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A political primer (part 3)

This is the third of four consecutive entries exploring and interpreting Dag Hammarskjöld’s political primer. For the complete text of the entry and more detail about time and place, look at the initial discussion. Here we will look at two further points—the first wonderfully complex and challenging, the second clear and self-evident.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.
One who "has a liking" for people has the upper hand over one who despises them.

(Markings, 114, translation slightly revised)

Hammarskjöld needed to recognize the forces at work in complex circumstances as a basis for direction-finding and decision. The sensitivity counseled here in the first of two statements is a feat of awareness, a use of the mind that must call for practice. It’s unfamiliar, advanced, very grown up. Surely one will fumble again and again—he also must have—yet gradually learn. In Hammarskjöld’s practice, participation in politics is a personal discipline, a striving.

He is again categorical: "You can only hope to find a lasting solution if…". Absent this dual perspective, "no hope". With this perspective, hope but no certainty. The moderation here reflects his realism.

This dual perspective was seemingly permanent; he didn’t forget it. Some two years after this entry in his journal, he wrote privately to a Swedish friend, the author and later Nobel laureate Eyvind Johnson. Recently, he said, a journalist had pressed him for his views on what it takes to contribute to peace and to reasonable solutions. Hammarskjöld reports his reply: that one must strive to be as aware as possible without losing inner quiet, and strive to see from the other’s perspective without losing one’s own.

He’s speaking of the same feat of awareness, presented in a slightly different light. To see from the other’s perspective is what he must mean by experiencing their difficulties subjectively. But the letter adds a new dimension. Hammarskjöld evokes the internal experience: a striving to be comprehensively aware, not to miss anything—any small but likely telling shift in attitudes, positions, or facts on the table. To be and to remain a comprehensively aware participant is not, in his experience, a given. It has to be claimed and renewed; it’s an effort. This is implied by what he writes about inner quiet and pushing awareness to the utmost limit. The act, though an internal one, could not be more dynamic and demanding.

We shouldn’t pass over without comment what he writes about inner quiet. He didn’t come to appreciate this value and make it part of his working life through political experience as such. Politics and diplomacy were the test, not the source, of inner quiet. He had discovered inner quiet in two wholly different "worlds": in the Swedish wilderness above the Arctic circle—a region of reindeer herders, austere mountains and glaciers, and sudden abundance in the short spring and summer—and in the writings of medieval mystics, especially his beloved Meister Eckhart. It was Hammarskjöld’s creative relation with himself, with his own resources, that showed him how and why to bring inner quiet into his working life.  

In this week’s excerpt he writes also of hope, a pervasive topic in the statements of his UN years and his performance as secretary-general. It is never a casual word tossed off among others. In June 1955, at yet another commencement address, this time at Stanford University, he again collected his thoughts about hope. "Whatever doubts history may cast," he said on that occasion, "I believe that the hope for a world of peace and order, inspired by respect for man, has never ceased to agitate the minds of men. I believe that it accounts for the great and noble human spirit behind the ravaged exterior of a history whose self-inflicted wounds have become more and more atrocious." (Public Papers 2, 512)