Sunday, March 12, 2017

Readings: Classical Greek Thought in The White Rose and Simone Weil


The last two non-fiction works I have recently read (Sophie Scholl & The White Rose by A. Dumbach and J. Newborn, and Simone Weil--Waiting on Truth by J. P. Little) show how both the young German pamphleteers of The White Rose and French philosopher, Simone Weil, turned to classical Greek models in their writings in response to, and against, the Nazi oppression of their respective societies.

In the third of six pamphlets written and distributed by The White Rose before Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and several other members of their inner circle were arrested, tried, and executed by the Nazis in 1943, Aristotle’s Politics, is thus quoted:

“Further…[a tyrant] should also endeavor to know what each of his subjects says or does, and should employ spies everywhere…and further, to create disunity and division in the population to set friend against friend, the common people against the notables, and the wealthy among themselves. Also he should impoverish his subjects; the maintenance of guards and soldiers is thus paid for by the people, who are forced to work hard and have neither the time nor the opportunity to conspire against him…Another practice of tyrants is to increase taxes, after the manner of Dionysius at Syracuse, who contrived that his subjects paid all their wealth into the treasury within five years. The tyrant is also inclined to engage in constant warfare in order to occupy and distract his subjects.”

In his study of the life and thought of Simone Weil, J.P. Little shows how Weil used the writings of Plato to describe the workings of a totalitarian regime:

“[…] Simone Weil turns…to the Greek world, to Plato’s image of society as ‘the Great Beast’…whom his masters (society’s leaders) try to tame by studying his moods and habits.

“[…] The Beast represents for her the elevation of society into an absolute, which is then judged without reference to anything exterior, so that in a very real sense nothing but the collective  exists. This is the characteristic of what Simone Weil calls totalitarianism, and here of course her usage is in line with what we have become accustomed to designate by that term. The Beast represents the totality of collective values and the destruction of the individual. Its main concern is existence, and since the existence of anything else is intolerable to it, its own existence involves infinite expansion, a total hold over the lives of its subjects.”


As it was in ancient Greece, so it was in World War II-era Europe; and as it is again (or still) now.


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