Cathedral of Knowledge

Make Camus and Kafka Proud 



Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher and social activist. In terms of her philosophy, “The Gate” is both a poem and a central metaphor. Her poem, “The Gate,” describes Man’s journey to God, which culminates in Man’s ultimate inability to pass into heaven. According to Weil, it is Man’s true purpose in life to stand before The Gate, and direct his gaze beyond, toward God. However, no matter how hard he tries to penetrate The Gate, Man is doomed to fail.

Man’s faith and his acceptance of unjustified suffering as conditions for salvation have brought him to the base of The Gate – it is now up to God to cover the final distance.

The Suffering of Children

For Weil, suffering and affliction are the ultimate means to Man’s salvation. As she stated: “Any attempt to deny our misery and construct a happy life is based on lies and delusions. Our only purpose in this life is to learn to love God, not in spite of the prevailing affliction, but even because of it.” [1]

But, isn’t there a limit to how much suffering is acceptable? It is a question that has been asked by literary and philosophical giants for centuries. One such figure that challenges Weil’s philosophy is the character Ivan Karamazov from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan cannot reconcile individual suffering by accepting particular cases as incidental. This denial that suffering has meaning results in his renouncement of a higher harmony: “I don’t want harmony. I don’t want it, out of love I bear to mankind. I want to remain with suffering unavenged and my indignation unappeased, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price has been placed on harmony.”[2]

Ivan rebels and refuses to be part of a system of salvation that necessitates individual suffering. He is particularly distressed with the suffering of children. In trying to determine why children suffer, he refuses to accept any larger construction other than that innocent children suffer: “I want to stick to the facts. I made up my mind long ago not to understand. For if I should want to understand, I’d instantly alter the facts and I’ve made up my mind to stick to the facts.”[3]

The facts tell Ivan that children often suffer horrible fates and brutal deaths. Ultimately, for Ivan, if the sufferings of children are the quid pro quo for purchasing truth, truth is not worth the price: “It is not worth one little tear of that tortured little girl who beat herself on the breast and prayed to her dear, kind Lord in the stinking privy with her unexpiated tears. It is not worth it, because her tears remain unexpiated.”[4]

In her essay on Evil, Weil responded to Ivan’s rebellion:

I am in complete agreement with this sentiment. No reason whatsoever which anyone could produce to compensate for a child’s tear would make me consent to that tear. Absolutely none which the mind can conceive. There is just one, however, but it is intelligible only to supernatural love: “God willed it.” And for that reason I would consent to a world which was nothing but evil as readily as to a child’s tear.[5]

Weil can accept the suffering of a child where Ivan cannot because of her unrequited obedience and faith that there is a legitimate reason for suffering. She cannot prove to Ivan that every case of incidental suffering will result in individual harmony and grace; she can only have faith that it will.

What does any of this have to do with us in 2007? Maybe nothing, but consider the terribly short life of Christopher Michael Barrios Jr. of Brunswick, Georgia. According to indictments in the case, Christopher was sexually assaulted in March 2007 by a convicted child molester and his father (who had plead guilty to incest in 1994), while the molester’s mother watched. The despicable trio then choked the boy to death. A “family friend” assisted in the cover-up, completing a lopsided quartet of adults versus one helpless six-year-old.

Christopher loved Spiderman and, according to his father, always said “Goodnight, God Bless, and I love you,” before he went to bed. He was abducted while playing on a swing close to his home.

Like many children who suffer similar fates, Christopher’s resting place became a trash bag dumped on the side of the road, about three miles from his family’s mobile home.

Brunswick is a small town in Southern Georgia, which is nestled close to the Atlantic coast and dates back to 1771. My lasting mental association with Brunswick was the rotten egg smell of the pulp and paperboard plants as I crossed railroad tracks on U.S. 17, which snakes its way through south Georgia and down into Florida. The concrete road seemed to me to have the highest concentration of auto body shops and Quality Motor Inns of any road in the U.S. highway system. The frequent slamming doors of a domestic dispute brewing across the hall dominated my overnight stay at a U.S. 17 motel in Brunswick, before I escaped to the serenity of a Saint Simons Island’s inlet the following morning.

Saint Simons Island is just east of Brunswick, connected by a long causeway which spans the Saint Simons Sound. A little further north is the exclusive enclave of Sea Island. Brunswick, Saint Simons, Sea Island and nearby Jekyll Island comprise Georgia “Golden Isles.” In the 1920s, prestigious clans with names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Goodyear established Jekyll Island and Sea Island as vacation retreats for the wealthiest industrialists.

By 2007, some of the names had changed, but Sea Island is still populated by Captains of Industry and Masters of the Universe from the corporate, entertainment and sports worlds. The private Sea Island is home to The Cloister, a five-star resort that boasts $800 a night hotel rooms and hosted the G-8 Summit several years back. The Heads of State, combined with the island’s Captains of Industry residents, created a ridiculous concentration of global muscle, but the impotent, fleeting power could do nothing to protect a small child less than five miles away.

Christopher’s story hit the national papers and TV tabloid news shows with the force of a hurricane but then, for the most part, quickly disappeared from the national consciousness. Frankly, you can only absorb so much inexplicable suffering before you are dying to return to rooting for your favorite team to win The Amazing Race 11 or get the latest Internet update on whether T.O. actually pulled or only tweaked his hamstring.

You see, the more you know, the more you are forced to confront the fact that evil truly does exist.

In The Brothers K, Ivan introduces us to The Grand Inquisitor –  the man who rebuked Christ for giving Man too much freedom. Man was given the freedom to choose between good and evil and yet, there is nothing more tormenting. If given the choice, how many people would accept that responsibility today?

The Grand Inquisitor views Man as Man perceives the common herds: as wild beasts who are concerned solely with being fed with material bread, and not spiritual virtue. In the end, Man will be happy because The Grand Inquisitor will make all of the good versus evil decisions for him:

“And they will be happy, all of the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them; we alone shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy infants and one hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of knowledge of good and evil.”[6]

So which one is it, then? Are we herd-like creatures who live a predominantly material existence, concerned only with sustenance from food, TV, sports, and shopping, or do we possess a consciousness that elevates us above the beasts into that rarefied air where illusions dissipate but suffering clutches around your heart like a vice slowly crushing your skull.

I am asking myself, and so I ask you: Are you one of the happy herds, or one of the ones left waiting at the foot of The Gate, miserable, starving, and just a little bit confused about what the fuck you are doing there.

[1] Michael K. Ferber, “Simone Weil’s Iliad” in Simone Weil: Interpretations of a Life, ed. George Abbott White (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), p. 68.[2] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 287.

[3] Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 284.

[4] Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 286.

[5] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (London: Routledge, 1952), p. 126.

[6] Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 304.