The author rightly devotes a chapter to Weil’s ideas on attention. For her, attention is not focused, tense concentration. It has nothing to do with willpower. Attention is attente – a waiting, a letting go, an unselfish opening. To struggle with a problem in geometry is valuable whether or not we manage to solve it, because it teaches us to be open to God and therefore to others. The ‘love of God’, she writes
has attention for its substance; the love of our neighbour … is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.
The point of studying is not to learn this or that, but to acquire this discipline of the soul. Weil argues that we can train our attention by doing geometry, Greek and Latin translation and by writing, if we are willing to wait for the right word to come. ‘The intelligence,’ Weil writes in a passage I particularly love, ‘can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work.
Force and affliction
When read alongside her account of force and affliction, Weil’s vision of a just world permeated by respect for the dignity of work helps us understand the wretchedness of refugees in the West today. They arrive traumatised by war and conquest, forcibly cut loose from their roots, and yet we treat them with suspicion and refuse them the right to work. In Weil’s language, we meet refugees with force, deny their crucial needs and push them into affliction. In the same way, her vision of the dignity and honour of work makes me see more clearly than ever that contemporary mutations, such as zero-hours contracts, are incompatible with the respect we owe another human being.