Ellul and Merton

Jacques Ellul’s Influence on Thomas Merton

by Gordon Oyer (April 2016)


As best we know, Jacques Ellul and Thomas Merton never corresponded with each other, and Ellul never mentions Merton in his writings. On the other hand, Merton—Trappist monk, religious writer, and social critic—did read and comment on Ellul. Although his initial enthusiasm for Ellul’s works moderated over time, Merton unquestionably appreciated and gained insight from them.

Merton’s close friend, Wilber H. “Ping” Ferry, introduced Merton to Ellul when he supplied the monk a copy of The Technological Society just days before Merton hosted a retreat for thirteen peace activists (see Postscript A below) at his Kentucky monastery. The following year Merton, fluid in French, also engaged Ellul’s Propagandes and L’Illusion politique.  Writers such as Gene Davenport (Ellul Forum #7, pages 10-12)  and Philip M. Thompson (Ellul Forum #25, pages 10-16) have capably addressed significant aspects of Ellul’s contributions to Merton’s thought, but his influence on Merton’s November 1964 “peacemakers retreat” remains less known.

“[The] attitude of the peace movement to technology

will determine its spiritual base.”   –Thomas Merton


Ellul’s The Technological Society and Merton’s “Spiritual Roots of Protest.” Merton jotted the words quoted above as he read The Technological Society, originally published in 1954 as La Technique. Ping Ferry, who had shepherded the English translation of this book, was so eager to place it in Merton’s possession that he had sent the monk an unpublished manuscript during the summer of 1964.  Merton explained, though, that he “did not have the energy to go through it in that form, as I do a lot of reading walking around outside.” Ferry then forwarded the published volume in late October, just days before the peacemakers retreat.

When it arrived, Merton eagerly dove into the text. He filled three pages in his reading notebook with quotes and excerpts from the book and entered three extended reflections in his journal within the first week of its possession.  Merton also began his initial preparation for the upcoming retreat at about the same time, listing a set of “Notes for Peace Meeting” that addressed technology in the first eight of its ten points (see Postscript B below). His fifth point consisted of a quote from The Technological Society.

Merton’s first two journal entries express strong enthusiasm: “Great, full of firecrackers. A fine provocative book” that “really makes sense.” A “prophetic” and “very sound diagnosis.”  By the end of his first week with the book, however, Merton hedged a bit. “I think Ellul is too pessimistic,” he began, but then added, “not unreasonably so .… certainly it is logical.”[1]

In the days that followed, however, Merton’s reading of Louis Massignon[2], also in preparation for the peacemakers retreat, had helped cement his positive assessment of Ellul. Massignon, a Frenchman like Ellul, was a Catholic mystic and scholar of Islam who also served as a mentor of sorts for Merton. In a 1948 essay, first read by Merton a few days after he read Ellul, Massingon critiqued modern inclinations to “sacralize” technology. This mystically imbued reflection by his Catholic mentor empowered Merton to then journalize that, “when it comes to taking sides I am with Ellul, and also with Massignon.”[3]

Merton clearly intended from the start of his preparations to critique technology at this retreat, sponsored in part by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and convened under the theme “Spiritual Roots of Protest.” Besides granting technology prominence in his initial “Notes,” Merton also offered questions about its nature in an orientation handout for retreatants that he used during the opening session of the three-day event. Additionally, when Merton finalized his outline for a presentation to open the retreat’s second session, he included a list of seven points under the heading “Technology” (see Postscript C below).  Though these points did not include direct quotes of Ellul, two of the seven were followed with page references from The Technological Society’s closing chapter to identify where they originated.

Merton had also personally invited Ping Ferry to participate in the retreat. Ferry served as vice-president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a progressive think tank headquartered in Santa Barbara, California. Though largely unchurched at the time, Ferry retained spiritual sensitivities and harbored anti-war sentiments. In an interview three decades later Ferry recalled that, “Tom, in inviting me, asked that I enlarge on the main points in The Technological Society.” This offers still more evidence—beyond Ellul references in Merton’s preparatory material—that Merton remained serious about injecting Ellul’s views on technology into retreat agenda.

Bob Cunnane, John Howard Yoder, and Thomas Merton (left to right) discuss technology and other forces related to “spiritual roots of protest” during the Gethsemani Abbey retreat Merton hosted in 1964. (Photo credit: Jim Forest)

The surviving record of retreat discussion reveals that the spirit of Jaques Ellul, as channeled through Thomas Merton and Ping Ferry, remained vibrantly present throughout. Technology consumed a large share of their opening orientation on Wednesday morning, and Merton included it in his formal presentation during that afternoon’s session.  On Thursday afternoon, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder responded to frame technology as one of St. Paul’s “Principalities and Powers,” which also sparked conversation. Yoder drew this connection not directly from Ellul’s own work, but from Dutch theologian Henrik Berkhoff’s book on Christ and the Powers, which Yoder had translated into English a couple years earlier. In his journal entry that night, Merton summarized how “Ping Ferry has been very helpful (he and I talked a lot at first about Ellul),” adding that Yoder had injected a “biblical” viewpoint on protest.  Ferry’s early departure prevented his participation on Friday, their final session, but Merton once again elicited comments on technology during their closing conversations.

Not all retreat participants immediately embraced this critique of technology. But the Ellul-inspired conversation among Thomas Merton’s peace activist guests that week planted seeds that would mature. These interactions deepened their awareness of how technique, as explained by Ellul, permeated modern human interaction.  Its unconscious, reflexive presence in our lives grants it significance well beyond the superficial, mechanical processes we associate with technology. Merton, Ferry, and Yoder presented technique as an underlying force that drives decisions and prompts actions which feed impersonal and often violent responses to human dilemmas. As such, technique, along with many of its specific technological manifestations, reflects a spiritual power that must be considered by those who seek modern (or post-modern) “spiritual roots of protest.”

“I think there is a definite importance in [Ellul’s] rather dark views [on technology].”

–Merton to Hervé Chaigne, 21 April 1965


Merton’s Evolving Embrace of The Technological Society. Merton’s enthusiasm for Ellul carried into the weeks following his peacemakers retreat.  In early December he published a brief but favorable review of The Technological Society in The Commonweal. And later that month he wrote to Bernard Haring, then serving as a theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council, that their upcoming statement on “the Church in the modern world” should address the “huge inhuman mechanism” of technology of which “no one is really in control.” More specifically, Merton advised that “the monumental work of Jacques Ellul on La Technique is something that cannot be ignored by the Council fathers if they wish to see all aspects of the crucial question of the Church and the world.”[4]

Just two days before this letter to Haring, Merton had also described The Technological Society to Hervé Chaigne, editor of a French Franciscan journal, as Ellul’s “great work on technology,” which is “entirely convincing” and has “the stamp of prophecy.”[5] In another letter to Chaigne four months later, however, Merton remained complimentary of Ellul but qualified his praise by noting the book “was not liked in America” and describing him as a “pessimist,” which Merton attributed to “a certain Calvinism.” Still, Merton affirmed that Ellul’s “rather dark views” are “not to be neglected, for he sees an aspect of technology that others cannot or will not recognize.”[6]

By 1966, however, Merton had grown more reluctant to expressly cite Ellul’s book. Though Merton included several comments on technology that year in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he cited Lewis Mumford on the topic without referencing Ellul. But Ellul’s imprint on Merton remained present if not expressed.  That summer as Merton prepared for a lecture to his novices on technology[7], he drew heavily from his original notes on The Technological Society compiled for the peacemakers retreat two years earlier.  He even recopied two direct Ellul quotes from his retreat notes:

The translation into action of Man’s concern to master things by means of reason, to account for what is unconscious, make quantitative what is qualitative, make clear and precise the outlines of nature.[8]

We are now at the stage of historical evolution in which everything that is not technique is being eliminated…Technology is progressing without decisive intervention by man.[9]

Merton had added the note “(Debatable)” following the second quote and failed to cite it when delivering the actual lecture.[10] And though he did share the first quote while lecturing, he attributed it simply to “an author.” Further, although he included no citations of Mumford in his preparatory notes, during the lecture he named Mumford as “the man” on “the history of technology and the relationship of technology and civilization,” whereas Ellul’s name fails to surface in Merton’s presentation.

Why Merton grew more hesitant to cite Ellul on technology less than two years after his initial enthusiasm remains unclear.  Perhaps critical reviews of The Technological Society had taken a toll; perhaps Merton’s greater optimism in human freedom to resist technique prompted his reluctance. Still, Merton’s sympathy with Ellul’s insights into the power of technique remained. Writing in 1967 he continued to “question the universal myth that technology infallibly makes everything in every way better for everybody. It does not.”[11] Christopher J. Kelly further explores Merton’s “critique of modern technological civilization” in Ellul Forum #21 (pages 3-14).

“It is some comfort to find someone who agrees with my position.”

–Merton on Ellul’s L’Illusion politique


Merton’s Other Readings of Ellul. As mentioned at the outset, after reading The Technological Society, Merton also engaged two other works by Ellul. In April 1965 he eagerly accepted a copy of Propagandes from the French Franciscan editor Chaigne as “ample payment” for an article Merton had submitted. Three months later, when commenting in his journal on the “inauthenticity” of modern religious relationships, he added that “in Ellul’s Propagandes there are good reasons why.” What such relationships currently entail, he noted, was not so much “unity in the Spirit” but rather (quoting Ellul) “propaganda for integration.” For Merton, this meant relationships were being formed around “complicity in mutual persuasion” or “liberal triumphalism making itself come true” rather than “on Spirit and on faith.”[12]

Then a couple days later, his journal again records “an important note from Ellul on Propaganda.” This time he commented on the roll of individualistic “Mass-man” and his dependence on Mass society and its media. Placing it in his own monastic context, he noted that “if one simply breaks away … [but] remains in contact with the world through Mass Media…one can be a Mass-man thinking himself a hermit, i.e., one’s solitude is not in the presence of God … but in Mass society.”[13]

When it came time to publish Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander the following year, Merton’s comfort with Ellul’s work on propaganda seems to have held up better than it had for technique.  In an eight-page section that explores the nature of propaganda, Merton explicitly referenced Ellul and also directly quoted him: “Thus rational propaganda gives birth to an irrational situation and remains before all else propaganda, that is to say an interior possession of the individual by a social power, which corresponds to the surrender of self-possession.”[14] In this material, he relies on Ellul’s suggestion that even information based on fact and logic can function as propaganda when we lack adequate time and focus to assess and assimilate it.

Merton’s third and final encounter with Ellul appears in his journal for December 1965, as he began to read L’Illusion politique. After noting the comfort afforded by a text supportive of his own view, Merton added, “however, I think this book too may turn out insufficient and naïve (philosophically weak perhaps. I am not far into it.)” Yet he closed the journal entry affirming that Ellul “is basically right in attacking the modern superstition that ‘what has no political value has no value at all.’”[15]

His final journal reference to Ellul, just two days later, consists of a quote from L’Illusion politique that comments on delusions of freedom in our political engagement.  As translated, this quote reads in part: “He has the conviction of living as a free man precisely because he lives in the present moment …  What astonishing confusion, not to see to what extent obeying the moment and reacting to the latest events are the most radical possible negations of freedom.”  Merton journalized these words as he reflected on some of his own recent overreactions and missteps in response to rapid political developments beyond his monastery walls. Ellul’s comments encouraged him to seek greater “distance,” develop “a new unexplored consciousness,” and pursue “a new interior freedom.”[16]

*  *  *

Merton, who died a sudden and accidental death in 1968, seemingly read none of Ellul’s explicitly theological works. Based on his limited exposure to Ellul, Merton questioned some of what he read, and he perhaps considered aspects of Ellul too pessimistic or weakly developed. But whatever doubts Merton recorded about Ellul focused mostly on his outlook rather than denial of the essential content he found in Ellul’s work. Merton consistently voiced appreciation for and resonance with Ellul’s overall assessments of technology, propaganda, and politics. Though he typically referred to “technology” rather than “technique,” the substance of Merton’s comments reveals that he indeed grasped and integrated Ellul’s view of technique and its role in human life. As Jeffrey Shaw documents in Illusions of Freedom, a book that addresses their similarities, on the whole Merton’s encounter with Jacque Ellul during the mid-1960s suggests he had found a kindred spirit.




A. List of “Peacemakers Retreat” Participants:

Daniel Berrigan, S.J.

Philip Berrigan, S.S.J

Tom Cornell

Bob Cunnane, C.S.S

Wilbur H. Ferry

Jim Forest

John Peter Grady

Elbert Jean

Thomas Merton

J. Muste

John Oliver Nelson

Charles Ring, C.S.S.

Tony Walsh

John Howard Yoder


B. Thomas Merton’s Initial “Peace Meeting” Notes: [16]

  1. Technology & its spirit (ascendency of device)
  2. Technology makes war almost inevitable (the basic principle—what is possible becomes necessary)  t. changes whole attitude toward killing—makes it all the more intense in that it is efficient—depersonalized—alienates
  3. Attitude of peace movement to technology will determine its spiritual base. Is the very membrane of technological society self-destructive?
  4. The Christian challenge of a “break with the world” —society basically corrupt.
  5. “Thus the development of economic techniques does not formally destroy the spiritual but rather subordinates it to the realization of the Great Design—the whole of man’s life has become a function of economic technique.” 226 [page citation from The Technological Society]
  6. The reason why peace is “moved-on.” There is no technology of peace comparable to that of war.  Can there be any? We should still ask for it. (Not only alternatives to war but an alternative technical complex…) Importance of Peace—impact on world events.
  7. Ideological disarmament? Chuang Tzu?
  8. Idea of war more acceptable than idea of peace, even nuclear war, because it “rings a bell”—is “definite,” familiar. Peace is unfamiliar, “new.” Does not accord with the orientation of tech. society.
  9. The grace to protest is a special gift of God, requiring fidelity and purity of heart, & distinguished from mere human gripeing (by discernment of spirits)
  10. The grace to love & to wish for opponent a better situation in which oppression no longer exists (not merely regarding him as obstacle)


C. Thomas Merton’s Speaking Outline Notes on “Technology”: [17]

  1. “What can be done must be done.”
  2. It will (& must) be done before people are able to understand what it means and what its consequences must be, 50/50 chances it will be opposite to desired effect. Proliferation of means—ends vanishes p. 430 [page citation from The Technological Society]
  3. How in such a situation can we possibly speak of control?
  4. If this is out of control can cooperation be “moral”?
  5. How can one not cooperate?
  6. If one cannot help cooperating, how can one’s [sic] cooperation be immoral?
  7. Mystique and technology 422-423 [page citation from The Technological Society]


Notes from Above:

[1] Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas Merton, 1963-1965, Robert E. Daggy, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 159, 161, 163.

[2] See ”Louis Massignon and Monastic Protest”.

[3] Dancing in the Water of Life, 166.

[4] Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis, William H. Shannon, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 1994), 109.

[5] Witness to Freedom, 109.

[6] These notes are preserved in “Collected Essays #6,” held in the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.  

[7] The Technological Society, 43.

[8] The Technological Society, 82.

[9] The transcript of the recorded lecture is published as Appendix One in Paul Dekar, Thomas Merton: Twentieth-Century Wisdom for Twenty-First-Century Living (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 206-213.

[10] The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, Robert E. Daggy, ed. (New York: Harcourt,Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 98.

[11] Dancing in the Water of Life, 270-1.

[12] Dancing in the Water of Life, 274.

[13] Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 237.

[14] Dancing in the Water of Life, 322.

[15] Dancing in the Water of Life, 342.

[16] Originally published with permission of the Merton Legacy Trust as Appendix A in Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest: Merton, Berrigan, Yoder, and Muste at the Gethsemani Abbey Peacemakers Retreat, Gordon Oyer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

[17] Appendix D in Pursuing the Spiritual Roots of Protest.




To Read Gene Davenport’s 1991 article on “Jacques Ellul and Thomas Merton on Technique”

— Issue #7 of the Ellul Forum, click here.

Then scroll down to Page 10-12.


econ_detail4“Merton portrays technology as a massive complex that reaches every aspect of social life, a complex of which no one really is in control and ‘which dictates its own solutions irrespective of human needs or even of reason.'”

(Davenport referencing a letter by Thomas Merton to Father Bernard Haring in December 1966.)



To Read Phillip Thompson’s 2000 article on “Jacques Ellul’s Influence on the Cultural Critique of Thomas Merton”

— Issue #25 of the Ellul Forum, click here.

Then scroll down to Page 10.


“Merton devoted a couple of articles, a lecture to his novices, and a fair portion of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander to the issue of technology. The main body of his thinking regarding technology is derived, however, from fragmentary and episodic explorations in journals, letters and other writings. All of his writings reflect his search for a spiritual orientation that seeks reality and meaning amidst a disorienting century.”

— Phillip Thompson (from his article listed above)