The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 is subdivided into fourteen sections, each dealing with a specific human need. Collectively these are referred to as 'needs of the soul'. Part 2 is subdivided into three sections, dealing with the concept of uprootedness in relation to urban life, to rural life and to nationhood. Part 3 is undivided and discusses the possibilities for inspiring a nation. Only a small part of the book discusses the specific solutions that were of unique applicability to France in the 1940s. Most of the work discusses the general case and is of broad and lasting relevance......Wikipedia
Part 1 begins with a discussion of obligations and rights. Weil asserts that obligations are more fundamental than rights, as a right is only meaningful insofar as others fulfil their obligation to respect it. A man alone in the universe, she says, would have obligations but no rights. Rights are therefore "subordinate and relative" to obligations. Weil says that those directing the French Revolution were mistaken in basing their ideas for a new society on the notion of rights rather than obligations, suggesting that a system based on obligations would have been better. Weil claims that while rights are subject to varying conditions, obligations are "eternal", "situated above this world" and "independent of conditions", applying to all human beings. The actual activities which obligations require us to perform, however, may vary depending on circumstances. The most fundamental obligation involves respecting the essential needs of others - the "needs of the soul".
Weil backs up her ideas on the needs of the soul by mentioning that Christian, ancient Egyptian and other traditions have held similar moral views throughout history, particularly on the obligation to help those suffering from hunger. This, Weil says, should serve as a model for other needs of the soul. Weil also makes a distinction between physical needs (such as for food, heating and medical attention) and non-physical needs that are concerned with the "moral side" of life. Both kinds are vital, and the deprivation of these needs causes one to fall into a state "more or less resembling death".
Weil goes into some detail on collectives. She says that obligations are not binding to collectives, but to the individuals of which the collective is composed. Collectives should be respected, not for their own sake, but because they are 'food for mankind'. Collectives that are not 'food for mankind' - harmful or useless collectives - should be removed.
The remainder of Part 1 is divided into sections discussing the essential needs of the soul, which Weil says correspond to basic bodily needs like the requirements for food, warmth and medicine. She says such needs can mostly be grouped into antithetical pairs, such as the needs for rest and activity, or for warmth and coolness, and that they are best satisfied when a balance is struck allowing both needs to be met in turn. In communities where all essential needs are satisfied there will be a "flowering of fraternity, joy, beauty and happiness".
Order is introduced as a preeminent need. Weil defines order as an arrangement of society which minimises the situations one encounters where a choice has to be made between incompatible obligations.
Liberty is described as the ability to make meaningful choices. It is recognized that societies must inevitably have rules for the common good which restrict freedom to a certain degree. Weil argues that these rules do not truly diminish one's liberty if they meet certain conditions; if their purpose is easily grasped and there aren't too many, then mature individuals of good will should not find the rules oppressive. This is illustrated by describing the habit of "not eating disgusting or dangerous things" as not being an infringement of liberty. The only people who would feel restricted by such rules are characterized as childlike
Obedience is defined as an essential need of the soul as long as it's the sort of obedience that arises from freely given consent to obey a given set of rules or the commands of a leader. Obedience motivated by a fear of penalties or a desire for reward is mere servility and of no value. The author writes that it's important that the social structure has a common goal, the essence of which can be grasped by all, so people can appreciate the purpose of the rules and orders.
Weil says that everyone has a need to feel useful and even essential to others. They should ideally make at least some decisions and have opportunity to show initiative as well as carrying out work. She says the unemployed person is starved of this need. Weil advises that for people of a fairly strong character this need extends to a requirement to take a leadership role for at least part of their lives, and that a flourishing community life will provide sufficient opportunities for all to have their turn commanding others
Equality is an essential need when defined as a recognition that everyone is entitled to an equal amount of respect as a human being, regardless of any differences. Weil advises that an ideal society ought to involve a balance of equality and inequality. While there should be social mobility both up and down, if children have a truly equal chance for self-advancement based purely on their own abilities, everyone who ends up in a low grade job will be seen as being there due to their own shortcomings. Weil says an ideal social organisation would involve holding those who enjoy power and privilege to a higher standard of conduct than those who don't; in particular a crime from an employer and against employees should be punished much more severely than a crime from an employee against his or her employer.
Weil writes of the importance of a system of hierarchy in which one feels devotion towards superiors, not as individuals, but as symbols. Hierarchism represents the order of the heavenly realm, and it helps one to fit into their moral place.
Honour is the need for a special sort of respect over and above the respect automatically due to every human being. An individual's honour relates to how well their conduct measures up to certain criteria, which vary according to the social milieu inhabited by the individual. The need for honour is best satisfied when people are able to participate in a shared noble tradition. For a profession to satisfy this need, it should have an association able to "keep alive the memory of all the store of nobility, heroism, probity, generosity and genius spent in the exercise of that profession".
Two sorts of necessary punishment are discussed. Disciplinary punishments help to reinforce an individual's good conscience, by providing external support in the battle against falling into vice. The second and most essential sort of punishment is the punitive. Weil considers that in a sense the committal of a crime puts the individual outside of the chain of obligations that form the good society, and that punishment is essential to re-integrate the individual into lawful society.
Weil says it's essential for people to be free to express any opinion or idea. However she advises that very harmful views should not be expressed in the part of the media that is responsible for shaping public opinion.
Security is described as freedom from fear and terror, except under brief and exceptional circumstances. She says that permanent fear causes a "semi-paralysis of the soul".
Weil argues that risk, in the right amount, can be enough to protect one from a detrimental type of boredom and teach one how to appropriately deal with fear, but not be so much that one is overcome with fear.
Weil writes that the soul suffers feelings of isolation if deprived of objects to call its own, which can serve as extensions of the body. She advises that where possible people should be able to own their own homes and the tools of their trade.
The need for collective property is satisfied when people, from the richest to the poorest, feel a shared sense of ownership as well as enjoyment of public buildings, land and events.
Truth.....Weil asserts the need for truth is the most sacred of all needs. It is compromised when people don't have access to reliable and accurate sources of information. Because working people often lack the time to verify what they read in books and the mass media, writers who introduce avoidable errors should be held accountable. Propaganda should be banned and people who deliberately lie in the media should be liable to severe penalties