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The Needs of the Soul: Simone Weil on the Crucial Difference Between Our Rights and Our Obligations

“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.”

The Needs of the Soul: Simone Weil on the Crucial Difference Between Our Rights and Our Obligations

I continue to consider the French writer, philosopher, and political activist, Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) the closest thing we have to a modern saint — a woman both exemplary of extraordinary moral courage in her actions and capable of articulating that ethos in words of luminous lucidity and grace.

In 1942, just before she was admitted into the hospital where she would die of tuberculosis a year later, 33-year-old Weil began writing The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind — a gripping three-part manifesto reaching for the eternal light of the human spirit from the depths of darkness in the midst of WWII. Its posthumous publication in 1949 galvanized a generation of thinkers and writers around the world, influencing the philosophy of luminaries like Sartre and Camus, the latter proclaiming her “the only great spirit of our times.”

The first part, titled The Needs of the Soul and included in the indispensable Simone Weil: An Anthology (public library), examines the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations — insight all the timelier today, as we grapple with increasingly complex issues of social responsibility and human rights.

Weil writes:

The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.

It makes nonsense to say that men have, on the one hand, rights, and on the other hand, obligations. Such words only express differences in point of view. The actual relationship between the two is as between object and subject. A man, considered in isolation, only has duties, amongst which are certain duties towards himself. Other men, seen from his point of view, only have rights. He, in his turn, has rights, when seen from the point of view of other men, who recognize that they have obligations towards him. A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatever, but he would have obligations.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Einstein’s beautiful letter to the Queen of Belgium, in which he contemplated the existence of “something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions,” Weil adds:

The notion of rights, being of an objective order, is inseparable from the notions of existence and reality. [The obligation] always involves to a certain extent the taking into account of actual given states and particular situations. Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.


The realm of what is eternal, universal, unconditioned is other than the one conditioned by facts, and different ideas hold sway there, ones which are related to the most secret recesses of the human soul.

Weil argues that this higher-order universality, which transcends the specifics of situations, is at the heart of the difference between our rights and our obligations:

All human beings are bound by identical obligations, although these are performed in different ways according to particular circumstances. No human being, whoever he may be, under whatever circumstances, can escape them without being guilty of crime; save where there are two genuine obligations which are in fact incompatible, and a man is forced to sacrifice one of them.

A proper democracy, Weil suggests, minimizes the instances in which we are forced to choose between conflicting obligations and, in doing so, maximizes our rights. She delves deeper into the essence of obligation as a mechanism for conferring dignity upon human existence:

The object of any obligation, in the realm of human affairs, is always the human being as such. There exists an obligation towards every human being for the sole reason that he or she is a human being, without any other condition requiring to be filled, and even without any recognition of such obligation on the part of the individual concerned.

Such obligation, Weil notes, isn’t based upon the factual circumstances of a situation, nor upon any convention, “for all conventions are liable to be modified accordingly to the wishes of the contracting parties.” Rather, it is eternal and unconditional, based upon a duty to the very humanity of the human being — our sole possession of eternity. In a sense, what Weil is describing is the notion of the Golden Rule, found in every major religious tradition and every strand of moral philosophy. She writes:

This obligation has no foundation, but only a verification in the common consent accorded by the universal conscience. It finds expression in some of the oldest written texts which have come down to us. It is recognized by everybody without exception in every single case where it is not attacked as a result of interest or passion. And it is in relation to it that we measure our progress.

And yet she cautions that since the eternal destiny of the human being isn’t susceptible to external actions, it can’t be a motive of any obligation itself. Instead, it serves as an invitation to recognize the only thing we owe one another:

The fact that a human being possesses an eternal destiny imposes only one obligation: respect. The obligation is only performed if the respect is effectively expressed in a real, not a fictitious, way; and this can only be done through the medium of Man’s earthly needs.


It is an eternal obligation towards the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has the chance of coming to his assistance. This obligation being the most obvious of all, it can serve as a model on which to draw up the list of eternal duties towards each human being.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Out of this model Weil extracts a number of analogous obligations, some pertaining to the needs of the body, such as shelter, hygiene, and protection from violence, and others more elusive and difficult to discern, pertaining to the needs of the soul. Two decades after Rilke lamented the artificial divide between the body and the soul, Weil asserts that both classes of needs are equally essential to our flourishing and a centerpiece of what makes communities valuable:

Obligations, whether unconditional or relative, eternal or changing, direct or indirect with regard to human affairs, all stem, without exception, from the vital needs of the human being. Those which do not directly concern this, that or the other specific human being all exist to serve requirements which, with respect to Man, play a role analogous to food.


We owe our respect to a collectivity, of whatever kind — country, family or any other — not for itself, but because it is food for a certain number of human souls.

But our needs for sustenance of body and soul, Weil admonishes, are not to be mistaken for our wants:

The first thing to be investigated is what are those needs which are for the life of the soul what the needs in the way of food, sleep and warmth are for the life of the body… They must never be confused with desires, whims, fancies and vices. We must also distinguish between what is fundamental and what is fortuitous. Man requires, not rice or potatoes, but food; not wood or coal, but heating. In the same way, for the needs of the soul, we must recognize the different, but equivalent, sorts of satisfaction which cater for the same requirements. We must also distinguish between the soul’s foods and poisons which, for a time, can give the impression of occupying the place of the former.


The first characteristic which distinguishes needs from desires, fancies or vices, and foods from gluttonous repasts or poisons, is that needs are limited, in exactly the same way as are the foods corresponding to them. A miser never has enough gold, but the time comes when any man provided with an unlimited supply of bread finds he has had enough. Food brings satiety. The same applies to the soul’s foods.

The second characteristic, closely connected with the first, is that needs are arranged in antithetical pairs and have to combine together to form a balance. Man requires food, but also an interval between his meals; he requires warmth and coolness, rest and exercise. Likewise in the case of the soul’s needs.

What is called the golden mean actually consists in satisfying neither the one nor the other of two contrary needs. It is a caricature of the genuinely balanced state in which contrary needs are each fully satisfied in turn.

Chief among these elemental needs, Weil argues, is order. In a sentiment which Umberto Eco would come to echo many decades later in asserting that the chief goal of culture is “to make infinity comprehensible,” Weil writes:

The first of the soul’s needs, the one which touches most nearly its eternal destiny, is order; that is to say, a texture of social relationships such that no one is compelled to violate imperative obligations in order to carry out other ones.

Art by Ursus Wehrli from The Art of Cleanup

Weil looks to the astounding order and interconnectedness of the universe for confirmation:

We have every day before us the example of a universe in which an infinite number of independent mechanical actions concur so as to produce an order that, in the midst of variations, remains fixed. Furthermore, we love the beauty of the world, because we sense behind it the presence of something akin to that wisdom we should like to possess to slake our thirst for good.


A consciousness of the various obligations always proceeds from a desire for good which is unique, unchanging and identical with itself for every man, from the cradle to the grave.

Echoing Emerson’s ideas of beauty, Weil argues that the soul’s longing for order as a conduit to the good is also why great works of art enchant us and ugly acts of violence repel us:

The contemplation of veritable works of art, and much more still that of the beauty of the world, and again much more that of the unrealized good to which we aspire, can sustain us in our efforts to think continually about that human order which should be the subject uppermost in our minds.

The great instigators of violence have encouraged themselves with the thought of how blind, mechanical force is sovereign throughout the whole universe.

By looking at the world with keener senses than theirs, we shall find a more powerful encouragement in the thought of how these innumerable blind forces are limited, made to balance one against the other, brought to form a united whole by something which we do not understand, but which we call beauty.

In the remainder of the immeasurably insightful The Need for Roots, Weil goes on to examine how the other essential needs of the human soul — including positive ones like liberty, equality, and freedom of opinion, and paradoxical ones like risk and punishment — conspire in shaping our rights and our obligations.

For more of Weil’s abiding genius, see her wisdom on science and our spiritual values, how to make use of our suffering, attention as the greatest form of generosity, how to attain the most fertile form of thought, and how to be a complete human being.


Mendelssohn on Creative Integrity, the Refusal to Sell Out, and the Measure of Artistic Satisfaction

“When I have composed a piece just as it sprang from my heart, then I have done my duty towards it; and whether it brings hereafter fame, honor, decorations, or snuff-boxes, etc., is a matter of indifference to me.”

Mendelssohn on Creative Integrity, the Refusal to Sell Out, and the Measure of Artistic Satisfaction

The German composer, pianist, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809–November 4, 1847) performed his first public concert at the age of 9. Upon meeting the 12-year-old musical prodigy, Goethe compared him to Mozart and gasped, “What this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” At twenty, Mendelssohn arranged and performed a forgotten Bach piece, the manuscript of which his grandmother had given him four years earlier. The performance was an astonishing success, became instrumental in the revival of Bach’s music throughout Europe, and catalyzed Mendelssohn’s career and his extensive travels across the continent.

Although anti-Semitism and a fickle popular taste prevented Mendelssohn from reaching success commensurate with his brilliance during his lifetime, history’s hindsight conferred upon him recognition as a true creative genius. His music influenced generations of composers and nursed Oliver Sacks back to life. The wellspring of its singular power was Mendelssohn’s unflinching creative integrity — throughout his life, he maintained an ethos of writing only for his own pleasure, only from his heart, and never for the sake of pleasing the public or the critics.


In an 1831 letter to his friend and mentor Eduard Devrient, found in Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland (free ebook | public library), young Mendelssohn articulates this uncommonly heartening artistic integrity:

You reproach me with being two-and-twenty without having yet acquired fame. To this I can only reply, had it been the will of Providence that I should be renowned at the age of two-and-twenty, I no doubt should have been so. I cannot help it, for I no more write to gain a name, than to obtain a Kapellmeister’s place. It would be a good thing if I could secure both. But so long as I do not actually starve, so long is it my duty to write only as I feel, and according to what is in my heart, and to leave the results to Him who disposes of other and greater matters. Every day, however, I am more sincerely anxious to write exactly as I feel, and to have even less regard than ever to external views; and when I have composed a piece just as it sprang from my heart, then I have done my duty towards it; and whether it brings hereafter fame, honor, decorations, or snuff-boxes, etc., is a matter of indifference to me.

He illustrates this credo with an example from his recent work, a musical adaptation of Goethe:

I have written a grand piece of music which will probably impress the public at large [but] I began it simply because it pleased me, and inspired me with fervor, and never thought that it was to be performed… I have hitherto found that the pieces I have composed with least reference to the public are precisely those which gave them the greatest satisfaction.

He goes even further in his creative idealism, noting that simply having his heart into a piece isn’t enough to give it merit — he must also refine the craft through which he channels that raw passion:

Every day I feel more eager to write an opera. I think that it may become something fresh and spirited, if I begin it now; but I have got no words yet, and I assuredly never will write music for any poetry that does not inspire me with enthusiasm.

Mendelssohn applies the same ethos to choosing his collaborators:

I am now going to Munich, where they have offered me an opera, to see if I can find a man there who is a poet, for I will only have a man who has a certain portion of fire and genius.

Complement this particular portion of Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland with children’s literature patron saint Ursula Nordstrom on creative integrity in the face of commercialism and William James on choosing purpose over profit.


James Joyce’s Love Letters

“If I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”

As an ardent lover of love letters, I have encountered few exemplars of the genre more piercing than those penned by James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

In 1904, just after his first major essay was rejected from publication, 22-year-old Joyce met Nora Barnacle — a young chambermaid he described as “a simple honorable soul,” one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” From the moment they met until Joyce’s dying day, the two were bound by an uncommon love that translated into a relationship unconventional in many ways, especially by the era’s standards — they had a son and a daughter out of wedlock and didn’t marry until 27 years into their lifelong relationship.

Nora’s unselfish honesty was intensely alluring to Joyce. Only with her was he, a man otherwise guarded and chronically mistrustful, capable of complete self-revelation — she was the nonjudgmental, loving receptacle for his dueling enormities of ambition and self-consciousness that often bled into self-loathing. The unflinching trust that developed between them became the supreme engine of their love — for what is love if not the net we trust will catch us as we fall from grace into our deepest imperfections, then bounce us back up to our highest selves?

In a letter from October of 1909, found in Joyce’s altogether spectacular Selected Letters — the same treasure trove that gave us the teenage author’s beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero, and his poetic plea to Lady Gregory — 27-year-old Joyce writes to Nora during a trip to Dublin:

You dear strange little girl! And yet you write to ask if I am tired of you! I shall never be tired of you, dearest… I cannot write you so often this time as I [am] dreadfully busy from morning to night. Do not fret, darling. If you do you will ruin my chances of doing anything. After this I hope we shall have many many many long years of happiness together.

My dear true good little Nora do not write again doubtfully of me. You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.

Two days later, still away and working hard to have Dubliners published, Joyce is seized with longing for Nora and grows even more homesick:

My darling Tonight the old fever of love has begun to wake again in me. I am a shell of a man: my soul is in Trieste [the couple’s home]. You alone know me and love me.

A century before philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s terrific treatise on why embracing our neediness is essential for healthy relationships, Joyce embraces his and pleads with Nora in the same letter:

I am a jealous, lonely, dissatisfied, proud man. Why are you not more patient with me and kinder with me? The night we went to Madame Butterfly together you treated me most rudely. I simply wanted to feel your soul swaying with languor and longing as mine did when she sings the romance of her hope in the second act Un bel di: “One day, one day, we shall see a spire of smoke rising on the furthest verge of the sea; and then the ship appears.” I am a little disappointed in you. Then another night I came home to your bed from the café and I began to tell you of all I hoped to do, and to write, in the future and of those boundless ambitions which are really the leading forces in my life. You would not listen to me. It was very late I know and of course you were tired out after the day. But a man whose brain is on fire with hope and trust in himself must tell someone of what he feels. Whom should I tell but you?

But after this lamentation, the letter rises above these trifling resentments and takes a most heartening turn toward the ultimate assurance of love — that however short we may fall of our highest selves, however much we may disappoint our loved ones, they will love us anyway and love us not despite but because of our imperfect humanity. Decades before Joseph Campbell admonished against the deadliness of perfectionism in love, Joyce writes:

I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.

But against the backdrop of this all-consuming love, an unexpected drama unfolded — that fall, during the same trip to Dublin, Joyce was led to mistakenly believe that Nora had been unfaithful to him in the early days of their romance five years earlier, a period he cherished as one of sacred intimacy. He wrote to her from what he would later characterize as a state of “utter despair,” attacking her for the betrayal, berating himself for being unworthy of her love, and treating her infidelity as proof of his unworthiness. In the midst of all this, Nora — who had been tasked with singlehandedly managing the household and raising the children while Joyce was away trying to get Dubliners published — grew increasingly frustrated and threatened to leave him.

When it became apparent that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding and Nora had never been unfaithful, he proceeded to send her a series of letters, both breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking, further berating himself for having so misjudged his beloved’s character and beseeching her to forgive him. In an intensely self-flagellating letter from early November of 1909, Joyce writes:

You write like a queen. As long as I live I shall always remember the quiet dignity of that letter, its sadness and scorn, and the utter humiliation it caused me.

I have lost your esteem. I have worn down your love. leave me then. Take away your children from me to save them from the curse of my presence. Let me sink back again into the mire I came from. Forget me and my empty words. Go back to your own life and let me go alone to my ruin. It is wrong for you to live with a vile beast like me or to allow your children to be touched by my hands.


Leave me. It is a degradation and a shame for you to live with a low wretch like me. Act bravely and leave me. you have given me the finest things in this world but you were only casting pearls before swine.

If you leave me I shall live for ever with your memory, holier than God to me. I shall pray to your name.

Nora, remember something good of the poor wretch who dishonored you with his love. Think that your lips have kissed him and your hair has fallen over him and that your arms have held him to you.

I will not sign my name because it is the name you called me when you loved me and honoured me and have me your young tender soul to wound and betray.

Art by Mimmo Paladino for a special edition of Ulysses

And yet the most hope-giving part of the episode is that the perceived breach of trust only strengthened their bond. Perhaps it is no accident that we use the heart — a mighty muscle — as the symbolic seedbed of love. It’s a biologically apt metaphor: We can’t build our bodily muscles without first tearing down the fibers of which their tissue is woven — hypertrophy, or muscle growth, occurs when the body repairs the fibers torn down during exercise, thickening them in the repair process. Trust, too, grows by hypertrophy.

A day later, Joyce writes to Nora — or of Nora, for he uses the third person to relay to her a diaristic vignette intended to convey the depth of his feelings for her:

I received two very kind letters from her today so that perhaps after all she still cares for me. Last night I was in a state of utter despair when I wrote to her. Her slightest word has an enormous power over me. She asks me to try to forget the ignorant Galway [Nora’s hometown] girl that came across my life and says I am too kind to her. Foolish good-hearted girl! Does she not see what a worthless treacherous fool I am? Her love for me perhaps blinds her to it.

I shall never forget how her short letter to me yesterday cut me to the quick. I felt that I had tried her goodness too far and that at last she had turned on me with quiet scorn.

Today I went to the hotel where she lived when I first met her. I halted in the dingy doorway before going in I was so excited.


I have been in the room where she passed so often, with a strange dream of love in her young heart. My God, my eyes are full of tears! Why do I cry? I cry because it is so sad to think of her moving about that room, eating little, simply dressed, simple-mannered and watchful, and carrying always with her in her secret heart the little flame which burns up the souls and bodies of men.

I cry too with pity for her that she should have chosen such poor ignoble love as mine: and with pity for myself that I was not worthy to be loved by her.


Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.

I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believe in as a boy.

Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.

Jim and Nora remained together for the remainder of the author’s days. Complement the amorous portion of Joyce’s wholly magnificent Selected Letters with the love letters of Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.


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