From time to time there appears a person whose countercultural life sears into humanity’s conscience. Such a one was Simone Weil, the 20th-century French philosopher, teacher, labourer, writer and mystic. Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our time”, and T.S. Eliot spoke of her “genius akin to that of a saint”. Yet at her death, aged only 34, she was largely unknown.

Weil was one of those rare people who practised what she pondered. Her life and philosophy were one and the same, to the extent that her life, rich on many levels, could be said to be her most important work. Most of her writings were not systematic, existing only in notebooks until they were posthumously edited and published, so her life is the sharpest lens through which to view her philosophy and wisdom for today’s world.

She was born in Paris in 1909 to a cultured agnostic Jewish family. If she had an overarching philosophy, it was empathy with the oppressed, which she displayed from her earliest years: at the age of six, she refused to eat sugar because the soldiers fighting in World War I had none. She also displayed a lifelong tension between being an insider and allying herself with radical causes, and consciously standing apart. She refused baptism into the Catholic Church, in order to remain with those outside and retain her philosophical freedom.

She was brilliant intellectually, excelling in philosophy at the elite École normale supérieure. After graduation, she taught in an upmarket girls’ school at Le Puy. But periodically she took sabbaticals to work alongside industrial and agricultural labourers and experience their lives as fully as possible.

Employed in car factories in Paris, she reflected: “There are certain necessary hardships demanded by factory work itself… But it’s the unnecessary suffering that wounds the soul.” She shared first-hand the stripping of dignity and humanity as merely “an intermediary between the machines and the products”. In 1973, E.F. Schumacher echoed her message in Small is Beautiful, but still it needs to be heard. It is significant that although technology has replaced many industrial tasks, affliction is still with us, through for example the dehumanising nature of work in modern call centres, the stigmatising of unemployed people, and the hypocrisy of outsourcing to sweatshops overseas.

Affliction remained a key theme, deepening after a series of spiritual experiences culminating in the monastery of Solesmes in France led her to embrace Christianity. During the services of Easter 1938, she rose above a debilitating migraine to find perfect joy in the monastic chant, which enabled her “by analogy to get a better understanding of living divine love in the midst of affliction”, as she said in her Spiritual Autobiography.

In her notes from this time, published in Gravity and Grace, Weil developed her idea of affliction as the place where the presence of God is most truly experienced. She thought that, in creation, “God consented through love to cease to be everything so that we might be something.” So God’s love involves a self-emptying. She also introduced the concept of decreation, involving our self-emptying: “We must consent through love to cease to be anything so that God may become everything again.” Although affliction must never be sought, embracing it (as Christ embraced the cross) is a means to self-knowledge and hence this decreation.

In her book Waiting for God Weil further develops her thoughts on love and limitation, notably that love of neighbour or environment requires genuine, focused attention, and that we “give up our imaginary position as the centre”. This is wisdom that should be heeded by paternalistic dispensers of aid and all who seek to mould Nature.

At the outbreak of World War II, Weil moved for her parents’ safety to Marseilles, and in 1942 to the United States. But, desperate to return to France, she soon joined the Free French in London. General de Gaulle asked her to write a report on the regeneration of France, which resulted in her book The Need for Roots. Here she gives a passionate call to France to recover its spiritual roots. Weil’s two main themes were duty towards the human being, which comes before rights, and alienation from countryside, town and nation, related to the loss of rooted community. Although alienation is recognised as a sorrow of modern times, duty is deeply unfashionable. Yet in finding materialism to be wanting, and starting to seek spiritual roots, we may also rediscover and accept our “eternal … unconditional” duty.

Today, we can watch war and natural disaster from afar, numbed to their consequences. Exiled in London, Weil sought to empathise with her suffering compatriots in occupied France. Despite contracting tuberculosis, she ate only the small rations she believed they had. She was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent to be closer to France as she deteriorated, and died in August 1943. Identifying with the poor to the last, she was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The message of Simone Weil’s life and writings is not easy, but uncomfortable, austere and even unheroic. Like an Old Testament prophet, she cuts to the heart of hypocrisy and complacency. She did not get ‘compassion fatigue’ or seek just to salve her conscience. In a world where power and economic growth are worshipped at the price of relationships and planet, we need more people like Weil who are willing to empty themselves in order to make space for the other, to be attentive to suffering however far away, and to respond with empathy and compassion.

Clare Bryden is an Honorary Research Fellow of Exeter University.