Book: The Need for Roots

The true definition of science is this: the study of the beauty of the world…

That being so, how should there be any opposition or even separation between the spirit of science and that of religion? Scientific investigation is simply a form of religious contemplation.

Simone Weil

Just about done reading this book (written by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills). It’s a fascinating book for a bunch of reasons: Weil packs a ton of insights into a fairly unstructured text, often without much justification. And yet, the whole thing hangs together in a remarkable way. It would be easy to bore oneself by picking nits with the wild leaps of intuition every other sentence, but as soon as you get on board then you find yourself looking back at a path whose every step was actually correct, given the whole picture. Perhaps it is simply history being kind in validating many of Weil’s intuitions after the fact, but that does not detract from the fact that, justified or not, she speculated correctly on many facts of human nature and social behaviour which are only recently being proved out.

I am willing to cop to some significant bias in that the topics she discusses (the nature and construction of healthy human communities, and how people needs roots in such a community to be happy), are under-served in modern discourse in my opinion. And there are definitely claims and sections long past their best-before date which would not survive modern scrutiny. Still, The Need for Roots goes up beside The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt), and The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) as a book that more-or-less captures another critical aspect of human nature.

Oddly, the book it reminds me most of is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, or more accurately the non-fiction summary Beyond Civilization that Quinn wrote a decade after exploring the ideas in Ishmael more fully. What’s also oddly fascinating in The Need for Roots is the extent to which the political and socio-ethical concerns Weil presents are just as evident today. Widening economic inequality, the urban/rural political divide, and a general dissolution of national spirit are maybe not as new as I’d previously assumed.

This has been a rather unstructured summary, but I think I can wrap it up fairly succinctly anyways: Simone Weil was exactly my kind of crazy.

All My Childhood Heroes

It is perhaps ironic that, with all the crazy things going on in the world this year, the thing that has most shaken my faith in humanity is the news of yet another messy Hollywood divorce. It wasn’t even high-profile or particularly tabloid-worthy; if it hadn’t been for Google News’ creepily detailed knowledge of my tastes I might not even have found out (edit: it’s getting wider attention now, so I definitely would have found out, but anyway).

Why are all my childhood heroes terrible people?

It’s not like I have that many of them. I am a staunch believer in the fact that nobody’s perfect, and that getting caught up in hero-worship isn’t good for anyone involved. Even so, it is hard to avoid the occasional dalliance with the idea that a few chosen people must just be… special. Blessed by whatever gods that be with a magic touch, able to create or achieve magnificent things beyond the ken of mere mortals like myself.

Nor is it that I am indiscriminate in my tastes. Nobody is terribly surprised when a flaky reality TV star turns out to have cheated, or the Kardashians end up on the front of another tabloid paper. The culture of celebrity attracts narcissists like flies to honey, and the result is eminently predictable. Instead, my heroes have been people who achieved great things first, often repeatedly, before (if ever) being swamped by their fame. Indeed, retaining a sliver of normalcy and control over their personal life despite increasing fame is often one thing that endears me to them further.

And still.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind they do. Eventually, it seems, all of my heroes will be brought low in one way or another, and every time it happens my faith is shaken.


From the outside view, there are a couple of conclusions we can draw. First, that I am just generally terrible at judging people’s character. It doesn’t seem to matter how confident I am that you’re a good person, I’m probably wrong. I’m sorry.

Second, and more importantly, outward behaviour seems to be no guide to character (this would explain why I’m such a terrible judge). It doesn’t matter how many years of service, how many excellent speeches, how many awards won; inevitably it seems that the truth will out: people are scum all along. The longer their time in my good graces, the better they were at hiding and pretending to be something else, nothing more.

It is said that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps that is all that is going on here, but if so then I must ask a more difficult question: am I any better? My self-image believes strongly in my own moral character, but that is an inside view. Since at this point it seems no human being is immune to the corrupting influence of power, the outside view suggests that neither am I.

The moral question then becomes: would you rather be good, or strong?