On "Theoretical Picture of a Free Society" (1934).
What's the ideal living situation for us all, given the peculiarities of human nature? Nine years before Weil laid out her list of human needs, as covered in our last episode, she wrote a work that she hoped to be her magnum opus, Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression. This included the "Analysis of Oppression" essay covered in our ep. 225, which described how very difficult it is for us to actually be free given how the world makes demands of us by making us work for food and shelter, and then these demands transmute themselves directly into our oppression by other people exert power over us and likewise force us to work and struggle. Immediately following that essay is this one, which purportedly gives us a picture of Weil's solution.
In this essay, Weil sees society as a necessary evil, so the issue is not one of establishing a utopia, but of constructing a society that does as little damage as possible. Freedom, for Weil, is the ability to picture goals and concretely put them into practice. Freedom demands understanding: Understanding of these goals, understanding of the steps needed to achieve the goals, and understanding that what you're now doing at this moment constitutes one of those steps. This is very purposely designed on Descartes's rules for direction of the mind (our ep. 229), where we only really understand something if we can see all the steps of the argument (like steps of a mathematical proof). The idea (common among philosophers from Aristotle to Kant to Dennett) is that yes, everything is determined in the great causal chain, but insofar as we act out of reason and not blind desire, we can call ourselves free. For Weil, reason here means conscious understanding, which allows us to identify the goals and actions as ours.
There's an interesting dynamic here, though. Routine work is dull; it's not intellectually stimulating in the way that Weil wants. But yet all work becomes routine, even very intellectual work that takes place at a high level of abstraction. Planning innovative ways of getting things done can itself become a dull routine. Since there's no way of avoiding this, Weil actually places a high value on raw, physical labor, which we should surrender to as the Stoic surrenders to the inevitability of death. She may be in the realm here of the attitude described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (our ep. 50), where the key is not just attain to choose work that doesn't deaden you, but to adopt an attitude that enlivens you whatever the work is.
So again, the human task is to try to make peace with necessary evils and choose the least evil among them, to adopt a sort of active Stoic attitude that both adapts the environment to the organism and the organism to the environment. What best engages our faculties is to have social groups be small and working together, so that everyone can have an active role in decision-making and execution of plans. The typical society is on Weil's account horribly tyrannical over both mind and body, so there's still lots of room for revolutionary action to try to improve this before we reach the point of Stoic surrender.
End song: "Libreville" by Bill Bruford's Earthworks. Mark interviewed Bill for Nakedly Examined Music #25.
Image by Solomon Grundy.