Intolerable Virtue

and extreme principle

Intolerable Virtue
We don’t admire​ Simone Weil because we agree with her, Susan Sontag argued in 1963: ‘I cannot believe that more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas.’ What we admire, Sontag thought, is her extreme seriousness, her absolute effort to become ‘excruciatingly identical with her ideas’, to make herself a person who is ‘rightly regarded as one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit’.

Weil, and others who are manifestly willing to disrupt their lives for reasons that many would see recondite or unfeasable—who have lived lives of extreme principle—are, in their way, easy to admire. Those who inconvenience themselves tremendously in their day-to-day on points of principle often seem so otherworldly, so separate, that their life is not really a challenge. They appear to have an uncanny resistance to the daily pressures you or I face. They seem so entirely captured by their principle that forces like social pressure means little to them. They stand apart.

By contrast, people who live lives of profound, but more ordinary virtue feel more challenging, as though they address something in us directly. There are those who find a way to live good, happy lives, but ones adherent to their principles without leaning on the crutches which many find themselves in need. They have fun, they have ordinary families and friends—they might be driven, have big goals and things on which they focus but they do not have the same level of capture-by-principle. They don't have an obliviating attitude toward practical issues, but rather a dogged persistence in choosing to do the right thing.  Indeed, some may hate them because they live deliberately not making accommodations with principalities and powers that the haters are convinced are necessary. Their virtue becomes intolerable. They are like us, but they are not like us.

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