Ezekiel Lotz on Thomas Merton’s letter to Rachel Carson

[Thomas] Merton‘s letter to [Rachel] Carson, which he marked for inclusion as an appendix to his so-called “Cold War Letters,” succinctly summarizes the situation as Merton saw it and served as a springboard for the many other reflections on technology and ecology that would weave themselves in and out of his writings for the next six years.


First of all, he notes that there is a strange and perplexing paradoxical contradiction seemingly inherent in the inter-relationships of technology and ecology. There is the same mental process involved (Merton notes to Carson that he had almost written “mental illness” instead of process) in the human person’s irresponsible propensity to “scorn the smallest values” while daring to use “our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself.” This vicious circle of suicidal actions is repeated in our very attempts to cure the illness: “…it seems that our remedies are instinctively those which aggravate the sickness: the remedies are expressions of the sickness itself“.[1][2]

There is a type of death wish, a Thantos Syndrome as Walker Percy termed it in his final novel, built right into humankind’s most fundamental being. Merton compares it to the Christian concept of original sin, but notes that no matter what one’s “dogmatic convictions,” humans almost universally possess a “tendency to destroy and negate” themselves just “when everything is at its best, and that it is just when things are paradisiacal that” we use our technological powers in a horrifyingly destructive manner.[3] Thus, there is a hatred of life lurking right under the surface of our optimism about ourselves and about our affluent society. But the economics, culture, philosophy of affluence is itself so self-defeating, contains “so many built-in frustrations” of its own that it “inevitably leads us to despair.”[4] The “awful fruit of this despair” is even more “indiscriminate, irresponsible destructiveness” and “hatred of life” (including hatred directed towards the natural world) to the point that in order “to ‘survive’ we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends.”[5] Furthermore, this destructive activity not only savages the natural resources of the world around us, it also eradicates the religious, spiritual systems that have for thousands of years assisted humans in maintaining a healthy balance between themselves and the planet on which they live. In the words of Donald P. St. John, “The technological system that has shattered nature’s system of checks and balances, and promised godlike powers to humans, has simultaneously eroded cultural systems which generate virtues and a perennial wisdom that attempted to guard humanity from its own excesses.”[6]
— Ezekiel Lotz in his speech “Thomas Merton and Technology: Paradise Regained Re-lost” presented at the Gethsemani III conference (The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Bardstown, Kentucky: Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, May 27, 2008).


[1] Thomas Merton in Witness to Freedom: The letters of Thomas Merton in times of Crisis, edited by William Henry Shannon, (San Diego, California: Harcourt Brace, 1995), p. 71. First published (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994).
[2] Also note Merton’s journal entry for December 11, 1962 in reference to wanting to obtain and read Carson’s book: “Someone will say: you worry about birds: why not worry about people? I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and are part of it and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves, spiritually, morally and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, and it all hangs together.” Available in The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4, Turning Toward the World (1960-1963): The pivotal years, edited by Victor Kramer, (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 274f.
[3] Thomas Merton in Witness to Freedom, p. 71.
[4] ibid., p. 71.
[5] ibid., p. 71.
[6] Donald P. St. John in “Technological culture and contemplative ecology in Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, Volume 6, Issue 2, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002), p. 166.

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