Essay Issue 22


Remmon E. Barbaza

Attention in the Face of Evil

In a short essay unassumingly titled, “The Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Simone Weil pointed to a link between evil and the repugnance for the exercise of our faculty of attention: “There is something in our soul which has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.”

The main thesis of the essay is that the sole purpose of study is the development of the faculty of attention. And so every time one devotes one’s whole self to the activity of study, evil in our world is diminished. That is a startling claim. And that is not merely metaphorical. We can experience evil in a palpable way in the very repugnance that we feel in the face of intellectual work, which includes school work for children (for whom Weil wrote the essay), when in our very bodies—the restless shaking of hands or legs, the uneven and tense breathing—we feel we’d rather be elsewhere and doing something else.

Weil was convinced that it is the same faculty of attention that we exercise in studying as we do in prayer. Studying therefore is a profoundly spiritual experience. Every teacher knows that a student who in the end received “only” an average grade but gave her everything in the activity of studying—with such diligence, humility, and utmost attention—is far more precious and uplifting than one who may have received the highest grade but throughout the whole process took all the credit for himself and with such a misplaced pride and a general disdain not just for the object of study but for the activity of studying itself. The stance of the first kind of students enables her to conclude her studies in gratitude; that of the second, in conceit.

And so when we consider the evil whose presence around us makes itself felt with such frequency that it seems it has numbed us into silence and powerlessness—the murder of people on an almost daily basis, the disdain for the rule of law, due process, and the most fundamental rights of human beings, the historical revisionism and the specter of the return of Martial Law—we who are in the business of studying, teachers and students alike, must heed the call of Weil.

Imagine if every teacher indeed heeded what Weil exhorts us to do when she said that the first duty of teachers is to let students know that the sole object of studying is the development of the faculty of attention. Imagine if every student indeed gave everything they got for every single school work—in reading or in writing, in solving a mathematical problem or grappling with a difficult philosophical question, in interpreting a poem or carrying out an experiment in the natural sciences—and devoting their full attention to the matter at hand. Imagine to what extent we can make evil decrease, and the good in us and in the world increase.

Think of every great person who ever lived and walked on this earth—you can be sure that they were characterized by their capacity for attention. By contrast, it is no coincidence that, for her part, Hannah Arendt saw the “banality of evil.” The banality of evil precisely goes hand in hand with the refusal to exercise one’s faculty of attention to the matter at hand. The word “attention” comes from the Latin verb, tendere, to stretch. Whenever we devote our attention to study, we are stretching ourselves to the matter at hand. Evil is thus the refusal to stretch our hands to reach the other. Instead it tramples the other, and seeks his destruction.

The denial of the evil that was Martial Law under the Marcos dictatorship, as well as the specter of its return, is merely the outcome of the failure to develop one’s faculty of attention. It means the refusal to pay attention to history. It means the complete disregard for those who suffered and continue to suffer under it.

The fact alone that we stand in real danger of allowing the same evil to return already tells us that perhaps we have not exerted enough effort to develop our faculty of attention. And—heaven forbid—should it indeed happen, let every teacher and student, let every writer and artist, work even harder—twice, thrice, a hundred times as hard—at helping each other develop our faculty of attention.

31 October 2016

Note: The passage from Simone Weil above is quoted from “The Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd, with an introduction by Leslie A. Fiedler (New York: Harper Perennial, 1973), 111.