Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Niebuhr's Ironic American History

In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr compares the American ideology to actual American history and finds that what we believe and say is an ironic contrast to what we actually do. As a part of this examination of the irony of American history, I find Niebuhr's critique of the rationalist view of man, whether it is of the liberal school (classical or otherwise) or the Marxist school, to be particularly relevant. In an age where we presume that we can determine or manage the destiny of man along a rational basis, we have much to learn about our own nature.

In contrast to Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant (a real pissant), who wrote in his essay on universal history that "nature's supreme objective" is a "universal cosmopolitan state," Neibuhr argues that the irrational side of man - his passions, loves, hatreds, ambitions, etc. - defies any attempt at management. As Neibuhr notes, "For as man as an historical creature has desires of indeterminate dimensions" [1]. This pit of indeterminate desire frustrates the ideologies of ultimate historical ends (cosmopolitanism, universal liberty, a common market, communism, etc.) and the adherents of these ideologies. To create these ideologies, the authors must ignore or rationalise the elements ("do violence to the facts" [2]) of man's history which do not conform to their theorized pattern (e.g., compare Locke or Rousseau's theory of the social contract to Hume's opinion of the original contract). Of the victims of the inestimable desires of man, the Jeffersonian liberal as well as the Marxist are prominently featured. The historical dialectic of Marx is a prime example of managerial attempts at conforming history towards a pre-determined end which can only be achieved by the theory of the manager [3]. 

Another group of managers whose determinism is criticized by Niebuhr are political and social scientists. As a political science major, I find some of criticisms to quite valid, especially with regards to political scientists becoming bogged down in minutiae [4]. For example, a study was published this year about how a voter's status as a fan would effect his voting behaviour if his team was winning or losing. While interesting from a perspective of curiosity, this does not have much impact on the process of governing or shed much light on how government can be improved, but is an example of a political science out of touch with its roots, while there are other examples of political science offering "vapid solutions for profound problems" [5]. And those who believe that political scientists should be more involved in the process of governing will find no ally in Reinhold Niebuhr. In fact, Niebuhr dismisses the idea that statesmen should have "social and psychological scientists at their elbows" to convince them to ignore their political instincts [6]. For Niebuhr, the halting and irrational progress represented by those pragmatic political instincts represents the humility and advantage of the American system of government (part of its irony) [7].

Niebuhr does not deny that there is a fate or destiny towards which history is inexorably moving, only that this fate is not a rational end: "The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any rational scheme of intelligibility" [8]. Understanding and recognizing this lack of a scheme imparts a sense of humility which is necessary for realizing human limitations and adjusting our policies as needed to conform to that humility. Niebuhr notes that "human limitations catch up with human pretensions" [9], using the tower of Babel and other Biblical examples to demonstrate his point [10], and Abraham Lincoln is Niebuhr's example of this humble statesmanship [11].  Lincoln is an example because he rejected a simple moral resolution to the conflict, as well as any simplistic moral dichotomy (an either/or fallacy).

Niebuhr's primary point of reference is the Cold War - the global struggle between the forces of liberalism and Marxism - but it is applicable to our situation as well (our struggle is Islamism). As he writes:
"If we fully understand the deep springs which feed the illusions of this religion [communism], the nature of the social resentments which nourish them and the realities of life which must ultimately refute them, we might acquire the necessary patience to wait out the long run of history while we take such measures as are necessary to combat the more immediate perils" [12].
This statement is directed towards our struggle with the Soviet Union, but it is equally relevant to our struggle with radical Islam. We must address our immediate security concerns, but understanding what drives the adherents of radical Islam will allow us to shut off the sources which nourish their resentment. This point has often been made by others but it is an important one.

Too often, we believe that we control the outcome of historical forces of which we are merely a part. In many ways, we are subject to the whims of fortune that Machiavelli advised the prince to strive against. Niebuhr does not suggest we simply succumb to the forces of history, but merely realize we cannot change the ends of history [13]. Like other "heroes of the faith," we must struggle on not always knowing our fate, but having faith that we are correct in our beliefs.



1. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, p. 84
2. Ibid., p. 152
3. Ibid., p. 72
4. Ibid., p. 60
5. Ibid., p. 80
6. Ibid., p. 73
7. Ibid., pp. 64, 88, 138
8. Ibid., p. 150
9. Ibid., p. 162
10. Ibid., p. 159
11. Ibid., pp. 171-73
12. Ibid., p. 129
13. Ibid., p. 144

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