Conscience (part 2)
A friend commented that the previous exploration of conscience left too much unsaid. Surely Dag Hammarskjöld, author of Markings, had a richer perspective on the place of conscience in public life and what it means to live with firmness and self-scrutiny by the light of conscience. She is right. There is a good deal more.
The workings of conscience are a private experience. Yet that private experience influences so much in political processes—attitudes, positions, decisions, actions, long-term consequences. Hammarskjöld was acutely aware of the continuum between private reflection and public action. In public talks he would often enough ask his listeners to consider that relationship, and he viewed self-knowledge as essential for negotiators because "the door to an understanding of the other party…is a fuller understanding of yourself, since the other party, of course, is made fundamentally of the same stuff as yourself" (Public Papers 2
, 304). The experience of conscience at work must lie somewhere near the center of self-knowledge: it is the raw experience of the self making choices.
Hammarskjöld’s private experience of conscience, recorded in Markings
, was rigorous, self-critical, and guiding. Like all men and women of conscience, he wrestled with himself. He set what many would consider impossibly high standards. "Your life is without foundation if, in any matter, you choose on your own behalf" (Markings
, 93)—this at the beginning of his UN years. He also derived from those standards principles for action that have touched and influenced many—for example, "Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated". (Markings
He took himself to task for attitudes that may not have been visible to others, but to him they cried out to heaven: "You listen badly, and you read even worse. Except when the talk or the book is about yourself. Then you pay careful attention. Are you so observant of yourself?" (Markings
, 108). He viewed himself as a continuous learner, a work in progress. "Concerning the hardness of the heart—and its littleness— Let me read with open eyes the book my days are writing—and learn." (Markings
Did Hammarskjöld have something close to a tragic view of life? A fragmentary entry in Markings
from 1959 points in that direction: "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). However one characterizes these words, they summon a vision of life in which conscience is needed and tried. Conscience meets some of its greatest challenges in gray zones where nothing much is wholly true, nothing wholly obvious, yet clarity and decision are required. Hammarskjöld recorded one such experience as follows:
The most dangerous of all moral dilemmas: when we are obliged to conceal truth in order to help the truth to be victorious. If this should at any time become our duty in the role assigned us by fate, how strait must be our path at all times if we are not to perish. (Markings, 147)
Has enough now been gathered to acknowledge the private dimension of conscience as Hammarskjöld lived it? If so, we should return to his public discourse, in which he repeatedly placed sensitivity to the reports of conscience at the heart of whatever humanity can hope for the future. He viewed our era as "a time of global conscience" (Little, 19)—what an extraordinary vision, still unfulfilled. Here is a concluding passage from one of his last talks, summer 1961 at Oxford. He had in mind the immense ordeal of the Congo crisis and the East-West war of words to which it had given rise:
It is obvious from what I have said that the international civil servant cannot be accused of lack of neutrality simply for taking a stand on a controversial issue when this is his duty and cannot be avoided. But there remains a serious intellectual and moral problem as we move within an area inside which personal judgment must come into play. Finally, we have to deal here with a question of integrity or with, if you please, a question of conscience…. If the international civil servant knows himself to be free from…personal influence in his actions and guided solely by the common aims and rules laid down for, and by the Organization he serves and by recognized legal principles, then he has done his duty, and then he can face the criticism which, even so, will be unavoidable. As I said, at the final last, this is a question of integrity, and if integrity in the sense of respect for law and respect for truth were to drive him into positions of conflict with this or that interest, then that conflict is a sign of his neutrality and not of his failure to observe neutrality—then it is in line, not in conflict with his duties as an international civil servant.
(Public Papers 5, 488–89)