Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Preeminently, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is a Catholic work in two regards. First, it bears the imprimatur of the Church and stands both as Merton’s reflections on the essence of its beliefs and as a reaffirmation of his own accepted faith in man’s need to transcend his delusive self-love and egotistical preoccupations and to devote himself to comprehending what is in the heart of Christ. Second, the work is catholic—universal, open-and broad-minded—in its ecumenical reach. Merton warmly acknowledges the perceptiveness and wisdom as well as the errors of good intention in writings that address the deep questions of human nature and the modern predicament. Notwithstanding his own critical reservations about the meanings such authorities placed upon their observations, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander is organized as a series of implicit dialogues with these other minds. Some of them, such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are Protestant theologians; some, such as Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and the Old Testament prophets, are Jewish; some, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Chuang-tzu, Confucius, and Mencius, represent various Oriental beliefs; others—Jacques Maritain, Louis Massignon, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and Saint Thomas Aquinas—are Catholic; and still others—Karl Marx, Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre—are proclaimed secularists. In the somewhat episodic passages of the work, none of these figures, nor any of the dozens of others mentioned, is subjected to a detailed intellectual examination by Merton. Rather, they are collectively deployed as exemplars—as a supporting cast whose briefly recapitulated views lend a richer dimension to his own considered opinions.

These views are ordered by Merton around three major themes. He addresses each of them with an essentially controlled passion and, despite some expressions of disgust and occasional sighs of despair, with a qualified meliorism. That is, while the world of the 1960’s, perceived in the light of his criteria, was not (as was generally believed) continuously improving, but in fact seemed bent upon selfdestruction, the means by which to correct its fundamental weaknesses were at hand; indeed, they had been for more than nineteen hundred years.

Foremost, Merton repeatedly emphasizes that the historical distinctiveness of the Western world lies in its Christian (he allows Judeo-Christian) tradition; writing in the 1950’s and 1960’s, however, he must acknowledge the substantial abandonment of that tradition. Ignorance, the glamour and simplifications of ideologies and nationalisms, the false worship of science and technologies, societies’ unblinking dedication to materialism, and a general misapprehension of the real nature of freedom are all, in his judgment, responsible contributors to this disastrously erosive course. So long as there exists a scant general appreciation of Christianity’s unique approach to man, particularly man in conflict with himself and his society, Merton suggests, the abyss separating Soviet Communism from the anti-Communist United States will remain far less great than has been generally believed. Each nation— however self-righteous its proclamations of moral superiority—in practice reflects a debilitating addiction to debasing materialism. The United States appears to him more successfully materialistic than the Soviet Union and its satellite states because the former is at once freer and more affluent. Yet each society, in his judgment, is fundamentally wrong, and therefore each is destined for moral disaster, if not for its concomitant, nuclear destruction.

Although he had flirted with Communism as a young man in New York, the Merton of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander had long since categorically rejected it as false and pernicious. He depicts Marx as a cynical, mentally ill, and guilt-ridden Jewish bourgeois whose delusions, masquerading as official truth, had sent millions to...

(The entire section is 1,240 words.)