Home | Interpreting Hammarskjöld's Political Wisdom | The Unwobbling Pivot (part 3)


The Unwobbling Pivot (part 1)
The Unwobbling Pivot (part 2)

The Unwobbling Pivot (part 3)

You’ll recall that Dag Hammarskjöld wrote to the imprisoned poet Ezra Pound that he often read his translations of early Chinese classics, especially The Unwobbling Pivot. This entry is the third and concluding exploration of what mattered to Hammarskjöld in that endlessly interesting and fruitful text.
The Chung Yung, variously translated as The Unwobbling Pivot or The Doctrine of the Mean and attributed to Confucius’ grandson, Zisi, is a masterwork of political and spiritual insight. While Hammarskjöld told Pound by letter that he read it over many years, he brought key passages from it into Markings just in 1956—and among others, these opening lines:

       The great learning…takes root in clarifying the way
        wherein the intelligence increases through the process
        of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on
        the results; it is rooted in watching with affection the way
        people grow; it is rooted in coming to rest, being at ease
        in perfect equity. (Pound, 27–29)

The text is perfect, wouldn’t you say? It can be carried in the heart’s pocket for such things. And it compactly restates some of Hammarskjöld’s central values during the UN years—his dedication to learning from the fullness of experience and thereby "clarifying the way", his practice of what he called conscious self-scrutiny and willingness to draw honest conclusions, his effort to be open to others and encourage their excellence, his respectful explorations of an inner state of balance, rest and silence that refreshes the soul.

What is surprising is that in Markings Hammarskjöld converted this text into a meditation on two themes: parallels with the Christian way as he put it into practice, and the cross-cultural unity of understanding that must have struck him as inevitable—and deeply welcome—when we humans think and experience in such depth. The entry from Markings reads as follows:
        –looking straight into one’s own heart–
           (as we can do in the mirror-image of the Father)
        –watching with affection the way people grow–
           (as in imitation of the Son)
        –coming to rest in perfect equity.
           (as in the fellowship of the Spirit) 

Like the ultimate experience, ethical experience is the same for all. Even the Way of the Confucian world is a "Trinity."
(Markings, 135, translation slightly revised)    

The text is in some ways difficult. For example, the standard English translation ‘in the mirror-image of the Father’ is good; one grasps fairly well that the all-seeing power of God the Father, traditionally understood, is thought by Hammarskjöld to provide a model, and a channel inward, for "looking straight into one’s own heart". But Hammarskjöld’s original Swedish is a little different: "i Fadersgestaltens spegel", literally "the Father-image’s or Father-figure’s mirror". Well worth wrestling with, if only to draw closer to the text as a whole.

What one comes away with is three unforgettable points: looking straight into one’s heart, watching with affection how people grow, and the need for deep rest. If that is too many, then watching with affection how people grow should be quite enough. What an extraordinary, embarrassing idea.

We may think of all this as remote from politics—but the ancient Chinese saw the connection. Hammarskjold didn’t cite the rest of the passage in Markings, but we can be sure he read it: 

The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states…. (Pound, 29–31)