“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
Simone Weil said that. Weil, whom Andre Gide called the patron saint of all outsiders. She was a leftist who alarmed her comrades by embracing religion. A French secular Jew who became a devout Catholic. A devout Catholic who refused to be baptized. An acutely perceptive philosopher who learned ancient Greek at twelve, then Sanskrit, yet never attached herself to the tenured comforts of a university. More interested in the political than the personal, she supported anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and joined the French Resistance in World War II. She rebuffed relationships to remain a solitary activist. She thrust her frail, refined self into sweaty jobs in auto factories, farm fields, and fishing trawlers, a show of solidarity in places where she never quite fit in.
Maybe she saw the need so clearly because she severed her own thready roots as soon as they formed? Or maybe I do not understand rootedness the way she did. I am stuck in the garden, where Britain’s favorite expert, Monty Don, is warning not to add fertilizer to the hole you dig for a new plant. You want the roots to spread wide, searching for nourishment, not just slurp up whatever is close at hand. Make your roots struggle a bit, and the network they form will act as an anchor, keeping your geranium or dahlia upright in wind and heavy rain.
That anchoring is what my husband and friends, my ideas and values, and experiences do for me. It is what I envy when I see people with big, happy families. Or big, fractious, loyal-in-a-pinch families. Rootedness, in my mind, is a way of belonging, whether that means an affinity for Midwestern prairies or the Pacific Northwest, a long history in a town or neighborhood, or a loyalty to your religious congregation, school, group, team, or country.
These days, none of us is rooted deeply enough to relax and thrive, because our world is too much in flux. Storms—real or ideological—topple us into despair, and economic need pulls us up and forces us to start over again.
Weil saw this beginning. She might not have cherished a strong sense of place or family or chummy associations herself, but she understood solidarity—and she knew it was already eroding. Her best-known book (published, as all her books were, posthumously) is called The Need for Roots: prelude towards a declaration of duties towards mankind. She wrote it almost eighty years ago, to help Charles de Gaulle rebuild Paris after the war. In the text, she warned that for all of the West’s eloquent constitutions and declarations of human rights, people had overlooked their obligations to one another—and this had left them self-righteous and rootless.
Weil was looking at the uprootedness of military conquest, of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. But she also acknowledged other forces that were, by severing people’s roots, destroying community. And she did so with such insight that Albert Camus pronounced it “impossible to imagine the rebirth of Europe without taking into consideration the suggestions outlined in it by Simone Weil.”
Her main theme was the spirituality of work; the need for a worker to feel part of the larger picture, respected and appreciated. We spend most of our lives working, yet this form of rootedness did not even occur to me a moment ago, when I rattled off all those ways we find a sense of belonging. It seems I have swallowed, whole, the assumptions of a gig economy, everybody a free agent, self-branded, constantly negotiating and retooling, unable to expect an employer to look out for one’s interests.
Yet working, whether we are paid or loved instead, is how we belong, how we take root in a place. It is our work, Weil insisted—not our cherished slogan T-shirts, our genes, or our various fees for membership—that gives us a deep, living connection to our environment. “A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community,” she wrote. That participation must be honored, she said: It preserves traditions from the past, and it shapes the future collectively.
That bit about tradition is where she left herself open. Now The Need for Roots has been adopted by French conservatives who urge a fierce, xenophobic nationalism. Drawn by her emphasis on the need for order and a shared culture, they wave her phrases about—yet might faint if they realized her intent. She believed in the need to share resources, not pride. “Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate,” she writes, “by turning desire for gain into the sole motive. It easily manages to outweigh all other motives, because the effort it demands of the mind is so very much less. Nothing is so clear and so simple as a row of figures.”
Greed is easy, and Weil never took the easy way. T.S. Eliot wrote, in his preface to the book, that she had “a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.” They, too, make me uncomfortable, with all their ascetic virtue. I would rather be a selfish, sturdy geranium, comfortably anchored in my flowerpot.
In 1943, overcome by the suffering of Jews and the Nazi occupation of France, Weil stopped eating, and eventually her heart stopped. She died at thirty-three. Scanning the whole of her intense life, full of illness, deliberate struggle, and empathetic suffering, it is hard not to recoil. If I look with the unguarded compassion she would have felt for someone in similar pain, I will crumple. It is easier for me, a geranium, to think of her as an angel, an otherworldly being sent as a messenger, possessed of pure wisdom but not quite meant for this earth. She chose to let her body go untended while her soul burned.
In the end, it seems, she had no need for the deep roots meant to hold the rest of us in place; the filaments that, like Weil herself, look implausibly fragile, yet must be able to suck sustenance from clods of earth. In her maddening blend of sensitivity, love, and neuroticism, she belonged to something larger and more ethereal than a particular place, family, or club. Rooted only in principle, she found life unsustainable, her shoulders too narrow to bear, alone, such care. Even her wisdom weighed heavy, I imagine, because so few were listening.
De Gaulle barely skimmed what she wrote for him.
The Need for Roots is now called prescient.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.