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Introductory Notes on Simone Weil and Paulo Freire’s Contribution to Global Health

I begin by paraphrasing a statement of Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed: liberation and justice can only happen from the poor. The poor not only liberate themselves, but also the oppressor because the oppressing class does not liberate and cannot be liberated by its own action.[1]

The French philosopher Simone Weil developed an anthropology of the human condition from her concept of malheur and her experience among the malheureux of her time.[2] Malheur is a very specific concept created by Weil that any English translation is not sufficient to represent what Weil mains. Affliction is the most common translation. But malheur goes beyond that. It represents a kind of suffering that impacts all dimensions of human existence. The malheureux are those who experience malheur and feel abandoned in the world of suffering and oppression, as Jesus felt in the cross when he cried out: “My God, My God, have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).[3] This experience opens to receive God’s grace, an aspect of Weil’s thought that I have to leave to discuss in a different occasion.[4]

For Simone Weil, the malheureux, or simple saying the unfortunate, are experts in the human condition because their experience of oppression, suffering and abandonment. Most of the time, they don’t realize the anthropological knowledge they have because of the experience of oppression in their daily lives. Therefore, Weil suggests joining the oppressed to learn from them and help them to move beyond their oppression, having the oppressed as agents of their own liberation.

Among the unfortunate, Weil realized their oppression is a result of separation between manual labor and intellectual work, that is, a disconnection between practice and contemplation.[5] The oppressed – the working class, the main unfortunate of her time – are prevented from the intellectual exercise of contemplation. This keeps them away from understanding social structures and systems that sustain their oppression, with no aspiration or imagination to build a new reality. Consequently, they are not aware of the knowledge of human condition they have and become vulnerable to the oppressor. Simone Weil even criticized the labor movement and its leaders for not understanding this source of oppression, limiting their struggles to only achieve better wages.

Paulo Freire understood this source of oppression that is inside everyone’s mind. The fight of the poor cannot be reduced to raise them to be part of an upper socioeconomic class, otherwise, they will continue being the oppressed who now can oppress by reproducing the same structure of injustice and exploitation.[6] (I think this was one of the mistakes of the left in Latin America. When leftist leaders created social policies to help the poor to leave their poverty, they stopped the work of conscientization with the poor. When the poor achieved better socio-economic living and working conditions, they reproduced the same system of oppression and moved against the social policies that helped them to leave poverty. They never experienced liberation.)

For both Weil and Freire, for the liberation to begin a process of unifying practice and contemplation (or manual labor and intellectual exercise) is necessary. Joining the poor is an unavoidable part of this process. Weil tried it, but she was unable to develop a way of how we can work with the poor for this process of liberation. Freire advanced this perspective with his experience of education for critical consciousness.[7] Conscientization is the key concept developed by Freire that leads us to work with the poor for the reconciliation of practice and contemplation, which the poor are agents of a liberating praxis (praxis here in its real meaning: practice and theory functioning together.)

Weil’s and Freire’s insights are resources for actions in global and public health. First, Weil’s anthropology reveals the human condition and its main experts, the unfortunate who show to all who we are. This places all in the same condition of need for care, particularly health care. Second, Weil and Freire present that the unfortunate or the poor have something to offer and teach us. At the same time, we can work as facilitators to help them to engage in a process of unification of practice and contemplation. This will put them in a path for liberation which they are agent of their own history. Third, with Freire’s insights for working with the poor for conscientization, we create a process of mutual learning from below, led by the agency of the poor with us among them.

Finally, this process in global and public health is a movement for justice in health, that is, creating and re-creating health systems that serve all from the perspective of the human condition. It will be a fight against current health systems and perspectives dominated by the illusion that capitalism and its push for health care under free market create. The Brazilian public health system (SUS) and the attack it has been suffering in the last years, with support of part of the poor, is a great case study of the oppression created by the separation between practice and contemplation. Keeping the poor far from contemplation is the goal of the private health market that daily attacks the SUS, creating the illusion among the poor, and the population in general, that a public universal health care system does not work and never will. The free market cannot solve the healthcare problems in Brazil and in the world. This is a lie that Weil’s and Freire’s perspectives help to reveal, leading the poor to a historical social agency in global and public health.

This short essay is a version of my participation on the Health and Liberation Theologies Symposium, sponsored by Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative at Duke University, on April 10, 2021. I was in the panel Health Systems, Equity, and Theology with Ali Lutz (Church Divinity School of the Pacific) and Filipe Maia (Boston University), mediated by Brendon Johnson (Duke University). This panel is available on Social Medicine on Air as a podcast.

P.S.: I develop this account on health care grounded on Simone Weil’s anthropology and Paolo Freire’s method of conscientization in the book: The Cry of the Poor: Liberation Ethics and Justice in Health Care (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2020).

[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogia do Oprimido, 59 ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz & Terra), 41.

[2] Simone Weil, “L’amour de Diieu el la malheur” in Œuvres (Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 1999), 693-715.

[3] Simone Weil, Œuvres Complètes VI 4: La Connaissance Surnaturelle (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), 122-123.

[4] For a study on the concepts of malheur and grace in Simone Wei, see: Alexandre A. Martins, A Pobreza e a Graça: Experiência de Deus em Meio ao Sofrimento em Simone Weil (São Paulo: Paulus, 2013).

[5] Simone Weil, “Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’aoppression social” in Œuvres (Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 1999), 275-340.

[6] Paulo Freire, Pedagogia do Oprimido, 59 ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz & Terra), 50-54.

[7] Paulo Freire, Educação Como Prática Da Liberdade, 3rd ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1971), 14-32.