Intended for healthcare professionals

Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Nil by mouth

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 18 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b680
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    Do philosophers choose their philosophy, or do their philosophies choose them? Did Hume die an equable death, for example, because of his philosophy, or did his famous even temperedness lead him to his philosophy of ironic stoicism with which his death was consonant?

    One philosopher whose thought seems to have been determined by her temperament was Simone Weil (1909–43). She was a brilliant pupil and student, and one of those intimidatingly gifted children who master ancient Greek at a very early age (another was John Stuart Mill, who famously said in his autobiography that he thought it would have been better if he had learnt less Greek and played more cricket).

    Simone Weil’s upbringing was at least as odd as Mill’s. Her father was a successful doctor, and Eli Metchnikoff, the Nobel Prize winning microbiologist who discovered phagocytosis by white cells, was a family friend. Her mother had a morbid fear of germs, so that she would not allow anyone outside the family to kiss her children, a fear that she successfully communicated to her daughter, who subsequently disdained physical contact with anyone. Her brother became one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.

    Perhaps Weil’s temperament is best illustrated by the fact that at the age of 6 she decided she should not eat sugar because the soldiers at the front didn’t have any (a little like what many of us were told as children: that we should eat up what was on our plates because there were many starving people in the world). To the end of her life she was one of those people who believed she had no right to enjoy anything unless everyone in the whole wide world could enjoy it, and this view led to an exaggerated asceticism despite the great wealth of her parents.

    Having been some kind of Marxist, she became a Christian mystic, though not an orthodox one by the standards of the Catholic Church. She was always absolutist and uncompromising, carrying her views to their rationalised but nevertheless illogical conclusions. The one constant of her life seems to have been her anorexia, though her reasons for not eating properly changed according to circumstances.

    She managed to join the Free French in England during the war, but died a year later of starvation and tuberculosis, and according to the coroner “the deceased did kill and slay herself while the balance of her mind was disturbed.” She wouldn’t eat any more, she said, than the people of France ate under the occupation, and developed a convoluted theological justification for her decision. It seems to me that an excess of humility soon enough becomes its opposite, spiritual pride; and for myself, I find in Weil a spiritual pride almost megalomaniac in its proportions.

    In my clinical career I saw a few patients starve themselves to death by refusal to eat. It is an agonising process to watch for all concerned, from the relatives to the nurses and doctors. There is no evidence that Simone Weil, sometimes regarded as saintly, ever gave a fraction of a moment’s thought to this rather obvious consideration.

    Either the balance of her mind was disturbed, or she was very far from saintly.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b680

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