After the Nazis invaded and occupied France during the Second World War, the Free French, or the French government-in-exile, invited Simone Weil—a political philosopher, Platonist, and mystic—to write a report detailing how to rebuild France once the Nazis took their leave. This, of course, presupposed that the Nazis would eventually depart French soil. In response, Weil produced an extraordinary work, The Need for Roots, which contained an extensive meditation on how to address the French citizenry’s “needs of the soul.” Just as the body has various needs, so, too, does the soul. Much of what Weil had to say then still resonates with significance for those living amidst the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, Weil lists a number of needs of the soul that we would do well to consider. In this brief essay, I want to discuss three of these needs: security, risk, and responsibility. In my estimation, reflecting on the nature of security, risk, and responsibility can help us to act wisely in these strange and uncertain times.
First, take security. Entire businesses, whether insurance or information security firms, revolve around providing security to others. All well and good. We need some measure of security in our lives. Weil writes,
Fear and terror, as permanent states of the soul, are wellnigh moral poisons, whether they be caused by the threat of unemployment, police persecution, the presence of a foreign conqueror, the probability of invasion, or any other calamity which seems too much for human strength to bear.
Thus, security measures can protect us from constant fear and uncertainty. Weil notes how Roman masters used to hang a whip in the sight of their slaves just to keep them in a permanent state of dread. Who could endure such perpetual fear, day in and day out? The just man, by contrast, never deliberately terrifies others for the sake of reducing them to slavery. The just aim to provide security for others without resorting to scare tactics, and we should do likewise. By striving to provide financial, physical, and spiritual security for ourselves, our families, and our country, we are doing something righteous and necessary.
Paradoxically, however, as with most things in the moral life, excess kills. Arguably, police states that justify the infinite extension of surveillance technology into the personal lives of their citizens build their case on the need for security. Think for a moment. Is there anything that cannot be justified in the name of “safety” or “security”? I once asked students, “Is there anything that you would not do to survive?” Would you lie? Steal? Cheat? Murder? How do you make decisions when sheer survival stands as the highest good? For those operating on a purely materialistic plane, without any regard for metahistorical truths that do not change over time, this is a terrifying question to consider. Why? Because people realize that survival alone cannot do as the summum bonum, yet many cannot conceive of an alternative. In the current historical moment, the unchecked desire for security can lead to hoarding, whether of supplies or money, or it can justify the perpetual chipping away of civil liberties. Beware of those who recklessly endanger others. But beware also of those who exhort in the name of security alone. We require something else to counterbalance the need for security: risk.
If we need security, we need risk just as much. The desire for absolute certainty, perhaps spurred on by today’s ever-present scientism and technologism, tends to obscure the truth that we must take risks. Nowadays, you cannot sit on a bench or touch a door handle in public without taking a risk. But, arguably, we need this risk. And we need to take risks without always having recourse to experts before making decisions. Today, the expert, whether big data analyst or epidemiological specialist, functions much like guardian angels functioned in ages past. We appeal to them, ask for their intercession, and seek their blessing. We consult them, and many times for good reason. Expert opinions matter, certainly. Yet, we cannot always have recourse to them in our day-to-day lives. An overreliance on expert opinion tends to make one servile and slavish, weakening the capacity for independent judgment and courageous deeds. Indeed, Weil explains how the absence of risk can weaken the capacity for courageous action. Consider yourself as a soldier sitting in your foxhole, paralyzed by fear and unable to move. The enemy shells near your position and sends bullets over your head. If you do not get up out of that hole and get a move on, you will die. You must take a risk. Speaking to the courage of the soldier and his need for risk, G.K. Chesterton writes,
A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.
Without risk, the soul never learns the courage necessary to thrive. At the moment, governments continue to open parts of the economy. As a country and a world, we are coming out of our metaphorical foxholes. Without making imprudent decisions that endanger the elderly or those with serious comorbidities, we must bear in mind that we need both security and risk.
Perhaps Aristotle said it best in his Nicomachean Ethics when he described practical wisdom in terms of finding the mean between two excesses. An overemphasis on security may eventuate in a surveillance state. An overemphasis on risk, which invites recklessness, may eventuate in more people needlessly killed. In this case, we must learn to find the mean between security and risk on the local, state, and national level. Big data and cost-benefit analysis may help give us a better understanding of the current situation. However, one cannot always determine how much security or how much risk to take in strictly quantifiable, numerical terms.
The preceding discussion of the need to balance security with risk leads me onto a consideration of responsibility, the last need of the soul that I want to mention. People need responsibility. Depriving someone of his responsibility makes him into a passive consumer in the truest sense of the word. Weil writes,
For this need [of responsibility] to be satisfied it is necessary that a man should often have to take decisions in matters great or small affecting interests that are distinct from his own, but in regard to which he feels a personal concern.
The need to ensure the security of others and to take risks implies a terrible responsibility, of course. But such is the life of a citizen, a real citizen rather than a mere consumer. Whoever makes a serious decision, including the decision to get up out of the current metaphorical foxhole, takes a burden upon himself. Leaders, average people, decisionmakers of all stripes, you and me, should have to answer for the decisions that we make. Only, we should have the ability to make such decisions to begin with. Weil notes how the unemployed in particular suffer from the inability to take responsibility. If Weil is correct, people cannot simply continue to receive economic stimulus checks to stay afloat. People need to feel “useful” and “even indispensable.” If responsibility is truly a need of the soul, then perhaps it is true enough to say that every business is an essential business.
Altogether, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the latent but nevertheless widespread and powerful assumptions about what a human being is. Are humans merely animals with a relatively simple need for biological survival? Or perhaps humans have more complex needs that surpass mere biological subsistence? And who will you go to for an answer to this question? Scientists? The media? But which scientists will you listen to? And which TV channels will you turn on? As for Simone Weil, you know where she stands. A human has more than material needs. A human has needs of the soul. According to Weil, failing to satisfy these needs leads to “a state more or less resembling death, more or less akin to a purely vegetative existence.” As such, prudent strategies to rebuild will take these higher needs into consideration. Recall that Weil started planning for how to regenerate France in 1943, even though the war had not yet ended. And in like manner for us, the plans to rebuild are already underway, even though the pandemic still lingers like a foreign invader. As we continue to plan, let us balance security with risk. Verily, we have a responsibility to do so.
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Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004.
Lasch, Christopher. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. W. W. Norton Company, 1984.
Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots. Routledge Classics, 2002.
Wills, Arthur. Translator’s Foreword. The Need for Roots, by Simone Weil. Routledge Classics, 2002, pp. xv-xvi.
 Arthur Wills, Translator’s Foreword to The Need for Roots (Abingdon, UK: Routledge Classics, 2002): xv.
 Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, trans. Arthur Wills (Abingdon, UK: Routledge Classics, 2002): 33.
 cf. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self (New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company, 1984): 74-75.
 Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, 33.
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004): 86.
 Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, 15.
 Ibid., 5-7.
 Arthur Wills, Translator’s Foreword to The Need for Roots, xv.
The featured image is “All Souls’ Day” (1888) by Jakub Schikaneder (1855-1924) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.