Conscience (part 1)
It is by no means clear how Dag Hammarskjöld knew all that he knew. That he had a wide and deep knowledge of diplomacy and all things related is to be expected. But his knowledge of literature, ancient, modern, and contemporary, was just as wide and deep, and when the time came for him to make introductory comments on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at a UN Day concert, he didn’t hesitate. In the paragraphs selected this week from a 1955 commencement address, he refers with ease, and without scholar’s pride, to a passage in Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. He probably wasn’t using Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations; he almost certainly recalled it because it had mattered to him at some point in his university education or later reading. Let us celebrate good minds, and read on. The topic is conscience.
Rajeshwar Dayal, whom we have come to know at this site, was both Dag Hammarskjöld’s trusted colleague in the Congo crisis of 1960-61 and, in later years, an invaluable interpreter of the Hammarskjöld legacy. Dayal wrote that Hammarskjöld ‘came to be widely regarded as the authentic conscience of mankind’. Hammarskjöld himself, in brief remarks of 1956 at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the memory of Woodrow Wilson, said that ‘[Woodrow Wilson] is one of those who helped to create an international conscience which is, and will remain, a living force in all attempts to build a world of order’. Clearly, the issue of conscience recurred in the thoughts of Hammarskjöld and his colleagues when they stepped back from day-to-day challenges to assess persons, motives, efforts, and results. One such occasion was Hammarskjöld’s commencement address at Johns Hopkins University in June 1955—from which the passage below is offered without commentary. The reference to Epictetus is Book 3, chapter 22, sections 15-16, reason enough to reread this permanently astonishing, brusque thinker—a Zen master of the West.
International service…will expose us to conflicts. It will not permit us to live lazily under the protection of inherited and conventional ideas. Intellectually and morally, international service therefore requires courage to admit that you, and those you represent, are wrong, when you find them to be wrong, even in the face of a weaker adversary, and courage to defend what is your conviction even when you are facing the threats of powerful opponents. But while such an outlook exposes us to conflicts, it also provides us with a source of inner security; for it will give us "self-respect for our shelter." This is, as you may remember, the privileged position which Epictetus grants to the Cynic when he, true to his ideals, sacrifices all outward protection….
The attitude basic to international service places the pursuit of happiness under laws of conscience which alone can justify freedom. In accepting such a way of life we recognize the moral sovereignty of the responsible individual. In the fight for freedom which puts its stamp so strongly on present-day life, the final issue is what dignity we are willing to give to man. It is part of the American creed, part of the inherited ideology of all Western civilization, that each man is an end in himself, of infinite value as an individual. To pay lip-service to this view or to invoke it in favor of our actions is easy. But what is in fact the central tenet of this ideology becomes a reality only when we, ourselves, follow a way of life, individually and as members of a group, which entitles us personally to the freedom of a mature individual, living under the rules of his conscience. And it becomes the key to our dealings with others only when inspired by a faith which in truth and spirit gives to them the value which is theirs according to what we profess to be our creed.
(Public Papers 2, 503, 506)