Deborah Casewell in aeon:
The short life of Simone Weil, the French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist, was one of unrelenting self-sacrifice from her childhood to her death. At a very young age, she expressed an aversion to luxury. In an action that prefigured her death, while still a child, she refused to move until she was given a heavier burden to carry than her brother’s. Her death in Ashford in England in 1943, at just 34, is attributed to her apparent refusal to eat – an act of self-denial, in solidarity with starving citizens of occupied France, which she carried out despite suffering from tuberculosis. For her uncompromising ethical commitments, Albert Camus described her as ‘the only great spirit of our time’.
This is certainly more complimentary than her university nicknames of ‘the Red Virgin’, ‘the Categorical Imperative in Skirts’, and even ‘the Martian’. Indeed, Weil’s reported interactions with the other great spirits of those times further underline the force of her personality. Simone de Beauvoir, who attended the Sorbonne at the same time, came across her during their student days and described a conversation with Weil sparked by her response to the famine in China:
she declared in no uncertain tones that only one thing mattered in the world: the revolution which would feed all the starving people of the earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find the reason for their existence. She looked me up and down: ‘It’s easy to see you’ve never been hungry,’ she snapped.
Despite this put-down, Beauvoir admired Weil and her ‘heart that could beat right across the world’.
Weil took no prisoners in any debate. Although Leon Trotsky had recently excoriated her critique of Marxism, Weil arranged for the Marxist revolutionary to stay in her parents’ apartment in December 1933 and host an illicit political gathering. This did, however, come at the expense of a night-long, intense discussion with Weil. While she always argued softly and clearly, that did not prevent the discussion from being punctuated by violent shouts.