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A political primer (part 1)

The entry in Hammarskjöld’s private journal, Markings, for the weekend of November 19–20, 1955, is one of his most compact and provocative reflections. He was almost certainly writing from his comfortable apartment in New York City. Despite a busy weekend—a plenary session at the UN, an evening at theater, an event commemorating the 19th-century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz—he found some leisure to think in depth about attitudes that favor sound negotiation and positive political relationships. What he noted down could be called a primer, though an advanced and challenging one. The graduate course. We will need several entries to unpack its meanings.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

"Of human beings and their way to unity—?"
The truth is so simple that it’s considered a pretentious banality. Yet it’s continually being denied by our behavior.
Every day furnishes examples.
It is more important to be aware of the grounds for your own behavior than to understand the motives of another.
The other’s "face" is more important than your own.
If, while pleading another’s cause, you are at the same time seeking something for yourself, you cannot hope to succeed.
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 ‘appreciates’ people has the upper hand over one who despises them.
All first-hand experience is valuable, and he who has stopped searching will one day find—that he lacks what he needs: rigidity is a weakness, and he who approaches persons or painting or poetry without the youthful ambition to learn a new language and so gain access to someone else’s perspective on life, let him beware.
A successful lie is doubly a lie, an error which has to be corrected is a heavier burden than truth:  only an uncompromising "honorableness" can reach the bedrock of decency which you should always expect to find, even under deep layers of evil.
Flexibility must not mean fear of going on the offensive.
The semblance of influence is sought at the cost of its reality.

(Markings, 114, translation slightly revised)

It’s best to take this provocative passage in four bites rather than trying to penetrate its many meanings at one go. The entry begins with a puzzle: "Of human beings and their way to unity." What source is Hammarskjöld quoting? Scholars haven’t identified it. We know what books he always had on hand—the Gospels, Psalms, and the writings of two medieval Christian mystics in whom he found refreshment and instruction. The phrase could be from one or the other, Thomas à Kempis or Meister Eckhart; it sounds like Thomas. Be that as it may, the root is in Psalms, perhaps the especially beautiful opening verse of Psalm 133:
Behold how good and pleasant it is
When brothers dwell in unity!

No need to press the source issue, but the fact that Hammarskjöld’s thought here takes inspiration from Judeo-Christian tradition tells us about him. He lived thoroughly, unapologetically, in two worlds: the "community of nations" for which he was a central leader, and the world of deep religious thought where he found wisdom, faith, renewal, and confidence.

That disconcerting question mark ("Of human beings and their way to unity—?") sets up a tension between old and new. As a connoisseur of religious tradition, Hammarskjöld brings the ancient words with their ancient perspective into his journal. But as a modern thinker and world leader, he questions, he doubts. That doubt sets his thought in motion.

"The truth is so simple," he writes, "that it’s considered a pretentious banality. Yet it’s continually being denied by our behavior. Every day furnishes examples." We might not agree that the truths in his primer are simple; they are subtle. But he knew whereof he spoke. Hammarskjöld had the long-ingrained custom of self-observation. He followed his experience, directly explored—even moment to moment—what it means to be human and in action among fellow humans. He knew the distance often separating values and ideals from actual behavior. He could see that in himself and see it in others.

Every day brings to light new examples. Hammarskjöld genuinely valued first-hand experience and never stopped searching—in other words, he followed his own advice. And life continually revealed itself.

The first point in his political primer is surprising: "It is more important to be aware of the grounds for your own behavior than to understand the motives of another." Here again, the emphasis is on self-observation. The ancient Greek injunction, Know thyself, guided his political conduct. The relative weighting he gives the two zones of knowledge—awareness of one’s own motives, understanding the motives of another—is the surprise here.

Do you find yourself saying, "Really, Mr. Hammarskjöld?" No one can doubt that it’s worthwhile, even crucial at times, to understand the motives of those sitting across the table. But Hammarskjöld insists that it’s still more important to understand oneself, not to be deceived about oneself—and this to the very bottom, to the ground of one’s motivation.

He must mean that other parties to a negotiation will say what they’ll say, do what they do—but even if all that is confusing, one’s own clarity from the ground up can shed light and set a course.