The Need for Roots

A Review of Simone Weil's The Need for Roots, a book that offers a fresh perspective on the purpose and nature of the welfare state.

Author: Simone Weil

Reviewed by: Simon Duffy

Simone Weil is passionate about equality - real equality. She has no time for those who shout ‘Liberty, Equality & Fraternity’ and then march us straight to hell: left for mass starvation and the Gulag, right for war and the gas chamber.

But she knows that equality is more than an adherence to a legal formula, such as "Everybody’s got equal rights". For her, human equality is a fundamental feature of reality:

The combination of these two facts - the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it - constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.

Whoever recognises that reality recognises also that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect.

This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings. Whatever formulation of belief or disbelief a man may choose to make, if his heart inclines him to feel this respect, then he in fact also recognises a reality other than this world's reality. Whoever does not feel this respect is alien to that other reality also.

I set this out at the beginning of my review of her book, The Need for Roots, as a warning. This book will not be to everyone’s taste. Weil is a profoundly interesting, challenging but, at times, uncomfortable read. Sometimes she is also careless, wrong-headed or even crack-pot.

Weil is a French Jew, born in Paris in 1909, she died in Ashford, Kent in 1943, shortly after completing The Need for Roots. By all accounts her early death was partly caused by her failure to eat enough food - as she refused to eat more than the rations allowed to her countrymen in occupied France. Although a Jew, she never played an active part in Judaism and her views about it seem highly prejudiced and ill-informed; after being heavily engaged in radical social action she became a Christian, but she was never baptised and she was highly critical of the Church. She lived and died an outsider.

This book was commissioned by, and written for, the leaders of the Free French in London. It offers a picture of how France could be remade, after the war. This is important to remember; for some parts of her book deal specifically with details of life in France before the war, and her sense of what might be feasible after the war. In retrospect some of this now seems quaint or naive - but I suspect that it’s easy to be wise in retrospect. Looking forward is always difficult, for as Weil says:

The future brings us nothing, gives us nothing; it is we who in order to build it have to give it everything, our very life. But to be able to give, one has to possess; and we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated and created afresh by us. Of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one of the past.

In one sense Weil is like William Temple, William Beveridge or T H Marshall - the thinkers who helped develop the welfare state in Britain. But while those three were all directly engaged in the practical business of building the welfare state, Weil could only dream of what might be possible after the war. But it is a powerful dream, based on deep thinking, wide reading and a fresh analysis of the human condition.

The book is broken into three very different parts, and I will outline each in turn.

The needs of the soul

Although the book may seem to be focused on a one-off historical and geographical moment - post-war France - it is really something much more universal. And this is reflected in the subtitle of the book - Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind. In fact one way to think about this book is as a philosophical counterpoint to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Weil rightly observes that rights are not the bedrock of morality - in order to exist there must be obligations - duties - and her task is to help identify what those duties are. But instead of simply outlining the ten commandments, or some other list of duties, she seeks to understand the proper purpose and shape of those duties. For example, some of our duties seem to be about meeting straightforwardly material needs:

This is straightforward, but this is not her main interest. Weil also identifies a range of spiritual needs - things essential to the welfare or development of the human soul. She outlines these needs in the form of a list, many of which come in the form of pairs:

Her whole analysis is very interesting and very tightly written. It can be read on its own quite briefly. Personally I find much of this very convincing and helpful for our situation today. For example, we can use Weil’s framework to think about income security today.

Think how we might meet someone’s basic need for food. First, we can meet it directly - by giving someone food. Or, instead, we can give someone money to buy food. The advantage of this second approach is that it means that the person can now exercise liberty, and responsibility. This is why food handouts or welfare cash cards are much worse than a decent system of income security. They damage the soul.

However we can design very different systems of income security. For instance, if we make the system highly dependent upon the person’s poverty, highly means-tested, then we may push people into a position of deep insecurity and, at the same time, we will make it riskier for people to take risks. A bad system of income security will be inadequate, insecure and yet will reduce people’s willingness to take risks. That is exactly the kind of system we have in the UK today, and this system also damages the soul.

It is for these kinds of reasons that some of us advocate a system of basic income. On this model a basic income is sufficient and universal. Such a system provides security and a positive incentive to take risks. It could support the welfare of the soul.

This is my example - not Weil’s - but I offer it just to show that Weil’s framework suggests the kinds of questions we should ask if we are really interested in Justice. If we only ask how much bread the state is giving, or how much money people are getting, then we will not find out whether people’s real needs are being met - because those needs are both material and spiritual.


Like Hannah Arendt, Weil believes that the tragedy of the twentieth century is partially to be understood through people’s experience of being uprooted - being thrown away or discounted - unable to find a place, a role or a life of meaning. This was true for millions of displaced people, refugees or asylum seekers; but it was also true for millions of peasants and workers who found themselves uprooted by industrial society - first uprooted from the country, then uprooted by their replaceable role in the mass production process.

For several reasons she thinks this problem was particularly severe in pre-War France and that this in some way explained the abject of failure of France to defend itself from German attack:

The war has shown how serious are the ravages of this disease [uprootedness] among the peasants. For the soldiers were young peasants. In September 1939, one used to hear peasants say: “Better to live as a German than die as a Frenchman.” What had been done to them to make them think they had nothing to lose?

This may seem like a problem of the past, but this is not true. Industrial productivity may be a good thing, but it has a very high price. Even today, when we are surrounded with so much wealth, it takes just one financial crisis, an illness or bad luck to turn our lives upside down. We are all uprooted now; but the welfare state helps us to avoid some of the consequences of this fact.

This part of the book is the largest, and it is full of interesting ideas. Some of her practical suggestions don’t look so practical today - but it is full of fascinating insights into the challenge of uprootedness. At its heart is her effort to persuade her reader that they need to rethink the point of political life. It is not the glory, the size, or the GDP of a country that really matters - instead it is whether the country can offer people a way of life that is fully rooted. This involves a very different kind of patriotism to the vainglorious boasting that we are used to:

As for a remedy, there is only one: to give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.

This need for roots is not just because being rooted is itself good for the soul, but it is also because the very obligations that our rights rely on, need to be rooted in the ties of family, community, association and country that shape them and strengthen them. Only with roots can we find and do or duty; only with roots can we ensure that we both have rights and that we respect the rights of others. Roots are the prelude to duties.

The growing of roots

Perhaps half my readers will have no religion, and increasingly we are uncomfortable using the language of religion - the terms God, spirit and soul are used less and less. But, even someone who rejects religion should take seriously the challenges that Weil sets out in the third and final part of her book. Here she explores the ideas that give life - or death - to our roots.

Her central charge is that we have been living in an era of deep intellectual and spiritual confusion where we pretend to reconcile two irreconcilable beliefs:

For the last two or three centuries have believed that force rules supreme over all natural phenomena, and at the same time, that men can and should base their mutual relations upon justice, recognised as such through the application of reason. This is a flagrant absurdity….

The philosophy which has inspired the laical spirit and political radicalism is founded at the same time on this science and this humanism, which are, as can be seen, manifestly incompatible with each other. You cannot, therefore, say that Hitler’s victory over France in 1940 was the victory of a lie over a truth. An incoherent lie was vanquished by a coherent lie. That is why, as their arms gave way, people’s spirits did likewise.

During the last few centuries, the contradiction between science and humanism has been felt confusedly, although the intellectual courage has always been lacking to look it squarely in the face. Attempts have been to resolve it, without first bringing it into the light of day. Such intellectual dishonesty is always punished by a lapse into error.

Nothing of this has changed today. We still live in an era of scientism (faith in the metaphysical truth and universal application of science) and an era of humanism (faith in universal moral truths, human rights and justice). We try and keep these two incompatible belief systems apart; but each undermines the other. When modernity and science ask us to ignore the demands of justice then we look the other way and pretend nothing has happened.

Weil tries to resolve this problem by choosing Justice over force. It is not that she rejects science - she has a keen analytical mind and was scientifically trained - but she recognises that science is not wisdom, it is just a tool, which can be used well or badly. Instead she argues that the truth of Justice is rooted in the fact that there is much more to the universe than force, and that force is itself just an aspect of Divine Love.

This will be too much for some of you. This is thinking that does not fit our modern prejudices. But I suspect Weil’s writings and thinking will out live much of what we take for granted today.

The relevance of the work

At The Centre for Welfare Reform we’ve named one of our workstreams after Weil’s book, not because we think Weil is right about everything, but because Weil showed an unusual determination to think differently about important problems. She really wanted to get to the root of things and she was not prepared to just accept shallow conventional thinking.

Weil also shares our commitment to an absolute respect for human equality. When science and eugenics offer us new ways to alter our humanity, or to cut some people out of it, then it is important to understand the reasons why equality is for everyone - not just some special group. It is important to remember that frailty, intellectual disability, childhood or old age, are not reasons to exclude people from humanity - they are of the very essence of our humanity.

Weil is one of the few modern thinkers who understands that we can reconcile our absolute equality with our wonderful diversity - but that this requires new thinking and new ways of living together.

The publisher is Routledge.

The Need for Roots © Simone Weil 2001.

Review: The Need for Roots © Simon Duffy 2014.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Review | 17.09.14

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