Technology, Wisdom, and the Difficult Art of Civilizational Self-Awareness: Thomas Merton’s Beautiful Letter of Appreciation to Rachel Carson for Catalyzing the Environmental Movement
“Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age… is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.”
By Maria Popova
“Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy, before the release of Silent Spring — Carson’s epoch-making 1962 book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement.
Her courageous and sobering exposé of the assault on nature by the heedless use of chemicals — a dark subject to which she brought her exquisitely luminous prose — disquieted the nation into a major controversy. Despite the propagandist backlash and merciless attacks that government and industry hurled at the author, the popular press sided overwhelmingly with Carson. Her book, soon a record-breaking bestseller, went on to inspire the first-ever Earth Day and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The avalanche of editorial enthusiasm for the rare miracle of Silent Spring was dwarfed by the thousands of letters Carson received from private citizens commending her on the moral courage of speaking inconvenient truth to power. In the winter of 1963, shortly before her untimely death, this apostle of science received a letter from an improbable admirer — the theologian and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915–December 10, 1968), who had long admired Carson’s devotion to science as an expression of our spiritual bond with nature. His missive, found in the altogether magnificent Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis (public library), is a beautiful testament to how interconnected the deepest truths of existence are, how they transcend all boundaries of discipline and credo to bring us into naked contact with reality itself — and with our responsibility to the web of life.
Reaching out with “every expression of personal esteem” and commending Carson on the “fine, exact, and persuasive book,” Merton writes:
[Silent Spring] is perhaps much more timely even than you or I realize. Though you are treating of just one aspect, and a rather detailed aspect, of our technological civilization, you are, perhaps without altogether realizing, contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization…. Your book makes it clear to me that there is a consistent pattern running through everything that we do, through every aspect of our culture, our thought, our economy, our whole way of life.
Such civilizational self-awareness is indeed Carson’s invaluable gift to posterity — that is, to us — though a gift of which we are yet to make conscientious use. With great foresight, both tragic and hopeful, Merton adds:
It is now the most vitally important thing for all of us, however we may be concerned with our society, to try to arrive at a clear, cogent statement of our ills, so that we may begin to correct them. Otherwise, our efforts will be directed to purely superficial symptoms only, and perhaps not even at things related directly to the illness. On the contrary, it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself.
I would almost dare to say that the sickness is perhaps a very real and very dreadful hatred of life as such, of course subconscious, buried under our pitiful and superficial optimism about ourselves and our affluent society. But I think that the very thought processes of materialistic affluence (and here the same things are found in all the different economic systems that seek affluence for its own sake) are ultimately self-defeating. They contain so many built-in frustrations that they inevitably lead us to despair in the midst of “plenty” and “happiness” and the awful fruit of this despair is indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness, hatred of life, carried on in the name of life itself. In order to “survive” we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.
Reflecting on his collaboration with the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm on the poetic possibilities behind the notion of original sin, Merton adds:
Technics and wisdom are not by any means opposed. On the contrary, the duty of our age, the “vocation” of modern man is to unite them in a supreme humility which will result in a totally self-forgetful creativity and service.
Complement this portion of Witness to Freedom with Rachel Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work, her brave, prescient letter against the government’s assault on science and nature, and the 1914 protest poem that emboldened her to write Silent Spring, then revisit other radiant beams of appreciation between great minds: Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, teenage James Joyce’s expression of gratitude to Ibsen, Baudelaire’s “cry of gratitude” to Wagner, and Darwin’s touching letter of appreciation to his best friend and greatest supporter.
UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.
Published November 14, 2017