Dear Professors and Dear Young Students of Sichuan Normal University, it is an honor for me to be invited to speak for a few minutes before you.
It is also a big responsibility and a difficult task because entering university or starting a new year of study are particularly important moments.
In reflecting on what I could say best to encourage you to study, I thought of a wonderful text by the French philosopher Simone Weil in which she seeks to identify the purpose and main interest of studies.
Simone Weil was born in 1909 and died in 1943, at the age of 34, but left a very important work, very beautiful and very deep. In my opinion, she is one of the greatest European thinkers of the twentieth century.
It turns out that her older brother André Weil, born in 1906 and died in 1998, is universally recognized as one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. His work has inspired many mathematicians, especially Alexander Grothendieck, who is perhaps the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century.
Simone Weil and his brother André Weil loved each other very much but had completely different personalities and ideas. Similarly, Alexander Grothendieck knew Andre Weil well but was completely different from him both as a man and as a mathematician. On the other hand, Grothendieck never knew Simone Weil and probably never read his writings but, surprisingly, his thought has much in common with that of Simone Weil.
I would like to speak to you today about attention, which is a central theme both in Simone Weil's thinking and in Grothendieck's mathematical research work.
The formation of the faculty of attention is, according to Simone Weil, the true goal of studies.
The field we are working on, the subject of exercises, problems or essays are of secondary importance. The most important thing is to study with attention, with care.
Any field carefully studied, any exercise or problem on which one concentrates one's attention, any subject of writing which one treats with attention, increases the faculty of attention. Then this faculty of attention becomes larger and finer, and can be found not only in any other type of study but also in all life. We learn to pay attention to any beautiful thing we are given and we also learn to pay attention to other people.
Even if a field of study is more painful for us, even if we try to solve exercises or problems which are very difficult for us, these are all the more favorable opportunities to cultivate our faculty of attention.
An effort of attention is never lost. Its fruits are found in all our life.
To give attention is made possible by trust. Trust that if we seek the truth, or even a small truth, our search will not be in vain, will not be lost, and we will indeed find an answer to our quest for truth.
Two conditions are necessary, writes Simone Weil, for studies to produce a good effect in us.
The first is to desire the light, to desire the truth.
The second is to accept to face our errors and inadequacies: to understand all the mistakes made, all the corrections of the teachers.
To fulfill this second condition, it is enough to want it.
On the other hand, the first condition - which is the desire for light - is not obtained by an exercise of will. Indeed, attention is something other than an act of will.
Attention is an effort but it is a negative effort: it consists in suspending one's will and even one's thought to make oneself receptive, open to the light, available to the truth.
In particular, attention forbids precipitation. It consists in waiting for the truth with desire, without even allowing oneself to look for it.
Attention to other people, writes Simone Weil, has exactly the same substance as attention to intellectual truths.
One of the most important tales of the French and European Middle Ages, the "legend of the Grail", centers on a precious stone, the "Grail", which has the power to satiate any hunger. But this precious stone will belong to the one who will say first to the stone keeper, a king paralyzed by the most painful wound: "What is your torment?"
The fullness of attention to another person is simply to be able to ask, "What is your torment?"
Thus, Simone Weil does not call to seek and even less to invent or to manufacture, she calls to wait, to listen, to see, to be receptive.
Surprisingly, Alexander Grothendieck, who many consider the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century, speaks of his mathematical research exactly with the same words. He left a gigantic work, thousands and thousands of pages of new mathematics, and yet he speaks of mathematical creativity as if it consisted only of being receptive, listening to the voice of mathematical things, seeing, and writing what these things tell us.
In conclusion, I hope that these enlightning words by Simone Weil and Alexander Grothendieck's experience can help to understand what gives university studies their greatest and most profound meaning. Now, if one does something by understanding its profound meaning, one does it with happiness and joy.