Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

200 × 130 × 12 mm
192 pages
22 illustrations
01 Feb 2011
Critical Lives

Simone Weil Palle Yourgrau

Simone Weil, legendary French philosopher, mystic and political activist who died in England in 1943 at the age of thirty-four, belongs to a select group of thinkers: as with St Augustine, Pascal and Nietzsche, so with Weil a single phrase can permanently change one’s life. In this book, Palle Yourgrau follows Weil on her life’s journey, from her philosophical studies at the École Normale Supérieure, to her years as a Marxist labour organizer, her explosive encounter with Leon Trotsky, her abortive attempt to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, her mystical experience in the town of Assisi. We see how Weil’s struggle to make sense of a world consumed by despotism and war culminated in her monumental attempt, following St Augustine, to re-imagine Christianity along Platonistic lines, to find a bridge between human suffering and divine perfection.

How seriously, however, should Weil's ideas be taken? They were admired by Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot, yet Susan Sontag wrote famously that ‘I can’t imagine more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won . . . really share her ideas.’ If this is really true, Palle Yourgrau must count as one of the handful. Though he brings to life the pathos of Weil's tragi-comic journey, Yourgrau devotes equal attention to the question of truth. He shines a bright light on the paradox of Simone Weil: at once a kind of modern saint, and a bête noire, a Jew accused of having abandoned her own people in their hour of greatest need. The result is a critical biography that is in places as disturbing as Weil's own writings, an account that confronts head-on her controversial critique of the Hebrew Bible, as well as her radical rejection of the received wisdom that the Resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity.

‘a comprehensive philosophical reading - to my mind, the first - of Weils work. A philosophy professor at Brandeis, Yourgrau is well equipped for the task . . . Yourgrau is a master at tracing the hyper-sanity within dense philosophical systems that appear, to the untrained, as madness . . . Yourgraus scrupulous attention to Weils thought is a gift . . . Paying this great philosopher the compliment of discussing her work in its own terms, Yourgrau has, for the first time, given the breadth of Weil's thought the expansive frame it deserves.’ — Chris Kraus, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘[a] vivid presentation . . . Although her reasoning led to tragic results, Weil nonetheless did the world a service, and Yourgrau has done a service by explaining her.’ — First Things

‘It is tempting to reduce a great mind to one's own limited categories, to show that geniuses have feet of clay, to use the ever-ready categories of psychology to make sense of what eludes us. Palle Yourgrau has resisted these temptations: he has rendered Simone Weil less opaque while respecting the mystery at the heart of every person. His goal was not to write yet another biography, adding minor details to an already well-researched life, but to let the reader encounter Weils thinking. This he has achieved. He debunks three stereotypes typically applied to Weil: of an anorexic, a self-hating Jew, and a sexually repressed woman. Yourgraus analysis of Weils relationship to Judaism is probably his greatest and most controversial contribution.’ — French Studies

Show all

Palle Yourgrau is the Harry A. Wolfson Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts. His books include A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein (2005).


1. Three Simones
2. Six Swans
3. Au Revoir, La Révolution
4. A Lesson in War
5. A Great Day for Indo-China
6. A Difference between France and God
7. Fêtes de la Faim
8. On the Jewish Question
9. The Crucifixion Suffices

Photo Acknowledgements