Stoic Women: Simone Weil

Since writings by ancient Stoic women unfortunately did not survive, I have been looking for writings and quotes by modern women, that could have been written or inspired by ancient Stoics. Doing some research I came across French philosopher Simone Weil.  Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle  and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.

Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.

Although born into a secular Jewish household and raised in “complete agnosticism”, she later became a Christian mystic. But Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions—especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries; Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34.

Weil’s biographer Gabriella Fiori wrote that Weil was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range” and Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”.


“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”

“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.”

“All sins are attempts to fill voids.”

“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”

“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”

“In struggling against anguish one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish.”

“You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.”

“To be a hero or a heroine, one must give an order to oneself.”

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

“We are drawn towards a thing, either because there is some good we are seeking from it, or because we cannot do without it. Sometimes the two motives coincide. Often however they do not. Each is distinct and quite independent. We eat distasteful food, if we have nothing else, because we cannot do otherwise. A moderately greedy man looks out for delicacies, but he can easily do without them. If we have no air we are suffocated, we struggle to get it, not because we expect to get some advantage from it but because we need it. We go in search of sea air without being driven by any necessity, because we like it. In time it often comes about automatically that the second motive takes the place of the first. This is one of the great misfortunes of our race. A man spokes opium in order to attain to a special condition, which he thinks superior; often, as time goes on, the opium reduces him to a miserable condition which he feels to be degrading; but he is no longer able to do without it.”

“One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.”

“The sum of the particular intentions of God is the universe itself.”

“But a better remedy is indifference to ourselves, and being happy because the good is good, although we are far from it and may even suppose that we are destined to remain separated from it forever.”

“Contact with the sword causes the same defilement whether it be through the hilt or the point.”

Seneca on travelling

The things you’re running away from are with you all the time. Seneca

Seneca was very suspicious of those who travel  in order to escape from their problems or to achieve wisdom. In letter CIV he wrote:

“What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never in fact has it rid the personality of a fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgment, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before. The instability, moreover, of a mind which is seriously unwell, is aggravated by it, the motion itself increasing the fitfulness and restlessness. This explains why people, after setting out for a place with the greatest of enthusiasm, are often more enthusiastic about getting away from it; like migrant birds, they fly on, away even quicker than they came.

Travel will give you a knowledge of other countries, it will show you mountains whose outlines are quite new to you, stretches of unfamiliar plains, valleys watered by perennial streams; it will allow you to observe the unique features of this or that river, the way in which, for example, the Nile rises in summer flood, or the Tigris vanishes from sight and at the completion of its journey through hidden subterranean regions is restored to view with its volume undiminished, or the way the Meander, theme of every poet’s early training exercises, winds about, loop after loop, and again and again is carried close to its own bed and then once more diverted into a different course before it can flow into its own stream. But travel won’t make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches, and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered. This is the way to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.

So long, in fact, as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright or honorable conduct and what is not, it will not be travelling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way. If only they were really following you! They’d be farther away from you: as it is they’re not at your back, but on it! That’s why they weigh you down with just the same uncomfortable chafing wherever you are. It’s medicine, not a particular part of the world, that a person needs if he’s ill.

Suppose someone has broken his leg or dislocated a joint; he doesn’t get into a carriage or board a ship: he calls in a doctor to have the fracture set or the dislocation reduced. Well then, when a person’s spirit is wrenched or broken at so many points, do you imagine that it can be put right by a change of scenery, that that sort of trouble isn’t so serious that it can’t be cured by an outing?

Travelling doesn’t make a man a doctor or a public speaker: there isn’t a single art which
is acquired merely by being in one place rather wan another. Can wisdom, then, the greatest art of all, be picked up in the course of taking a trip? Take my word for it, the trip doesn’t exist that can set you beyond the reach of cravings, fits of temper, or fears. If it did, the human race would be off there in a body. So long as you carry the sources of your troubles about with you, those troubles will continue to harass and plague you wherever you wander on land or on sea. Does it surprise you that running away doesn’t do you any good? The things you’re running away from are with you all the time.

What you must do, then, is mend your ways and get rid of the burden you’re carrying. Keep your cravings within safe limits. Scour every trace of evil from your personality. If you want to enjoy your travel, you must make your travelling companion a healthy one. So long as you associate with a person who‟s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you. Cruelty you‟ll never say goodbye to while you share the same roof with a torturer. Familiarity with adulterers will only inflame your desires. If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them. The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you.

Move to better company: live with the Catos, with Laelius, with Tubero. If you like Greek company too, attach yourself to Socrates and Zeno: the one would teach you how to the should it be forced upon you, the other how to the before it is forced upon you. Live with Chrysippus, live with Posidonius; they will give you a knowledge of man and the universe; they will tell you to be a practical philosopher: not just to entertain your listeners to a clever display of language, but to steel your spirit and brace it against whatever threatens. For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”