Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Niebuhr Now? by John Patrick Diggins

I've alreay written of my anticipation of this book and my enthusiasm for both the subject and the author, so I won't go on. Much of this short book places Niebuhr within the American culture of his days. But as Diggins will do, he not only tells of Niebuhr's ideas and arguments and his place in history, but he nails the essence. Let me quote:
Today American's political and business leaders typically announce that "freedom" is the touchstone of all their efforts, the benchmark against which we are to measure their accomplishments. The term is our national creed. Centuries ago freedom was considered a passion to be controlled; today it is a principle to be celebrated. Educators teach it, poets chant it, philosophers define it, moralists preach it, politicians swear by it, the retired enjoy it, immigrants dream of it, and the poor strive for it.
The cult of freedom is so ubiquitous in American history that it continually erodes the biding force of authority, a concept carrying weight mainly in the Supreme Court rulings and the tenants of religious sects. Many Americans regard authority as inheritly alien and illegitimate and on this the extremes meet. . . . Preoccupied with the fetish of freedom, few Americans dwell on its riddles and paradoxes. We readily assume that to be free is to do what we wish. But are not our wishes often subject to passions that affect our actions? Genuine freedom consists in self-mastery, escape from external restrains and inner compulsions. Niebuhr would not forget Saint Augustine’s warning that the mind may control the body but cannot control itself. But in American life few question that freedom is anything but a self-evident truth, eternally subject to rebirth and reaffirmation.
Reinhold Niebuhr was no enemy of human freedom, but he tried to make us award of the ironies inherent in the concept. Where there is freedom, he observed, there is also power, and where there is power, there is sin and the temptation to sin. Rarely does America see itself solely in terms of power. Instead, we over estimate our dedication to freedom and forget that we are as much creatures of history as its creators.

Well, enough for now. If you care about freedom, power, sin, pride, and self-knowledge, then these two thinkers have a lot to share with you.

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