If we give more than we find natural and easy we may hate the recipient;
  • A sufferer communicates his suffering by ill-treating and distressing others;
  • All beings tend to use all the power at their disposal;
  • 'A virtuous action can degrade if there is no available energy at the same level';
  • We make advances by resisting the mechanism: but there is no reward;
  • Energy and imagination are on the side of the low motives;
  • To resist gravity is to suffer the void;
  • During our apprenticeship good appears negative and empty;
  • We are helped by meditating on 'absurdities which project light';
  • When we truly realise the impossibility of good we love it, as we love the mysteries of a religion;
  • It is upon meditation and not action that progress depends;
  • 'Action is the pointer of the balance. One must not touch the pointer, but the weights';
  • 'People suppose that thinking does not pledge them, but it alone pledges us';
  • It is of no avail to act above one's natural level. (Lesson of the Bhagavad-Gita.)

Any one of these items could launch a long discussion; in concert they compose a world-view and the basis of a spiritual existentialism that has affected me as the thought of no other “contemporary” thinker.