This is the story of a man's conversion to Catholicism that spans about 30 years. Set in the aftermath of World War I, it is rich with both historical and religious references. But religious affiliation is by no means a requirement for reading. The book stands on its own as a story and is enriched by the deep reflection on purpose which is universal to all. It is an original classic and is masterfully written. It's about 500 pages and is a serious page turner.
The son of two adventurous parents, Merton finds himself a traveler through Europe and the Americas. These travels and their happenings are the basis for his reference to Dante's Seven Storey Mountain of Purgatory. From the beginning, it's clear that his interests will gravitate towards religion, it's not something he tries to hide. But as is often the case, it is not the end, but rather the means to an end which makes for a fascinating tale. Merton is a gifted writer telling of his conversion with an unusually candid voice.
His appetite for literature is extensive, and he writes often about his changing thoughts and interests. There's a lot of fodder for our own future reading. Two referenced authors that I will be reading are Plotinus and St. Augustine. Through the lens of his voice and literary interests we see a man deeply questioning the meaning of life.
Religious overtones are paired with philosophical skepticism as Merton comes to believe that western philosophy idealizes our world to the point of absurdity. Regarding Plato, he says:
“After a couple of months of it, I got to a state where phrases like “the Good, the Truth, and the Beautiful” filled me with a kind of suppressed indignation, because they stood for the big sin of Platonism: the reduction of all reality to the level of pure abstraction.’”
And while I enjoy and appreciate Plato's writing, it's hard to completely disagree with him. I was especially moved by his simple refutation of Descartes' famous subjectivist "I think therefore I am" as an absurd bit of circular logic:
“I accepted the cogito ergo sum with less reserve than I should have, although I might have had enough sense to realize that any proof of what is self-evident must necessarily be illusory. If there are no self-evident first principles, as a foundation for reasoning to conclusions that are not immediately apparent, how can you construct any kind of philosophy? If you have to prove the basic axioms of your metaphysics, you will never have a metaphysics, because you will never have strict proof of anything”
And though he speaks disparagingly of modern psychology, referencing the big three, Freud, Jung and Adler, some of his religious ideology feels resonant with certain psychological ideas. I've found myself often recalling one paragraph in particular regarding suffering and the sufferer:
“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.”
I don't mean to say that Merton is concerned only with philosophy and spirituality. What makes it a great book is that the autobiographical story is central and is enriched by these thoughts, which are carefully placed and given context in a life's timeline. The man's memory is impressive. He remembers where and when things happened to a precise degree. He remembers his state of mind and much more at specific places and time. Certain scenes are described with extreme vividness, even as far back as his childhood.
I think that a religious person may take something dramatically different away from this book. As I wrote this, I briefly read some other reviews of the book and found that many of them are in fact religious. I'm glad to see it. I think there is something for everyone in Merton's writing. Before now, I didn't take theologians very seriously, partially because it didn't occur to me that they are as serious about understanding God as philosophers are about understanding metaphysics. But when I look at something like Aquinas' five ways, I realize that they are philosophers. Merton briefly describes the meaning of a word "aseity", and I think that it helps to illustrate this point:
“Aseity—simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such Being: that is God. And to say that God exists a se, of and by reason of Himself, is merely to say that God is Being Itself. Ego sum qui sum. And this means that God must enjoy ‘complete independence not only as regards everything outside but also as regards everything within Himself.’”
Whether you're religious, philosophical, or neither, Merton tells a great story. After all, it's been a best seller for 50 years for a reason. If you're interested in checking it out, I recommend checking your local library. But if you decide to buy, consider using my Amazon referral link. It costs the same for you, but a small percent goes back to fuel my writing.