Eric O. Springsted is the co-founder of the American Weil Society and served as its president for thirty-three years. After a career as a teacher, scholar, and pastor, he is retired and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the author and editor of a dozen previous books, including Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). We were excited to talk to him about his decades-long immersion in the work of Simone Weil and to learn more about his newest book, Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century (April 2021).
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
This book is the result of my work on Simone Weil over the last twenty-five years. A good part of it had appeared in other languages and various places so it was an opportunity to put my thinking on Weil together in one place, and to focus it as a whole. And as it turned out, that work held together.
What can we learn today, during these are unprecedented times, from the work of Simone Weil, who died in 1943, at the age of thirty-four?
Simone Weil, on the one hand, had a mind that was like so many of the great philosophers and theologians of the past. She saw things in the light of eternity. That made her appropriately critical of contemporary idolatries. It gave her, and it gives her reader a place to stand even when everything is in flux. Yet, that is not to be contemptuous of our life now. Even in the midst of living in an unprecedented time herself, she saw life, even life that appears far from the eternal, as infused with the divine. That gave it beauty; it could also show us how tragic it might be. Above all, it demands a deep response from all of us. She responded deeply in her own life. Her life was exemplary in a way that, I am afraid, that very few lives are now. We need some thoughtful heroes.
This book covers both Weil’s philosophical and religious thought, and her social thought. When writing this work, I was truly struck again by how coherent her thought as a whole is, and how it draws all her interests together. That is encouraging for any of us in this time who wonder if there is a center and if it will hold.
How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?
In a world that has become increasingly flattened, in Charles Taylor’s phrase, and witness to the victory of the hollow men, this is an attempt to get serious people to pay attention to things of depth, and to quit worshipping the various contemporary idols of the theater. There are ways, as Weil saw, not only of seeing into the shallowness of contemporary life, but also of being constructive, of finding ways to build communities of meaning. It is to see that life and values come on many different levels, and to give up on reductionistic explanations.
Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
Weil, obviously. I first read her in 1975, and have been working on her longer than she worked on herself. But along with this long reading of her, and because of it even, I have been particularly indebted to Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Charles Taylor.
What advice would you give to a student or scholar who wants to start a book?
First, don’t think about starting a book until you realize that there is a book in you that needs to get out. Second, is some advice I gave to authors when I was editing a series of books some years ago: Nobody reads your book to find out how intelligent you are. They do it because it will be helpful for their own work. So, be generous and think of them.
Who would you like to read Simone Weil for the Twenty-First Century and why?
Philosophers and theologians who want to do philosophy and theology in a way that makes thinking a matter of personal responsibility. Wittgenstein once said that philosophy is a matter of working on yourself. Weil did, too, in nearly identical words. In this regard, the book is meant for those professionals who want to do philosophy and theology this way, and who want to teach it this way. And by all means it is for those who have been struck by such ideas, but whose vocation is serious but not within the academy. This is a book that should give them a sense that it is important to think and that hopefully help them do so. I think Weil would have been disappointed if she ever thought that she had become mainly a scholarly pursuit.
What book are you working on next?
I am currently in the middle of working on a book on “Having an Inner Life” which I have been thinking about for a long time, and which follows very much from this book on Weil. A colleague also has pulled me into a project of doing an edited volume that will be a companion to Simone Weil’s magnificent The Need for Roots.