Friday, March 9, 2012

evil done "for the common good" (solitude)

Photograph by Thomas Merton
"There are crimes which no one would commit as an individual which he willingly and bravely commits when acting in the name of his society, because he has been (too easily) convinced that evil is entirely different when it is done "for the common good".  As an example, one might point to the way in which racial hatreds and even persecution are admitted by people who consider themselves, and perhaps in some sense are, kind, tolerant, civilized and even humane.  But they have acquired a special deformity of conscience as a result of their identification with their group, their immersion in their particular society.  This deformation is the price they pay to forget and exorcise that solitude which seems to them to be a demon."

-- Thomas Merton, Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, in the book Disputed Questions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960) p. 183


  1. How true this is and also very difficult to counter.It is increasingly hard to stand up to the powers of this collective and make a difference.
    Thanks for this timely post.
    I have been thinking all week on Jesus turning the tables over in the temple and how his anger was displayed and somehow Merton's words fit this. Being bound and harnessed to corrupt economic practice is something that is hard to counter but needs to be exposed and examined. Lack of awareness or complacency ?

  2. I think it's a problem of getting sucked in to the collective mind, Phil. Without some degree of stepping back, it's inevitable that we will go with the flow. The economic corruption is probably hardest to get dis-entangled from, because we really are all in the same boat and our individual economic "survival" depends on taking part in it. You're right, we are "bound and harnessed".

    I don't think that one can do this alone. Even in monastic settings, there is a community that is standing apart from the collective, but it is a community that allows for and encourages solitude.

    Merton is good at pointing this out.

    Thanks for your comments, Phil! Good to see you here.

  3. Merton makes a very powerful statement here. And it really answers for me a previous question "what would Merton write and think if he lived in these times" ?

    "There are crimes which no one would commit as an individual which he willingly and bravely commits when acting in the name of his society, because he has been (too easily) convinced that evil is entirely different when it is done "for the common good".

    Thomas Merton 2012

    Thanks Beth!

  4. Brilliantly put - sharing. Now off to school, and not work, today!

  5. It's uncanny to my how Merton's words are so prescient, Brian. It's as if he was living 50 years before his time! I suppose that they are really universal, though - applicable to any time. What's true is true, no matter the time.

    I love seeing your visits here, Fran. You inspire me with your "balance" in living a contemporary Catholic life.

  6. It's indeed a challenge to stand up for what is right. But that is what Merton tried to do all his life. In his preface to the Japanese version of his autobiography "The Seven Storey Mountain" he wrote:

    "It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole [human] race... and the world with [it]. By my monastic vows and life I am say NO to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its words in favor of peace. I make my monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. But it is true, nevertheless,that the faith in which I believe is also invoked by many who believe in war, believe in racial injustices, believe in self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny. My life must, then, be a protest against these also, and perhaps against these most of all."

  7. Thanks, Matt.

    Merton was not just against war, bombs, injustice and destruction, he made his whole LIFE a sign of that protest. I think we are all called to that kind of integrity if we are to ever be authentic Christians.

  8. So glad Fran pointed me to your blog, Beth. How could I miss it all this time!
    I'm so looking forward to spending time here!
    a social deformity of conscience... Hm.

  9. So nice to see you here, Claire! I'm on a roll now, but sometimes this blog lays dormant too! :-)


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