Friday, January 03, 2020

Weil on Hierarchism

Simone Weil [The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, Routledge and Kegan Paul (London: 1952) pp. 17-18, as quoted in Jonathan Wolff, "Equality and Hierarchy", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Volume 119, Issue 1, April 2019, Pages 1–23,]:

Hierarchism is a vital need of the human soul. It is composed of a certain veneration, a certain devotion towards superiors, considered not as individuals, nor in relation to the powers they exercise, but as symbols. What they symbolize is that realm situated high above all men and whose expression in this world is made up of the obligations owed by each man to his fellow-men. A veritable hierarchy presupposes a consciousness on the part of the superiors of this symbolic function and a realization that it forms the only legitimate object of devotion among their subordinates. The effect of true hierarchism is to bring each one to fit himself morally into the place he occupies.

Wolff goes on to associate this with "knowing your place", but this is, I think, the exact opposite of what Weil is saying: rather, the point is that we all occupy some kind of place, and what we need to know is not our place but how to be moral wherever we may be situated. For this, she argues, we need our society to have a symbolic structure which can be an object of devotion and a template for our obligations. This symbolic structure serves as a morally better object of devotion than a demagogue, a celebrity, or a magistrate would, which is what in practice we tend to get when people do not recognize such a symbolic structure; it forces people with greater power or knowledge to recognize that any leadership they have is due to their service to something higher than themselves; and it provides a reference point relative to which people can work out how they can contribute morally to society wherever they may happen to find themselves.