Power, Virtue, and Common Sense

“The most important book ever written on American public policy,” if we can believe Andrew J. Bacevich, began as lectures delivered on college campuses shortly after the close of World War II. The lecturer was Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and his speeches were published in 1949 as The Irony of American History.

President Obama is well versed in Niebuhr’s ideas, which may be one reason why the University of Chicago Press has reissued the book, sixty years after its first appearance. It has a new introduction by Bacevich whose 2008 book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, draws extensively upon Niebuhr’s work.

Niebuhr’s organizing motif is irony, which he describes as a situation with incongruities that on the surface seem unrelated, but upon closer examination are closely tied together. “Virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue,” and “strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt” the person or nation that is strong.

Applied to American life, irony comes in two patterns. First, the good in American life—our scientific developments, our emphasis upon the dignity of every person, our freedoms, our preeminence in world affairs—carries with it unrecognized tendencies which, if allowed to develop unchecked, undercut or destroy the good. Second, certain elements of American society that are undervalued or scorned—the young, the deviant, the culturally dispossessed, the uneducated—possess within themselves the possibilities of contributing new strength that can make the nation better.

Irony helps us understand that America’s necessity to exercise power carries with it the inescapable development of guilt.

Niebuhr’s illustration is the threat to use atomic weapons after World War II. As Americans, we had always thought of ourselves as a most innocent and virtuous nation, but after the war we also found ourselves the world’s most powerful. We were custodians of the most destructive weapon ever developed, and we could not disavow its use in order to maintain our virtue. Yet if we had used it, we would have covered ourselves with a terrible guilt.

For Americans, the irony is that “the greatness of our power is derived on the one hand from the technical efficiency of our industrial establishment and on the other from the success of our natural scientists. Yet it was assumed that science and business enterprise would insure the triumph of reason over power and passion in human history.” We know that this assumption was (and is) ill founded.

The ironic dimension of American foreign policy helps us understand current efforts to protect the world from forces that threaten freedom, dignity, and life itself. The exercise of power has been defended as the action of a nation that believes in freedom and wants to extend it to people around the world. Yet, the defense of freedom, supported by a significant body of intellectual analysis, has led the nation into preemptive wars in the Middle East.

Not only has this warfare brought violence and suffering; it has also caused our military forces to engage in actions that emulate many of the most coercive tactics of those whom we battle in the name of our superior freedoms and way of life.

Toward the end of his book, Niebuhr writes that in America common sense trumps theory. Truth “becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.” Common sense prevents both of the primary theories (Niebuhr calls them wisdoms) now operating in America from being carried through to their logical conclusions.

Niebuhr writes as a theologian, often drawing upon the Bible in order to show the ironic point of view in full operation. His book is a splendid example of how theological ideas can be brought into public discourse in ways that transcend sectarianism. Social policy and political action would be improved if more of our public discourse were of this kind.

In the nation’s capitol and in legislative assemblies around the country, let this be remembered: Carried too far, held until the bitter end, our virtues become vices. When we are most certain of ourselves, those things we demean or despise may lead to positive change.

Niebuhr is right. A renewed awareness of the ironic character of American culture and politics could allow common sense to trump our ideologies again. The result: foreign policy and political action at home would both be much improved.

Note: Thanks to Pastor Bob Cornwall, friend and mentor, who is posting this review on his blog in order to help spread the word. http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/

3 Responses to Power, Virtue, and Common Sense

  1. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Keith, thanks for your excellent blog/review of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.”

    Your overview of the book dovetails with my recollection of much of the discussion of our Religion and Culture reading/discussion group, in November 2008.

    I do recall early in our discussion reviewing the distinctions professor Niebuhr draws in his preface between the “ironic” elements in our U.S. history from the “tragic” and “pathetic” dynamics in our history. Those distinctions were thoughtful and instructional.

    A passage (page 108) highlighted with marginal note in my copy of “The Irony…” that you touch upon: “The controversy between those who would ‘plan’ justice and order and those who trust in freedom (a ‘laissez-faire free economy’/”Don’t Tread on Me” liberty/reflected in part by the Tea Party appeal today/my insert) to establish both is, therefore, an irresolvable one. Every healthy society will live in the tension of that controversy until the end of history; and will prove its health by preventing either side from gaining complete victory.
    “The triumph of ‘common sense’ in American history is thus primarily the triumph of the vitality of our democratic institutions. The ironic feature in it consists of the fact that we have achieved a tolerable synthesis between two conflicting ideologies in practice while we allowed the one to dominate our theory.”

    Keith, I fully concur with your concluding three paragraphs/sentences — a positive evalution of the contribution Niebuhr makes to a fuller comprehension of the dynamics at play in the process of U.S. sociology, psychology and our more of less common sense political practice, which if we more closely heeded in recent times & today, perhaps our “foreign policy and pollitical action at home would both be much improved.”

    Without question, in my view, Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History” is one of the most provocative, stimulating and insightful, of the 50 plus books, our reading group has discussed.

    Thanks again for posting your excellent blog.


  2. Neil W Allen says:

    Thank you Keith for this wonderful perspective. I would agree with you in so many ways, but then again, you, being our teacher, influenced that perspective. I was thinking, as I read “we possess the most destructive weapon on earth” (paraphrase), I couldn’t help thinking that one might argue about what that weapon is. The pen has been a powerful weapon that has led to a greater amount of killing than nuclear weapons. Hitler’s greatest weapon was his speeches. Others have argued it is religion (but, of course, you and I wouldn’t go there). It made me think about how all weapons have trigging devices and that they may be defused by the same “triggers.” Your words, if heard, could lead us in a new, more-hopefull direction. God bless you for your continued work.

    Neil W. Allen

    • keithwatkins says:

      Neil, your comments about the power of words, for good and for ill, are certainly right. There is much too much careless speech today and far more deliberately malicious speech-making and talk-show talking!

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