Archive for May 8th, 2023

Simone Weil: Be careful with words. It may save lives.

Monday, May 8th, 2023
Author Down Under: Chris Fleming

Simone Weil’s “Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie” was published in Écrits historiques et politiques (Gallimard: 1979, pp.257-8). This post was translated by Australian author and scholar Chris Fleming. He’s done guest post here and here, and we’ve written about him here. Simone Weil actually entered the public domain in 2014, which a good thing for all of us. The more we can spread her words the better. Here are a few:

The Greeks and Trojans massacred one another for ten years on account of Helen. Not one of them, except the amateur warrior Paris, cared one iota about her. All of them agreed in wishing she’d never been born. The person of Helen was so obviously out of scale with this gigantic battle that, in the eyes of all, she was no more than the symbol of what was actually at stake; but what was at stake was never defined by anyone, nor could it be, because it did not exist. Thus, it couldn’t be calculated. Its importance was simply imagined as corresponding to the deaths incurred and the massacres expected. From then on, its importance exceeded any assignable limit. Hector foresaw that his city would be destroyed, his father and brothers massacred, his wife degraded by a slavery worse than death. Achilles knew that he was condemning his father to the miseries and humiliations of a defenceless old age; the populace were aware that their homes would be destroyed by them being so long long absent; yet, none thought the cost was too great, because they were all pursuing a nothingness whose only value was in the price paid for it. When the Greeks began to think of returning to their homes it seemed to Minerva and Ulysses that reminding them of the suf­ferings of their dead comrades would be sufficient to shame them…. Nowadays the popular mind has an explanation for this sombre relentlessness in accumulating useless ruins; it imagines the supposed machinations of economic interests. But there is no need to look so far. In the time of Homer‘s Greeks there were no organized bronze merchants nor a Committee of Blacksmiths. The truth is that in the minds of Homer’s contemporaries, the role which we attribute to mysterious economic oligarchies were attributed to the gods of the Greek mythology. But there is no need of gods or conspiracies to force humans into the most absurd catastrophes. Human nature will suffice.

“We don’t need words to make us stupid.”

For the clear-sighted, there is no more distressing symptom today than the unreal character of most of the conflicts that are emerging. They have even less reality than the war between the Greeks and Trojans. At the heart of the Trojan War there was at least a woman and, what is more, a perfectly beautiful one. For our contemporaries, the role of Helen is played by words with capital letters. If we grasp one of these words, all swollen with blood and tears, and squeeze it, we’ll find that it is empty. Words that have content and meaning are not murderous. If sometimes one of them becomes mixed up with bloodshed, it is rather by accident than by inevitability, and the resulting action is generally limited and efficacious. But when we capitalise words devoid of meaning, then, on the slightest pretext, men will shed streams of blood for them, will pile up ruin upon ruin by repeating them, without effectively grasping anything to which they refer, since what they correspond to possesses no reality, since they mean nothing. In these conditions, the only definition of success is to crush a rivals who claim enemy words; for it is a characteristic of these words that they live in antagonistic pairs. Of course, that all of these words are intrinsically meaningless; some of would have meaning if we took the trouble to define them properly. But a word thus defined loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a flag or hold its place amidst the clanking of enemy slogans; it becomes simply a sign to help us grasp some concrete reality, a concrete objec­tive, or method of action. To clarify ideas, to discredit congenitally empty words, and to define the use of others by precise analyses – to do this, strange though it may seem, might be a way of saving human lives.”

Postscript from Chris Fleming: “What first strikes me in this essay is the clarity and moral intensity of Weil’s voice. And this is combined with a kind of analytic rigor which avoids all easy partisanship; there are no set targets in her piece, no free passes or ways in which we can say “they (over there) are the problem.” And what also strikes me, no doubt, is that what she says seems both true and shockingly contemporary: that we are prone to be shamed into conflicts over almost nothing, that we will fight not so much as the result of a just cause, but that the fighting itself will somehow justify that cause during and after the fact – that we will shed blood in defence less of ideals than words, words whose substance turns to vapour upon closer examination.”

In the original French below the fold…