Home | Interpreting Hammarskjöld's Political Wisdom | Contemplation and action

Contemplation and action

It won’t be lost on Hammarskjöld’s readers that his political wisdom often intersects with another kind of wisdom and inquiry. Hammarskjöld was both a global leader and, privately, a spiritual seeker. He was at home in two worlds: the complex world of diplomacy, from which he drew lessons, and the world of religious thought and striving—from which he also drew lessons. Generally he kept his worlds separate, but at this site we often enough detect the spiritual quest in public words and plunge into the effort to understand his values and sensibility. That is what it feels like: a plunge into a deeper, less familiar zone where public speech is tied to private conviction and private conviction confers unusual breadth on public speech. The passage below from a letter of August 6, 1961, to a trusted friend, the Swedish poet Erik Lindegren, shows how Hammarskjöld understood the link between his unlike worlds some five weeks before his death in an air crash.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

Sten Selander—who…never outgrew the adventurous explorer spirit of a boy—wrote me once with an accent of envy about those who create poetry by action. It is a beautiful concept and there may be some little element of truth in it, but basically it is an illusion. We all remain free to form our personal life in accordance with standards which otherwise may find their expression in poetry. But obligation to action, especially in the political field, is more of a danger than a privilege. At the present phase, events on all levels and the basic stone-age psychology of men make it rather difficult to translate contemplation into action and to make action the source material for contemplation. However, we do not ourselves choose the shelf on which we are placed. (quoted in Urquhart, 543–44)

A friend who read this passage found it difficult. It’s compressed: much meaning in few and curiously formal words, as if in summation. Contrasting contemplation and action, Hammarskjöld would have had in the back of his mind the vivid Gospel passage about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-41), sisters in a household visited by Jesus. Martha saw to the material needs of the occasion—food, drink, comfort—while Mary sat silent at the feet of Jesus, listening.

The passage also reflects his long engagement with the writings of Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century preacher and mystic who more than any other showed Hammarskjöld the way toward inner calm and clarity. Markings, his private journal, has transcriptions from Eckhart—for example, this one recorded in 1956: "You must have an exalted mind and a burning heart in which nonetheless reigns untroubled silent stillness." (The italics are Hammarskjöld’s; Eckhart’s German for "mind" and "heart" is just one word—Gemüt—meaning mind-heart, or heart-mind, the deepest intelligence.)    

Silence and stillness. And, paradoxically, the coupling of silence and stillness with an active mind and impassioned heart. All are values belonging to the world of contemplation.

Nearing the end of his life, and still midstream in the seemingly endless, politically chaotic, and violent Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld doubts. He has no difficulty admitting that the personal life of a poet can be shaped by contemplative values. But political life is another matter: the violence of events and attitudes at that time, and the underlying psychology of the men generating those events, create a nearly unbridgeable gap between contemplation and action. The implication is that at best one can ‘make do’ pragmatically, find a way on despite massive obstacles.

And yet… he is thinking the issue through contemplatively, taking his distance from it, seeing it whole, sharing his insight in dignified language, a language of sorrow. On the shelf where he is placed, the issue still matters to him. Even at the worst of times—and the Congo Crisis was the worst of times in his years as secretary-general—Hammarskjöld retains enough detachment to perceive extreme difficulty in a balanced way that promises a future for his values and approach. The question remains open because someone is thinking.