At the beginning of the first seminar of my “Faith and Doubt” colloquium, I asked the fifteen students seated around the table why, when they had more than thirty colloquia to choose from, they had registered for this particular colloquium. which meets at 8:30 a.m. twice a week for two hours per session. Their responses were both enlightening and encouraging.
My personal favorite came from a student who explained to me that he had registered for this colloquium because, a week before his registration last fall for the spring semester courses, he had attended a meeting of the philosophy club where he had heard me give a brief presentation on Simone Weil. The theme of the meeting was “Women in Philosophy”; I was one of three colleagues who featured a woman philosopher who has been important to them over the years. My student said he was taken with my passion when talking about Weil, recalling in particular that I had noticed that my wife called Simone my “mistress” because of the time I had spent with her for the past thirty years. “I have to take a class with this guy,” thought my student. Music to my ears.
In the early years of this blog, I wrote an article describing my first encounter with Simone Weil – I’m happy to repeat it here.
My mistress is not beautiful; she’s not even pretty. She dresses regardless of what she looks like, usually wearing combinations of baggy pants and sweatshirts, as well as an ankle length trench coat style garment and a ratty beret to complete the ensemble when ‘She goes out. She cuts her curly hair with a pair of scissors when it exceeds the length of the collar. She is myopic and wears ugly tortoiseshell glasses. I once saw a photo of her taken when she was twelve – the beautiful, innocent, angelic girl with a swan neck in the photo bears little resemblance to the adult woman. Sometimes I wondered what happened. My mistress hardly ever smiles, has no sense of humor, is intense beyond belief, can’t chat, eats next to nothing, chain smokes like a chimney, and certainly doesn’t willingly suffer from fools. Half the time, I don’t even like him very much. And yet, it changed my life.
I met Simone during Lent in 1993, at a silent episcopal retreat for men of all places. I entered the large assembly hall where a dozen silent men were seated; she was in the corner, looking my way with an intensity that burned a hole in me. She was obviously waiting to be picked up, so I picked her up. I’m not used to flirting with unknown women at short notice, but I didn’t seem to have a choice in the matter. I took her with me to a comfortable sofa in the corner of the room filled with silent men and we started talking. Five or six hours later, we were still talking. I took her back to my room with me and we talked all night; we practically talked throughout the three-day retreat, I guess. I don’t remember much else about it.
I introduced myself to Simone by describing my life as a philosophy teacher. I was teaching at a small private college focused on business and engineering. The only reason they needed a philosopher was to teach business ethics, so that’s what I did, even though my area of specialization was modern day philosophy and my thesis had focused on Descartes. The place paid so poorly that I taught four business ethics sections per semester, three during the day and one at night, plus another course just to make ends meet. I was only in my second year of teaching after getting my doctorate, and I was not at all convinced (1) that I was a very good teacher or (2) that my students were learning anything. I really hoped I hadn’t made a mistake entering this profession – the lives of my wife and young sons had been completely disrupted for this to happen.
Simone told me that she too had taught for a few years here and there. Then she said the most remarkable thing, that she believed that the primary importance of school studies begins with “the realization that prayer consists of attention” and that this capacity for attention must be developed “in order of the love of God”. School studies are of crucial importance, not because of the content taught, but because “the development of the faculty of attention constitutes the real object and almost the only interest of the studies”. Only attentive people can love God, and school studies, well approached, help to develop attentive people.
I thought it had nothing to do with my frustration with business ethics or the insecurities of being a mediocre teacher. I was about to take Simone back to where I had picked her up, but then she said something else very interesting.
Contrary to common belief, [will power] has practically no place in the study. Intelligence can only be directed by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in work. Intelligence only grows and fructifies in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking, there are no real pupils, only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.
This directly intersects with all my surface level concerns right down to the heart of the matter. Why did I want to teach philosophy, the most useless field of study in the eyes of many people? Why did I want to teach at all? Simone had expressed what I had run out of words for – in my thirty-seven years (at the time), what brought me the greatest joy, the most intense euphoria, was the life of learning. At the beginning of my life, I had been infected by the love of books and ideas; when it turned out, after many detours, that I was going to spend my life in school, I was not surprised.
I think I knew that was where I belonged the first day I walked into Miss Bailey’s freshman class. And all I wanted was to pass this infection on to others. All I wanted to do was help others find the joy of learning that had sustained me through the times in my life when there seemed to be nothing but a book. If I was going to be a good teacher, it is what had to be at the heart of it. Simone had given me the words to express what I had sensed from the beginning, that for me, teaching was a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.
She ended this part of our conversation by saying that in her opinion “academic work is one of those fields which contains such a precious pearl that it is worth selling all our possessions, without keeping anything for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it. .” I said “I think I love you – do you want to come home with me?” When I got home from the retreat, I sat on the kitchen counter while my wife Jeanne was doing things in the kitchen and tried to introduce Simone to her. I don’t think I had much sense, but Jeanne recognized the energy that radiated from my inner glow as something unusual, so it didn’t bother her that I brought a strange woman back to home with me. In fact, it was Jeanne who, a few years later, started calling Simone my mistress because of the time we spent together.
Simone changed the way I think about myself, my relationships, the world around me, and ultimately what transcends me. She often comes with me to class. A few years ago I received a card at the office from a young woman who had graduated in philosophy the previous spring. She was a spectacular student and an even more spectacular human being, one of those wonderful gifts that sometimes come in the life of a teacher. The card was a thank you card, uncomfortably overdone as the young woman thanked me for a number of things she probably should have thanked others or herself for. At the end of the card she wrote “And most of all, Dr Morgan, thank you for introducing me to Simone.”