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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Simone's Svengalis: A Petainist, a Missionary, and the Making of Simone Weil

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Catholic scholars embrace Simone Weil for her Catholic conversion and writings on Christian mysticism. According to Boston College history professor Benjamin Braude, however, the prevailing narrative of Weil’s life has been severely distorted—first by the men who edited her first two books, and then by scholars who have consistently preferred hagiography to history.

Speaking at the Boisi Center’s first lunch colloquium of the semester on February 11, Braude laid out an alternative history of Weil’s life that casts serious doubt on the conventional wisdom. According to Braude, Weil’s eventual embrace of Christianity was profoundly shaped by the wartime context of occupied Vichy France. Since Weil and her family were Jewish, Braude argued that her conversion was in part a form of protection against the notoriously anti-Semitic Vichy regime. Without questioning that Weil had sincere mystical experiences, Braude noted that her professed spiritual epiphanies of the mid-1930s were only recorded by Weil in the 1940s, after the fall of France.

Braude also addressed the controversy surrounding Weil’s anti-Semitism. Focusing on an overlooked essay that explores the Genesis story of Noah’s naked sons, Braude explained that the essay was outrageously anti-Semitic, effectively implying that the Jews and Nazis deserved each other.

At the same time, Braude harshly criticized the distortions of Weil’s editors: Gustave Thibon, who composed the book Gravity and Grace by pasting together discreet statements from Weil’s journals, and the missionary Joseph-Marie Perrin, who released her book Waiting for God. Braude explained how both men misrepresented her philosophy, exaggerating both her interest in Christ and her anti-Semitism. Such distortions had a clear ideological purpose: for a loyal Petainist like Thibon, Braude said, “Weil’s anti-Semitism justified his own.”