Expanse of Soul

I do not admire the excess of a virtue as of valour, except I see at the same time the excess of the opposite virtue, as in Epaminondas, who had the greatest valour and the greatest kindness. For otherwise it is not to rise, it is to fall. We do not display greatness by going to one extreme, but in touching both at once, and filling all the intervening space. But perhaps this is only a sudden movement of the soul from one to the other extreme, and in fact it is ever at one point only, as in the case of a firebrand. Be it so, but at least this indicates agility if not expanse of soul.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.


Simultaneous existence of incompatible things in the soul’s bearing; balance which leans both ways at once: that is saintliness, the actual realization of the microcosm, the imitation of the order of the world. The simultaneous existence of opposite virtues in the soul – like pincers to catch hold of God.

Simone Weil, ‘Contradiction’, in An Anthology, translated and edited by Sian Miles.


The Self, Collective and Impersonal

This condition of division is one that we suffer from and complain about, yet it is a condition that we promote by our ambitions and desires and justify by our jargon of “self-fulfilment”. Each of us, we say, is supposed to”realize his or her potential as an individual.” It is as if the whole two hundred million of us were saying with Coriolanus:

I’ll never

Be such a gosling as to obey instinct, but stand,

As if a man were author of himself,

And knew no other kin.

…The problem, of course, is that we are not the authors of ourselves. That we are not is a religious perception, but is also a biological and social one. Each of us has had many authors, and each of us is engaged, for better or worse, in that same authorship…We may collaborate either well or poorly, or we may refuse to collaborate, but even to refuse to collaborate is to exert an influence and to affect the quality of the product.

Wendell Berry, ‘Men and Women in Search of Common Ground’, Home Economics.

The human being can only escape from the collective by raising himself above the personal and entering into the impersonal. The moment he does this, there is something in him, a small portion of his soul, upon which nothing of the collective can get a hold. If he can root himself in the impersonal good so as to be able to draw energy from it, then he is in a condition, whenever he feels the obligation to do so, to bring to bear without any outside help, against any collectivity, a small but real force.

Simone Weil, Human Personality, translated by Sian Miles.

Whole and Part

‘There is nothing scandalous in the subordination of the person to the collectivity; it is a mechanical fact of the same order as the inferiority of a gram to a kilogram on the scales. The person is in fact always subordinate to the collectivity, even in its so-called free expression.

For example, it is precisely those artists and writers who are most inclined to think of their art as the manifestation of their personality who are in fact the most in bondage to public taste. Hugo had no difficulty in reconciling the cult of the self with his role of ‘resounding echo’: and examples like Wilde, Gide, and the surrealists are even more obvious. Scientists of the same class are equally enslaved by fashion, which rules over science even more despotically than over the shape of hats. For these men the collective opinion of specialists is practically a dictatorship.’

Simone Weil, Human Personality, translated by Sian Miles.



‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.’

T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent.


The Walls

‘Modern man is a prisoner who thinks he is free because he refrains from touching the walls of his dungeon.’

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Notes.

‘A man whose mind feels that it is captive would prefer to blind himself to the fact. But if he hates falsehood, he will not do so; and in that case he will have to suffer a lot. He will beat his head against the wall until he faints. He will come to again and look with terror at the wall, until one day he begins afresh to beat his head against it; and once again he will faint. And so on endlessly and without hope. One day he will wake up on the other side of the wall.

Perhaps he is still in prison, although a larger one. No matter. He has found the key; he knows the secret which breaks down every wall. He has passed beyond what men call intelligence, into the beginning of wisdom.’

Simone Weil, Human Personality, translated by Sian Miles.

The Test of Necessity

‘When, in such a quantity of words, some of the writings of the saints seem not only to differ from, but even to contradict, each other, one should not rashly pass judgement concerning those by whom the world itself is to be judged, as it is written: “The saints shall judge nations” (Wisdom 3: 7-8), and again “You also shall sit as judging” (cf. Matthew 19:28). Let us not presume to declare them liars or condemn them as mistaken – those people of whom the Lord said “He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Thus with our weakness in mind, let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing –- those of whom the Truth Himself said: “For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you” (Matthew 10:20). So, since the Spirit through which these things were written and spoken and revealed to the writers is itself absent from us, why should it be surprising if we should also lack an understanding of these same things?’

Pierre Abelard, Prologue to Sic et Non.

‘The contradictions the mind comes up against – these are the only realities; they are the criterion of the real. There is no contradiction in what is imaginary. Contradiction is the test of necessity. Contradiction experienced to the very depth of the being tears us heart and soul; it is the cross.

The demonstrable correlation of opposites is an image of the transcendental correlation of contradictories.

Contradiction is the point of the pyramid.

Simultaneous existence of incompatible things in the soul’s bearing; balance which leans both ways at once: that is saintliness, the actual realization of the microcosm, the imitation of the order of the world. The simultaneous existence of opposite virtues in the soul – like pincers to catch hold of God.’

Simone Weil, An Anthology, translated by Sian Miles.

‘Is it not as clear as day that man’s condition is dual?…These fundamental facts, solidly established on the inviolable authority of religion, teach us that there are in faith two equally constant truths. One is that man in the state of his creation, or in the state of grace, is exalted above the whole of nature, made like unto God and sharing in his divinity. The other is that in the state of corruption and sin he has fallen from that first state and has become like the beasts. These two propositions are equally firm and certain.

All is one, all is diversity. How many natures lie in human nature!”

Blaise Pacal, Pensées, Series VII, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.