What is Force?
“Force is that which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” Near the beginning of “L’Iliade ou le poème de la force,” Simone Weil circumscribes with lapidary brevity the problem of force.
The question of force has been haunting political reflection from the outset, according to two distinctive perspectives. On the one hand, the disenchanted observers of political operativity juxtapose force to cunning, viewing them as modes of human resourcefulness in the pursuit of intended ends. In this sense, both force and shrewdness emerge as instruments strategically and deliberately deployed, whether in synergy or in alternative, in view of efficaciousness. The pair force/cunning finds its codification in Greek and Latin literature: the lion as an emblem of force and the fox of astuteness, in their complementariness, indicate the basic (indeed, lower) traits of the political animal. Lion and fox articulate the impulsive life of humans in their interactions and negotiations, in their quest for self-assertion, acquisition, and domination. We find this figuration paradigmatically in Plutarch (Parallel Lives, in particular “Lysander” and “Sylla”), but already in Cicero (de Officiis I.41). The twofold symbolism of human impulsiveness incisively returns in Machiavelli (Il Principe XVIII), is pervasive in Vico, and remains structurally decisive in a canonical author such as Vilfredo Pareto (Trattato di sociologia generale).
In his reconstruction of the formidable occurrences of the Peloponnesian war, Thucydides displays analogous sagacity in analyzing political conduct and motivation. His descriptions are distinctively responsive to the systemic dimensions of the events and their collective, impersonal character. Accordingly, the History lets transpire a meditation on power highlighting the lordship of necessity and chance over human affairs and equally emphasizing “human factors” (ta anthropika) often no less mechanical and uncontrollable in their work (emotions, attractions and aversions, delusions, matters of expediency). Politics emerges less as the realm of the exercise of logos than as the domain of kratos, most notably of power as irreducible to merely anthropological considerations.
The figure of Athena founder of cities and goddess of logos as well as polemos (Plato, Timaeus) has always already indicated the duplicitous nature of the human and, more broadly, the ambiguity inherent in the negotiation of difference (difference as the gathering, articulation, and com-position of the differing as differing vs. difference as the distancing that gives rise to conflict). Machiavelli himself recognizes the duality of human and beast at the heart of the human being and, on this ground, contrast the laws (the properly human expression) and force (the beastly exercise). In so doing, he sees himself as merely making explicit what ancient wisdom showed through the image of the hero (Achilles) educated by Chiron the centaur—a preceptor fittingly half human and half beast, thereby able to address human nature in its compositeness (Il Principe XVIII).
Thus, on the other hand, in philosophical reflection we consistently find the effort to connect the problem of force with the quest for justice and the institution of legality—the effort, that is, to integrate the apparently irreconcilable aspects of human life. Needless to say, at stake is no clear-cut dichotomy between force and reason, violence and intelligence, the animal and the properly human. The beast is both lion and fox. Force may be enacted under the guise of brutality as well as in the form of astute manipulation. In turn, cleverness may be employed to malevolent and destructive ends. Thereby force may be enormously magnified in its effectiveness and, concomitantly, the “human beast” may, precisely qua human and intelligent, be crucially enhanced in its beastly potential.
However, the relation between force and law has been approached in vastly divergent ways. Suffice it to mention the view of political/juridical institutions as the sole and necessary containment of otherwise untamable human ferocity. Positions as discontinuous as those of Hobbes, Nietzsche, and even Freud share this basic ground, assuming the irreconcilability of instinctual life and community, the fundamentally repressive function of culture, and the transposition of the exercise of force from the individual to the collective level. In contrast with this, consider the attempt at harmonizing impulsivity and intellectual development, desires and laws, and positing community as the condition for the possibility of each one’s self-realization. Plato’s psycho-politics, establishing the correspondence of political life and psychism (of institution and nature), and Aristotle’s indication of the continuity of ethics and politics, the naturalness (not the naturalization) of politics, and the difference between justice and legality, likewise reflect this approach and highlight its aporiai. This line of thinking received a privileged elaboration in the Perso-Arabic conversation with Greek philosophy inaugurated by al-Farabi.
Indeed, so little may the order of logos simply be seen as a remedy to the blind discharge of force, that the two are investigated in their indissoluble intertwinement and interdependence. In the first Book of the Republic, Plato polemically dissects the sophistical maxim that identifies justice and whatever kratos (force or power) arbitrarily affirms (justice as the “advantage of the stronger, ” i.e., as what I, who dispose of kratos, say it is). Here is announced a lineage of thought diagnosing the violent exercise of force at the origin of order and ordering discourses, at the very heart of juridical institution. In the wake of this analysis, consider the reflection of Augustine, who discerns violence in all founding of order unconcerned with justice, and likens kingdoms to associations of bandits—but of vaster proportions and, therefore, unchecked (City of God IV.4). Again, take Machiavelli’s disarming exposition of the logic according to which violence (even fratricide, as in the case of Romulus and of Cain himself, founders of cities) may be justified by the “effect” (Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio I.9). Or, again, consider Pascal’s reflection on the impotence of justice without force and, therefore, the necessity of their conjunction (Pensée 298). This line of inquiry leads all the way to Derrida who, in “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” unfolds the logic of law enforcement, showing how the gesture of founding, inauguration, and justification of law is in and of itself a coup de force.
Force of Law, Law of Force
In On Violence, Hannah Arendt undertakes to distinguish the concepts of violence, power, authority, and force. The latter term, she notes, should be rigorously reserved to designate the “force of nature or of circumstances,” that is to say, “the force unleashed by natural or social phenomena.” The conjunction of the “natural” and “social” orders is important, because it intimates the irreducibility of human affairs to a purely anthropological horizon and forces the question of the belonging and positioning of the human in the non-human, beyond-human, or even in-human. In other words, it illuminates the human enfolded in and pervaded by that which cannot simply be brought back to humanistic categories: the human neither autonomous nor enjoying a privileged position in the cosmos.
Not surprisingly, however, the understanding of force in terms of nature or of “social phenomena” is not central to Arendt’s discussion, which focuses instead on politics as the human emancipation from such systemic entanglements. After all, zoe (metabolic life, physiology), nature (physics), and in general material as well as social conditions, all of them for Arendt designate modes of automatism—and the banality of mechanicity constitutes a fall from the human unfolding itself in the polis, creative and ever-nascent.
It is in the reflection of Simone Weil that we find an attempt to think force in its political and at once physical character. Weil’s contribution to the thinking of force originally illuminates phusis (the problematic facets of driven life, the impersonal or collective dynamics, the unconscious) in its genuinely political relevance. Her work reveals the law of force operating in human affairs with the precision and relentlessness of natural principles. Accordingly, a number of tropes regarding human deliberation, will, and self-determination (indeed, the centrality and sovereignty as such of the human) are turned upside down. The rest of the present article is devoted to setting into relief a few pivotal moments in this unique meditation.
“The Poem of Force”
“L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force” was published under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Émile Novis in the December 1940 and January 1941 issues of the Marseille literary monthly Cahiers du Sud. The English translation by Mary McCarthy (“The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”) appeared in the Chicago Review 18:2 (1965). In the quotations that follow, page numbers refer to this publication, although I consistently diverge from McCarthy’s rendition in the attempt at adhering as minutely as possible to the French text.
The essay constitutes one of the most remarkable discussions of the question of force, which is ubiquitous in Weil’s thinking. Much as her translation of fragments of the poem into French rigorously follows the morphology of Greek verse, Weil is not carrying out a strictly philological operation on the Homeric text. Rather, the epic song becomes for her the locus of the sustained confrontation with that which cannot be sung—that which, essentially unpoetic, lies beyond poetic celebration. Indeed, everything that is not war, everything that war destroys or threatens, is “enveloped by poetry in the Iliad,” while “the facts of war never are, ” never can be poetically rendered (26). All the more piercing in contrast to moments of vibrant feeling and tenderness, where life seems on the verge of blossoming again in the midst of wreckage, the “cold brutality of the facts of war is not disguised by anything, for neither victors nor vanquished are admired, despised, or hated” (26). In its equanimity (which should not be mistaken for impassiveness), the poem exposes without reticence the ongoing metamorphosis of warriors, of human beings, into “beasts or things” (26), and finally into corpses in the dust, open mouths and black blood.
Reading the Homeric poem, thus, becomes for Weil an occasion to witness force unveiled and unembellished, in its gloomy barrenness:
The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by men, force that enslaves men, force before which men’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, the human soul never ceases to appear as modified by its relations with force; as swept away, blinded by the very force it believed it could handle, as deformed under the constraint of the force it undergoes. (6)
Let us follow, however briefly, the main movements of Weil’s elaboration.
Weil develops her analysis in close interaction with the Homeric verse. Force, she notes in the beginning, literally is destruction:
Exercised to the limit, [force] turns man into a thing in the most literal sense, for it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was there, and, a moment later, nobody is there at all. This is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us:… the horses Rattled the empty chariots through the files of battle, Mourning their flawless drivers. They on the ground Lay, much dearer to the vultures than to their wives.
The hero is a thing dragged behind a chariot in the dust:… All around, his black hair Was spread, and his whole head in the dust Lay, that once-charming head; now Zeus had let his enemies Defile it on his native soil.
We taste the bitterness of such a spectacle in its purity, no comforting fiction altering it, no consoling immortality, no pale halo of glory or patriotism. (6)
Mournful and never scornful, with unmitigated harshness, the poem presents the destructiveness of force in its phenomenological breadth and nuance. In its grossest and most summary form, force kills. However, destruction can be delayed, or happen in other ways. It may be a threat not yet unleashed. Force is the power to kill—a power altogether exceeding the actual killing:
It will surely kill, or it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs over the being it can kill at any and every moment; anyway, it turns man into stone. From the power of transforming a man into a thing proceeds another power, otherwise prodigious, the power of turning a man into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive, he has a soul; and yet, he is a thing.… still breathing, he is nothing but matter, still thinking he can think nothing. (7)
In this way, the contact with force permanently diminishes the human being, who lives enslaved, impoverished. If not suppressed, biological life is voided to the point of inertness:
… [Those] in danger of being reduced to nothing in an instant, imitate nothingness. Pushed they fall, fallen they lie on the ground…. this is another human species, a compromise between a man and a corpse. From the logical point of view, there is a contradiction in the fact that a human being should be a corpse; but when the impossible has become reality, the contradiction in the soul tears it to shreds. (9)
The domain of force is, then, the field of an elemental transmutation involving everyone regardless of individual considerations and camp, sparing no one. “Such is the empire of force: this empire reaches as far as the empire of nature” (11). This is the toil whereby the élan of the living is re-absorbed into the inanimate and inorganic, the joyous thrust towards the warmth of the sun petrified, the moments of awakening and luminosity covered over and shut down.
Force crucially destroys by narrowing consciousness to the point of suppression, nurturing delusion to the point of delirium. In its urgency and peremptoriness, it severs from things as they may be and reduces the margins, the sensitive openness necessary for the taking place of experience, let alone of thinking. It thus makes the human being larval, disjoined. In this sense, force is the empire of sleep. It deports the soul, holds it captive, the prisoner of a dream collectively dreamt.
Emptiness of Capital Words
The destructiveness of force in its erosion and alteration of consciousness is a central theme in various other writings of Weil’s from the years between the Spanish civil war and the inception of World War II, most notably “Méditations sur un cadavre” (1937) and “Méditation sur l’obéissance et la liberté” (also composed in 1937, after reading Étienne de La Boétie’s Discours de la servitude volontaire [Contr’un]). Here force is studied precisely in its power to induce hallucinatory distortions and shape the collective imagination. Force is the power of the spectacle, the work of idolatry and, as such, provides the instrument par excellence of social control and dictatorship.
As is clear also in “Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie” (1937), force is at work when empty words hold sway and events of gigantic proportions are roused by such non-entities, by stakes indefinable and elusive—like the carnage at Troy, for ten years revolving around the phantom of Helen. The clamor of occurrences seems altogether to cover over the lack of motive and nonsensicality, the fact that so often the nouns and locutions, emphatically uttered and polarizing in their effect, are void of any significance. At Troy as well as in other times and circumstances, at the center of major socio-political upheavals Weil discerns the force of illusion—whether simulacra or words dignified and made authoritative by capitalization (Communism, Fascism, Nation, Order, Property, Security…). In brandishing words no longer correlated with thinking, and articulating itself in forms so refined and artful as to become unintelligible, political discourse, at once thoughtless and deliberate, is a weapon that stirs, masters, and kills. Such a discourse, no less than the discourses of the techno-sciences, has lost touch with the ground of experience, with things in their disarming evidence.
This is the surreptitious work of force, destructive through nothing, through the carving, detracting operation of non-entities. And it is in such a lack of contact with reality that all sense of balance, limit, and measure is lost and war, the unreal par excellence, holds sway. Displaying no fear of overstatement, Weil notes that at stake in the care for language (in keeping it alive and vibrant, discrediting meaningless words, tirelessly clarifying and re-energizing our utterances) is nothing less than saving human lives.
Nature of Force
Whether reifying living beings by destroying them physically or enslaving them psychically, force names a descent: the descent into matter, into the binding laws of mechanics and metabolic maintenance. In this sense, it names the impassive empire of nature as necessity. “Force handled by another,” Weil observes in the essay on the Iliad, “is as imperious upon the soul as extreme hunger, for it involves a perpetual power over life and death. And this is an empire as cold, as hard as that exerted by inert matter” (11).
Weil demands a radically non-anthropocentric understanding of force: force is not possessed by humans, but rather possesses them, puts them to work, uses them. It is not the cunning and calculations of humans that stir events in one direction or the other, but forces somehow unleashed and uncontrollably following their course. In her effort to cast light on this phenomenon, Weil reveals the deep significance of Homeric similes:
Battles are not decided among human beings who calculate, combine, make a resolution and execute it, but rather among human beings divested of these faculties, transformed, fallen to the rank of either inert matter, which is nothing but passivity, or blind forces, which are nothing but vigor. Here lies the last secret of war, and the Iliad expresses it through its comparisons, where warriors appear similar either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, no matter which blind cause of disaster, or to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, everything that is moved by the violence of exterior forces….As when a lion out to kill attacks cows Grazing in a prairie marshy and vast By thousands…; they are all trembling; so then the Achaians In panic fled before Hector and Zeus the father, All of them… As when destructive fire breaks out deep in a bushy wood; The wheeling wind scatters it everywhere; then trunks, Uprooted, fall under the pressure of violent fire; So Atreus’ son Agamemnon made heads fall Of the Trojans in flight… (22-3)
Not only, then, does Weil consciously privilege force as a more illuminating category in the analysis of political phenomena—a category eclipsing, in this respect, the Marxist notion of need. With equal awareness , Weil underlines that force traverses the human and inhuman fields alike, polis and phusis, anthropos and cosmos, civilization and its other(s). Accordingly inflected, force operates with continuity across these domains. Hence, the category of “social force” (“Méditation sur l’obéissance et la liberté”) should resonate with and even draw upon the analyses of force in physics (crucially with Galileo) as well as biology. It is always possible, for the vulnerable human being (even if still alive, indeed, precisely because merely and barely living), to be precipitated back into states of material mechanism, metabolic functioning, or blind impulsivity—that is, into modes of automatism.
Needless to say, this does not entail any privileging of scientific discourses, let alone a foundational turn to the “natural sciences.” (For a critical evaluation of the physicalism evident in the phrase “social forces,” consider Gregory Bateson’s comments in “Time Is Out of Joint,” Appendix to Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity). Rather, at stake is an acknowledgment of politics as thoroughly inscribed in natural conditions vastly exceeding the domain of human matters. Again, what emerges is a view of human affairs indissolubly intertwined with physical considerations, essentially belonging in that which is irreducible to the human. Thus, Weil offers a sobering reminder of the impossibility of a pure and simple emancipation of the human from its inhuman conditions—and the warning that the human is all the more susceptible to manipulations and reductions to sheer automatism, the more it forgets this bind and imagines itself free, autonomous, and master of itself.
In this way, political reflection comes to be rooted in a vision of the human in its full extension between earth and sky. In the wake of the Homeric poem, Weil strives after a faithful, wondrous presentation of such a broad-ranging phenomenon.
An Aside on Method
The impersonal, indeed, inhuman work of force is magnified in the scene of war, archaic and extreme. Yet, the poem casts light on a truth regarding nearly all of human life, then and now. The war raging at Troy is but an intensification of the hardships to which humans are ordinarily subjected: “Almost all the Iliad takes place away from warm baths. Almost all human life has always taken place away from warm baths” (7). Hence,
[t]hose who dreamed that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, could see this poem as a document; those able to discern force, today well as yesterday, at the center of all human history, find in the poem the purest and most beautiful of mirrors. (6)
In this mirror the vast, anonymous movement of force can be seized in its constancy and invariance . Yet, let this be noted at least in passing, the circumstances of Weil’s meditation give rise to a host of questions regarding method or, more precisely, the relation between biography and the emergence of conceptual configurations.
In the essay on the Iliad, on the eve of World War II, Weil is also echoing her recent experience of the Spanish civil war (August-September 1936). In an immediacy at once obscure and dazzling, the conceptual articulation here presented is born of her life. As her letter to Georges Bernanos (1938) shows, it is crucially during her brief sojourn in Spain, on the front of Aragon, that she comes to intuit force as a novel, more enlightening, interpretive category and to contemplate its pervasiveness in history, as unbending as a law of physics.
More specifically, the Spanish experience prompts the following formulation of the law of force and the collective delusion it induces: “Personally I had the feeling that, once the temporal or spiritual authorities have placed a category of human beings outside the circle of those whose life has a price, nothing appears more natural to man than killing,” Weil writes to Bernanos. “When one knows one can kill without undergoing any punishment,” she adds, “then one kills: or at least one encircles with smiles those who kill.” Force brings the human being down to its most unreflective, visceral responses, and obscures every other possibility, every other hypothesis of human becoming. Weil consistently observes how the contact with force is spellbinding and describes the dreadful captivity within this state of consciousness, oscillating between fear of and taste for killing. In Spain, she will recall, exiting the logic underlying such an opposition seemed to her nearly impossible—an unspeakable, unsustainable effort, requiring a strength of character so exceptional as to be hardly available. Indeed, a heartbreaking effort, she will say. Respecting life in the other, when one had to give up one’s own aspiration to live—this is “an effort of generosity that breaks the heart,” she repeats in the essay on the Iliad (22).
The conceptualization of force as a progressive sinking into a law as inexorable as that of gravity, which we find clearly exposed in the study on the Iliad, is itself anticipated in Weil’s reflections on the Spanish experience—especially in the impression, indelible and torturous, of a progressive deterioration of all motives for participating in the civil war, however noble they might have been in the beginning. As if fatally corrupted by the mere fact of belonging in the framework of conflict and its logic, the idealistic enthusiasm of the volunteers of the International Brigades degenerates into practices that end up mirroring, in violence and viciousness, those of the opposite side. As Weil writes to Bernanos, “one leaves as a volunteer, full of ideas of sacrifice, and precipitates into a war not unlike a war of mercenaries, with many more cruelties and less sense of the regard due to the enemy.”
With equal lucidity, the journal entries from this period onwards mention the rare occasions interrupting the grip of force: a moment in which she unexpectedly catches sight of the clear sky, the sudden awareness of the beautiful weather, someone’s face, episodes of ordinary humanity, feelings of friendliness, tenderness, empathy. Such antidotes are minute, and yet also nothing less than miraculous, because occurring completely outside the logic of the reasonable. In analyzing the Iliad Weil likewise speaks of such antidotes, which require an excellence “more than human, as rare as a constant dignity in a condition of weakness” (18): “luminous moments, brief and divine moments in which human beings have a soul,” stirrings of a soul “waking up for a moment,” “pure and intact,” harboring “only courage and love” (23), making possible the “miracle” of “friendship swelling in the heart of mortal enemies” (24). Speaking of the moment of mutual recognition between Achilles and Priam the Trojan king, Weil admits that “[t]hese moments of grace are rare… but suffice to make one feel with extreme regret what violence kills and will kill” (25).
The experience in Aragon flows into the later reflections on force in the Greek experience. In turn, the archaic song opens up in resonance with the contents and vicissitudes of Weil’s life. The Homeric poem speaks to her experience and allows for a sharper formulation of her elaborations. Ultimately, in the poem she retrieves a confirmation of something like the universal, even perennial character of her findings.
Drawing the trajectory from the earlier writings on the Spanish experience, to the letter to Georges Bernanos, to the later study on the Iliad means raising the question of the movement from the thoughtful description of a contingent scenario to the conceptual formulation of a law concerning human history in its entirety. It means, likewise, wondering about the relation between life and lexicon, autobiography and the arising of concepts, narration and conceptual articulation.
Zeus’ Golden Scales
In the texts considered so far, and even in the fragmentary “Réflexions sur la barbarie” (1939 or 1940), we find the same recurring words characterizing force: force
is intoxicating, seductive, inebriating. The vanquished it enslaves and crushes. But the victors are dispossessed no less, no less reduced to things, mechanically responding to impulses they do not wield, subjected to automatisms they do not control. The victors are no less overwhelmed by force—crucially because, in order effectively to destroy their foe, they have to turn into desensitized automata, that is to say, to comply with the requirements of force. In order to discharge force one is traversed, and therefore consumed, by force. In Weil’s perspective, force does not deploy itself in terms of action and reaction, creation and annihilation—as it does, paradigmatically, in Nietzsche. In its infinite manifestations, force names the barrenness, constriction, and impoverishment crushing those exposed to it, whether they may be traversed or touched, active or passive, overpowering or undergoing.
Through the phenomenon of war, thus, Weil illuminates the mechanical reactivity and blind compulsion that are structurally constitutive of the human phenomenon, to the point of being nearly irresistible. Such a machinery is precisely that which humans do not master, for it is operative below the threshold of consciousness, in the deep sleep so prevalent in their life. They (we) do not recognize “the machine” as such and imagine or dream of it as their (our) freedom. Force forces, drives and shapes lives, and yet as such disappears. On both sides (victors and vanquishes, victims and perpetrators), there remain empty shells, human semblances swept about, hypnotized, held captive within a game they can hardly interrupt.
Thus, the destroyers are in turn crucially exposed to destruction because “[n]obody truly possesses” force (11). It can, at most, be borrowed. Victory is less a matter of “valor” than of “blind destiny, represented by Zeus’ golden scales” (13).
Indeed, paradoxically force equalizes, makes things even. By its very blindness, “destiny establishes a kind of justice, itself blind” (13). Such is the Dike governing the domain of material interactions, the necessity otherwise known as fate. Every outcome is unstable. The joy of every triumph is short-lived. Every conquest can (and does) revert into loss, disorientation awaits the victors: suddenly “things no longer obey them” (14). For those who have force “on loan” lose sight of the limit, of the finitude of their contingent situation. They want everything but forget that, by definition, “everything is not in their power” (15).
In this way, through the analysis of the Greek posture, Weil comes to discover the balancing logic of retribution at the heart of force in its broadest manifestation:
Achilles cuts the throats of twelve Trojan adolescents on the funeral pyre of Patroclos as naturally as we cut flowers for a grave. In using power, they never doubt that the consequences of their acts will make them bend in turn….
This retribution, displaying a geometrical rigor, automatically punishing the abuse of force, was the first subject matter of the Greek meditation. It constitutes the soul of epos; under the name of Nemesis, it is the mainspring of Aeschylus’ tragedies; the Pythagoreans, Socrates, Plato took off from there to think the human being and the universe. The idea of it has become familiar wherever Hellenism has penetrated. It is perhaps this Greek idea that subsists, under the name of kharma, in the Oriental countries permeated by Buddhism; but the West has lost it and no longer even has a word to express it in any of its languages; the ideas of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life, no longer have any employment, aside from the servile utilization in technology. We are geometers only when confronting matter; the Greeks were, first of all, geometers in their apprenticeship of virtue. (14-15)
Thus, the measure we can no longer discern ends up being applied by a more encompassing, super-human logic and on the grandest scale. And it is here that we can appreciate the genuinely metaphysical strand of Weil’s speculation on force. For, if her elaboration can be read as an anthropology (the domain of force as a figure of the human, or a level of human consciousness), with equal decisiveness she situates human matters within the compass of mathematics in its esoteric, initiatory, even mystical character. Reference to the mathematical teachings in archaic and classical Greece underlies the study of the Iliad as well as essays such as “En quoi consiste l’inspiration occitanienne?” and “L’agonie d’une civilisation vue à travers un poème épique” (both written between 1941 and 1942), not to mention the journal entries and correspondence from the same years.
In the Pythagorean and Platonic teachings Weil finds, most admirably formulated, the genuinely ethical implications of theological and metaphysical constructs. Here the thinking of harmony, balance, proportion articulates the intuition of unity underlying multiplicity, the belonging together of opposites, the composition of difference—and, therefore, the composite, non-simple character of the one. Quite literally, harmony names the gathering of the differing as differing, joining divergent members across irreducible distances. Likewise, proportion affirms unity by mediation, that is to say, by bringing multiple elements into equal relations (proportion names the equality between two or more relations of numbers, e.g., the equality between 3:9 and 4:12). What is at stake is, in any case, intuiting the one in the multiplicity of the world, discerning the com-position (the friendship) of everything. In this sense, mathematics is at once knowledge of God and of life, understanding of all-encompassing harmony and attunement of human comportment. Weil develops her interpretation of the Greeks in a direction radically divergent from those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and even of Roger Caillois and Pierre Klossowski in those years. Greek culture is ultimately neither tragic nor irrational, but serenely composed, sublimely mathematical—and this, for Weil, means both proto-Christian and ideally connected with the Langue d’Oc renaissance of the XI-XII centuries.
While an examination of Weil’s original philosophy of history clearly exceeds the scope of the present discussion, let us simply note that it is in this same context that she elaborates her discourse of love, bringing together Sappho, Plato, and the poetry of the troubadours. At stake in these vastly different circumstances is the supernatural, beyond-human courage of refusing force and its crushing mechanisms, of subtracting the human from such a domination. Weil is closely following the Platonic teachings in the Symposium, revealing love as the thrust beyond the density of matter—a transcendence that renews matter, ethically regenerating it and making it resplendent in beautiful enactments. The Greek way of love discloses eros as the unifying bond between earth and sky, below and above, the human and the divine. It indicates a bond neither forced nor reductive, but rather delivering that which is thus bound into the unbound openness of its own becoming.
The conceptual development of force certainly emerges from the differential interplay of a constellation of neighboring terms/concepts—such as necessity (even in its proper name, Nemesis), war, violence, power, strength, nature, chance, fate, subjection, matter. But it is in the play with antonyms that force is further clarified. For Weil, counteracting force involves: thinking (the act that Weil, already at the time of her studies with Alain, seized in its heroism) and loving (Greek eros, poems in langue d’Oc).
Is there any respite, then? Any possibility of suspending, however tenuously and momentarily, the implacable law of force? Any possibility of breaking through irresistible force and puncture its hold at all? For, according to Weil, there is no clear way out of the domain of force, and even the formulas of pacifism risk the demotion to superficial evasion: the “subordination” to force “is the same for all mortals,” nothing “in the Iliad is subtracted from it, just as nothing on earth is subtracted from it” (27).
The compulsion to repeat rests, Weil notes, on the fact that human beings’ eyes are shut, as when sleeping, or glancing too narrowly. Strong and weak ones alike fail to see that they share the same belief:
They do not believe they belong in the same species; the weak does not see himself as similar to the strong, nor is he regarded as such. The one who possesses force walks in a non-resistant medium; in the human matter that surrounds him nothing is of such a nature as to cause, between the impulse and the act, the brief interval where thought dwells. (13)
The weak tends to be yielding, to cause no friction. The one wielding force advances effortlessly and unimpeded. The interval, the hesitation, which would be the vulnerable comma (the almost nothing) of thinking, is precisely what force can neither observe nor respect, what force as such preemptively destroys.
For they do not consider their own force as a limited quantity, nor do they see their relations with other human beings as a balance between unequal forces. Since other men do not impose on their movement that length of interval from which alone proceeds our consideration for those like us, they conclude that destiny gave them all license…. (14)
It is not clear, then, how thinking (thoughtfulness and regard, the capacity to see and, hence, to respect) could at all intervene, and open up the space of a hesitation, the pause interrupting the automatisms of force. The hard and lucid vision, which would bring to a halt the frictionless advancing of force and unhinge its self-assertion, is precisely that which the exercise of force effectively prevents. This holds for love as well. Love abides infinitely impervious to force and, accordingly, may never be subjected to it. In this sense, it may prove highly unsettling, destabilizing in that regard. And yet, the blossoming of love appears altogether unlikely in the midst of the domain of force.
It is at this juncture that Weil introduces the references to the miraculous, in order to indicate that which comes to pass despite and against all odds—that which, however most improbable, takes place and fissures the allegedly total control of force. Weil considers the inexplicable event of a feeling of mutual recognition, friendliness, and admiration mysteriously touching mortal enemies. Such an event suspends, if only momentarily, the law of retaliation and revenge, and “by a miracle” effaces the distance “between victor and vanquished” (24).
The epic song itself is said to be a miracle, preserving as it does the openness of a comprehensive vision, protecting the margins for the possibility of a contemplation both thoughtful and tender, luminous and loving. The poem enacts the deed, itself heroic, of unfolding the story of force while maintaining a broader view, an inassimilable voice. Woven into the story of force are marginalia irreducible to such a story:
such an accumulation of violence would be cold without an accent of incurable bitterness which constantly makes itself felt, even if often signaled by a single word…. Because of this the Iliad is unique, because of this bitterness proceeding from tenderness and extending over all human beings, as uniform as the clarity of the sun. The tone never ceases to be pervaded by bitterness…. Justice and love, which cannot have any place in this scene of extreme and unjust brutalities, cast their light on it, while never being manifest otherwise than through the accent. Nothing precious, whether or not destined to perish, is despised, everyone’s misery is exposed without either dissimulation or disdain, no one is placed above or below the condition common to everyone else, everything destroyed is grieved. Victors and vanquished are equally close and likewise similar to the poet or the listener. (25)
Miraculous, in the poem, is the abiding awareness of a longing, of a regard, which cannot be brought back to the mechanics of force. This is a vision that resists being completely absorbed into the theme of ongoing warfare: a view of the whole that situates even the theater of war in context. The poet sings with “extraordinary equity” (26), and therefore outside all captivation, displaying an awareness of force that is in and of itself an antidote to the absolute triumph of it.
The poem divinely sings the human vicissitudes in the dust and in the light of the sun, adhering to the pathos of glorious initiatives as well as fatal downturns, yet embracing them as if from above. The equilibrium and equanimity of the song, however precarious, have always taken place beyond force, invincible.
The singularity of Weil’s meditation on force may by now, at least fragmentarily, shine forth. Such a meditation must be granted a central position in the context of political reflection on this concept. In its prismatic character, Weil’s thinking seizes and subtly recomposes various historically attested perspectives on force, while, in virtue of its originality, it develops the understanding of force in unprecedented directions.
In her reflection, Weil obliquely confronts a philosophical lineage articulating the tension between force and reason. Whether elucidating such a tension dualistically or resolving it dialectically, the tradition ranging from a certain strand of Greek sophistry to Nietzsche, from Hobbes to Freud, aligns force with impulsive life and, in turn, reason with the taming of impulses, i.e., training in civil coexistence. This crucially accounts for the relative marginality of the concept of force in political philosophy: if force is essentially a matter of animality, of unbridled drive to self-assertion (which, whether anxiously acknowledged or joyously celebrated, may involve exploitation and brutality in its effective exercise), then political thinking contemplates it only as that which has to be held in check and, at the limit, obliterated—as the unspeakable, despicable inception (and ongoing sustenance). At least in its prevalent practices, political reflection is precisely concerned with the occultation of force, with the disappearance of its uncontrolled discharge under layers of ordering institutions. It is in this originary sublimating gesture that polis and psyche, community and individual are alike founded, always already regulated. The domain of force subsists, at the limit, as the limit of politics—as its outside, as the forgotten darkness at the heart of civilization, with its quest for measurements and balanced communal interactions.
In its natural, inhuman character, thus, force would be inessential to the quintessentially human project of politics. And yet, denied as the prerogative of the strong individual and the condition for all self-imposition, force is unleashed (I should say, administered) with undiminished cruelty (and analogous blindness) at the collective level. Indeed, not only is force systemically employed/exploited; rather, it also operates at the very origin of systemic (political) constitution as such—as thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Machiavelli, and Benjamin have indicated. However, this glimpse is left vastly inoperative, as if latent, or inassimilable, altogether outside the logic of metabolism. Despite its intermittent shimmering as the mysterious condition of the dawning of the political, the problem of force remains comparatively unattended . Its naturalness accounts for this neglect or, at best, under-developed articulation—as even Arendt’s reflection confirms. Along with the concepts of the social, of physiological life, of nature tout court, force appears by definition foreign to properly political considerations. The freedom, creativity, and natality characterizing the political domain are sharply contrasted to natural automatism and mechanical repetition. In this light, force is considered, at best, as standing reserve, as a resource to be used, exploited, disposed of.
Thus, thematizing force, as Weil does, and granting to this concept a centrality traditionally attributed to other political categories, means unsettling the field of political philosophy in its dominant sedimentation. It means opening up the space for an overall reframing of the reflection on the political, involving radical semantic shifts and disciplinary reconfiguration. It means re-energizing words and letting them unfold, interact, and signify in unheard-of ways—ways demanding the strenuous effort of thinking anew that which, even past the opaque status of familiarity, is on the brink of disappearing as a matter for thinking. Nothing less hinges on Weil’s insightful focus on this one term.
Weil’s anthropological and political vision suspends the dichotomy of force and reason. Concomitantly, it interrupts the easy-going transposition of such a dichotomy into the duality (already a hierarchy) of nature and spirit. Force emerges less as a resource than as source; less as an asset owned, mastered, and used at will, than as the encompassing sphere of influence within which individuals and groups alike are used up, implicated in movements they do not master.
In its violent enforcement, force is not contrasted to reason, but to the beauty and preciousness (the miracle) of that which cannot be forced. It is said to kill and coerce, but not only physically. In turn, reason, far from circumscribing and dominating force, constitutes a possible extension of force’s domain.
To be sure, Weil describes force as a natural mechanism, yet this is not contrasted to culture: cultural processes may become no less mechanical, impassible, metabolically repetitive than physical ones. Moreover, even in its most vibrant, sublime dimensions, culture is no mere sublimation and overcoming of nature, for nature is itself irreducible to blind automatism. Indeed, the resources for the miraculous (love, thinking) are to be found crucially within the compass of nature, in a certain sensory reawakening, in a work on sensibility that may allow for the formation of a disciplined and open attentiveness to the world. Among other things, such a discipline entails an understanding of presence not unlike the one we find in Deleuze, where at stake is not so much the presence to self that would found modern subjectivity in self-possession, but rather the presence outside oneself, as it were—presence to the other, outside and beside myself, in the relinquishing of myself and in the pulse of becoming.
Let the following also be noted, at least in passing. Weil, in this way, moves beyond sublimation and its logic, or, at least, beyond the reductive view of sublimation as the elevation of the unacceptable into the sphere of the conventional. Far from the mere imposition of order upon utter disorder, far from the alleviation of natural bestiality for the sake of communal sustainability (which would amount to yet another version of repression), sublimation may be a matter of divining the sublimity inherent in the human animal, in nature itself. Only in virtue of this, may sublimation make sublime. It could not carry out its transfiguring work if this (being sublimated, becoming sublime) were not a possibility inscribed in the flesh. If we were to retain the concept of sublimation at all, Weil seems to suggest, it would have to be rooted in a progressively refined perception of the natural, that is, in the cultivation of perceptual, altogether aesthetic awareness. There (and not in some arbitrary, abstract determination) guidance could be found, measure and light, the geometry from which ethics and politics can genuinely stem. In this respect, Weil situates herself in a Platonic-Pythagorean lineage, albeit according to her rather idiosyncratic philosophy of history and interpretive stance.
Thus, nature and politics are brought to signify otherwise than habitually and shown in their interpenetration. The unconscious, the instinctual, the physiological, the impersonal, the over- and below-individual are shown as inseparable from the work of conscious political creativity, indeed, as consistently (if enigmatically) inflecting such a work. In this sense, in consonance with figures such as Machiavelli and Spinoza, Weil thinks the force of law in the double sense of the genitive. On the one hand, thus, she anticipates Derrida’s vision of the force at work in law, founding and destabilizing it: the force that at once originates and erodes juridical order, keeping it in constant revision, constantly renewing and sustaining its asymptotic tendency to justice. (Such would be the work of deconstruction.) On the other hand, she anticipates Foucault’s articulation of force as an altogether cultural phenomenon—especially prominent in the analyses of subjection, subject formation, and the power of discourse, where Foucault speaks of discursive fields constitutively pervaded by networks of forces in their interplay and morphing operation.
However, Weil characteristically moves beyond the cautious positions of both successors, venturing an articulation of the natural, of the inhuman, of affect (in brief of that which cannot be rigorously said) well exceeding the suspenseful via negativa of the former, pervaded by copious and inexhaustible silences, as well as the agnosticism of the latter concerning all matters physical and bodily, as if one could speak of bodies only to the extent that they are turned into discourses, i.e., culturally appropriated, molded, and violated. In a language that has left behind the strictures prescribing either proper logical clarity or quiet, Weil evokes the life constrained by force, the often mute experience of humiliation, confinement, reduction to minimal terms—an evocation all the more sorrowful the more she conveys how otherwise expansive and wide and winged the experience of being alive can be. The contact with force, instead of fostering growth and thriving, mortifies, makes one contract and hide. She describes force as the influence coming over one, the incursion carving the life out of one, leaving one devoid of one’s own center, brought under the gravitational pull of another, irresistible in its power of attraction and determination.
Whether considering the perpetration and suffering of force at the individual level or the spell of an epochal configuration, at stake is the problem of the ineludible, ultimately of fate and fatality. As in Nietzsche’s case, the reflection on force becomes for Weil an occasion for contemplating the orientation and destiny of the human venture in its broadest outline. And yet, Weil does not renounce the strictly political, even militant, relevance of her discussion (even as this should mean understanding political philosophy otherwise), and her development of the concept of force distinctively stems from involved witnessing and the ensuing variegated phenomenology. In unfolding, her thinking at once holds in view the comprehensive fields of forces (war, civil war, totalitarian regimes, the exploitation of labor, ideology, dogmatism, all manners of discrimination, alienation, annihilation) and adheres to infinitesimal experiences with uncanny vigilance (carrying a weapon and sensing how it alters the communication/interaction with those who do not, following the vicissitudes of an impoverished family, the hardly translatable conversations with humble yet fierce Spanish peasants, the perpetration of violence accompanied by an unspeakable sense of revelry, being forced to the ground by a plane incursion, facing the blue sky, corpses to be burnt…).
As Deleuze and Guattari observe in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?, such an intimacy with becoming, such a presence outside oneself and to becoming, in becoming, demands a sort of athleticism—“[a]n athleticism that is not organic or muscular,” an “affective athleticism,” which would be “the inorganic double of the other, an athleticism of becoming that only reveals forces that are not its own” (163). Such a performance would involve undergoing the work of forces not one’s own and, at once, letting them transpire; being affected, and yet not simply swept away; becoming other and, simultaneously, protecting a margin for the awareness thereof; infinite plasticity and the infinite distance allowing for insight and creativity. The athleticism of the affects would, thus, be equally essential for the vision of the thinker and the song of the poet. Above all, it would be essential for indicating not only force, its empire, but also its beyond: force nearly all-encompassing, but not quite.
Claudia Baracchi is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Università di Milano-Bicocca
References and Suggestions for Further Readings
Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970.
Augustine. The City of God.
Bateson, Gregory. “Time is Out of Joint.” Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Hampton, 2002.
Cicero. De Officiis.
De La Boétie, Étienne. Discours de la servitude volontaire (Contr’un).
Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche, sa vie, son oeuvre: avec un exposé de sa philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1991.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet, Dialogues. Paris: Flammarion, 1996.
Derrida, Jacques. Force de loi. Paris: Galilée, 1994.
Dumézil, Georges. Heur et malheur du guerrier. Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens. Paris: Presse Universitaire de France,1969.
Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité. La volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.
______. Histoire de la sexualité. L’usage des plaisirs. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.
______. Histoire de la sexualité. Le souci de soi. Paris: Gallimard, 1984.
Freud, Sigmund. “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works XIV. Ed, J. Strachey. London: Hogart, 1953-74.
______. Civilization and its Discontents. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works XXI. Ed. J. Strachey. London: Hogart 1953-74.
______. “Why War?” The Standard Edition of the Complete Works XXII. Ed. J. Strachey. London: Hogart 1953-74.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Il Principe
______. Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées.
Pareto, Vilfredo. Trattato di sociologia generale.
Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind (New York: Harper, 1960)
Plutarch. Parallel Lives.
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War.
Weil, Simone. “L’Iliade ou le poème de la force.” La source grecque. Paris: Gallimard, 1953.
______. “Réflexions sur la barbarie.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “L’agonie d’une civilisation vue à travers un poème épique.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “En quoi consiste l’inspiration occitanienne?” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “Journal d’Espagne.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “Lettre à Georges Bernanos.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “Réflexions sur la guerre.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “Méditations sur un cadavre.” Écrits historiques et politiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.
______. “Méditation sur l’obéissance et la liberté.” Oeuvres Complètes II, 2 Écrits historiques et politiques. L’expérience ouvrière et l’adieu à la revolution. Paris: Gallimard, 1991.
______. La pesanteur et la grace. Paris: Plon, 1947.
______. L’Enracinement. Prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.
______. Intuitions pre-chrétiennes. Paris: La Colombe, 1951.
______. Écrits de Londres et dernières letters. Paris: Gallimard, 1957.