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Victor Nuovo: The irony of American history

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Posted on October 12, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the 28th and final essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.

The title of this essay is borrowed from a book, published in 1952 by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), who is considered one of the outstanding intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a theologian, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York during its heyday. I take pride in having been one of his students, and although I no longer share his faith such as it was, I continue to find his views of human nature, history and politics profound, powerful and relevant, especially now.

I was reminded of Niebuhr’s book while composing this last essay in this series. What could be more ironic than a constitution that relies on human selfishness to establish the rule of law? Besides, the title and theme suggested a fitting way to conclude this series of essays on the history of western political thought.

Irony is rooted in the ambiguity of meaning. For example, the versatility of language enables a speaker or writer to say one thing and mean just the opposite, or, even better, to mean both together, joining opposites in an implausible harmony. Take the famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, repeated by Mark Anthony in his funeral speech for Caesar: “for Brutus is an honorable man.”

Marcus Brutus worried over Caesar’s ambition, and feared that he aspired to become tyrant of Rome, and so he joined a conspiracy to assassinate him. In all respects, he was an honorable man and was held in highest reputation, “the very best of the Romans.”

But the way in which Mark Anthony uses these words, the context and his tone of voice, means the opposite, or to be precise, Brutus’ action shows that his noble character is flawed, conflicted, impure, and capable of acting dishonorably. Mark Anthony’s remark also reveals the ambiguity of the action itself and the character of the actors, for Caesar was murdered by honorable men, patriots all, who acted to save the republic, which, however, in the end they failed to do. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a tragedy, and Brutus is its hero.

This is Niebuhr’s point. Nations and their histories must be viewed through the filter of irony, which reveals the ambiguities of their noblest purposes, programs and achievements. Only then do we understand them, grasp their meaning and assess their value. 

This is a hard and sobering truth, and even more, because it is a truth about us, about human nature in general. But, and this is Niebuhr’s other point, it is a truth that can save us, if we take it to heart, for such knowledge moderates our passion and causes us to be reflective, self-critical, and to pursue more modest, realistic goals. 

The art of politics and the institutions that it makes are artificial things, designed neither by nature nor by God, but fashioned by human beings for their mutual benefit and convenience. Yet there is a tendency in our creative imaginations to overreach and become overheated; to entertain utopian designs against all the evidence that reality or nature will not sustain them; to mistake our own motives and those of others; to believe ourselves to be wiser and more resourceful than we are; to mix our noblest ambitions with personal pride, self interest and private ambition, and no small amount of cowardliness.

Why does this happen not just once in a while, but too often, and most often when purity of motive and purpose are most loudly asserted? Niebuhr attributes it to a flaw in our nature.

Of all the doctrines of Christianity, Niebuhr devoted most of his attention to the doctrine of original sin. According to this doctrine, sin originated with Adam, the progenitor of mankind, when he disobeyed God. According to the story in Genesis 3, God had forbidden him to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, planted in the Garden of Eden; but Adam, prompted by Eve, nevertheless disobeyed God and ate the fruit. As punishment, God deprived Adam and Eve and all generations after them of immortality and expelled them from Paradise. Life became hard. Hobbes might have commented that this was the beginning of the war of all against all, and human life became “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

The doctrine is more finely developed in the New Testament. According to St. Paul, who doesn’t mention Adam, sin is rooted in the vanity of the human imagination, in human pride and vainglory, in our fashioning God in our own image and worshipping instead this vain image; in short, reversing the order of things and worshipping the creature rather than the creator.

As punishment, God imprisoned mankind in their own imaginations, willfulness, and narcissism, which may be something like being imprisoned in a realm of social media, Twitter and Facebook. This dismal narrative is not as fanciful as it may seem. We are living it now.

The upshot of all of this, as St Augustine put it, is that mankind has remained free only to sin, and even though their minds sometimes catch a glimpse of the good and they desire it, they are not free to do it.

Mankind is free to do evil, but not free to do good. Or, as St Paul famously put it: “For the Good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do” … Oh, wretched man that I am.” (Romans 7: 19, 24) Luther labeled this condition “the bondage of the will,” and wrote a famous book about it in which he relies largely on St Paul.

Niebuhr’s interest in this doctrine was precisely in the ambiguities of human agency that it revealed; in them he perceived the key to the meaning of human history. Because of this, although he consistently favored liberal social and political causes and was a strong and persistent advocate of them, he disavowed the ideals of liberalism and any belief in progress.

He did not believe that it was possible for a nation through education and technology to achieve a perfect state or even to come close to it, much less the world, yet it should never cease to try. Hence, while maintaining his firm stance of critical realism, he never abandoned the struggle for social justice.

So should we all! And in this endeavor, the Constitution, our rule of law, with its checks and balances, should serve as our constant sword and shield, regulating our actions and clarifying our minds.

Postscript: To follow this imperative requires that one be familiar with the Constitution, which is not difficult. It is short. Copies of it are easy to find, inexpensive, and convenient to carry around. They should always be handy. Consult your local bookseller. 

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