Thomas Merton on Being an Intellectual, and a Message to the Poets

Thomas Merton was born today, January 31st in 1915. A January baby, like me. MertonMerton was a Christian monastic, whose tremendously popular autobiographic The Seven Story Mountain (1948) made him a well known and well read American intellectual of the 1950s and 60s. He wrote prolifically in his lifetime – around 70 books – before tragically passing away on a trip to Bangkok in 1968. He was attending a meeting of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians. It is well known that Merton was a critic of our technologically obsessed world and a vocal advocate for the role of the artist and intellectual in society:

Is the artist necessarily committed to this or that political ideology? No. But he does live in a world where politics are decisive and where political power can destroy his art as well as his life. Hence he is indirectly committed to seek some political solution to problems that endanger the freedom of man. This is the great temptation: there is not a single form of government or social system today that does not in the end seek to manipulate or coerce the artist in one way or another.

Similarly, the intellectual plays the role of Outsider in our culture. It is in their position as bystander, “innocent” onlooker, that the intellectual might perform their work on society:

We are the intellectuals who have taken for granted that we could be “bystanders” and that our quality as detached observers could preserve our innocence and relieve us of responsibility. By intellectual, I do not mean clerk (through I might mean clerc [a student or scholar]). I do not mean bureaucrat. I do not mean politician. I do not mean anyone whose intelligence ministers to a machine for counting, classifying, and distributing other people: who hands out to this one a higher paycheck and to that on e a trip (presently) to the forced labor camp. I do not mean a policeman, or propagandist. I still dare to use the world intellectual as if it had meaning.

Have you and I forgotten that our vocation, as innocent bystanders – and the very condition of our terrible innocents – is to do what the child did, and keep on saying the king is naked, at the cost of being condemned criminals? Remember, the child in the tale was the only innocent one: and because of his innocence, the fault of the others was kept from being criminal, and was nothing worse than foolishness. If the child had not been there, they would all have been madmen, or criminals. It was the child’s cry that saved them.

It is clear that Merton was not talking about literal innocence (whatever that might mean), nor physical remoteness from society. He was an active author having published dozens of books in his lifetime. Clearly, he wrote with a purpose. Rather, Merton was suggesting we take a stand against “falsehood” and dehumanization. He was, in many ways, a forerunner to thinkers today in my own circles of the recent “spiritual counter-culture,” like Charles Eisenstein, Daniel Pinchbeck, J.F. Martel and many others who call for the artist to “reclaim art” – and by extension poetry, contemplation, the intellectual, and the human person.

For these reasons, and many others, I honor Merton as a kind of patron saint of contemplative artists, those who are alive today and seek to work actively with themselves – with others, with God, with silence – to “rebuild” a world in crisis.

“If we are to remain united against these falsehoods, against all power that poisons man and subjects him to the mystifications of bureaucracy, commerce, and the police state, we must refuse the price tag. We must refuse academic classification. We must reject the seductions of publicity.

What characterizes our century is not so much that we have to rebuild our world as that we have to rethink it. This amounts to saying that we have to give it back its language… The vocabularies that are proposed to us are of no use to us… and there is no point in a Byzantine exercise upon themes of grammar. We need a profound questioning which will not separate us from the sufferings of men.”

The contemplative-artist-intellectual, as I’m coming to see it, is someone who doesn’t get trapped up by the reification – to borrow a word from David Chaim Smith‘s contemplative writings – that runs rampant in commercial society; that sees the person as intrinsically mysterious and potentially luminous. The person, the world, cannot be commodified, nor reified. Neither item, nor idol are we.

Excerpts from Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing. Edited by Robert Inchausti.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Merton on Being an Intellectual, and a Message to the Poets

  1. ptero9 says:

    Oh my! This post is so rich.

    “We must refuse academic classification. We must reject the seductions of publicity.”

    Yes, and for all of our lip service to the underdogs of the world, there is still the temptation to appease the elitist in and around us. If you haven’t got creds…

    There are days in which I comfortably flow with the truth that it is only in the choices that one makes, moment to moment, that move me, step by step, into the future. Then there are days in which I must acknowledge a frustration, living within the deep surround of fog that says: only by securing power does anything change.

    But, from what I see of those wielding power, I don’t want any of it. Give me my small world, powerless, and yet free to choose love and the joy of simplicity in my ability to engage each passing stranger, just as if they were the butterfly wing moving the whole universe with each choice they make.

    Thank you Jeremy!

  2. Jeremy D. Johnson says:

    Thank you so much for this, Debra.

    “Give me my small world, powerless, and yet free to choose love and the joy of simplicity in my ability to engage each passing stranger.”

    Yes! Very well put. Silence lends itself to anonymity; the meeting of strangers at a gas station, a grocery store clerk bagging your milk and bread. It’s there, always there, inviting us to listen.

    I’m reminded of Dwight Goddard’s translation of the Tao te Ching:

    “Other people are admired and envied because of their cleverness; I, alone, am neglected. Am I (because of this) foolish at heart? No! Let them be as smart and aggressive as ever; I am content to remain retiring and obscure. Let them continue to be as sensible and prudent as ever; let me remain as neglected as a deaf-mute. Nevertheless, I am as pure as the water in the ocean and as free as the driftwood upon its bosom. Let others have their means for acquiring wealth, I am content to be counted foolish and inefficient. I seem to stand in contrast to common people, empty and foolish, but I am nourished by food from Mother TAO.” (via:

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

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