Monday, October 23, 2006

"Man the master, ingenious past all measure"--Sophocles

The liberal culture has been informed by similar hopes since the eighteenth century. It has been as impatient as Marxism with the seeming limitations of human wisdom in discerning the total pattern of destiny in which human actions take place, and the failure of human power to bring the total pattern under the dominion of the human will. "If man can predict with almost complete certainty," asked Condorcet, "the phenomena of which he knows the laws, if...from the experience of the past he can forecast with such probability the events of the future, why should one regard it is a chimerical undertaking to trace with some likeness the future destiny of the human species in accordance with the facts of history?" Condorcet was not only certain the future could be known but that he knew it. "Our hopes for the future state of the human species," he continued, "may be reduced to three important points: the destruction of inequality between nations, the progress of equality among the common people, and the growth of man toward perfection" required no more than that "the vast distance which divides the most enlightened people...such as the French and the Anglo-Americans" from those people who are "in servitude to kings" should "gradually disappear."

Obviously the idea of the abolition of the institution of monarchy as the most important strategy for the redemption of mankind was characteristic of the peculiar prejudices of middle-class life as the idea of the abolition of the institution of property was of the unique viewpoint of the propertyless proletariat. In each case they identified all evil with the type of power from which they suffered and which they did not control; and they regarded particular sources of particular social evils as the final source of all evil in history. Neither Condorcet, nor Comte in his subsequent elaborations of similar hopes, placed all their trust in this single strategy. The liberal world has always oscillated between the hope of creating perfect men by eliminating the sources of social evil and the hope of so purifying human "reason" by educational techniques that all social institutions would gradually become the bearers of a universal human will, informed by a universal human mind. These ambiguities, which have saved the Messianic dreams of the liberal culture from breeding the cruelties of communism, must be considered more fully presently. At the moment it is worth recording that the Frenchman, Condorcet, envisaged the French and the "Anglo-Americans" as the Messianic nations. Here we have in embryo what has become the ironic situation of our own day. The French Enlightenment consistently saw the American Revolution and the founding of the new American nation as a harbinger of the perfect world which was in the making. Though Comte, almost a century later, rigorously clung to the idea of French hegemony in the coming utopia and fondly hoped that French would be its universal language, France has fallen by the wayside as a nation with a Messianic consciousness, its present mood being characterized by extreme skepticism rather than apocalyptic hopes.

--Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1952), pp. 66-68.

Though it doesn't appear strongly here, it is impossible to read Niebuhr on the irony of American history without reflecting on the irony of the history about to be made when he published these lectures, and which is wholly lacking even as a storm cloud on the horizon on his analysis.

Writing from the vantage point of 1952, Niebuhr is concerned with global conflicts, and concerned far less with justice than with order (which, in the classic American construction, proceeds from law. Contrast that with the end of Sophocles' "hymn to reason" in "Antigone," where law clearly comes from human endeavor (not Aquinas' "nature") and justice from the gods. By Niebuhr, we have neatly divorced the two, and law imposes order, which eventually gives rise to justice. It is that divorce that is the root of our modern problem, at least where Christian theology and politics are concerned.) Niebuhr goes so far as to state that Americans are not accustomed to using power, and so are unaccustomed to the abuses of power, a sentiment that would have been quite a surprise to the Native Americans (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) or African Americans (the Civil Rights Movement, which would begin only a few years after Neibuhr published this book), or even gay and lesbian Americans, who started their own effort for justice a few decades after Irony was published. And, of course, there is also the Church Commission Report; the revelation of the Tuskegee Experiments; the history of US involvement in Central and South America; even Twain's work denouncing US involvement in the Phillipines ("The War Prayer" is a direct response to that involvement). Not so long ago, I'd have cited that list and said "We will never be so innocent again" about Niebuhr's perspective. Now I'm convinced it's a permanent condition of American culture, something else I'm not sure Niebuhr saw.

There isn't a glimmer of any of those things in Niebuhr's analysis, which is perhaps the greatest irony of all. He is focussed solely on foreign affairs, and despite being the preacher from Detroit he always thought of himself as, missed entirely any anticipation of those justice issues. To further the irony, none of those movements had to do with party politics. They were political, in that they were taken that way. But King and the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement and the gay rights movement, were all concerned with justice, not political power. They did not associate themselves with a political party, the political parties eventually associated themselves with the movements. Perhaps the most effective one was the civil rights movement, which was grounded in Christianity, never sought politial party affiliation (King's break with the Vietnam War earned him a new round of enemies, including supporters of civil rights), and focussed solely on justice. Niebuhr, on the other hand, warned his own daughter about the dangers of a Republican administration.

Despite that, there is a great deal in this passage that speaks to our current situation, and even to the reaction to it in left blogistan. Niebuhr was right: "Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis." It requires both, and I'm less and less convinced either of those are the province of a particular political party, or that the defeat of the worse party means the rise of the better party. Democrats, after all, are running right now pretty much on the platform of: "We're not the GOP!"

Which is not the same thing as saying they are an improvement; or that politics and faith truly live in a creative tension with one another. Politics, after all, is about winning power. Faith is about how one lives one's life. Religion and faith speak to the question of evil, which in turn encompasses the realm of politics.

And that perspective is the source of a very creative tension, indeed.

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