The Unwobbling Pivot (part 2)
We know from the previous entry that Hammarskjöld was reading Chinese classics in 1956, including the poet Ezra Pound’s translation of three Confucian sourcebooks: The Unwobbling Pivot, The Great Digest, and The Analects. Chinese thought at that stage is neither wholly about the inner life nor wholly about life in society: it concerns both. Through the one, it speaks of the other. In Hammarskjöld’s journal there is a marvelously complex but rewarding set of entries in 1956–57 that look at passages in the Pivot and Digest. Here we’ll look at the first pair of entries; in the next we’ll look at the third, which if anything is richer still.
Dag Hammarskjöld’s spiritual path during the UN years had entirely private dimensions—that is to be expected—but nonetheless had much to do with renewing himself from day to day so as to serve most effectively his public office and live it as a journey of discovery. In this light, we can understand his close attention to the following passage from The Unwobbling Pivot
, a work of the 5th century BCE, said to have been written by the grandson of Confucius, Zisi (Hammarskjöld uses an earlier transliteration, Tsze Sze). The passage has two key topics: the empty chalice as a metaphor for complete freshness and readiness, and the nature of positive influence in the human community.
The ultimate experience is one:
"Only the most absolute sincerity under heaven can bring the inborn talent to the full and empty the chalice of the nature. He who can totally sweep clean the chalice of himself can carry the inborn nature of others to its fulfillment... this clarifying activity has no limit, it neither stops nor stays.... it stands in the emptiness above with the sun, seeing and judging, interminable in space and time, searching, enduring.... unseen it causes harmony; unmoving it transforms; unmoved it perfects." Tsze Sze, not Eckhart.
(Markings, 134, citing Pound, 175–83)
The passage reflects Hammarskjöld’s search in high office for a selfless attitude which, he had learned, freed him to play whatever role was required by circumstances and act as wisely as possible. He loved poetry, and the soaring poetry of the passage must have spoken to him, but ultimately its point was down-to-earth: clarity, appropriateness, and improvisational freedom as a leader in world affairs. In his brief closing observation, Hammarskjöld notes the link between Zisi on the radiant power of emptiness and a closely comparable insight in Meister Eckhart, the medieval Christian mystic whose writings accompanied him.
The very next entry in Markings
turns from The Unwobbling Pivot
to a passage in The Great Digest
from which Hammarskjöld quotes just two words—semina motuum, the seeds of movement. This occasions the following complex reflection:
Semina motuum. In us the creative power became will. In order to grow beautifully like a tree, we must attain that restful unity in which the creative will again becomes instinct. Eckhart’s "habitual will."
(Markings, 135, translation slightly revised, citing Pound 59)
An interpretive problem here: Hammarskjöld is citing just two words from a longer passage in the Pivot
, and without the rest of the passage we are a bit lost. Where does the image of the tree come from? Here is the completed text in Pound:
One humane family can humanize a whole state; one courteous family can lift a whole state into courtesy; one grasping and perverse man can drive a nation to chaos. Such are the seeds of movement [semina motuum, the inner impulses of the tree]. That is what we mean by: one word will ruin the business, one man can bring the state to an orderly course. (Pound, 59–61)
Isn’t this breathtaking? Hammarskjöld’s metaphor of the tree and his insight about the need for a creative will that has returned to instinct—by which he must mean deeper set than thought on its own, and more sensitive—enriches the concepts we first encountered in the image of the empty chalice. Some months after these Chinese entries, on New Year’s Day 1957, he took up that image again in most demanding terms. Seized initially in the heaven of classical Chinese visionary poetry, the image now helps frame a rule for life, extremely rigorous—who can live this way?—but credible and attractive:
Each day the first day: each day a life.
Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty—for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity. (Markings, 147)