Dag Hammarskjöld
Dag Hammarskjöld; drawing by David Levine

We are all vulgar Marxists now. The important question about a public man is what interests he represents. His quirks of character may provide variations, attractive or repulsive, upon the central theme; and he will have a private life and private loyalties that may harmonize or conflict with his social role. It is probably important that the private sphere should be known about and should be acceptable if a public man is to be successful. It will be remembered that it was a great and, before the presidential election, unanswerable question whether or not Kennedy’s Catholicism would be a dire impediment to the highest success in politics. It was apparently considered a disadvantage that President Eisehhower should have been denominationally unattached; and it will be remembered that this disadvantage was overcome by his electing to become a Presbyterian. Had it been thought in either case that a particular denominational affiliation would have had decisive consequences for decisions on matters of high policy, that the private sphere would have impinged in a dramatic way upon the public sphere, then what was (as it turned out) no serious disadvantage to Kennedy and a positive advantage to Eisenhower would have stood in the way of success in politics. Indeed, in a society which professes religious and therefore, within limits, moral pluralism as a matter of principle, this is how it has to be. It is perhaps ironical that the two dire impediments to the highest success that probably still remain in American politics are not matters subject, as religious affiliations are, to personal choice. They are being a Jew or being a Negro.

The vulgar Marxism which sees the springs of political action in the interests of groups rests in part upon an inability to conceive of any other rationale for politics. It is true that the group in question is sometimes thought to be the national community. But statesmen are the spokesmen of political parties. How are these to be explained, if not as coalitions of interests? There may be, men certainly think there are, common interests: and the belief in these is reflected by such a slogan as that of a “bi-partisan foreign policy.” And criticism of the foreign policy of the present Administration rests upon the view that the President and his Republican and Democratic supporters misunderstand what the common interest requires, not that they are supporting one sectional interest against another. Nevertheless, setting aside the very broadest issues of policy, the vulgar Marxist model seems to work well enough, though of course to say that a man is the spokesman of an interest does not entail that he knows how to choose what is in fact in the interest of the group he represents. And if democracy implies a consensus about political methods—roughly, that those who come to power by the prescribed procedures don’t use their power seriously to inhibit, or to kill, their political opponents or radically to alter the electoral procedures agreed upon—then the ends of politics are given by interests.

There is all the same a certain uneasiness with this reading of democracy, for the democratic societies are instructed by their own historical myths, by the poets, by the historical religions, in a different notion of human excellence. This is betrayed by the popular view that politics is a dirty game. “Politician” is a pejorative term in all Western societies. When a politician is thought to be a man of singular virtue, then he is said to be, if unsuccessful, too good for politics, if successful, not a politician but a statesman. There is thus a widespread suspicion that the pursuit of human excellence is, except in rare cases, incompatible with the energetic pursuit of a political career. And if we accept that there is something in this suspicion, however much we may qualify it or refine the analysis upon which it rests, then we must also face the possibility that there will be men in politics whose lives are marked by terrible inner conflicts, between the demands of virtue and the demands of their political role, between the claims of personal integrity and the claims implicit in the contract made with the party they serve.

The case of Dag Hammarskjöld may not seem to be to the point. He was by training and inclination a public servant, not a politician. The very office he held required him to serve the cause of the United Nations and not that of any particular state or bloc of states. But his case is to the point, all the same. It is a fiction, even within the nation state, that the important public official is not responsible for policy decisions. Within the United Nations, the office of Secretary-General necessarily involves its holder in the making of policy and the pursuit of the power without which policy cannot be made successfully. The Secretary-General is the only guardian of the common interest. He is professionally committed to the maintenance of an effective organization at times when the different groupings of states are interested in weakening the organization or turning it into their instrument. He has a considerable patronage at his disposal. It is true, he is answerable to governments and not to peoples; but these are his constituency, to be persuaded, cajoled, wrestled with, just as much as the electorate in a democracy. The case of Dag Hammarskjöld is thus very much to the point. He was one of the powerful ones of the earth and spent his life consorting with them. What is fascinating about the book he left behind is that it is not a worldly-wise book of political reminiscence but, in his own words, a book “concerning my negotiations with myself and with God.” In the Middle Ages, as in Hindu society, it was thought a proper thing for a man who had been a powerful ruler to spend his last years, not in comfortable retirement playing games and cultivating hobbies, but as a hermit or a monk. The impulse behind this thought would have seemed altogether natural to Hammarskjöld; and yet, since he is a man of our own time, the account of his inner life serves to illustrate just that dilemma between the pursuit of power and the pursuit of integrity and human excellence which is the ground of the inner conflict in the life of the man who would be virtuous and also serve his fellows in the way of politics.


To many people, and perhaps to most intellectuals, there will be something faintly embarrassing about the thought that the Secretary-General of the United Nations had an inner life characterized by a longing for union with God and an intense devotion to the crucified Christ. It should be said at once that there is in this book little of what might be called religiosity. There is not the slightest resemblance between Hammarskjöld’s thoughts and the lucubrations of the crusaders of Moral Rearmament. He was a civilized man who salted what he had to say with an appropriate amount of irony. There is thus nothing embarrassing in the manner of the book. But the matter? This is perhaps another question; for here is a civilized man, and a Swede, moreover, from the center of what is commonly thought, and with some justice, the most secularized society in Western Europe, whose daily bread is the Word of God in Scripture, above all the Psalms, and the writings of such medieval mystics as Meister Eckhart. More: he is preoccupied with death, his own death, not as something feared but as the great test and completion of life. And all this is not the record of one who was spiritually “precious,” who, when the work of the office or the committee was over, relaxed in a private world of fantasy and spiritual self-indulgence. On the contrary, the agonies of the inner man are essentially connected with his role in the world, seen as a vocation imposed upon him by God, as infinitely exacting and as, humanly speaking, one impossible to discharge well. His situation was extraordinary, but he wished to be in it a simple believer, without vanity and without a claim to be extraordinary. He writes:

There is a pride of faith, more unforgiveable and dangerous than the pride of the intellect. It reveals a split personality in which faith is “observed” and appraised, thus negating that unity born of a dying-unto-self, which is the definition of faith. To “value” faith is to turn it into a metaphysical magic, the advantages of which ought to be reserved for a spiritual elite.

There may be something obscure in this, for Hammarskjöld’s writing lacks edge, almost as though the drafting of official documents had blunted his pen. The Swedish original may be better, though this seems unlikely. The great spiritual writers—Simone Weil is an obvious modern example—show their quality even in translation. Only if it is related to the tradition, that of the Pauline letters, of the medieval mystics, probably of Kierkegaard, from which it is derived, does it lose some of its obscurity. Such a phrase as “that unity born of a dying-into-self, which is the definition of faith” may provoke the suspicion that one is being confronted with the gibberish of a mystagogue. For one thing, “that unity born of a dying-into-self” can scarcely be a definition of faith, though it may be thought to be a fruit of faith. All that Hammarskjöld is saying is that the least trace of concern with the self as an originator rather than a receiver of the divine gift gets in the way of the simplicity and wholeness which are both a result and a condition of responding in obedience to what God requires of a man. The appropriate form of expression for such an idea is often the paradox. St. Paul’s “not I, but Christ in me” would be the relevant example here.


Again, one has the strong impression that Hammarskjöld is in a special sense a man en route. In his foreword Mr. Auden remarks that there is something odd about the fact that a man so absorbingly concerned with the spiritual life should never have identified himself with the worship of a particular Christian community. Why this was so has to be left to conjecture. Markings is in some respects extraordinarily impersonal, so that one is given no indication of how the maxims taken with such immense seriousness are to be understood in terms of the actual situations of life. He remains an aloof and enigmatic man; and what is cast in the form of a revelation of his spiritual life is in fact a mask which leaves us guessing at what lies behind it. We feel frustrated, for we long to see in the round the man who strives to unite the pursuits of virtue and of political success and to see how the inner turmoil of the soul is related to his concern over, say, the U.N. intervention in the Congo. It may not have seemed like this to Hammarskjöld himself, for he was quite without the belief, so dear so often to public men, that his own personality was of crucial historical importance. He writes:

You are dedicated to this task—because of the Divine intention behind what is, in fact, only a sacrificial rite in a still barbarian cult: A feeble creation of men’s hands—but you have to give your all to his human dream for the sake of that which alone gives it reality.

It is strange to think that Hammarskjöld wrote the following words, in all probability, in the capital city of the advertising world and within a minute’s walk of the debating chambers of the UN.

Respect for the word is the first commandment in the discipline by which a man can be educated to maturity—intellectual, emotional, and moral.

Respect for the word—to employ it with scrupulous care and an incorruptible heartfelt love of truth—is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race.

To misuse the word is to show contempt for man. It undermines the bridges and poisons the wells. It causes Man to Regress down the long path of his evolution.

“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men speak…”

We may allow that the career and self-revelation of Hammarskjöld have shown that a man may occupy a great office and also, without absurdity, strive after spiritual perfection in secrecy and humility. The question is how far it is possible for such a man to succeed in terms of the commonly accepted criteria for success. Was the career that ended so strangely above the African earth “a success”? No one can now say. Certainly, one is inclined to say that if men do not in the years immediately before us destroy themselves, preying upon each other “like monsters of the deep,” this will be because there were and are, here and there, just men like Hammarskjöld. If the world is spared, it will be for their sake and because, in a necessary obscurity, they submit themselves to the exacting order of justice and love. These salt the world and keep it wholesome. It is remarkable, and something altogether beyond our deserts, that we should in this age have been given two men, both of whom occupied great public offices and escaped the deformations of the spirit that so often go with such offices: John XXIII; and Dag Hammarskjöld.

This Issue

September 16, 1965