The Meaning of Sanity in an Insane World

In 1961, Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel in the Nazi party and one of the premier architects of Hitler’s Final Solution, was put on trial in Nuremberg. A media event covered by live television feeds and reporters from around the world, Eichmann would be found guilty by an international court and hanged.

eichmann_3168258bIn a remarkable essay published a few years after the trial, Thomas Merton observed that “One of most disturbing facts that came out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and found him perfectly sane.” Merton continues:

I do not doubt it at all, and this is precisely why I find it disturbing. If all the Nazis had been psychotics, as some of their leaders probably were, their appalling cruelty would have been in some sense easier to understand. It is much worse to consider this calm, “well-balanced,” unperturbed official, conscientiously going about his desk work, his administrative job in the great organization: which happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government very well. He was not bothered much by guilt.[1]

Lest one feel themselves exempt from such a critique — lest we hold Eichmann and the horrors of Auschwitz at a safe historical distance — Merton then reverses our gaze, as if turning a mirror around, to suddenly interrogate us, our world, or more precisely, the cultural milieu of “Western civilization” that could allow such a man as Eichmann and a whole nation to follow lock-step in carrying out Hitler’s Final Solution. Questioning the very meaning of “sanity” in such a civilization, our complacent assumptions about who is and who is not sane, Merton confronts us with the disturbing possibility that “something else might be the case.”

The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We are relying on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane one will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adapted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then it will be no mistake.[2]

Again, lest one feel exempt from such a critique, Merton then turns his gaze on the church, asking whether Christians are in fact called “to be ‘sane’ like everybody else,” to assume “that we belong in our kind of society,” that “we must be ‘realistic’ about it. Certainly some of us are doing our best along those lines already. There are hopes! Even Christians can shake off their sentimental prejudices about charity, and become sane like Eichmann.”[3]

The grim sarcasm of Merton’s voice here — adopting something of “Eichmann’s own ‘double-talk’ about himself,” which permitted him and millions of other cultured Europeans, which permits all of us in varying degrees, to rationalize our participation in evil — is not so distant, I think, from the anguished dread that many thoughtful people of faith today feel when considering our president and his inner circle of “Christian” advisors. To justify unthinkable acts of violence and even wholesale war in the name of God and Country — what President Trump calls the coming “storm” — needs to be identified clearly for what it is: blasphemy, idolatry, and demagoguery, akin to Pharoah giving orders, in an act of horrifying presumption, for the slaughter of all the Hebrew first-born. (Why do it? Well, because I can.)

Merton.propheticThe costs of adjusting ourselves to a “reality” that is utterly void of empathy, of higher moral or strategic discernment, of compassion — “I was only following orders,” was Eichmann’s trial defense — are very high indeed, warns Merton. Like a voice from a turbulent cloud of witnesses that includes Moses and Jeremiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Merton raises certain fundamental questions that haunt us with the weight bearing down upon our present finite horizon from the divine perspective of the whole. [4]

Merton concludes:

I am beginning to think that “sanity” is no longer a value or an end in itself. The “sanity” of modern man is about as useful to him as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur. If he were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of his absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be a possibility of his survival. But if he is sane, too sane . . . or perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally “sane.”[5]

In other words, it is essential, urges Merton, that we pay attention to our growing sense of doubt and dread regarding the leaders in whom we have entrusted the world and our children’s future. From a prophetic point of view, such inner pathos reflects the very pathos of God, and the freedom for love, the imago Dei, that presses back hard against every temptation to demonize and destroy “the other.”

trump.5With respect to the present nuclear threat, the strange and horrifying dilemma we find ourselves in today is that the man who controls our nuclear codes appears pathologically incapable of empathy, complex moral discernment, or even long-range strategic diplomatic and military reasoning. Even more than in the truly terrifying Cold War climate of Merton’s era, today we must rely on “the sane ones” surrounding the president to stay his hand. But who are these sane ones? John Kelly? Kellyanne Conway? Paul Ryan? Mitch McConnell? John McCain? Mike Pence? Who will have the courage, to say nothing of the political means, to stay this president’s potentially catastrophic mental impulses?

Please don’t tell me that violence, or unrestrained access to automatic weapons, or the “greatest military on earth,” is the only way to solve the specter of evil, unless you mean the only way to create more hell on earth for generations of children to come. We must turn the mirror around and recognize the specter of evil in ourselves, whether in our national hubris and bellicosity, in the militarization of everyday public life in America, or in our conforming silence before all of it.

las vegas shootingWhat makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic, or an Islamic terrorist, or a Mexican immigrant, or an enraged Black Lives Matter protester, or a deluded white supremacist, getting into position to fire the first shot or ten thousand shots in a war that begins, in truth, inside our very broken and divided selves? It is telling that we keep waiting for a clear motive to emerge from the carnage in Las Vegas, some kind of “box” in which to put the shooter, an ideological label that might separate his “pure evil” from the rest of us.

Where does this leave us? The God-haunted vision of the prophets, it is crucial to remember, never ends in despair, ironic detachment, or impotent sarcasm, but holds out the possibility, indeed God’s own promise, that “something else might be the case,” that we do not have to passively accept the way things are or the way our leaders tell us that things simply must be. We are capable together of building a more humane and empathetic world. But are we willing? “Perfect love,” says Jesus, “drives out all fear.” Can we dare believe that the capacity for extraordinary good lives right alongside the capacity for evil in every human heart?

Like Jesus, like Gandhi, like King, Merton urges us to reclaim the tenderness and fiercest strength of the human heart: our “capacity to love and understand other people.” To do so will require every effort and every pressure put on our political and religious leaders not to succumb to cynicism or zero-sum  political expediency, nor to bomb those “other people” who so trouble us off the face of the earth, to “get them” before they “get us.”

trump.4In such a cold calculus, there is no us and them. We, with our tiny-handed Pharoah at the helm and his tiny finger on the button, become the mirror image of those “psychotics” who cannot be reasoned with, and our children and their children become the inheritors of the raging winds of their parents’ generation.

“We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people.” But do we?


[1] Thomas Merton, “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966), 45-49, at 45.

[2] Merton, “A Devout Meditation,” 46-47.

[3] Merton, “A Devout Meditation,” 48.

[4] I am borrowing here from Catholic theologian David Tracy’s definition of “the classic.” The classic confronts and provokes us in our present horizon with the feeling that “something else might be the case.” By contrast to mere period pieces, “which are meaningful for a time but which one eventually ‘grows out of,’ genuine classics transform one’s horizon. They bring a meaning that is both particular and universal, and give rise to limit-experiences that can bear the power of the whole.” See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 100-115.

[5] Merton, “A Devout Meditation,” 49.

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