Autumn 1990, Vol.42 No. 3, pp. 217-232.

Jim Grote:
      Prestige: Simone Weil's Theory of Social Force

Weil presents a theory of social force and subverts what could be its negativity by analyzing it in terms of the Passion. She sees society as a mirror of the heavenly home, the source of any creative development for humanity.

Dr. Jim Grote is the associate director of the St. Vincent de Paul Center for the homeless in Louisville, Kentucky, and has taught part-time in the philosophy departments at the University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast.

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
Pascal, Pensées (139)

IN a recent work, Henri Nouwen emphasizes the essence of spirituality in a most succinct fashion: "To whom do we belong? This is the core question of the spiritual life. Do we belong to the world, its worries, its people and its endless chain of urgencies and emergencies, or do we belong to God and God's people."(1)

Perhaps no modern theologian has probed the human passion "to belong" more deeply than Simone Weil. A confirmed agnostic early in life, Weil's study of the pathologies inherent in political life ironically became a kind of prayer for her, a secular via negativa into the divine realm. Often referred to as a saint for the unchurched, Weil's vocation might be described as a bell that tolls to invite others to church. Like a comet, her brief life (1909-1943) flashed quickly in a combustion of intellectual brilliance, mystical devotion, and fierce moral outrage. Born a secular French Jewess in a comfortable setting, she graduated from the prestigious Ecole Normale with a degree in philosophy (outshining even her famous classmate Simone de Beauvoir in her entrance exam). She soon interrupted her 'sporadic teaching career to share the plight of the working class by obtaining a job in a Renault factory.

Always engaged in the struggles of the working class, she led an ascetic existence long before the mystical experience in which Christ took possession of her in the midst of one of her agonizing migraine headaches. However, her passion for justice and consequent horror at the Inquisition kept her from being baptized in the Catholic Church (which she acknowledged to her Dominican spiritual director, Fr. Perrin, as the true church by right if not by fact)(2) She died in London at age thirty-four, some say of anorexia nervosa.(3) To her gravestone was attached a small plaque written in Italian which translates: "My solitude held in its grasp the grief of others till my death."(4) A proper understanding of Weil's notion of prestige mitigates to a considerable degree the speculation surrounding her psychological eccentricities and heterodox beliefs. More importantly, her thought provides a truly spiritual social analysis that is a far cry from contemporary Christian social analyses which typically sprinkle holy water over a capitalist or Marxist framework.


Before examining Weil's theory of social force, it is helpful to summarize her view of force in the more generic sense. She defines force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing."(5) In the face of force, humans and rocks have the same status. Force is oblivious to the sacredness in a human being. The domain of force pertains not just to the physical realm, but to the psychological.and social realms as well. Weil often uses the term "social matter" in her political analysis. Social force, however, does not operate according to the same principles of mass and weight as does physical force. Sheer quantity is not a force in social dynamics.

Since the many obey, and obey to the point of allowing suffering and death to be inflicted on them, while the few command, this means that it is not true that number constitutes a force. Number, whatever our imagination may lead us to believe, is a weakness.(6)
Social force is based on prestige or trickery, whereas physical force has a more quantitative base. Hence the analogy prestige is to social force as gravity is to physical force. It is important to keep this analogy in mind when studying Weil's notion of force.

In her commentary on the Iliad, Weil argues that the true hero of the Iliad is the concept of force rather than the person of Achilles. Achilles' wrath is not a tribute to his manliness, but a eulogy to his ignorance, specifically his ignorance of the workings of retribution or Nemesis. Nemesis operates according to a mathematical strictness. "We are only geometricians of matter; the Greeks were first of all, geometricians in their apprenticeship to virtue."(7)

The doctrine of Nemesis is revealed in what Weil calls the two-edged nature of force.

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. (8)
Throughout the Iliad, each hero suffers a time of humiliation as well as a period of victory. As Homer puts it: "Ares is just and kills those who kill."(9) The hero is a temporary victor, while the only real victor in war is Nemesis. The symbiotic nature of the master-slave relationship implies a destiny stronger than the will of the master. Homer's description of the gods' role in the Trojan War points to a transcendent source of the master-slave relationship. The gods represent natural forces beyond human control -- death, love, war, sunshine, etc. (10) Thus, superstition is not a matter of believing in the gods, but of believing that humankind can control these superhuman forces. Seen in this light, modern men and women are as susceptible to superstition as the ancient Greeks. Superstition is the attempt to hide the fickleness of force from our eyes. Weil writes that:
The strong are, as a matter of fact, never absolutely strong, nor are the weak absolutely weak, but neither is aware of this. They have in common a refusal to believe that they both belong to the same species: the weak see no relation between themselves and the strong, and vice-versa.(11)
The gods are not a superstitious projection of the need for security but an antidote to the generally held superstition that security lies in strength.

At its basest level, force is physical and, carried to the extreme, can reduce humanity to a corpse. But what of the "force that does not kill, i.e., that does not kill just yet?"(12) What is the psychological nature of force? For Weil, social relations operate according to a rigid mechanics like the laws of physical science. In her discussion of Homer she describes relations between human beings as "a kind of balance between unequal amounts of force."(13) At the core of social relationships rests the concept of prestige, the social force. Force derives at least three-quarters of its strength from prestige.(14) Prestige "rests principally upon that marvelous indifference that the strong feel toward the weak, an indifference so contagious that it infects the very people who are the objects of it."(15) The slave internalizes the attitudes of the master. We might define prestige further as 'that appearance of strength in another that impels us to confer power on him or her.' The generality of the definition points to the ephemerality of the concept. In different social environments (academia, prisons, ghettos, country clubs), different and sometimes contradictory phenomena are signs of social prestige. Even revolutionaries have their unwritten rules of etiquette. Weil cites the story of Grimm's "Valiant Little Tailor" as an example of this social quirk. (16) A frail young tailor kills seven flies with one blow of his fly swatter and then proudly sews an emblem on the back of his cloak, "Seven at One Blow." The people of his village, always in need of a hero, assume he means seven men and crown him with glory as their leader.

The tailor's reputation rests on a false interpretation of accurate facts -- the essence of propaganda according to Jacques Ellul.(17) Whoever can persuade others that he or she is in control, in fact, has control. While public opinion may be erroneous, it is not the result of pure fancy. A given idea's popularity in the social realm is not a sign of truth but only a sign of a need fulfilled.


In order to understand Weil's analysis of social force, we will stress an anatomy rather than a physiology of prestige. Prestige could be examined sociologically by describing the patterns within its operations. For example, weakness is always despised and strength always praised or people always exercise the full amount of power at their disposal.(18) But if the operations of prestige are to make sense, a prior justification for those operations must be presented. At first glance it is easier to understand the social mechanism in terms of a drive for tangible goods (Marx) or bodily satisfaction (Freud) rather than as a drive for prestige. In order to clarify the nature of prestige it is helpful to classify the psychological/spiritual needs that prestige fulfills.

Prestige is the appearance of being in control. The central plot of every cop show on television glorifies the hero who never loses control, even in the most adverse circumstances. Just revenge is always his or hers by the end of the show. The praise of control is the soul's automatic reflex to the threat of affliction. Affliction is the absence of control. And, ultimately all human beings succumb to natural forces beyond their control.

To acknowledge the reality of affliction means saying to oneself: I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, anything whatsoever that I possess, including those things which are so intimately mine that I consider them as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. (19)
Affliction is not so much physical pain as this lack of control. The intense pain that an athlete endures in training is not an affliction, because the athlete is in control. In contrast, an individual strapped to a torturer's chair experiences intense affliction before the torturer ever touches his or her body.

To classify this need for control further, we can subdivide it into the need to receive honor from others and the need to give honor to others. These two needs are the fuel of the social mechanism. They are the dual sides of the master-slave relationship. The master needs recognition, and the slave needs security. These two needs can be further sub-divided into their respective micro or psychological dimensions and their macro or sociological dimensions. The need for honor might be subclassified into the need for personal identity and the need for political power; the need to honor into the need for heros/idols and the need for social stability. The first two needs (the "master" needs) are distinguished by Weil in a fragment from Gravity and Grace:

We read, but also we are read by other. Interferences in these readings. Forcing someone to read himself as we read him (slavery). Forcing others to read us as we read ourselves (conquest). A mechanical process. More often than not a dialogue between deaf people .... Every being cries out to be read differently. (20)
Weil uses the term "reading" to refer to the emotional judgments we make of each others' characters.

The need for identity comprises the innocent quest of human beings to gain self-knowledge by distinguishing themselves from one another. And yet this healthy need inevitably causes conflict because the individual ego does not have precise boundaries in which to define itself nor is it self-sufficient in its defining. Since the ego is primarily an urge to be recognized, its existence is at the mercy of other egos. Weil's entire social analysis is an extended meditation on this simple fact:

It is impossible for the most heroically staunch mind to preserve the consciousness of an inward value when there is no external fact on which this consciousness can be based. Christ himself, when he found himself abandoned by everybody ... lost for a moment the feeling of his mission. (21)
For Weil the essence of Christ's Passion was his loss of prestige more than his physical suffering. (22) Weil emphasizes that Christ did not die as a hero (i.e. martyr), but appeared as a fool abandoned by His followers. Weil's social analysis and spirituality intersect here at the Crucifixion.

Not only is internal value dependent on external circumstance, but there is also no precise way to measure internal value. At what point is an ego properly recognized or its authority sufficiently grounded? Weil analyzes the ego or personality in almost the same terms that Marxists discuss property. Both personality and property have a kind of extension, only one is measurable and the other is not. According to Weil, personality as well as property constitutes a social privilege. "The full expression of personality depends upon its being inflated by social prestige; it is a social privilege."(23) Privilege by nature is not egalitarian. Personality is a scarcer commodity than property. According to the law of supply and demand, social prestige cannot be shared equally. If everyone had an ' equally charismatic personality, personalities would cease to be interesting; the demand would dwindle as the supply increased. Weil infers that egalitarian economic structures alone do not abolish "social" injustice.

On a larger scale, this need for identity manifests itself in a political regime's need for power. For Weil, political struggle is not reducible to the struggle of humanity against nature, as Marx thought. Social injustice has a spiritual base that is prior to its economic manifestations. Marx placed the origin of social conflict in the stinginess of nature. For Marx, material oppression causes social oppression. "The essential task of revolutions consists in the emancipation not of men but of productive forces." (24) However, until productive forces are adequately developed, their growth increases social oppression due to an increase in social organizational complexity. Of necessity, this organization becomes the monopoly of a few privileged beings possessing the complex knowledge necessary to run the system, thus separating the mass of men and women from control over the material conditions of their existence (remember, number is a weakness).

Weil argues that this dialectic of productive forces and alienation does not adequately explain social oppression. Weil bluntly observes: "How ever much you may resort to all kinds of subtleties to show that war is an essentially economic phenomenon, it is palpably obvious that war is destruction and not production." (25) The main factor in social oppression is the race for power. The race for power is rooted in the fear of death. For Weil the loss of power no matter how small entails a reduction in one's personality which is always experienced as a kind of death. The race for power, like the quest for ego, is unstable because there are no boundaries to the race. As pure means, power can be increased indefinitel. "Owing to its essential incapacity to lay hold of its object,"(26) power rules out all consideration of ends for it can only secure itself by exterminating its rival and then it would no longer be a power for there would be no one to recognize it. The origin to this endless merry-goround is a self-perpetuating fear of losing control, i.e., a fear of affliction. The "master produces fear in the slave by the very fact that he is afraid of him and vice-versa; and the same is true between rival powers."(27) In international affairs this paranoia often reaches such a pitch that we see the lion afraid of the mouse. One is reminded of Russian intervention in Afghanistan and American involvement in Vietnam. Weil traces this type of foreign policy back to ancient Rome:

The first principle of Roman policy ...was to maintain the maximum degree of prestige in all circumstances and at all cost. There is indeed no other way by which a limited power can proceed to universal domination; for no single people can possess in reality sufficient forces to dominate many other peoples .... That is why the Romans exhausted themselves in an interminable war against a little town whose existence was no threat .... (27a)


The third and fourth needs that explain the phenomenon of prestige concern the queer human passion for manufacturing deities. According to Weil, the supreme idol is the Social Beast described in the Republic of Plato and in the Book of Revelation by St. John. The Social Beast fills the need for God when God appears absent. In Weil's language, idols result from willing the truth rather than attending to the truth:

Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop. (28)
The will to meaning creates false gods.

Idols fulfill the primitive impulse to worship superhuman forces. The ancients responded to the dominion of nature by deifying nature. In their worship they could share in the forces that controlled them. As nature lost its divine character in modernity, the divine more and more took on a human character. (29) For Weil the tyranny of nature is replaced by the tyranny of social prestige. Today the gospel of success and the cult of personality replace primitive animism. The media has become the new sanctuary, and media personalities (and technical experts) are the new priests who mediate between humanity and the gods (i.e., superhuman technical structures). Image not only replaces issues in politics; image becomes the issue. Media personalities convey a sense of security to the citizenry in the face of technical complexity. The new priests' function is to placate the complex, god-like forces of the technological dynamo in order to project the image that someone is in control. If some charismatic politician loses face, there is always a Ted Koppel present to function as high priest.

This need for idols is closely linked to the fourth need for social order. Each society has its gods and the worship of these gods brings unity to the political regime. Not worshipping the gods leads to social chaos. The darkest reflections of Simone Weil on the Social Beast are found in her brief essay, "Meditation on Obedience and Liberty." The theme of this essay reminds one of Plato's theory of the noble lie (Republic 414e). Falsehood and social order go hand in hand. Order presupposes power. Power, while it is often bestowed arbitrarily, must not appear arbitrary in order to insure social order. The king must not be told too often that he has no clothes on. The illegitimate birth of power must be hidden as in Socrates' myth of the earth-born citizens. Rulers cannot rule without the cloak of social prestige. Weil comments:

Social force is bound to be accompanied by lies. That is why all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive action on the established order .... The social order, though necessary, is essentially evil, whatever it may be.(30)


As fatalistic as Weil's political analysis appears on the surface, her intentions are far from morose. Her writings strive to turn us from the false images of the limelight (Plato's Cave) to the quiet beauty of that Light which the darkness cannot overcome. For Weil, the love of God permeates every molecule in creation. But the operations of God's grace transpire in secret, like the chlorophyll which secretly transforms the light of the sun into food for the plant kingdom (a favorite metaphor of Weil's). The kingdom of God is indeed everywhere and thus a cause for constant rejoicing. However, if prestige is synonymous with "social visibility," then the kingdom of God is synonymous with "social invisibility." Christ often referred to the secret nature of the kingdom of heaven as leaven hidden in flour or a treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13:33,44). The works of the kingdom are omnipresent, yet they are hidden from the world of celebrity. The Father who works in secret, rewards his followers in secret (Matt. 6:18).

Such a line of reasoning does not lead to political despair, but rather to genuine hope. The world is in a constant process of redemption, even though it appears to be lost (if viewed through the six o'clock news). The political effect of Weil's critique is to engender caution toward any type of political fanaticism. Marxist leaders are as prone to delusions of grandeur as are capitalist leaders. The spiritual purpose behind Weil's critique of the Social Beast is to turn our attention away from abstract ideologies and back to flesh and blood individuals, those who normally escape our attention (whether they be family or strangers). As Weil's special vocation was to seek and find the forgotten, she considered the essence of both friendship ,and social justice to be the act of "creative attention." Her favorite parable was the Good Samaritan. The charity portrayed there she regarded as sacramental in character:

Christ taught us that the supernatural love of our neighbor is the exchange of compassion and gratitude which happens in a flash between two beings, one possessing and the other deprived of human personality. One of the two is only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him. Those who pass by this thing scarcely notice it, and a few minutes afterwards do not even know that they saw it. Only one stops and turns his attention towards it .... The attention is creative. But at the moment when it is engaged it is a renunciation. This is true, at least, if it is pure. The man accepts to be diminished by concentrating on an expenditure of energy, which will not extend his own power but will only give existence to a being other than himself, who will exist independently of him .... Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist... He who has absolutely no belongings of any kind around which social consideration crystallizes does not exist. (31)
Both love and justice perceive what is invisible to the world of social ideologies, that is, the individual sufferer. True attention literally creates personality in the sufferer. Far from leading to political quietism, Weil's philosophy of "creative attention" leads to authentic political action.

The particulars of this political action are presented in the last book she wrote, The Need for Roots. Here she reflects more positively on the importance of religious and political social structures in the life of the individual. In fact, she spends pages praising the now maligned virtue of patriotism. Weil contrasts false patriotism which results from pride and true patriotism which comes from humility. She argues that "prestigious" acts of heroism need not always arise from grandiosity and egoism. For example, she observes that most people are easily capable of acting heroically in order to protect their children or aged parents. The thought of weakness inspires noble deeds as well as the thought of strength. Patriotism is merely an extension of this natural protective impulse from one's family to one's country.

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 compassion felt for fragility is always associated with love for real beauty, because we are keenly conscious of the fact that the existence of the really beautiful things ought to be assured forever, and is not. One can either love France for the glory which would seem to ensure for her a prolonged existence in time and space; or else one can love her as something which, being earthly 2 an be destroyed, and is all the more precious on that account.(32)
False patriotism results from the illusion that our personality or our country will exist forever due to its own strength. However, as Weil emphasizes: "Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die than admit this."(33) False patriotism or prestige refuses to admit the possibility of affliction.

True patriotism comes from the admission of affliction, that is, from humility. From humility grows a compassion for the fragile nature of the things of this world. When we let go of the necessity of our own existence, the fragility of mortal creatures becomes a catalyst for our love. The objects of love in this world become more precious in proportion to the precariousness of their existence. The awesome beauty of infants is a case in point.

For Weil the contingency of human existence allows human beings to fulfill their vocation as "images" (possibly co-creators?) of God. By attending to an individual whose social standing is vastly inferior to our own, we create a "personal" existence for that individual. We invite them to join the human race from which they were barred by affliction. Through the grace of Christ (and only through the grace of Christ) we in effect say to the afflicted "Let light shine out of darkness" (see 2 Cor. 4:6 and Gen. 1:3). Weil writes:

He who treats as equals those who are far below him in strength really makes them a gift of the quality of human beings, of which fate had deprived them. As far as it is possible for a creature, he reproduces the original generosity of the Creator with regard to them." (34)
The spiritual creation of persons reflects the creation of the world.

The proper function of a society is to create the conditions that make this type of encounter possible. (35) Furthermore, a society or tradition should create a sense of continuity or rootedness for the individuals who comprise that society. This sense of personal history provides a feeling of permanence which mirrors the eternity of God. Institutions are like sacraments in that their function is one of mediation -- they mediate between past, present, and future generations. The trick is to accomplish this task without losing the sense of our exile here on earth. Families and societies are symbols of permanence, but not permanence itself. Given the right conditions (which Weil spells out at length in The Need for Roots) society fulfills a sacramental function by symbolizing the divine society of the Trinity. To summarize, society (and personality) can function two ways as idol or as sacrament. Taken only as an end in itself, society functions as the Great Beast increasing human affliction. Viewed as a sacrament, society mirrors that heavenly home which is the source of all creative social and spiritual development on earth.

  1. Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1987), p. 31.

  2. Weil's ambivalence towards the Roman Catholic Church reflects her ambivalence towards social structures in general. For Weil, the opposite of spirituality is not materialism, but (if I may fabricate a term) 'societalism -- the obsession with social recognition.

  3. For a sympathetic but somewhat patronizing psycho-history of Weil, see Robert Coles, Simone Weil; A Modern Pilgrimage (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987). Coles does not follow the anorexia diagnosis. The "official" biography of Weil is the 600 page tome by her childhood friend, Simone Petrement, Simone Weil; A Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976). For a sensitive study of her theology (rather than her personality) see Eric Springsted's Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley, 1986).

  4. George A. Panichas, The Simone Weil Reader (New York: David McKay, 1977), p. xvii. Hereafter cited as Reader.

  5. Simone Weil, The Iliad or Poem of Force (Wallingford, Penn.: Pendle Hill, 1956), p. 3. Hereafter cited as Iliad. A different translation of this essay is found in Panichas' Reader.

  6. Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), p. 143.

  7. Weil, Iliad, p. 15.

  8. Ibid., p. 11.

  9. Ibid., p. 13.

  10. The fact that the gods symbolized primeval forces for the Greeks and were not anthropomorphic personalities is best articulated by G. M. A. Grube in Plato's Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 150. "By saying that love, or victory, is god, or, to be more accurate, a god, was meant first and foremost that it is more than human, not subject to death, everlasting. It is not for nothing that the Greeks ordinarily referred to the gods as of hoi athanatoi, the deathless ones. Any power, any force we see at work in the world, which is not born with us and will continue after we are gone could thus be called a god, and most of them were.

  11. Weil, Iliad, p. 13. See also the similar reflections of the Swiss psychiatrist/theologian, Paul Tournier, in his The Strong and the Weak (London: SCM Press, 1963).

  12. Weil, Iliad, p. 4.

  13. Ibid., p.14.

  14. Ibid., p. 19.

  15. Ibid., p. 19.

  16. Simone Weil, Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 135. Hereafter cited as Intimations.

  17. See Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (New York: Vintage Books, 7973), pp. 52 ff. Propagandists must disseminate accurate facts with false interpretations and then defend their assertions by appealing to the accuracy of their facts.

  18. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 10. Hereafter cited as Gravity. For a lucid study of the "operations" of :, prestige, see C. S. Lewis' sermon, "The Inner Ring," in his The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965).

  19. Panichas, Reader, p. 332.

  20. Weil, Gravity, pp. 121-122.

  21. Weil, Oppression, pp. 144-145.

  22. Weil, Intimations, p. 137.

  23. Panichas, Reader, p. 326.

  24. Weil, Oppression, p. 42.

  25. Ibid., p. 142.

  26. Ibid., p. 69.

  27. Simone Weil, "The Great Beast: Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism, 1930-1940," p. 12 in Richard Rees, ed., Selected Essays, 1934-1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

    27a. Ibid., p. 65. For a more provocative view of the "race for power," see Rend Gerard's analysis of "mimetic desire" in his Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1977).

  28. Weil, Gravity, p. 53.

  29. Weil, Oppression, p. 63.

  30. Ibid., p. 145.

  31. Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 146-149. Hereafter cited as Waiting.

  32. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 171 7 72.

  33. Weil, Waiting, p. 224.

  34. Ibid., p. 144.

  35. Our modern American "meritocracy" which defines individuals according to their success in the marketplace is obviously a Pelagian heresy creating social conditions quite the opposite of those that Weil envisions. For a recent critique of this "meritocracy," see Michael Lerner's Surplus Powerlessness (Oakland, Cal.: Institute for Labor and Mental Health, 1986).