Blood Is Flowing in Carthage: Simone Weil between Force and Colonialism

Every age has the renaissance of antiquity it deserves.
—Aby Warburg 

Today, science, history, politics, the organization of labor, religion even, in so far as it is marked by the Roman defilement, offer nothing to men’s minds except brute force. Such is our civilization. It is a tree which bears the fruit it deserves.
—Simone Weil

Simone Weil, notebook cover, Cahier 3 (1941). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

The destruction of ancient Carthage served as the inspiration for a work by Italian artist Lara Favaretto in the inaugural (and so far only) Carthage Contemporary exhibition, titled Chkoun Ahna (meaning “about us” in Tunisian dialect), at the Carthage National Museum in May–June 2012.1 The work, As If a Ruin (2012), consisted of a compacted cube of dark brown confetti installed amid the ancient Roman mosaics of the museum’s permanent collection.2 Though the work referenced the ashes of the city after it was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, according to one of the curators of the exhibition, “Many Tunisian visitors were convinced that the piece represented the Kaabathe sacred black stone at the heart of Mecca.3 This misidentification was a potentially explosive issue; the annual exhibition Printemps des Arts at the Palais Abdelliya in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, had provoked riots and protests against what Salafist groups considered some blasphemous artworks.4 Given that Favaretto’s work disintegrated during the run of Chkoun Ahna, it was potentially vulnerable to accusations of blasphemy like those leveled at the works in the neighboring show.5 A year and a half after the Arab Spring and Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution, with the Islamist Ennahdha Party in power and before the new Tunisian constitution and the election of the secularist party Nidaa Tounes in 2014, heated disputes about Islam and contemporary art were part of the hopes and fears surrounding Tunisia’s political transition.6

Installed in view of the museum’s permanent display of Roman mosaics, made by the suzerains and razers of ancient Tunis, As If a Ruin suggests to all of us our vulnerability to the use of force. Despite their relationship to the enslavement and destruction of the city as the work of the Roman conquerors, the mosaics downplay rather than acknowledge imperial violence. Favaretto’s work, on the other hand, communicates the mosaics’ own ephemerality: they become clear, fragmentary signs of those same conquerors’ own ruin, even if by the passing of time as much as by violence.7 The “momentary monument” generates a different response to force, an offering in the form of an ambiguous ruin that more closely connects the past and the present, the Carthaginian then and the Tunisian now. The misreading of Favaretto’s work as the Kaaba, meanwhile, projects Rome’s dominance and Carthage’s suffering into the present, in that it limits the scope of the exhibition to be “about us (Tunisians)” in terms of an Islamic culture.8 When interpreted as symbolizing the Kaaba, the 2012 work demonstrates the fine line between the permanence and fragility of a key symbol of Islamic culture played out amid the backdrop of the new Islamist ruling party, the violent protests of the Salafists, and calls for secular rule in the post-Arab Spring transition. If ancient Carthaginian civilization can be destroyed by the force of Roman rule and their culture replaced (epitomized by the mosaics), what makes Islamic culture any different? Yet, like those victors and their mosaics, even if Islamic culture triumphs in the present, is it not still in danger of becoming a ruin—in the form of a crumbling Kaaba—in the future? This danger infers a moral lesson about the limits of power and the potential for violence to provoke the force of an equally violent retribution. In this way, the installation of As If a Ruin in the Carthage National Museum reminds us that force affects both the defeated and the victorious, in a mutual relationship that demarcates a vital moral code of just retribution. 

Returning to the violent past as a way of intervening in the violence of the present in terms of this morality of force is a key motif in the thought of philosopher and activist Simone Weil (1909–1943). In essays like 1937’s “The Power of Words” and “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” drafted in a notebook in the late 1930s and published in 1940, Weil returned to the Trojan War to explore the morality of contemporary political power and violence, especially through the fertile poetic lens of Homer’s Iliad.9 The original, French title of “The Power of Words,” “Ne recommençons pas la guerre de Troie,” means “Let’s not restart the Trojan War”; with its echo of Jean Giraudoux’s play La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu, it makes the Trojan War analogy for contemporary politics explicit. In this essay, Weil explores various conflicts of the time (class conflict, the clash between Communism and Fascism) in terms of what she calls the fundamentally “unreal character” of their goals.10 For the Greeks and Trojans, she points out, the war was fought over a symbol (Helen), while in contemporary conflict “the role of Helen is played by words with capital letters” (e.g., Nation, Capitalism, Communism, Democracy, Order).11 To avoid such words being wielded as either banners or weapons, Weil calls for a Socratic analysis of these terms so that, by careful definition and precise analysis, they lose their capital letter status and their power to mislead. 

Homer’s epic takes center stage in “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” with force as its “true hero,” as Weil puts it in the essay’s opening sentence. The ancient Greek conception of force, Weil argues, was grounded in balance or equilibrium, whereby its excessive use was punished by retribution upon its wielder. Weil uses Homer’s poem as a critical reference point for contemporary power relations and ideologies as she makes indirect commentary about contemporary violence. Consider her famous rewrite of the Homeric line where Andromache orders her maidservants to prepare a hot bath for Hector, already slaughtered unbeknownst to them: “Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.”12 

Weil’s classical citations do not end with Greece, however; in her writing, she makes extensive and critical reference to Rome. Written in the same period as “The Power of Words” and “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” and published in full only posthumously, the three-part essay “The Great Beast: Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism” also incorporates ancient conflict into contemporary debates, offering an extended analogy between Hitlerism in Germany and ancient Rome, emphasizing the destruction of Carthage and colonial oppression of Greece as the ultimate examples of Rome’s violent cruelty.13 Weil would gesture toward this analogy in another essay written in 1939, “Cold War Policy in 1939,” in which she introduces her stock-taking of the political tragedy beginning to unfold in Europe in the broadest possible historical perspective.14 Forget barbarian invasions, the Hundred Years’ War, the reigns of Charles V, Louis XIV, and Napoleon; Weil singles out one tragedy for comparison: 

To find another period when men of every kind, in countries extending over a vast area, were equally disturbed by a political danger one would have to go back to the period when Rome annihilated Carthage and crushed Greece; a period so decisive that we are still today suffering its consequences—whose gravity, moreover, we do not know how to appreciate. Nothing comparable has happened since.15

In spite of the differences in her examples—Greece and Troy, Rome and Carthage—Weil’s various essays share her commitment to a moral code, grounded equally in her studies of ancient Greek and Roman literature and history and her Christian mysticism.16 In both the Iliad essay and “The Great Beast,” Weil makes clear her rejection of the Roman model, instead championing Greece for its self-reflection on both suffering and committing acts of violence. For Weil, the Greeks redeem their historical acts of violence via art, acknowledging suffering and infusing it with beauty while extracting moral lessons; the Romans, through perfidy, cruelty, propaganda, and self-deception, only perpetuate violent outrages. And for Weil, writing for a French audience in the late 1930s, both Troy and Carthage serve as powerful references not only with regard to the aggression of Hitler’s Germany but also with regard to the moral problem of French colonial violence. In an impassioned letter to Jean Giraudoux in his role as Commissaire général à l’Information, written in late 1939 or early 1940, Weil protested the violence of French colonialism.17 In this letter, Weil mobilizes several Classical analogies to call out the French government, in particular for a bloody suppression of a miners’ uprising in central Tunisia in 1937.18 She describes how she is living in a period of history that has more affinities with the violence of ancient Rome and in which the Greek moral code, and its emphasis on balance and equilibrium, has been lost. In response to this situation, Weil looked to the recovery of Greek virtues in non-Western cultures and claimed it was the French colonies in Indochina and North Africa who were more able to teach “Greek” to their “Roman” European oppressors.

Greek Letters 

Demonstrations in Tunis against French colonial rule, April 9, 1938. National Archives of Tunisia, Tunis

If you look at the cover of Weil’s Pre-War Notebook, written between 1933 and 1939, you discover a mosaic of ancient Greek letters comprising quotations from the Iliad, Greek tragedy, and the Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Two quotations are given pride of place in terms of position and size: 

ἀεὶ ὁ θεὸς γεωμετρεῖ (God always geometrizes)
δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω (Give me a point of leverage and I will move the world)19 

The first, attributed to Plato, grounds Platonic philosophy in geometry. The latter, attributed to Archimedes, is the foundational statement of the concept of equilibrium in physics. When Weil quotes Archimedes within the pages of  her notebook, she adds a cultural and political nuance to this nugget of technical wisdom: 

the point of leverage: that essential idea of equilibrium
Greece is the youth of humanity. But, alas, the manhood of which that youth gave promise has not developed.20 

Weil’s nostalgic tone for this lost Greek dream is evident throughout her writings, with an emphasis on the concept of equilibrium and retribution. In a key passage in “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” she elaborates this idea: 

This retribution, which has a geometrical rigour, which operates automatically to penalize the abuse of force, was the main subject of Greek thought. It is the soul of the epic. Under the name of Nemesis, it functions as the mainspring of Aeschylus’s tragedies. To the Pythagoreans, to Socrates and Plato, it was the jumping-off point of speculation upon the nature of man and the universe. Wherever Hellenism has penetrated, we find the idea of it familiar. In Oriental countries which are steeped in Buddhism, it is perhaps this Greek idea that has lived on under the name of Karma. The Occident, however, has lost it. … conceptions of limit, measure, equilibrium, which ought to determine the conduct of life are, in the West, restricted to a servile function in the vocabulary of technics.21

The Greek moral imperative has been lost to the West, and the Greek virtues of equilibrium, limit, and measure have been enslaved to mere “technics,” the merely physical. Western culture in general has undergone an operation allied to the way that force turns the bearers of souls into things. 

Weil’s writing on the system of equilibrium and retribution in her Iliad essay moves methodically in discussing how force transforms humans into things. She starts with the simplest case—what she calls the “most literal”—which is when force turns a person into a corpse.22 But she proceeds to describe another scenario, one that is “quite prodigious”: when force turns a still-living human being into a thing. Weil offers a sequence of examples of this sort. First of all, the Trojan prince Lycaon becomes a thing on encountering Achilles, since before he is killed, horror at his impending fate dehumanizes him: “still breathing, he is simply matter; still thinking, he can think no longer.”23 Next comes King Priam at the moment of supplication to Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s desecrated body; however, Priam’s transformation into a thing is only temporary because “a suppliant, once his prayer is answered, becomes a human again.”24 Then there are those who, unlike Lycaon or Priam, are not put out of their misery by death or acceptance: 

But there are other, more unfortunate creatures who have become things for the rest of their lives. Their days hold no pastimes, no free spaces, no room in them for any impulse of their own.25

Weil then quotes several passages that describe the defeated Trojan women—Cassandra and Andromache—who will be taken into slavery with the fall of their city. After outlining the position of the slave, including the emotional dependence they develop on the master, Weil turns to the oppressor. She makes a powerful declaration about the perils of violence to those who wield it: “Its power of converting a man into a thing is a double one, and in its application double-edged. To the same degree, though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.”26 Those employing force are delusional in believing they possess a monopoly on its use. “Nobody really possesses it,” she writes. “There is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force.”27 The intoxication that grips those using violence is the sure sign they have applied it in an overreaching fashion; they have behaved with hubris, which results in their loss of control: “they exceed the measure of the force that is actually at their disposal. Inevitably they exceed it, since they are not aware that it is limited. And now we see them committed irretrievably to chance; suddenly things cease to obey them.”28 This excess, this hubris, results in retribution from the goddess Nemesis.

Later in the Iliad essay, Weil introduces a key to the redemptive possibilities that may exist in the relation between the wielder of violence and its object: 

But the purest triumph of love, the crowning grace of war, is the friendship that floods the hearts of mortal enemies. Before it a murdered son or a murdered friend no longer cries out for vengeance. Before it, even more miraculous the distance between benefactor and suppliant, between victor and vanquished, shrinks to nothing. … These moments of grace are rare in the Iliad, but they are enough to make us feel with sharp regret what it is that violence has killed and will kill again. … everyone’s unhappiness is laid bare without dissimulation or disdain; no man is set above or below the condition common to all men; whatever is destroyed is regretted. Victors and vanquished are brought equally near us; under the same head, both are seen as counterparts of the poet, and the listener as well.29

The second of two ellipses within this passage, as quoted above, brings Weil’s discussion of the equilibrium between the perpetrators and sufferers of violence to bear on the Iliad as a work of art. Weil takes up the idea of “bitterness” as an empathic impulse or imperative expressed by the artwork:

However, such a heaping-up of violent deeds would have a frigid effect, were it not for the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard, though often only a single word marks its presence, often a mere stroke of the verse, or a run-on line. It is in this that the Iliad is absolutely unique, in this bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight. Never does the tone lose its coloring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. Nothing precious is scorned, whether or not death is its destiny.30 

Weil’s emphasis on how the Greeks, from Homer on, harnessed the aesthetics of bitterness offers a victory of morality amid her day’s violence and suffering at the hands of Hitler’s Germany and French colonialism. At the heart of this juxtaposition, and the very idea of uniting beauty and suffering, is Weil’s deep investment in the idea of equilibrium as a kind of justice. The sacking of Troy was reclaimed by the poets, both Homer and the tragedians, as a way of articulating moral lessons on the problem of violence. However, for Weil the analogy of Rome and its destruction of Carthage to the rise of Hitlerism and the violence of French colonial rule offers no prospect for even a bitter victory.

Roman Slaves 

Plate XXXXIII from Hellenistic-Byzantine Miniatures of the Iliad (Ilias Ambrosiana) (5th century, facsimile 1955). Kunstbibliothek—Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Near the close of the Iliad essay, Weil offers a (partial) answer to the question of how “we” seeming inheritors of Greek tradition in the West lost its concepts of equilibrium and Nemesis when she gives a genealogy of successors to the Iliad, from Greek tragedy to the Christian Gospels—“the last marvelous expression of the Greek genius,” as she puts it.31 Those texts, Weil claims, were endowed with the “Greek spirit,” but, fundamentally, “once Greece was destroyed, nothing remained of this spirit but pale reflections.”32 Weil makes her case by counterpointing the Greeks with the Romans, Christianity with Judaism: 

The Romans and the Hebrews believed themselves to be exempt from the misery that is the common human lot. The Romans saw their country as the nation chosen by destiny to be mistress of the world; with the Hebrews, it was their God who exalted them and they retained their superior position just as long as they obeyed Him. Strangers, enemies, conquered peoples, subjects, slaves, were objects of contempt to the Romans; and the Romans had no epics, no tragedies. In Rome gladiatorial fights took the place of tragedy.33

The Jewish-born, quasi-Catholic mystic Weil’s explosive remarks about “the Hebrews” would come under scrutiny by scholars and philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber, but her portrayal of Roman power has been given less attention.34 While the Greeks recognized the system of force, equilibrium, and retribution as a fundamental of justice and a moral necessity, the Romans in Weil’s view, mere imitators of the Greeks in ideas of virtue, could and did not. This role as imitators was epitomized by what Weil considered to be the derivative nature of their literature (“no epics, no tragedies”), and while Homer and the tragedians could narrate the bitterness of the fall of Troy not as a glorious victory for Greece’s past heroes but as the source of a moral code, Roman accounts of the destruction of Carthage would be compromised by their commitment to imperial propaganda. 

To understand Weil’s scathing description of Roman culture, we have to expand our reading beyond “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and look to another work written at the same time. Her essay “The Great Beast: Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism” is an extended comparative analysis of the rise of Germany under Hitler and the ancient Roman state. Only the second section, “Hitler and Roman Foreign Policy,” was published in her lifetime, in January 1940, during the so-called Phoney War, the nine-month period of inaction between the German conquest of Poland and its invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The other two sections did not make it past the censors: the first presumably owing to its unpatriotic critique of “eternal France” and the third perhaps for its claim that if France were victorious over Germany without abandoning the Roman ideal, it would merely become another Germany.35

Near the beginning of the full version of “The Great Beast,” Weil declares, “What resembled Hitler’s Germany two thousand years ago was not the Germans; it was Rome.”36 In the published second section, she explores this analogy in considerable detail:

The Romans … successfully employed the most ruthless, premeditated, calculated systematic cruelty, combining or alternating it with cold-hearted perfidy and hypocritical propaganda. With unswerving resolution, they always sacrificed everything to considerations of prestige; they were always inflexible in danger and impervious to pity or any human feeling. They knew how to undermine by terror the very souls of their adversaries, or how to lull them with hopes before enslaving them by force of arms; and, finally, they were so skilful in the policy of the big lie that they have imposed it even on posterity, and we still believe it today.37 

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Achilles Carrying the Body of the Amazon Penthesilea (1954), graphite on paper, 28.4 × 20.2 cm. Benaki Museum—Ghika Gallery, Athens

Weil cites various examples of Roman perfidy, cruelty, uses of propaganda, and obsession with prestige when dealing with its foreign enemies. The emphasis on terror echoes the analysis of force in the Iliad essay. She proceeds to dramatize, through analysis and extended quotation of ancient sources (in particular Appian’s Roman History, written in the second century CE), the vices of the Romans, using the destruction of Carthage and annexation of Greece in the second century BCE as her leading examples. Weil’s account, while heavily moralizing, does not deviate in any radical ways from her sources. Carthage, Weil notes, was destroyed as a result of the Third Punic War by a particular combination of Roman perfidy and cruelty that they used only when they were set on utterly destroying—dehumanizing—their victims. 

Under the conditions of the settlement of the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE), which had been won by the Romans, Carthage had to accept an alliance with Rome and not wage war on anyone without first seeking her ally’s permission. Following years of attacks from the neighboring Numidians, the Carthaginians finally retaliated against them (and were defeated) in 150 BCE. This act provoked a Roman declaration of war. Carthage sent ambassadors to Rome to beg for peace, where the Roman bad-faith negotiations included demands of three hundred Carthaginian children and the surrender of the city’s weapons. Ultimately, the Romans insisted that the Carthaginians abandon the city and retreat inland ten miles, which would have eradicated the port city’s economy; they even made the case that this decision was for the Carthaginians’ own good. Weil hammers her point home with a double-sided comparison to both the Greeks and to Hitler: 

The consuls refused even to allow them to go and plead once more with the Senate; they explained that the order to demolish the city had been made in the Carthaginians’ own interests. This sort of refinement in outrage, which was totally unknown to the Greeks, has perhaps only been fully revived since 1933. After this, the people of Carthage despaired.38

As Weil describes the episode, the Carthaginians suffered an excruciating period of dehumanizing fear before being annihilated, just like Lycaon before being killed by Achilles in the Iliad. (As for the contemporary analogy, this is one of several that Weil makes in “The Great Beast.” She compares the Carthaginian delegation pleading for peace before the Roman Senate with the events of March 14, 1939, when Hitler summoned Emil Hácha, the president of Czechoslovakia, to Berlin.) 

The senators, elders, and priests of Carthage then came to present themselves to the consuls in front of the Roman army. The scene that followed, as related by Appian, is tragic on a Shakespearian level and resembles a far more atrocious version of the accounts of Hácha’s visit to Hitler.39 

With the conquest of the Greeks by the Romans, Weil again employs analogies of the ancient period to her own time; she writes, for example, “the terror which overwhelmed Greece reminds one, except that it is far more dreadful, of the countries menaced by Hitler.”40 In spite of the contemporary analogy, Weil differentiates Rome’s conquest of Greece from the destruction of Carthage, not only due to Rome’s foreign policy toward the Greeks being one less of annihilation than colonial annexation, but also because the ancient sources we have were written not only by Romans but also by conquered Greeks, like the historian Polybius. Weil remarks: “We know Roman history only from the Romans themselves and their Greek subjects, who were obliged, poor wretches, to flatter their masters.”41 

The flattery required of the Greeks suggests a theme that is common to “The Great Beast” and the Iliad essay: the desire for prestige. Both Germany and Rome sought it by expanding and controlling a huge expanse of territory. For the heroes of the Iliad, prestige blinded them to the limited nature of power at their disposal. A hero’s power will, like Rome’s and Hitler’s, come to an end. In the meantime, it may be undermined in other ways. One strategy Weil offers in both the Iliad essay and “The Great Beast” (as a continuation of the argument of “The Power of Words”) is to show how mechanisms of political oppression that turn into cultural control in terms of the “big lie” of propaganda may be reversed. Weil emphasizes how the Roman propaganda culture acted as a wretched replacement for Greek ideals of equilibrium. She describes every Roman as a “natural propagandist in the service of Rome” for whom “Rome came before everything else,” and “spiritual life was hardly anything more than an expression of the will to power.”42 In the end, Weil writes, 

Greece was reduced to colonial status and the Greeks fell into that state of degradation to which the Latin writers of the Imperial age bear witness. The Greek genius which, in spite of decadence, was still alive in every sphere in the third century B.C. perished at that time, never to reappear, except for the traces of it remaining in Syria and Palestine. As for Rome, she merely corrupted its purity by a slavish imitation which still obscures it today.43 

It is with this description of Rome’s “slavish imitation” that we are reminded of the passage of “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” in which the Greek concepts of limit, equilibrium, and measure are relegated to the “servile function” of mechanics. The loss of the Greek concept of Nemesis—and, hence, an ethical standard that would deter dehumanizing behavior by those in power—can be accounted for by the perpetuation of power in the Roman mode. Weil’s argument suggests that the aesthetics of bitterness found in the Greek responses of Homer and the tragedians to the Trojan War finds a counterpart in the Greek writers under Rome, who articulated their servitude as a cultural condition of their political oppressors. 

Arab Springs  

Simone Weil, notebook covers. Clockwise from upper left: Cahier 13 (early 1942), Cahier 14 (n. d.), Cahier 16 (n. d.), and Cahier 17 (n. d.). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

In the conclusion of “The Great Beast,” Weil makes her starkest statement of her absolute commitment to the past and present as a unity. She writes, “If I admire, or even excuse, a brutal act committed two thousand years ago, it means that my thought, today, is lacking in the virtue of humanity.”44 It is this moral outlook that directs Weil to take aim at a target implicit in both her discussion of force in the Iliad and her comparison between Hitlerism and ancient Rome: French colonialism.  

The first section of “The Great Beast” opens with Weil’s discussion of contemporary France, as does the end of its third, and final, section. For all the damning analogies between Germany and ancient Rome, Hitler and the Emperors, Weil concludes by looking to contemporary France and her colonies: 

Even in our own time, it would certainly be difficult to deny that we have made and are still making use of methods similar to Rome’s in conquering and ruling our colonial empire; and many Frenchmen would be more inclined to boast of this than to deny it.45

In fact, throughout the essay, despite the emphasis on Hitler’s Germany, Weil is at pains to make sure her readers are aware that the legacies of Rome are also closer to home, and these legacies bring with them moral imperatives. While the reference to France’s colonies is only made in passing in “The Great Beast,” Weil would write several essays on the subject, from general treatments (“Colonization,” “About the Problems in the French Empire,” “New Facts about the Colonial Problem in the French Empire”) to specific areas of the Empire (“Letter to the Indochinese,” “A Little History Concerning Morocco”).46 The piece of Weil’s writing on colonialism temporally closest to the Iliad essay and “The Great Beast” was, however, a letter, one that she may never have sent.47 The letter was written to her compatriot Giraudoux, in late 1939 or early 1940. Unlike an earlier letter she wrote to him about his take on Sophocles in Électre, Weil was not writing to express her admiration to a fellow lover of ancient Greek literature and culture. During the Phoney War period, Giraudoux in his role as Commissaire général à l’Information was responsible for delivering radio broadcasts. In his broadcast of November 26, 1939, Giraudoux addressed the women of France, making the claim that the country’s “colonial domain” was “attached to the metropolis by bonds other than subordination and exploitation.”48 Weil read a transcript in the newspaper Le Temps, which prompted her to pen a damning critique of Giraudoux’s rosy claim.

Demonstrations in Tunis against French colonial rule, April 9, 1938. Fonds Beit el Bennani, Tunis

In the opening of a general essay about French colonialism, Weil had returned to the centrality of force and power as an issue: “The problems regarding colonization can be stated above all in terms of force.”49 Early in the letter to Giroudoux, when describing the violence of French colonial rule in Annam (the central region of Vietnam), she compares, as in “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” the concept of Karma to the ancient Greek idea of Nemesis:

Was it [Annam] not a peaceful, unified, well-organized country, with an ancient culture, impregnated with Chinese, Hindu, and Buddhist influences? In particular they call karma an idea that is popular in their country, and which is identical to the notion, sadly forgotten by us, of the Greek idea of nemesis, meaning the automatic punishment of excess.50

As she continues, she uses another Classical reference related to life under the Romans as colonists: 

The peoples of the north, in their own homeland, are dying of chronic hunger, while the south is overflowing with rice, which is exported. Everyone is subject to an annual tax that is the same for rich and poor. Parents sell their children, as they used to do in the Roman provinces; families sell the altar dedicated to the ancestors, their most precious possession, not even as to assuage their hunger, but to pay their taxes.51 

As with the passing reference to the Greek idea of Nemesis, the analogy between the oppressed citizens of Annam and those living in the Roman provinces undercuts any good will she may have been attempting to forge with Giraudoux, and makes it plain that no matter how much they both admire the Greeks, they are all living in the Roman world now. In fact, it is the French allegiance to the Roman model that has created this situation in the first place. As much as they would like to think of their colonial empire as distinct from German expansion in Europe, they are both descendants of this Roman style of violence.

As Weil turns, at the end of her letter, to France’s North African colonies, she makes an important counterpoint via another reference to antiquity:

And in the case of Africa, do you not know of the massive expropriations of which Arabs and blacks were the victims, after the last war? Can we say that we brought culture to the Arabs, who kept alive the Greek tradition for us during the Middle Ages?52 

Weil makes painfully clear the irony of the French claim to have brought culture to the Arabs who preserved Greek wisdom “for us”—the same “us” for whom the concept of Nemesis had been lost. Yet there is something slightly different about her reference to the Arabic transmission of Greek learning. Of course, Weil’s reference to Arab cultures keeping the Greek tradition alive “for us” is a Eurocentric and superficial description of what happened.53 At the same time, by mentioning past and contemporary Arab culture in terms of the legacies of ancient Greek learning, Weil cuts through the balance between Greek victim and Roman political aggressor articulated in “The Great Beast” and suggested at the end of the Iliad essay. It is significant that, as she cites it, it is the colonies of Annam and North Africa that indirectly (in the concept of Karma) and directly (in the transmission of Greek science) are the ones preserving the ancient Greek tradition that Giraudoux and Weil love. Immediately following this statement, Weil turns to a specific example of oppression by the French in Tunisia: 

Did you not read in the newspapers, about a year ago, that a strike had broken out in a mine in Tunisia because the authorities wanted to oblige the Muslim workers to produce the same effort as usual during Ramadan, when they were fasting? How would Muslims accept these and similar things if they were not subjected to them by force?54 

This wielding of force resulted in a major mining revolt in 1937 that was violently suppressed by French forces. Weil wrote an article about this called “Blood Is Flowing in Tunisia,” and she directs Giraudoux’s attention to this event (and presumably her article) to end the letter.55 In that article Weil notes the hypocrisy of the emphasis on workers’ rights in France, while they were being ignored in the colonies.56

When read within the context of this violence against the Tunisian miners, the reference to the preservation of Greek wisdom “for us” seems all the more remarkable. While the miners are subjected to destructive, colonial force, like the warrior Lycaon and the citizens of Carthage, Weil highlights the actions of preservation by their ancient ancestors toward the West. Of course this is a major oversimplification of what happened, and the idea that Greek science was preserved “for us” (i.e., the West) is a rhetorical exaggeration. At the same time, with this gesture Weil has pointed to a bitter victory for the “geometrical rigor” of the application of force that she described in the Iliad essay.57 It was Weil’s hope that Giraudoux would recognize the sharp contrast between the French treatment of the Tunisian miners and the history of Muslim transmission of Greek science and philosophy as an act of love. If he did so, he would recognize that a reciprocal gesture was required by the present-day French colonizers. 

In this letter, Weil finds a way to mobilize the Greek “bitterness” argument developed in the Iliad essay as a way of countering the fate of France becoming another Rome, as articulated in “The Great Beast.” The direct connections between the French colonies in North Africa, and Tunisia itself, and the Romans’ perfidy and cruelty in destroying Carthage made her points especially salient. Weil’s moral argument insists that the ideas of equilibrium in “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”—in the form of the concept of Nemesis—must be recovered along with our investment in the lessons of antiquity. Furthermore, we must also accept that perhaps one of the most startling proofs of the bitter victory of Greek virtue over Roman violence is that it is suffering, oppressed colonizers that can best teach us this lesson. 

Demonstrations in Tunis against French colonial rule, April 9, 1938. Fonds Beit el Bennani, Tunis

1 I am grateful to Nadia Kaabi-Linke and Timo Kaabi-Linke for discussing Chkoun Ahna with me in terms of both its specific moment in Tunisian politics and in their roles as participating artist and co-curator, respectively. I also want to thank Moyra Davey for making me read Simone Weil’s Iliad essay more closely, as well as Quinn Latimer and Domenick Ammirati for their editorial encouragement and care. This essay is dedicated to my friend Bill Horrigan for his continued inspiration and guidance, and for sharing with me both his DVD of Nicholas Ray’s 1957 film Bitter Victory when we first met and, more recently, the Hanuman edition of Simone Weil’s On the Lord’s Prayer (1990). 

2 The work is part of Favaretto’s ongoing series of “momentary monuments,” one of which was the huge pile of scrap metal shown at documenta 13, also in 2012. For the particular series of cubes of compacted confetti, see Lara Favaretto: Ageing Process (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2015), pp. 136–41. I recently visited the site of Favaretto’s Momentary Monument—The Stone, which was part of the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. All that remains is a small pile of trash. 

3 For a description of the work, see Timo Kaabi-Linke, “On Revolution and Rubbish: What Has Changed in Tunisia Since 2011,” in Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014), pp. 324–25. The work Magnetism (2012), by Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater, also included in Chkoun Ahna, directly references the Kaaba, using a magnet and iron filings to simulate the motions of pilgrims congregating at the sacred site. 

4 On these events and contextual information about Chkoun Ahna and Printemps des Arts, see Kaabi-Linke, “On Revolution and Rubbish,“ pp. 318–31. 

5 We may compare the fate of the work Smell (2012) by Nadia Kaabi-Linke, which was included in Chkoun Ahna. The creation of the Tunsian-Russian artist depicted the Salafist flag with the words of the shahada embroidered with jasmine flowers, a reference to the popular description of the Tunisian revolution as the Jasmine Revolution. Concerned about the potential accusations of blasphemy given the fading of the flowers over the course of the exhibition, Kaabi-Linke gave the work to the gardener of the museum in Carthage who had previously defended the exhibition from a group of young Salafists. 

6 For a succinct account of this period in Tunisian history, see Beverley Milton-Edwards, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Arab Spring and Its Future Face (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 111–36. 

7 At the same time, the fragile mortal bodies of the people depicted in the image undergo an endless dispersion as an image online. In fact, as with the overinflated idea that the Arab Spring was a Web 2.0 revolution, the outrage over the works in the Printemps des Arts began with images being shared on Facebook. See Kaabi-Linke, “On Revolution and Rubbish,” pp. 318–21.

8 As a commentary on the statement “about us,” the artists chosen for the exhibition came from countries “historically connected with Tunisia” and were invited “to install new and recent works that relate to the place and its past.” Curatorial statement on the Carthage Contemporary website, accessed January 15, 2016.

9 Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” in War and the Iliad, trans. Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), pp. 3–37. 

10 Simone Weil, “The Power of Words,” in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Miles (London: Virago Press, 1986), pp. 238–58. 

11 Ibid., p. 241.

12 Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” p. 4. On this passage, see Moyra Davey and Quinn Latimer, “Hot Baths / Cool Letters,” Mousse 58 (April–May 2017), pp. 88–95. 

13 Simone Weil, “The Great Beast: Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism,” in Simone Weil: Selected Essays, 1934–1943: Historical, Political, and Moral Writings, ed. Richard Rees (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 89–144. 

14 Simone Weil, “Cold War Policy in 1939,” in Simone Weil: Selected Essays, 1934–1943, pp. 177–94.

15 Ibid., p. 177. 

16 The only time the destruction of Troy and Carthage are mentioned in direct relation to each other is in a passage from one of her later notebooks that would later reappear in the volume Gravity and Grace: “To love God through and across the destruction of Troy and of Carthage—and with no consolation. Love is not consolation, it is light.” Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1952), p. 14.

17 Simone Weil, “Letter to Jean Giraudoux,” in Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other, ed. and trans. J. P. Little (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), pp. 77–80. 

18 Simone Weil, “Blood Is Flowing in Tunisia,” in Simone Weil on Colonialism, pp. 41–44.

19 Weil used the phrase “God always geometrizes” (in Greek), which Plutarch attributes to Plato, as the epitaph to her early essay “Science and Perception in Descartes,” in Simone Weil: Formative Writings, 1929–1941, ed. and trans. Dorothy Tuck McFarland and Wilhelmina Van Ness (London: Routledge, 1987), pp. 15–63.

20 Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks: Supernatural Knowledge, trans. Richard Rees (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2015).

21 Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” pp. 15–16. 

22 Ibid., p. 3.

23 Ibid., p. 5.

24 Ibid., p. 8.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 26.

27 Ibid., p. 11.

28 Ibid., p. 14.

29 Ibid., pp. 29–30.

30 Ibid., p. 30.

31 Ibid., p. 34.

32 Ibid., p. 35. A page earlier, Weil had already described Virgil’s Aeneid as “an imitation which, however brilliant, is disfigured by frigidity, bombast, and bad taste.”

33 Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” pp. 35–36.

34 For a good account of Weil’s attitude to the Hebrew Bible, see E. Jane Doering, Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), pp. 75–83. On Weil and Rome, see S. Fraisse, “Simone Weil contre les Romains,” CSW 3, no. 1 (1980), pp. 5–18. 

35 It was published in the Nouveaux Cahiers on January 1, 1940. The whole essay was assembled in 1960 by Albert Camus. For a brief account of the history of this essay, see Doering, Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force, p. 84. 

36 Weil, “The Great Beast: Some Reflections on the Origins of Hitlerism,” p. 96. 

37 Ibid., p. 102.

38 Ibid., p. 106. 

39 Ibid., p. 104. 

40 Ibid., p. 110.

41 Ibid., p. 102.

42 Ibid., p. 116.

43 Ibid., pp. 110–11.

44 Ibid., p. 133.

45 Ibid., p. 134. 

46 All of these essays can be found in the wonderful selection by J. P. Little, Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other. 

47 On the uncertainty of whether the letter was sent or not, see ibid., p. 77. 

48 Weil, “Letter to Jean Giraudoux,” p. 78.

49 Simone Weil, “New Facts about the Colonial Problem in the French Empire,” in Simone Weil on Colonialism, p. 66. 

50 Ibid.

51 Weil, “Letter to Jean Giraudoux,” p. 78.

52 Ibid., p. 79. 

53 Scholars of Greco-Arabic translation are generally unwilling to offer overarching reasons for the preservation and transmission of Greek scientific and philosophical works. However, the generosity of the Abbāsid caliphs to scholars for their own personal and political reasons has been postulated by some. See Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbāsid Society (2nd–4th / 8th–10th Centuries) (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 4, n. 4.

54 Weil, “Letter to Jean Giraudoux,” p. 79.

55 Weil, “Blood Is Flowing in Tunisia,” pp. 41–44. 

56 “The same process [of turning men into things] would seem to be going on in factory work and also, of course, in the practices of colonialism.” Little, Simone Weil on Colonialism, p. 17. 

57 In Homer’s epic, Weil saw the figure of Patroclus as the one person who represented this kind of generosity. See Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” p. 25.