Thomas Merton’s Affinity with Albert Camus

Albert Camus

A paper presented at the Thomas Merton conference in Prades, France in May 2006.

by Jim Forest

Where would we be without our friends? Friends who glimpse our true face? Friends who help us see doors we hadn’t noticed? Friends who accidentally reveal possibilities in ourselves that, left to ourselves, we might never have found? Thomas Merton was friend to many and also the beneficiary of many friendships.

One of his friends was the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. The Merton-Milosz correspondence started in 1958. What sparked Merton’s first letter to the Polish author was reading Milosz’s The Captive Mind. It’s a grand tour of the human mind caught in a labyrinth of lies provided by any totalitarian society. Milosz observed that the intellectuals who became dissidents “were not necessarily the ones with the strongest minds, but those with the weakest stomachs, for the mind can rationalize anything, but the stomach can only take so much.”

Milosz was living in France when his correspondence with Merton started but soon after moved to the United States, teaching Slavic literature at the University of California at Berkeley.

Not surprisingly, Milosz was an admirer of the writings of Albert Camus. It was Milosz who encouraged Merton to read Camus who in turn became an intimate part of Merton’s intellectual and spiritual life during the last decade of his life.

The two most important Camus novels were The Stranger, published in France during the German occupation, and The Plague, published two years after the occupation ended.

Let me refresh your memory about both books. Afterward we can consider at what made these books so important to Merton.

The Stranger is a tale of two murders, with the narrator of the book guilty of the first killing. As we read the book, we soon become aware that the narrator is so minimally socialized as to be nearly autistic. His act of deadly violence is committed on impulse while in a dazed condition brought on by the fierce heat of the Algerian day. He shoots a man who is unknown to him, a stranger who was threatening him with a knife. As is always the case with murder, it’s an ugly crime, yet the killer can never comprehend why society reacts as it does to this event; he was under threat, and, after all, the victim was “only an Arab”. Had a more skillful defense been offered, he would have escaped a guilty verdict on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense, but he is badly defended and unfairly prosecuted. In the trial, the crime is of less consequence than the defendant’s social failings. The accused is condemned to death less for shooting a man than for smoking a cigarette while on nighttime vigil at the side of his mother’s coffin. He has also failed to have a religious faith or to exhibit regret. Clearly, the prosecutor argues, this man is a criminal type. Even while awaiting his execution, with seemingly endless days to reflect on what he has done, our narrator remains a two-dimensional man, unable to empathize, love, or repent. His chief virtue, one that has cost him dearly, is that he is a man who seems incapable of lying or pretending. A few tears might have saved his life.

It is, as I mentioned, a book about two murders. The second is worse than the first. It is a murder prepared with the utmost premeditation, a judicially-sanctioned murder, a murder that is carried out for “the good of society” and in the name of society. It is cold-blooded murder done cleanly and by the clock, a well-ordered murder with doctor and priest in attendance, a murder arranged by people who, in their domestic lives, may be the soul of kindness. A man’s head is cut off in what is regarded as a socially therapeutic action.

The Stranger was published in 1942. Five years later, Camus’ next novel appeared, The Plague. In it, the reader discovers that Camus was far from finished with the question of the outsider, the exile, the stranger — and not only the stranger from afar; Camus reminds us that it is quite possible to be a stranger even when living in the place where one was born. We also find Camus still wrestling with the issue of killing, and not only when it is carried out by the state, but when committed by revolutionary organizations whose manifestoes call for the creation of a more humane, less murderous society.

Among those we meet in The Plague is Jean Tarrou. He enters the book very quietly as a man of private means who is newly arrived in the Algerian port city of Oran, which Camus describes elsewhere as “a labyrinth where the wanderer is destroyed by the minotaur of boredom.” Tarrou is a man who enjoys life’s pleasures without being their slave. His diary, often quoted in The Plague, is striking for its acute insights and observations and also for the author’s compassion. As the people of Oran fall victim to the plague and are forced to isolate themselves from the surrounding world. It is Tarrou, stranger though he is, who organizes a corps of volunteers, the Hygiene Squad, to assist the afflicted and to attend to all the unpleasant, often dangerous, chores imposed by the plague. Each volunteer, of course, stands a good chance of falling victim to the plague himself.

Another key figure in the novel is Bernard Rieux, one of the city’s physicians. He and Tarrou set the highest standard for selfless response to the plague. For the reader, both men are heroes, and all the more impressive for their profound modesty. Yet neither man for a moment regards himself as a hero. In their own eyes, and in Camus’ view, they are simply being decent, modest human beings. Their response to the plague is no more remarkable than that of a teacher before the blackboard explaining that two plus two equals four. They do not regard themselves as exceptional. Neither do they harbor any resentment for those who respond less bravely, try to escape, who make money on the black market, who do little or nothing for those around them. But the two of them give nearly every waking hour in fighting what seems an utterly futile and endless battle. When at last, after ten months, the plague lets go of its grip of Oran, they take no credit for having speeded the day when the city gates are re-opened. Though they have been warriors along the lines of St. George, they still see the dragon as undefeated. The beast has only gone into temporary retirement. He has not even been scratched by his opponents’ lances.

Many of those who battled the plague are outsiders or strangers in one way or another. Tarrou is a recent arrival in the city with no obvious reason to risk his life for his newly acquired neighbors. He seems to have come to Oran more for the sun and beach than the people. Though Dr Rieux is a native of Oran, he seems by temperament to be a man who stands at a slight distance from others. He even takes distance from the book he is writing — only in the final pages does the reader discover that Rieux is the book’s narrator. He has written it in the third person, with himself just one of diary’s participants.

Both Rieux and Tarrou are outsiders in another sense: neither professes the religious faith of their neighbors in Oran. In a town in which most people, however atheistic in their day-to-day behavior, profess belief in God and identify themselves as Catholic, neither Rieux nor Tarrou is able to make a similar confession. Neither calls himself an atheist, yet they are not believers. When a local Jesuit, Fr Paneloux, preaches that the people of Oran deserve the plague and describes it as harsh but soul-saving medicine, both Rieux and Tarrou find his views deeply repellant. If the God Christians worship is the organizer of plagues, they want nothing to do with Him. They refuse to worship a deity who arranges the agonizing death of even one child.

Tarrou tells Rieux about a pivotal experience in his life when he was seventeen, a story that echoes Camus’ first novel. Tarrou’s father was a prosecutor. One day Tarrou attended court to witness his father in action on the closing day of a murder trial. His father, an entirely decent and caring man at home, becomes, in his blood-red robes, a passionate advocate of the death penalty. Calling on the jury to send the accused to the guillotine, it seems to Tarrou that snakes are gushing from his father’s mouth.

Meanwhile, the man in the dock makes no effort to justify his crime. He is resigned to his grim fate. “The little man of about thirty,” says Tarrou, “with sparse, sandy hair, seemed so eager to confess everything, so genuinely horrified at what he had done and what was going to be done with him, that after a few minutes I had eyes for nothing and nobody else. He looked like a yellow owl scared blind by too much light. His tie was slightly awry, he kept biting his nails, those of one hand only, his right… I needn’t go on, need I? You’ve understood — he was a living human being.”

For Tarrou, until that moment such a person had only been the accused, the defendant, a criminal. He had been a blurry man of inky dots in a newspaper photo, not a human being. Now a revolution occurs in his perceptions. It’s a change of heart which will help shape the remainder of his life. “I can’t say I quite forgot my father,” Tarrou tells Rieux, “but something seemed to grip my vitals at that moment and riveted all my attention on the little man in the dock. I hardly heard what was being said: I only knew that they were set on killing that living man and an uprush of some elemental instinct, like a wave, had swept me to his side.”

Tarrou’s bond with his father, now seen as a man swimming in blood, is irreparably damaged. Not many months pass before Tarrou leaves home, an event that coincides with the day of the condemned man’s execution. A head is separated from a body and a boy is separated from his family.

Tarrou’s struggle with executions has one more crisis. After he leaves home, he is drawn into radical political associations. Not wanting to be part of a social order based on the death sentence, he becomes an agitator, active in movements which, though left unlabeled in The Plague, appear to be some form of communism. Here too he is faced with the problem of killing, for revolutionaries also pass death sentences. “But I was told,” says Tarrou, “these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be.” Tarrou attempted to embrace such sloganistic thinking but ultimately failed, in part because he was still haunted by “that miserable ‘owl’ in the dock.”

What finally exiles him from revolutionary movements is witnessing an execution.

“Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing squad?” Tarrou asks. “No, of course not. The spectators are hand-picked and it’s like a private party. You need an invitation. The result is that you’ve gleaned your ideas about it from books and pictures. A post, a blindfolded man, some soldiers in the offing. But the real thing isn’t a bit like that. Do you know that the firing squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn’t know all that. These are things that are never spoken of.”

Camus’ description, by the way, was not second-hand. He had witnessed the execution of an anti-Nazi journalist by the Germans in December 1941. The event galvanized Camus’ horror with the intentional killing of any human being. Until his death, Camus sought a way of life in which one is neither a victim nor an executioner.

Thomas Merton (photo by John Howard Griffin)
Thomas Merton
(photo by John Howard Griffin)

Merton felt a deep bond with Camus, nor was it one that fizzled out. Camus, he wrote, “was one with whom my heart agreed.” [a quotation cited by George Woodcock in Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, p 116]

An obvious contrast between Camus and Merton was that one had rejected Christianity while the other embraced it. Indeed Camus, as Merton notes in one of his essays, regarded The Plague as his most anti-Christian book. Yet the difference between Camus and Merton is less substantial than it appears at first glance. In fact what Camus rejected was not the person of Christ but a pseudo-Christianity that had become a mechanism for blessing the established order, a religion of accommodation that provides chaplains to witness executions without raising a word of protest, a religion committed to the status quo rather than the kingdom of God. What Camus was missing in the world were Christians who reminded him of Christ.

Merton was equally troubled with such a pseudo-Christianity. Far from blessing the guillotine or the hangman’s rope, Merton was drawn to the Christianity of the early centuries, when one could not be baptized without renouncing bloodshed, whether in war or as a means of punishment, a Christianity of care for the poor, a Christianity of hospitality, mercy and forgiveness — a Christianity in which sanctity is normal.

In one of the key passages in The Plague, Tarrou confesses to Dr. Rieux that he aspires to a form of sanctity. “What interests me,” he says, “is how to be a saint. But can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” [p 219] (Another key word in the novel is a synonym for saint: healer. Tarrou and Rieux are both healers, fighting, as Merton notes, “against disease and death because living man remains for [them] an ultimate, inexplicable value. (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 186)

Camus died at an early age, not yet 50. In his writings, the question of the post-Christian saint is left unresolved, though we see in his notebooks and correspondence that it remained a burning question. One also notes the ongoing dialogue Camus had with various Christians beginning with his encounter with a community of Dominican Friars not long after the war, while he was writing The Plague, in which he made the remarkable statement that “the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians.”

What Camus hoped to find in Christians was the kind of radical social witness that had been so notable in the early Church. At the very least, he hoped that Christians would, if not reduce evil, then not add to it. But he wished for more than that: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?” [Resistance, Rebellion and Death, p.73]

Merton also sought a renewed, Christ-revealing Christianity in which Christians would neither justify torture nor become torturers, a Christianity that rejected not only capital punishment but the use of murderous methods to advance any social goal. For him a Christian lacking a sensibility about the horror of bloodshed had hardly begun to know Christ. As he wrote in Seeds of Destruction:

“The Christian does not need to fight and indeed it is better that he should not fight, for insofar as he imitates his Lord and Master, he proclaims that the Messianic Kingdom has come and bears witness to the presence of the Kyrios Pantocrator [Lord of Creation] in mystery, even in the midst of the conflicts and turmoil of the world.” (p 129)

It was, however, more than a question of standing aside from war and conflict. In common with Camus, he was searching for a way of life in which one was neither a victim nor an executioner. This is what drew him to Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. It is what stood behind his engagement with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The question is not simply what can we do to keep our hands clean from human blood but what can we do to defend our neighbors without become killers in the process? How can one overcome the plague of bloodshed and those things which cause bloodshed? This became one of the main areas of meditation, study, correspondence and writing in the last ten years of Merton’s life. (But this side of Merton had deep roots. We see it as early as his high school days when he took Gandhi’s side — by no means a popular side at the time — in a student debate at Oakham in England.)

The plague in Camus’ novel is depicted in quite vivid terms, yet it would be a dull reader who failed to see that the plague Camus was writing about was less about an epidemic of a highly contagious, often fatal illness than a parable about life in the modern world. The Plague, Merton wrote, “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation.” (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 182)

Merton carefully studied Camus’ notebooks when they were published and noted that the idea that grew into The Plague for began to form in 1941 while France was under Nazi occupation. Camus spent the war as part of the French Resistance, one of the editors of the underground journal Combat, work in which he literally risked his life for every sentence he wrote.

During those testing years, he witnessed the countless ways that the great majority of French people made their peace with the occupation, many actively collaborating, often with enthusiasm, and many others reluctantly,. Through most of the war, the Resistance was small. Not until the approaching collapse of the Third Reich was obvious did the ranks of the Resistance suddenly swell — but by then such a step was less an act of courage than of prudence. It would be in one’s interest, after the war, to have been part of the Resistance. (Merton witnessed a similar accommodation to the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear war on the part of Christians in the US; for refusing to join the militaristic parade, Merton was accused of being a communist, or, at the very least, “a communist stooge,” and for a time was forbidden by his Abbot General to publish essays or books on war and peace.)

The Plague stands for a social order whose foundation is killing or the threat of killing. The plague is a life in which freedom is increasingly circumscribed by fear — fear of death or fear of pain and poverty. Fear of death, as Merton observed, “lashes the self to externals in a relentless search for security.” [Ross Larie, Thomas Merton and the Inclusive Imagination, p 69] Few medical conditions are so contagious as fear and yet recognized with such reluctance. It is an important moment in our spiritual lives when we become aware that we too are infected with what Camus and Merton call “the plague.”

In Camus’ novel, it is Tarrou who says, “And thus I came to understand that I … had had plague” — here meaning especially an ideology which justifies bloodshed — “through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.” [p 217]

The writings of Thomas Merton in the sixties often address the state of plague we are facing and do so in a way that reveal how much Merton had in common with Camus. As Merton wrote in one essay:

“The awful problem of our times is not so much the dreams, the monsters, which may take shape and consume us, but the moral paralysis in our own souls which leaves us immobile, inert, passive, tongue-tied, ready and even willing to succumb. The real tragedy is in the cold, silent waters of moral death, which climb imperceptibly within us, blinding conscience, drowning compassion, suffocating faith and extinguishing the Spirit. A progressive deadening of conscience, of judgment and of compassion is the inexorable work of the Cold War [or any social matrix driven by fear and enmity].” [Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, p 81]

Concern about the horror of war and what it does not only to the bodies of its victims but to the souls of all who in various way participate in war, even if only as its cheerleaders or passive collaborators, was one of the constants in Merton’s life from early adulthood until his death.

Not many years later, when the war in Europe was well underway and the US moving steadily toward joining the war, Merton was coming to the conclusion that, as a follower of Christ, he could not take part in the killing. When he registered with the Selective Service, it was as a conscientious objector. Though prepared for noncombatant service on the battlefield as an unarmed medic, he would have nothing to do with killing enemies. In such a role, he wrote in his journal, “I would not have to kill men made in the image and likeness of God” but could obey the divine law of “serving the wounded and saving lives.” Even if it turned out that he would only dig latrines, he regarded such activity as “a far greater honor to God than killing men.” [St. Bonaventure Journal, March 4, 1941]

Writing his autobiography fifteen years later, Merton expanded on his decision:

“[God] was not asking me to judge all the nations of the world, or to elucidate all the moral and political motives behind their actions. He was not demanding that I pass some critical decision defining the innocence and guilt of all those concerned in the war. He was asking me to make a choice that amounted to an act of love for His truth, His goodness, His charity, His Gospel …. He was asking me to do, to the best of my knowledge, what I thought Christ would do …. After all, Christ did say, ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” [The Seven Storey Mountain, pp 311-12]

How startling — also challenging — these words must have been to most of his readers, appearing as they did in the early days of the Cold War. When The Seven Storey Mountain appeared, it was only three years since the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while countless millions had been killed by more conventional methods or in death camps. Now the H-bomb was already being developed, a weapon with much greater destructive power, while huge sums were being spent on developing other weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and biological. It was a very grim period in the history of sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The club with which Cain killed Abel could only kill one person at a time — now millions could be killed in a flash. One need not even known the victim’s name, age or sex or ever have seen his or her face. Every human being had become a target of war. And, on the whole, American Christians didn’t seem to mind. Were we not actually keeping our fingers on the nuclear button on God’s behalf? Was not the killing of Communists a God-pleasing activity? (One of the popular slogans of the day was: “The only good Red is a dead Red.”

Human beings were now defined not by the mystery of bearing the image of God but by the fate of being defined by the borders within which they happened to live and the color we assigned to them. The word “red” had become a death sentence. This was the plague with which millions of American Christians were infected and eagerly passed on to others.

How we Christians have changed over the years since Christ’s resurrection, Merton pointed out in essay after essay. The war-resisting, life-protecting, bloodshed-refusing witness given by Christians in the first centuries seems today incomprehensibly remote and scandalously unpatriotic. Among contemporary Christians, there are not many who, in those moments when one has to choose between the example of Jesus, who killed no one, and what is described as patriotic duty, side with Jesus. Better to find some way to explain the Gospel in such a way that it aligns Christ’s teaching with the demands of one’s nation. Time and again the cross is made into a flagpole. In every country and culture one finds pastors and theologians who exhibit a great talent for adjusting the Bible to fit the politics and ideologies of the moment. South Africa had its theologians of apartheid, the United States has had theologians of Manifest Destiny, Nazi Germany had theologians who were rabidly anti-Semitic, and in any country in which slavery existed or thrived as a business, there were theologians who could demonstrate that slavery was God’s will. From the fourth or fifth centuries, there has never been a shortage of bishops and theologians willing to sing the praises of whatever war was underway.

To the end of his life, Merton sought to align himself with the Gospel, refusing to adjust the Gospel to the local flag, or any flag.

The person trying to live according to the unabridged Gospel is sailing by to a different compass than the great majority of his neighbors. That compass is one’s faith-shaped conscience. Under no circumstances can a Christian just “go with the flow.”

In an article that was to get him into quite a lot of hot water, Merton wrote:

“The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war…. This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.

“What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.

“What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.

“First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.” [The Catholic Worker, October 1961. This was a preface that Merton added to the text for the chapter “The Root of War” in New Seeds of Contemplation.]

This was Merton’s first attempt in the sixties to raise his voice against the plague spirit of the time. He did so in the pages of Dorothy Day’s journal, The Catholic Worker, in the issue published in October 1961; it was one of the first issues that I was involved in preparing for publication. I still recall the excitement I felt to be holding manuscript pages with various corrections penciled in by Merton himself. As it happened, side to side with Merton’s essay when it appeared in print was a drawing of St Francis of Assisi — another disciple of Christ whose conversion led him to embrace the Gospel in its totality and, in the process, to renounce all killing.

Had he not been died in an auto crash four years earlier, Camus would have  appreciated Merton’s role in challenging Christians to struggle against the plague. Indeed I have little doubt the two would have struck up a correspondence. What fascinating letters these would have been!

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Root of War coverJim Forest is the author of The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers and Living With Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton.

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Merton on Camus:

“Man is driven to destroy, to kill, or simply to dominate and to oppress comes from the metaphysical void he experiences when he finds himself a stranger in his own universe.” (“The Plague of Albert Camus: A Commentary and an Introduction,” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, p 181)

The Plague “is a protest against all forms of passive submission to unhappiness and unmeaning. It is a protest against the passive acceptance of alienation. (182)

At the center of the book is a stoic “‘healer’ who fights against disease and death because living man remains for him a an ultimate, inexplicable value. (186)

Life, we learn from Camus, “is to be affirmed in defiance of suffering and death, in love, compassion, and understanding, the solidarity of man in revolt against the absurd…” (186)

As he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, Camus wanted to show “how to fashion an art of living in times of catastrophe… (186)

Oran “is a labyrinth where the wanderer is destroyed by the minotaur of boredom (187)

There are more things to admire in man than to despise (189)

“They forgot to be modest.” Modesty is a key word in The Plague. Such modesty is “the sanity of that wholly realistic self-assessment which delivered them from fatal hybris.” Such modesty “ implies a capacity to doubt one’s own wisdom, a hesitancy in the presence of doctrines and systems that explain everything too conveniently and justify evil as a form of good.” (191)

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