The Simone Weil Centre is an international dialogue and research organization.
We are oriented toward:
1. Reducing tensions between the US (and its allies) and other great powers, including but not restricted to Russia
2. Exploring the basis for a global modus vivendi between liberally-oriented political structures and other political-cultural systems
3. Responding constructively to the crisis in contemporary liberal thought and culture.
Why Political Philosophy?
What is international order, what kind of thing is it? Can we understand what international political order is without raising the question about what politics itself is, what it’s for? Is it about human flourishing, and what would that mean? Is there just one way of understanding what freedom and justice (etc.) are, or, with Alasdair MacIntyre, don’t we also have to ask the further question: Whose Justice? Which (as in what sort of) Freedom?
The purpose of our Center is to engage the questions of our day about international order and politics from a perspective that includes the kinds of questions that philosophers ask. As the above examples illustrate, such questions often involve asking what something is.
We are a new organization, but we are not quite starting from zero. We have already engaged in a series of conversations with scholars from many different countries, and these conversations have launched us on a number of productive lines of questioning.
For example, our most recent conversations, in Moscow and in Washington, D.C., have made clear the importance of the unit, or category of analysis, in international relations. For IR realists (John J. Mearsheimer for example), the best unit of analysis is the nation state. Other analysts (Michael Lind) have suggested that we would be better served studying not states, but blocs (e.g., the American-led, Chinese, Russian, etc. blocs). Still others (Samuel Huntington, Boris Mezhuev) suggest we are best served by trying to balance and/or reconcile not blocs, but different civilizations. Each of these approaches raises its own set of problems and possibilities.
What is the source of international disorder today? Is it the moral perfidy of certain leaders? Is it the inherently anarchic structure of international relations? The failure of some states to modernize properly into liberal democracies? Or something else altogether?
An emerging, and, for many of us, promising analytic perspective has suggested that liberal democracy in its present form may be both self-undermining in the domestic political sphere and destabilizing in the international political sphere. Much remains to be done to unpack and concretize this thesis, however.
The word ‘civilization’ itself represents an important area for reflection. For many decades a controversy has raged over the notion of civilization(s). Is it plural or singular? Is there one Western civilization? For that matter, is it necessarily ‘orientalizing’ (Edward Said) to affirm civilizational differences, or, to the contrary, is the denial of difference itself a sort of imperialism of misplaced universalism?
As our colleague Adrian Pabst has noted, we speak of German, French, Russian (etc.) classical music, ballet, literature—and indeed each nation has its own style of music, dance, or novel (no one would a mistake a Herman Melville novel for one written by Fyodor Dostoevsky)—and yet each of these national styles clearly forms part of a single civilizational structure (and, indeed, dialogue) of novel, dance and music. Mutatis mutandi, much the same can be said about philosophy and even religious faith. Does this not suggest a kind of unity of Western civilization ‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’? And if so, why, on the political level, do we so vociferously deny this unity?
On the other hand, most religious faiths (certainly including Christianity) do not consider themselves geographically bounded. And what of Adam Webb (Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation), who holds that the unity of the world is now a given, and for this very reason the preservation of deep traditions and faiths can only be tackled at the level of a deepened dialogue and support between the great world faith traditions? For that matter, are we more likely to solve problems of pressing moment (economic injustice, ecological damage, terrorism, etc.) by acknowledging civilizational difference and unity, or by erasing all deep difference precisely in the name of (democratic) unity?
No doubt some readers will scoff at such questioning as merely academic and distant from ‘the real world.’ To be sure, philosophy as such has long been in ill repute (arguably at least since the time of René Descartes!). Admittedly, the critics of philosophy are not entirely without a point. What we need today is not only the truth as such, much as we suffer from the lack of it. What we need even more is a reason to care about it, about whether anything is true or false. It is precisely here that Simone Weil comes in handy.
Why Simone Weil?
Simone Weil is not to everyone’s taste. Some are put off by her earnestness, others by her occasional (OK, her frequent) peremptory judgments. There is certainly no requirement to like her. Weil herself would be offended if people today were to respect any part of her oeuvre except those parts which are true.
Having said that, it is difficult to see how anyone of sound mind who actually takes the trouble to read Weil’s writings—remarkable in their depth and extent for someone who died at the age of 34—can fail to find there many valuable insights into human conflict, civilization, culture, education, and much else.
As modern people we often imagine that it speaks of our sophistication when we affirm that politics, when you get right down to it, is nothing more than force and power. That it is at heart simply a technique for holding onto power. Weil rejects this claim. Power is not an end, but a means. If we define politics as nothing more than force and power, then this power can only continue endlessly to grow and expand. After all, how can a means have a limiting principle?
The modern notion of rights was also the subject of Weil’s critique. For our modern political concept (as Pierre Manent has noted), ‘Man’ is ‘a certain X who has rights.’ The vagueness of this X, its lack of any relation to something beyond itself (whatever that is), we take to be the very form of our freedom. For Weil, this notion involves a basic misunderstanding. Rights cannot be absolutes, because they are a power which can be either used well or abused. What is absolute, therefore, is not rights, but obligation. And yet, to the extent we focus on rights severed from their source in obligation, we once again find ourselves in the same sphere of power (a right, to be effective, is necessarily an assertion of a power; and any right so asserted will be effective), the same realm that, as we have seen, lacks by its very nature a limiting principle.
Weil’s central intuitions can be stated simply. First, the absolute centrality and primacy of the good. Second—and this is a corollary of the first—modern man fundamentally misunderstands the place and role of force in this world. “For the last two or three centuries,” wrote Weil:
people have believed that force rules supreme over all natural phenomena, and at the same time that men can and should base their mutual relations upon justice, recognized as such through the application of reason. This is a flagrant absurdity. It is inconceivable that everything in the universe should be entirely subjected to the rule of force and that Man should be able to escape the effects of this, seeing that he is made of flesh and blood … (The Need for Roots)
It is difficult to avoid noticing this ‘absurdity’ in the realm of international relations. Modern realism accepts that force, not morality, rules supreme in the relations between states. Modern liberalism, for its part, stakes its claim on morality and reason—but this claim hangs in thin air. Weil helps us see why this is the case.
What is characteristic of modern ideology, in its relation to the good, is its a priori rejection of the good as a present actuality (cf. especially D.C. Schindler on this subject). Lacking any real presence, here and now, of the good, ideology proposes to pursue it nonetheless by means of, as Weil terms it, a ‘little mechanism’ which produces out of thin air what it nonetheless wholly lacks. Utilitarianism, classical 19th century liberalism (what we now call ‘laissez-faire’), Marxism—are all, Weil insists, mechanisms of this sort.
In each case, justice (i.e. the good) is allegedly produced automatically by one or another form of force. For laissez-faire, this ‘little mechanism’ operates by pretending that money is not itself a form of force, that it is, instead, an automatic producer of justice. For Marxism, “force is given the name of history; it takes the form of the class struggle … [while] justice is relegated to some future time.”
How is one to move beyond these delusions and ideologies—delusions, incidentally, which have kept us trapped to this very day between the Scylla of neo-liberalism and the Charybdis of realpolitik? For one thing, we must learn at last to recognize “[t]hat brute force is not sovereign in this world … what is sovereign in this world is determinateness, limit. Eternal Wisdom imprisons this universe in a network, a web of determinations.”
Let’s pause for a moment, at this point, to attend to the quality of Weil’s prose. Frequently her formulations are almost Cartesian in their purity and ‘scientific’ rigor, while also having the limpid clarity of great poetry. This combination is entirely intended, and constitutes for Weil a necessary method.
Consider another example, which extends her above point:
Every visible and palpable force is subject to an invisible limit which it shall never cross. In the sea, a wave mounts higher and higher, but at a certain point, where there is nevertheless only space, it is arrested and forced to redescend. In the same way, the German flood was arrested, without anybody knowing why, on the shores of the Channel.
Weil’s claim here is meant both as scientific truth—she is describing after all a truth about nature, the pervasiveness of limits, the finiteness of waves—and as a poetic truth: the unity, in other words, of truth and beauty.
So what is the key ‘take-away’ here for those of us who are interested in international relations? It is all well and good, the reader may protest, to speak eloquently about the need for limits. And yet, the reader could easily add, ‘after all, there are many today who recognize the need for limits in international affairs, who call for ‘realism and restraint.’ Can political philosophy really make a difference?
Perhaps what is key here is the unity of beauty and truth. It is indeed not enough to simply know what is true. One must also care about it. Weil, perhaps unsurprisingly, puts it still more radically:
The acquisition of knowledge causes us to approach truth when it is a question of knowledge about something we love, and not in any other case.
Beauty is the midwife of this process. We need to instantiate a politics, and even a diplomatic methodology, that takes this counsel seriously.
Susannah Black received her BA from Amherst College and her MA from Boston University. She is an editor at Plough, associate editor of Providence Magazine, and editor of The Davenant Trust’s journal Ad Fontes. She's a founding editor of Solidarity Hall and is on the Board of the Distributist Review. Her writing has appeared in First Things, The Distributist Review, Solidarity Hall, Providence, Amherst Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Ethika Politika, The Human Life Review, The American Conservative, and elsewhere. She blogs at Radio Free Thulcandra and tweets at @suzania. A native Manhattanite, she is now living in Queens.
Matthew del santo
Matthew Dal Santo was a Danish Council Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen 2014 - 2017. He has written on Russian and European affairs for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Canberra, Australia), The Lowy Institute for Foreign Policy (Sydney, Australia), The Center for the National Interest (Washington, D.C.) and The Nation (New York). He has a BA (first-class honours and University Medal) from the University of Sydney and a Mphil and PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he was Lightfoot Scholar in Ecclesiastical History. He is a former Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and foreign policy officer with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his wife and daughter.
Paul Grenier is an essayist and translator who writes frequently on political philosophy, urbanism and foreign affairs. His essays have appeared in The American Conservative, Solidarity Hall, Consortium News, The Huffington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Ethika Politika, Johnson’s Russia List, Russkaya Idea, Tetradi konservatizma, and in translation in both Russian and French. He holds graduate degrees in International Affairs and Geography (Columbia University) and a certificate from the Harriman Institute of Columbia University where he studied Russian intellectual history under Marc Raeff. He worked for many years as a simultaneous interpreter for the U.S. Defense and State Departments, interpreting for Gen. Tommy Franks and serving as lead interpreter for US Central Command’s peacekeeping exercises with post-Soviet states. He was a research director at the Council on Economic Priorities, where he led collaborative projects between US and Russian academics on military-economic affairs. He was a founding editor at Solidarity Hall. In October 2016 he was keynote speaker at the Berdyaev Readings Conference in Paris. He lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.