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Dag Hammarskjöld on dialogue

In this excerpt from his recently released book, Politics and Conscience, Roger Lipsey outlines Hammarskjöld’s approach to dialogue.

Hammarskjöld cared about nothing so much as dialogue and its formal version, negotiation. It was the heart of his activity as secretary-general, and the hum of purposeful dialogue is needed throughout the world if we are to find our way. From his perspective, dialogue isn’t day-to-day conversation; it calls for mod­est but definite discipline. “I do believe,” he said in 1960, “that . . . dialogue is badly needed, but dialogue requires quite a few things: objectivity, a willingness to listen, and considerable restraint. Those are all human qualities. No one of them is very remarkable, but they are all called for.” Quite touchingly, some part of Hammarskjöld’s emphasis on dialogue came itself from dialogue: on the printed page with certain essays by Albert Camus, the French Nobel laureate, and in direct conversation with Martin Buber, the elderly Israeli religious philosopher and social thinker with whom he developed a remarkable rapport.

Though I can’t be sure of what he especially valued in Camus, I suspect it was an essay called “Toward Dialogue” from the late 1940s and a published talk, “The Unbeliever and Christians,” which would have interested him. I want to quote a few lines from the latter because we shouldn’t speak for long of Hammarskjöld without acknowledging the place of honor, even love, occupied by literature in his inner life. Serious reading from an early age had not been a diversion; it had refined him, helped to teach him how to think, how to see, how to question and record things seen. His mind and voice were deeply akin to Camus’s. There is an undeclared company of European authors who valued moral clarity, an inquiring attitude, the music of language, and a certain austerity: not one word too many. Hammar­skjöld was deeply versed in French language and literature and belonged to that company of authors and thinkers. (This notwithstanding Charles de Gaulle’s almost com­ically rude treatment of both Hammarskjöld personally and the UN as an institution, which left him amused and unmoved.) “What I want to say to you today,” said Camus in 1948, as an unbeliever speaking with an audience of Do­minican religious, “is that the world needs true dialogue, that the opposite of dialogue is just as much lying as it is si­lence, and that dialogue is therefore possible only between people who remain what they are and who speak truly.”

From Buber, author of the classic I and Thou and many other explorations of dialogue, Hammarskjöld gained both fresh ideas and a sense of fellowship: Buber was there, he was a friend, he understood the primacy of honest and searching communication. “Have you read Martin Buber?” Hammarskjöld asked one of his friends in the Swedish Academy. “The old Hasidic mystic has in his old age given some of the purest and most touching expressions for the ‘conversion’ in which he as one of the old prophets sees the only salvation. ‘The only reply to distrust is candor.’ ‘We must create the simple trust which alone makes human speech possible in a world where we have forgotten how to talk to each other.’ . . . As a practi­tioner in the hazardous field of international politics, I can only confirm how right he is.”

Hammarskjöld was dedicated to dialogue; he practiced the human qualities that aren’t “very remarkable but are all called for.” For which his colleagues gave him high marks: “Hammarskjöld’s talks with the press combined in an un­usual way the language and method of the articulate and careful diplomat with a deep philosophical commitment to genuine dialogue and mutual understanding.” However, the Cold War was still dominant, as it would remain for several decades more, and that was not the only motive for the leaders of nations and their diplomats to talk past each other and posture for home audiences. Hammarskjöld’s assessment in March 1960 wasn’t sanguine: “We are sadly lacking in the art of dialogue generally, within the political field and outside it. We make all sorts of attempts, and whether they will prove successful or not depends very much on the spirit. So far, I have not on that point revised my opinions in a more optimistic direction.”

So be it. He hadn’t signed up to a carefree job. And dia­logue in its most intense and formal version, negotiation, would of necessity continue.

From Politics and Conscience by Roger Lipsey © 2020 by Roger Lipsey. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Roger Lipsey By Roger Lipsey
Roger Lipsey is a biographer, art historian, editor, and translator. He is the author of An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art; Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton; and Hammarskjöld: A Life, hailed as the definitive Dag Hammarskjöld biography.