For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
Human Needs and Human Flourishing

Human Needs and Human Flourishing

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In 1943, Simone Weil, the French philosopher and activist who was living in England at the time, was tasked by the Free French government with writing a report exploring how French society might be revitalized after its liberation from Nazi Germany. Despite suffering from debilitating headaches and generally poor health, Weil completed her work during a remarkable burst of activity. She died later that year at the age of 34. The report was published in 1949. The first English translation appeared in 1952 as The Need for Roots: prelude towards a declaration of duties towards mankind

I was immediately struck by how Weil began her report. In the midst of a global cataclysm of unprecedented scope and scale, tasked with drawing up plans for the renewal of society, she begins by arguing for the primacy of human obligations rather than human rights. The very first sentence reads: “The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former.” Quite the claim coming from a French thinker, as she is well aware. As Weil sees it, rights are ineffective so long as no one recognizes a corresponding obligation, and obligations are always grounded in our common humanity. “Duty toward the human being as such—that alone is eternal,” she writes. 

Our obligations toward our fellow human beings, Weil goes on to argue, “correspond to the list of such human needs as are vital, analogous to hunger.” Some of these needs are physical, of course—housing, clothing, security, etc.—but Weil identified another set of needs, which she described as having to do not with the “physical side” of life but with what she calls life’s “moral side.” The non-physical needs “form … a necessary condition of our life on this earth.” In her view, if these needs are not satisfied, “we fall little by little into a state more or less resembling death.” And while she acknowledges that these needs are “much more difficult to recognize and to enumerate than are the needs of the body,” she believes “every one recognizes they exist.”

I’m inclined to believe that Weil is right about this. As she suggests, “everyone knows that there are forms of cruelty which can injure a man’s life without injuring his body.” Weil goes on to call for an investigation into what these vital needs might be. They should be enumerated and defined, and she warns that “they must never be confused with desires, whims, fancies and vices.” Finally, she believes that “the lack of any such investigation forces governments, even when their intentions are honest, to act sporadically and at random.” 

Naturally, the rest of the work is an attempt to provide just such an enumeration and discussion of these vital needs with the express purpose of supplying a foundation for the rebuilding of French society. She deals briefly with a set of fourteen such needs before turning to a longer discussion of “rootedness” and “uprootedness,” a discussion which opens with this well-known claim: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” 

It is useful to pair this claim with Hannah Arendt’s discussion of loneliness, alienation, and superfluousness, which, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she identifies as ideal conditions for the emergence of totalitarian regimes. “Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances,” Arendt wrote, “we watch the development of the same phenomena—homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” 

Combining Weil and Arendt, then, we might say that to the degree that the need for rootedness—which is to say, a sense of belonging in relatively stable communities—goes unfulfilled, to that same degree human beings become vulnerable to destructive political regimes.

My aim here, however, is not to discuss the merits of Weil’s particular enumeration of these vital needs nor to elaborate on Arendt’s argument. Rather, it is simply to recommend that we, too, undertake a similar radical analysis along the lines Weil proposed, recalling, of course, that our word radical comes to us from radix, the Latin word for roots. In other words, as we examine the multiple ills that beset our society, it may be that by returning to a fundamental consideration of human needs we may find the resources that lead to cultural renewal.

Presently, we are focused on formal injustices that manifest themselves in key institutions. This work is always crucial, but its essentially critical nature may prove inadequate to the task of building a good society. To borrow a set of distinctions made by the philosopher Albert Borgmann, we may achieve a formally just society and still not have a good society. In other words, it may be possible in theory to eliminate political and economic inequalities without also providing for genuine human flourishing. Moreover, Borgmann argued that without a vision for a good society, even formal justice may prove unachievable.

In his last essay for this newsletter, Dr. Horner wrote about the inadequacies of a posthumanist framing of our cultural disorders, one which accounts only for our differences without also recognizing our shared humanity or providing a vision for what a society ordered toward the common good might look like. He challenged his Christian readers, especially, to recover a distinctly Christian humanism as a foundation for our pursuit of justice.

As Dr. Horner reminded us, the posthumanist framing of our experience emerged out of the distinctly modern understanding of the human being, one which ruled out any normative account of human nature or human purpose. And as Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, has pointed out, the loss of a model of human flourishing undermined all efforts to formulate a new moral theory to replace traditional models of the ethical life.

Clearly this posthumanist framing poses a serious challenge to any effort to imagine a good society ordered toward virtue and human flourishing. But perhaps Weil’s project offers us a way forward, a renewed humanism premised not merely upon human exceptionalism and self-sufficiency but rather upon human needs, interdependence, and mutual obligations. Indeed, it recalls MacIntyre’s own efforts to reground an account of human nature not merely upon our capacity for reason, as was typical of the classical tradition, but also upon upon our fundamentally dependent status as human creatures. We are, as the title of a 1999 work puts it, “dependent rational animals.”

The mere acknowledgement of our dependent status and a renewed attention to what constitutes genuine human needs, the satisfaction of which can serve as the foundation of a good society, will hardly heal all our rifts. And a determination of how exactly our dependence is manifested and what are, in fact, genuine needs will itself be a source of debate and contention. But it may prove a more productive starting point than those which currently frame our public discourse.

Over the coming weeks, this newsletter will feature a series of reflections exploring both the nature and conditions of human flourishing as well as the forces that undermine such flourishing. We hope these reflections will prove helpful to those seeking a thoughtful and faithful way to address the myriad of problems that now confront us.

Michael Sacasas
Associate Director

Study Center Resources

This week, we especially want to draw your attention to our Zoom reading group on Tuesday, September 29th, at 8:00 p.m. We will be joined by Dr. Zena Hitz, the author of Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. Dr. Hitz will discuss her work with Mike Sacasas during the first part of the evening and then field questions from participants.

Please feel free to join in even if you have not read Lost In Thought. Use this link to join the Zoom session.

The rest of our program enters its third full week with our Director’s classes meeting via Zoom and in-person and our Dante group meeting via Zoom on Wednesday afternoons. If you have any questions about taking part in these events, please email Mike Sacasas at

Recommended Reading

— In “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, examines the challenges posed by GPT-3, a program that is capable of churning out meaningful text:

The letters in GPT-3 stand for “generative pre-trained transformer.” It works by taking text input  and predicting what comes next. The model was trained on several massive data sets, including Wikipedia and Common Crawl (a nonprofit dedicated to “providing a copy of the internet to internet researchers”). In generating text, GPT-3 may return facts or drop the names of relevant public figures. It can produce computer code, poems, journalistic-sounding articles that reference the real world, tweets in the style of a particular account, or long theoretical essays on par with what a middling freshman philosophy student might write.

— Alan Jacobs reflects on the value of plurality (as opposed to pluralism):

In a recent conversation with Cherie Harder of the Trinity Forum, I recommended what I called — then half-jokingly, and now that I think about it more seriously — the Gandalf Option. I take that phrase from something Galdalf says to Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, who believes that Gandalf is plotting to rule that kingdom:

“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”

For Your Consideration
For Your Consideration
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