Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Philosophy on Peace

Thomas Merton's Letter
to Czeslew Milosz

On Peace

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Czeslaw Milosz (born 1911)

Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice.
It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity
to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.

                                                  — Thomas Merton


Merton's writings on war and peace did not sit well with Milosz:
"I am completely puzzled by your papers on duties of a Christian and on war. Perhaps I am wrong. My reaction is emotional: no. Reasons: 1) My deep skepticism as to moral action which weems to me utopian. 2) My distrust of any peace movements, a distrust shared probably by all the Poles, as we experienced to what use various peace movements served... 3) Noble-sounding words turning around the obvious, because nobody would deny that the atomic war is one of the greatest evils... Any peace action should take into account its probable effects and not only moral duty. It is possible that every peace manifesto for every 1 person converted, throws 5 persons to the extreme right by a reaction against 'defeatsim'" (Milosz's letter to Merton is undated but it was written after January 18, 1962).
Later Milosz worried that he had offended Merton: "I should not have used in a hurry so harsh words speaking of your writings for peace... I got so used to treat any talk on peace as a part of the ritual in the Soviet bloc, as a smoke screen spread by the officialdom at celebrations, meetings, etc. that my reaction is just a reflex, an emotional outburst." Milosz also questioned Merton's motivation: "I ask myself why you feel such an itch for activity? Is that so that you are unsatisfied with your having plunged too deep into contemplation and now you wish to compensate through growing another wing, so to say? And peace provides you with the only link with American young intellectuals outside? Yet activity to which you are called is perhaps different? Should you become a belated rebel, out of solidarity with rebels without a cause?" (March 14, 1962)

Letter to Czeslaw Milosz (March 1962)

This is one of those phases one goes through. I certainly do no consider myself permanently dedicated to a crusade for peace and I am beginning to see the uselessness and absurdity of getting too involved in a "peace movement." The chief reason why I have spoken out was that I felt I owed it to my conscience to do so. There are certain things that have to be clearly stated. I had in mind particularly the danger arising from the fact that some of the most belligerent people in this country are Christians, on the one hand fundamentalist Protestants and on the other certain Catholics. They both tend to appeal to the bomb to do a "holy" work of destruction in the name of Christ and Christian truth. This is completely intolerable and the truth has to be stated. I cannot in conscience remain indifferent. Perhaps this sounds priggish, and perhaps I am yielding to subtle temptations of self-righteousness. Perhaps too there is a great deal of bourgeois self-justification in all this. Perhaps I am just trying to make myself feel that I am still in continuous contact with the tradition of my fathers, in English history, fighting for rights and truth and so on. And so on. In other words there is a large element of myth in it all. And yet one cannot know everything and analyze everything. It seems that there may be some point in saying what I have said, and so I have said it.

You are right about the temptation to get lined up with rebels without a cause. There is something attractive and comforting about the young kids that are going off into non-violent resistance with the same kind of enthusiasm I used to have myself in the thirties for left-wing action. But this too may be a great illusion. I trust your experience...

In a word, I have many doubts myself about all this. It seems to be largely self-deception. Yet to the best of my ability to judge, I feel that what I have done so far was necessary. Perhaps it was not done well. Perhaps it was naïve. Undoubtedly I have not said the last word, nor has all that I have said been perfectly objective and well balanced...

Meanwhile, I enjoy the spring rains (and there have been a lot of them) and am getting ready to do my usual planting of tree seedlings for reforestation.

Keep well, and thanks for all your advice and for your understanding. I repeat that I value both.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
Courage For Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers
Selected & edited by Christine M. Bochen
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY, 1993, pp. 79-81

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P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-9-2003)