Conservative Theology

Niebuhr's The Irony of American History - Summary and Quotes


I just finished reading Niebuhr's The Irony of American History.  It's a fascinating read.  Basically, Niebuhr's point is that history can be understood much better if we reintroduce the concept of "original sin".  Basically, he criticizes the Communist view of history by criticizing their doctrine of sin/evil.  They place "evil" entirely onto the property system.  Therefore, by removing the property system, they have removed "evil".  Likewise, liberal democracies have tried to remove evil through education - thus their doctrin of sin/evil is based on a lack of understanding and education.  Therefore, by educating everyone to the largest extent possible, and through technological and scientific innovation, we can irradicate evil.

Niebuhr criticizes both of these by saying that the correct doctrine of sin is the traditional conception of "original sin" - that is, sin is a permanent part of each and every one of us.  It can't be externalized on any other entity.  Therefore, any view of history or governmental system which is based upon an externalization of sin is bound to fail.  He says that the reason America has not failed where other people have is simply because we don't hold our bad doctrines as closely as others :)

Anyway, I've put together a collection of quotes for you from the book.  Happy reading!  Most of these are at least somewhat peripheral to the main arguments, but all have powerful insights.

p.23 - But these reservations of Christian realism in our culture cannot obscure the fact that, next to pretensions, we are (according to our traditional theory) the most innocent nation on earth.  The irony of our situation lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous (in the sense of practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world responsibilities) if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be.

p.29 - For we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy.  This expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice in terms which will not differ too greatly from those which the wisest nations of Europe have been forced to use.

p.38 - No powerful nation in history has ever been more reluctant to acknowledge the position it has achieved in the world than we.  The moral advantage lies in the fact that we do not have a strong lust of power, though we are quickly aquiring the pride of power which always accompanies its possession...we have been so deluded by the concept of our innocency that we are ill prepared to deal with the temptations of power which now assail us.

p.39 - All nations, unlike some individuals, lack the capacity to prefer a noble death to a morally ambiguous survival.

p.52 - ...the descent from Puritansism to Yankeeism in America was a fairly rapid one.  Prosperity which had been sought in the service of God was now sought for its own sake. [Niebuhr then compares Deuteronomy 6:18 with Deuteronomy 8:7-17, which he had thought had been overlooked]

p.59 - But it cannot be denied that a bourgeois society is in the process of experiencing the law of diminishing returns in the relation of technics [technology] and efficiency to the cultural life.  The pursuit of culture requires certain margins of physical security and comfort; but the extension of the margins does not guarantee the further development of cultural values.  It may lead to a preoccupation with the margins and obsession with the creature comforts.

p.59 - Television may represent a threat to our culture analogous to the threat of atomic weapons to our civilization.

p.59-60 - Yet we cannot deny the indictment that we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms; and are not fully aware of the limits of this approach.  The constant multiplication of our high school and college enrollments has not had the effect of making us the most "intelligent" nation, whether we measure intelligence in terms of social wisdom, aesthetic discrimination, spritual serenity or any other basic human achievement.  It may have mad us technically the most proficient nation, thereby proving that technical efficiency is more easily achieved in purely quantitative terms than any other value of culture....No national culture has been as assiduous as our own in trying to press the wisdom of the social and political sciences, indeed of all the humanities, into the limits of the natural sciences...the result is frequently a preoccupation with the minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers vapid solutions for profound problems.

p.63 - Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.  Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

p.74 - ...a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America...The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast webb of history.....[to] hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire.

p.78 - The institution of monarchy, shorn of its absolute power, was found to possess virtues which neither the proponents nor the opponents of its original form anticipated.  It became the symbol of the continuing will and unity of a nation as distinguished from the momentary will, embodied in specific governments.

p.88 - ...modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.  It is a drama in which fragmentary meanings can be discerned within a penumbra of mystery; and in which specific duties and responsibilities can be undertaken within a vast web of relations which are beyond our powers...  [discussing two opposing views of man - overemphasis of spirit vs overemphasis of nature] man as the spectator and manager of history imagines himself to be freer of the drama he beholds than he really is; and man as the creature of history is too simply reduced to the status of a creature of nature, and all of his contacts to the ultimate are destroyed.

p.107 - There is an element of truth in each position which becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.

p.116 - However, even the most grievous injustices of the feudal world are not as responsible for the abject poverty of its agrarian poor as the low efficiency of its economy.

p.133 - [quoting someone else] "For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself."

p.158 - Divine jealousy is aroused by man's refusal to observe the limits of his freedom.

p.159 - ...Israel, the righteous nation, [is reminded] of the judgment which waits on human pretension.  The great nation, Babylon, is warned that its confidence in the security of its power will be refuted by history.

p.160 - Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law.