Eating the Truth
by Marie Meaney
How does one transmit the truth, give others a real education rather than a superficial agglomeration of facts? This was one of the questions Simone Weil (1909-43), a French philosopher and mystic, tried to address. Vulgarization is not the right approach, for it removes the “nuggets of gold” contained in great texts, eliminating their haunting beauty and profound insights, leaving one with an empty shell. A dumbed-down version of the classics is hardly worthwhile perusing, and often leaves one short of wanting to read the original. But how to bring great texts, profound philosophical insights and beauty in art, closer to those who have neither the leisure nor capacity to understand them easily, is a question of great urgency.
For the soul needs truth as much as the body needs fresh air and sunlight. Otherwise, it withers away. If we live on soap operas and Wikipedia, we will be nourishing ourselves on empty husks, like the prodigal son who was reduced to craving pigs’ food. If we do not follow his example and return to the house of the Father where truth, beauty, the good and infinite love are awaiting us, then we will starve in the wasteland of modern culture.
Among other things, Simone Weil taught evening-courses for workers and was writing about these challenges in her magisterial work, The Need for Roots. People were lacking real culture through the various traumas the French had experienced; secularization had cut people off from their spiritual roots, and the French Revolution, industrialization and various wars had done the rest. Education was sought in order to gain social advancement and had become profoundly utilitarian, thereby undermining its very purpose. For true education, imparting a genuine culture, must address the eternal questions of man.
Weil was particularly concerned for the workers of her day, enslaved by the relentless rhythm of machines that demanded mind-
numbing and wearing movements. Their work did not challenge their intelligence nor did it give them a sense of fulfillment. Though she made suggestions of how to change that (after having spent a year in various industrial factories in order to understand their situation from the inside), she also focused on their education. Not so much for the sake of social mobility--though she was not opposed to that-- but primarily to give their souls true nourishment.
Greek tragedy, she believed, would speak to them, for it expresses extreme suffering as well as the despair and disgust that comes with affliction. Since the downtrodden frequently cannot verbalize their misery, it is a great relief to them to find their experience voiced with such accuracy. While they are crushed by the ugliness and absurdity of their work and its surroundings, great art can capture this while showing that there is more to life. It reveals the lie at the heart of a mediocrity that falsely proclaims its universal reign. Truth and beauty turn slaves into free men, at least briefly, and show them that ugliness, poverty and suffering do not have the last word. Beauty sweeps one up and speaks of a different kind of reality, since it is ultimately “a revelation of God”.
However, Greek tragedy or other classics can be difficult to understand for those with little education. Teachers should initiate them slowly, explaining their basic meaning before revealing their different layers; they will need to express them differently at first, just as Weil did when she wrote some articles on Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra for a worker’s journal. To be able to do so without stripping a text of its value, one needs to transpose the truth rather than vulgarize it, as Weil writes in The Need for Roots. Hence, one has to comprehend it fully first, having “placed oneself at the center of a truth, to have possessed it in its nudity”. Truth is understood in its starkness, when it has been bared of its cultural trappings, historical layers and subjective connotations. They were never part of it in the first place, but were the distorting lens through which we were seeing it. In consequence, only those who have left the realm of mere opinion and of the Zeitgeist, those who seek wisdom and are willing to be stripped of everything, only those who are willing to embrace the cross, to let the old man die, will be “at the center of a truth”, and thus be capable of transmitting it to others.
Attention is key to being able to convey and receive it in Weil’s eyes. Exercising one’s attention is therefore essential and should be one of the main goals of education. It is, as she wrote in her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, a preparation for prayer, which is nothing else but “the orientation towards God of all the attention of which the soul is capable”. Even if my efforts seem futile, if I am not able to solve a mathematical problem or understand a poem in depth, they will not have been made in vain. Each time I give my full-hearted attention to something, more light enters the soul - even if the brain seems in a fog - and will bear fruit one day, since “the desire for light brings about light”.
Though workers (and everybody else for that matter) may have little leisure and be very fatigued, it does not prevent them from getting a taste of the real thing and from developing their attention a bit, at the very least. If we do not merely skim a classic nor despair faintheartedly of ever understanding it, then we will become more capable of receiving the truth – be it through the masterpiece we are attempting to grasp or in other circumstances. Studying at any level is therefore not an academic thing, nor should it ever be pursued for utilitarian reasons (for then one will miss the whole point of the gratuity of truth, beauty and the good), but in order to fine-tune the intellect to receive the truth.
Truth comes like a thief in the night, but is eagerly awaited by the watchful servant. Hence, studies rightly done are like spiritual exercises, and mean going through a dark night of the soul, waiting for truth to reveal itself. It means persevering instead of taking shortcuts, jumping to hasty conclusions or repeating parrot-like the current ideology’s dictates. Truth calls for suffering, for one needs to be stripped and purified to be able to grasp it. Only if we have held out, will we see that the truth was not opaque, but so luminous as to blind us, as Plato famously expressed it in his allegory of the cave. It involves acceptance of being puzzled and dwarfed by a truth we cannot fully probe. It requires waiting for the light to break on a mystery.
The night might seem endless for those watchmen, and the dawn long in coming. But when the light breaks, the reward will be great. Truth will not be an abstraction, but a person. This is an experience Weil had made herself. In her teens, she despaired of ever reaching the truth, since she considered herself too mediocre, but she eventually came to the conclusion that it can be found when it is sought; that those who seek bread will not be given stones. As an adult, she was reciting the poem “Love III” by George Herbert, which, without her noticing it, had become a prayer. Then “Christ came down and took” her, and His presence was more real to her than any other’s had ever been. In the Eucharist, He could be tasted, eaten and adored (though she could only do the latter, not being baptized herself).
Studies, too, can work like a sacrament, leading one to God. “I do not read, I eat”, she wrote, digesting the truth and making it fruitful in her own life and writings. Through her oeuvre, she is inviting us, like Christ in George Herbert’s poem, to “sit down and eat”, to partake in a Eucharistic fashion in masterpieces, and find the nuggets of gold they contain. It is a courteous and gentle, yet challenging invitation, not making allowance for shallowness, self-interest or flashy brilliance. But like the pearl of great price, it is hidden to the world, yet worth the sacrifice.
Studies, too, can work like a sacrament, leading one to God.
Dr Marie Meaney is the author of "Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature: Her Christological Interpretations of Classic Greek Texts" (OUP, 2007). Her booklet, "Embracing the Cross of Infertility" has appeared in multiple languages. Apart from publishing in academic journals, she writes popular articles for "The Personalist Project", "The Truth and Charity Forum" and "Crisis Magazine". Before the birth of her daughter she was a teaching fellow at Villanova University. She lives outside of Rome, Italy.