the Great Beast

From Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace:

The Great Beast [society, the collective] is the only object of idolatry, the only ersatz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.

It is impossible for me to take myself as an end or, in consequence, my fellow man as an end, since he is my fellow. Nor can I take a material thing, because matter is still less capable of having finality conferred upon it than human beings are.

Only one thing can be taken as an end, for in relation to the human person it possesses a kind of transcendence: this is the collective.

I think this is true. Our adoration may be directed at a person (such as a leader) or object (such as a flag), but what we really bow down to is the power this person or object represents. And we all acknowledge the great power of the collective, the group, the many: "Alone we can do nothing, but together we are strong." Thus "We" becomes the god we look to for protection, provision, salvation.

Weil gets the term "Great Beast" from Plato. Specifically, this passage from Book VI of his Republic (here Plato critiques those who are "wise" through their study of society):
I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him--he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honourable and that dishonourable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes...
Society, the "mighty strong beast." There's the obvious power of many hands working together. But Plato points to a deeper, pseudo-moral power of the many, the group. Weil also describes this:
The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin. Hence all returns to the fold are possible. The state of conformity is an imitation of grace.

Because of this imitation, this substitution for God, Weil says things like, "The social order is irreducibly that of the prince of this world." And connects society, the many, the crowd, with "the world" that Jesus spoke against so often. For example, in his prayer in John 17:
"I have manifested your name to the men who you gave me out of the world... I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those who you have given me...

"I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."

But what to do about it? I think there's a clue in "I have manifested your name to the men who you gave me out of the world." In Purity of Heart, Kierkegaard also speaks very negatively about "the crowd." And offers some ideas about how to respond:
In so far as the good man is clever, he knows, how in the very face of truth the world wishes to have the Good made agreeable, how the crowd desires to be won--the much feared crowd, who "desire that the teacher shall tremble before his hearers and flatter them." He knows all about this--in order not to follow it, but rather by the very opposite conduct to keep as free as possible of these deceptions, that he himself may not adopt any illicit way of deriving some advantage from the Good (earning money, distinction, and admiration) and so that he may deceive no one...

Whenever possible he will prefer to withdraw the Good from contact with the crowd. He will seek to split the crowd up in order to get hold of the individual or to get each by himself. He will be reminded of what that simple old sage remarked in ancient times, "When they meet together, and the world sets down at assembly, or in a court of law, or a theater, or a camp, or any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar and they praise some things as being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of praise or blame--at such times will not a young man's heart, as they say, leap within him?"... The same persons, who singly, as solitary individuals are able to will the Good, are immediately seduced as soon as they associate themselves and become a crowd. On that account the good man will neither seek to secure the assistance of a crowd in order to split up the crowd, nor will he seek to have a crowd back of him, during the time that he breaks up the crowd in front of him.

But just how a good man will make use of cleverness in the outer world does not permit of being more precisely specified in general terms, for that which is necesary can be totally different with respect to each time and to the circumstances of each time. [For example,] that stern prophet who went out into the desert and lived on locusts knew how, in relation to his contemporaries, he ought to express this decisively: that it is not the truth that is in need of men, but men who are in need of the truth. Hence they must come to him, come out into the desert.
I like this. It reminds me of what I wrote a couple weeks ago ("kicking the soapbox").

And I see Jesus acting this way, too. Not literally out in the desert, but operating outside social structures and institutions (or passing through them untouched), and saying that if people wanted to come to know Truth (God), they must follow him. Out of "the world," the idolatrous collective, society's "We."

Jesus also did not "seek to secure the assistance of a crowd"--though he could have:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them... (Jn 2.23-24)
He would not be made king (Jn 6.15); by his radical teaching and actions he "squandered" his popular following (Jn 6.66, Mk 14.50); and he ended up alone, condemned by popular outcry, an apparent victim of the Great Beast.

Can I do this? Can I be patient, waiting, resisting the desire to belong and the desire to have a crowd behind me, calling people out--even when that seems to be a complete failure?