About evil (part 1)

In the previous entry we encountered a thought-provoking fragment in Dag Hammarskjöld’s private journal: "Conscious of the reality of evil and the tragedy of individual life, and conscious, too, of the demand that life be conducted with decency" (Markings, 173). It suggests in few words an entire perspective, a tragic but undespairing view of life also found in the writings of Albert Camus, whom Hammarskjöld appreciated. Our recent exploration of conscience could prompt us now to take up a difficult theme: evil. Let’s accept the project. What did Hammarskjöld see and say of evil? The first of three entries on the topic.
Dag Hammarskjöld has been justly described as "a rather pure-hearted man" by Brian Urquhart (1984, UN oral history project). Yet Hammarskjöld’s assessments of the situations and people he faced are typically realistic; pure-hearted doesn’t come to mind. He recognized evil both in the world and in himself, and he fought it. In 1958, at the beginning of his second term as secretary-general, he spoke of what he called a "hard 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" (Public Papers 4, 64). This is balanced, realistic: the future will be "all right", imperfect but livable.

And not without evil. To a graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954, he spoke of the root of evil as existing not so much in political systems and ideologies as within the individual:

It is…said that our time is the age of the decisive fight between freedom and tyranny. It is true that such a fight is going on. But it has always been fought and I don’t believe that I could justifiably be called a pessimist for expressing my belief that this fight will never be over. It will go on, generation after generation, as long as human beings are human beings. Furthermore, this is basically not a struggle between political systems and ideologies, but a struggle within and for the hearts of men, including our own. There is a Swedish proverb which says that it is always easy to agree on fighting the devil when you have him painted on the wall. But we can never forget that the real devil may also be within ourselves and all the more dangerous for not being recognized. (Public Papers 2, 256–57)

Propaganda, one of the means by which ‘political systems and ideologies’ reach for minds, struck him as especially harmful because it clouds judgment. He wrote to a friend along these lines during his portion, in the mid-1950s, of the endless Middle Eastern crisis:

Anytime something can break again. We live in rather a foolish world, and it does not get any wiser through the ruth- (not to say shame-) less propaganda from a well-known direction to which it is subject. If people would only remember [the Swedish poet] Fröding’s simple words, “nobody is evil and nobody is good”, they would be able to become immune to the simple, propagandistic picture of villains and saintly martyrs, watched by indifferent people who for unknown reasons want to be on good terms with the villains. In the long run this simplification is so tiresome that maybe we could return to realism. It is hard to keep up the notion that anybody who finds anything good to say about Nasser, or anything to object to in Ben-Gurion, is an anti-Semite—and thus a crypto-Nazi. Let us hope for self-healing. And let us stay healthy ourselves! (DH letter to Bo Beskow, 4 June 1956, Hammarskjöld Collection, Swedish National Library. Gustaf Fröding [1860–1911] was a Swedish poet)

In another letter to a friend, Hammarskjöld deftly described his own activities in the middle between a little good and more evil:

My problem is quite like yours, even if I look at it from a slightly different point of view. I live in a very obvious way right in the middle of the stream and I am forced to adjust my nerves so that they react as exactly and quickly as possible to the many evil and few good things that every day push us forward down the threatened road of mankind. (DH letter to Eyvind Johnson, 31 January 1958, Hammarskjöld Collection, Swedish National Library)

Always he preserved a philosophical view, a sense of what we are in the largest possible context—as, for example, in this entry from his journal, which draws on a concept he cherished, Henri Bergson’s "creative evolution":

"Only in man has creative evolution reached the point where reality encounters itself in judgment and choice. Outside of man, the creation is neither good nor evil."
(Markings, 165, translation slightly revised)

We’ll continue this topic in the next entry. There is more. For those drawn to the "other Dag Hammarskjöld", the man of spirit, it’s worth noting that he transcribed into Markings lines from Psalm 37 during the days in early November 1956 when the first United Nations peacekeeping force was being organized and airlifted to the Suez Canal to take up its dangerous station:

"Hold thee still in the Lord . . . fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to evil."
 (Markings, 139)

This is his own abbreviated "edit" of verses 7 and 8, saying just what he must have wished to remember at a time of immense risk.