A fighting optimism

April 9th, 1958, when Dag Hammarskjöld shared the thoughts excerpted below, marks an especially sunny passage in his years as secretary-general. He had been re-elected to a further five-year term, to begin on April 10th. Some grave international difficulties were behind him. He enjoyed the trust and affection of the entire UN community, the admiration of people worldwide. At a celebratory lunch with UN correspondents, his thoughts moved easily across the whole field of effort. But a question preoccupied him: how do we know that there has been progress? What grounds are there for optimism, and what kind of optimism? "A fighting optimism," he says. His words have lost none of their relevance and force.

Hammarskjöld said:

The slow, slow growth which goes beyond not only our time but really beyond the span of generations is something which seems to us too slow, because it cannot be put down in figures and letters and dots and points. There is just no way of saying how far we have got. You have to have it in your fingertips; you have to have the feeling and even what you have in that way is insufficient for you to say, "We have made progress." Finally, you fall back on that most elusive of things, your confidence in the fact that progress has been made, that we are moving in the right direction, although you cannot prove it, perhaps not even to yourself.…

Very often I ask myself…: "But really, have you got a solid basis for what you say when you voice this so-called optimism?" And somehow the whole system replies, "Yes, you have," and yet I cannot spell it out….  I cannot belong to or join those who believe in our movement toward catastrophe. I believe in growth, a growth to which we have a responsibility to add our few fractions of an inch….

[This is] not the fragile faith of generations before us, who thought that everything was arranged for the best in the best of worlds or that physical and psychological development necessarily worked out toward something they called progress. It is…a much harder belief—the belief and the faith that the future will be all right because there will always be enough people to fight for a decent future…. It is…a switch from the, so to say, mechanical optimism of previous generations to what I might call the fighting optimism of this present generation. We have learned it the hard way, and we will certainly have to learn it again and again and again.
(Public Papers 4, 62–64)

What a striking admission that his conviction of progress has scarcely any measurable basis. It’s in the fingertips, he says; and if not there, then in a feeling; and if not there, then in an "elusive confidence". It’s certainly not in the statistics, the tables and charts that had served him well in earlier years. He is acutely aware of what he calls "the whole system"—actions and debates among nations, initiatives taken by the UN—and it speaks to him. But what it says isn’t clear, can’t be spelled out.

There are facts—he is well aware of them—and there is faith. The fit between the two is imperfect, but it will have to do. These remarks to journalists on the UN ‘beat’ point to a certain way of leaning into the future and into current events. Hammarskjöld searches audibly to formulate that attitude in his extemporaneous remarks. In the end he settles on two thoughts: the "belief and faith" that there will always be enough people to fight for a decent future, in a spirit of what he calls "fighting optimism."

"Belief and faith" is a quietly noticeable phrase. Belief can be entirely rational: whatever facts are available suggest a certain outcome or range of outcomes. But faith goes beyond that. Back to those sensitive fingers, that feeling, that elusive confidence. Yet faith moves mountains.

Hammarskjöld grew up during World War I—his father was Swedish prime minister for some of those years—and served as a central banker and trade diplomat during World War II. His tenure as secretary-general coincided with the Cold War and no small number of regional wars. This was not a background that could encourage what he called mechanical optimism or blind faith in progress. But the balance in him of faith and fact led to a fighting optimism and an obscure, unshakeable confidence in humanity. With this attitude, he leaned into events again and again and again.