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from issue no. 04 - 2003

Reinhold Niebuhr and the political realism of Saint Augustine

Luigi Giussani wrote in American Protestant Theology: "In Niebuhr the main accents of American Protestant theological discourse emerge in a very novel and balanced synthesis. Significantly he is the demystifier of the idea of America as the place making manifest the Kingdom of God, which in various inflexions and various tones had conditioned the spirit of all American history"

by Gianni Dessì

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

In her article Bush and manifest destiny (La Stampa, 9 March 2003), Barbara Spinelli contrasted an apocalyptical religious feeling – the element that confers on this war the feeling of ineluctability that characterizes it – of which Bush has made himself interpreter, with the Christian realism that has always been present in the religious and political culture of the United States. The best known exponent of this second position, mentioned by Spinelli, was Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential religious thinker in 20th century American culture. In Italy few people know the Protestant pastor who caught the attention of American public opinion with the book Moral man and immoral society (1932). Referring in it to Saint Augustine, Niebuhr declared that the earthly city was inevitably marked by the clash of opposing interests, that to pretend to definitively resolve the complexity led to “bad religion” and “bad politics”.
Luigi Giussani, who in the ‘seventies devoted various writing to him, said: «In Niebuhr the main accents of American Protestant theological discourse emerge in a very novel and balanced synthesis. Significantly he is the demystifier of the idea of America as the place making manifest the Kingdom of God, which in various inflexions and various tones had conditioned the spirit of all American history» 1. Niebuhr explicitly faced up to this very complex element, the origin of which lies precisely in the decisive function that religious feeling performed from the beginnings of American history. In a 1958 book, Pious and Secular America, he analyzed the issue starting from the affirmation that «in the twentieth century we are, at one and the same time, the most religious and the most secularized of western countries» 2.
The premises for this analysis are however anterior. In 1953, having gone from a position politically close to socialism to a firm critique of communism, he published The political realism of Augustine. It was a long essay in which the Protestant theologian dealt in depth with the Catholic saint, acknowledging in substance a decisive debt in his own intellectual development. In an autobiographical interview of 1956, he stated: «I’m surprised when I look back to note how late I began the study of Augustine in depth: it’s all the more surprising when one takes into account that the thinking of this theologian was to answer many of my still unresolved questions and finally rid me of the notion that the Christian faith was in some way identical to the moral idealism of last century» 3.
The essay on Saint Augustine begins with an attempt to define realism in politics: Niebuhr’s proposal is that in the sphere of politics «realism denotes the disposition to take into consideration all the factors that in a political and social situation offer resistance to the established norms, particularly the factors of personal interest and power». Precisely in this sense Augustine «was, by universal acknowledgement, the first great realist in western history» 4. He did hold, Niebuhr goes on, in due account the tensions and the conflicts that characterize every human community. The cutting edge that enabled this approach was the conception of human nature proper to the biblical tradition and to Christianity. Niebuhr remarks that «this difference between Augustine’s point of view and that of the classical philosophers lies in the biblical conception, rather than in the rational one, that Augustine had of human subjectivity, with the connected conception that the seat of evil is to be found in the self» 5. Evil as consequence of the wrong use of freedom, that is as consequence of original sin, enabled Saint Augustine, according to Niebuhr, to understand the reality of politics in their effectiveness. Augustine’s description of the earthly city, marked by irreconcilable disputes, rent by opposing interests, incapable of achieving a genuine justice and a lasting peace, is wholly shared by the Protestant thinker. He writes that «compared with a Christian realism, based on Augustine’s interpretation of biblical faith, a great number of modern social and psychological theories, held to be anti-Platonist or even anti-Aristotelian and that much boast their pretended realism, are in reality no more realist than the formulations of the classical philosophers» 6.
He stresses, however, another aspect of Augustine’s realism, connected with the idea that the city of God, in this world, is, for the whole duration of its pilgrimage, connected and intermixed with the earthly one. It’s a matter of the fact that Saint Augustine’s realism is not a realism that can lead to unconditional approval of power. Starting from the different positions of Luther and Hobbes, who share a pessimist consideration of human nature and the need to avoid society’s being prey to perennial conflict and anarchy, Niebuhr says that «pessimist realism in fact drove both Hobbes and Luther to an unqualified approval of the state of power: but this only because they were not sufficiently realist» 7. They tried to avoid the danger of anarchy, but «were wrong in their perception of the danger of tyranny in the selfishness of the governors. As a result they passed over the consequent necessity of setting checks on the will of the governors» 8.
In short, Niebuhr criticizes the political realism that in the name of the corruption or wickedness of human nature asserts the necessity of power without, however, considering that the holders of power are themselves marked with the same corruption or wickedness as all the others. The need to check power, and Niebuhr’s option for democracy, arises precisely out of a radical realism, that holds that all men have in common the same capacity for good and evil. The check on power undoubtedly represents a tool for reigning in the tendency to despotism. On the other hand a society continually hovering between despotism and the anarchy consequent on the pressure of the different groups on those who hold power, can only lead to a cynical view of politics. Augustine, however, helps one out of the cul-de-sac. He understood that «while selfishness is universal, it is not natural in the sense that it is not in conformity to the nature of man… Realism becomes morally cynical or nihilistic when it assumes that a universal characteristic of human behavior must also be considered normative» 9. In concluding this outline reconstruction of lessons that Niebuhr was able to draw from his encounter with Saint Augustine, I would like to point to at least three aspects of his view that seem to me to merit attention.
St. Augustine

St. Augustine

The first is the anti-perfectism, understood as awareness of the inevitably imperfect approximation to the good of any political regime. Niebuhr strongly criticized the claim of America to be the country chosen by God to establish his kingdom on earth.
The second aspect regards the call for the necessary check on all power that Niebuhr sets out in his critique of the political pessimism of Hobbes and Luther, judged by him insufficiently radical in that they abstained from expressing themselves towards the holders of power also. He affirms the presence of sin, of disordered affirmation of self at every level of human experience.
The last aspect, which sums up the previous ones, is what Christopher Lasch, in an interesting chapter devoted to Niebuhr, has described, speaking «of the moral discipline against resentment» 10. In substance it is a matter of the practical affirmation that sin operates not only in others but also in ourselves. This awareness prevents us judging positions different from ours as immoral by contrasting them with ours as moral. The affirmation of one’s own moral superiority as justification of a precise practico-political choice, the condemnation of evil exclusively in others, mistakes the real nature of man after original sin. This dynamic leads, as Niebuhr puts it, to the «sanctification of one’s own position», conferring an aura of sacrality on precise and particular interests that arrogate a claim of universality. 11. The dynamic produces violence in that it denies the presence of the same human nature in us and in others and leads to treating those who back practical choices diverse from our own as evil itself.
1 L. Giussani, Teologia protestante americana, La Scuola Cattolica, Venegono Inferiore 1969, p. 141.
2 R. Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America, Scribners, New York 1958, p.1.
3 R. Niebuhr, A theology for praxis, It. tr., Queriniana, Brescia 1977, p. 55.
4 R. Niebuhr The political realism of Augustine, It.tr., in G. Dessì, Niebuhr. Antropologia cristiana e democrazia, Studium, Roma 1993, pp.77-78.
5 ibid, p.79.
6 ibid, p.82.
7 ibid, p.85.
8 ibid.
9 ibid, p.88.
10 C. Lasch, Paradise on earth. Progress and its critique, It. tr., Feltrinelli, Milano 1992, p. 356.
11This theme occurs continually in Niebuhr’s writings. See among the many references the refusal «to give moral sanction to one’s own interests» that he expresses in The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, Scribners, New York 1944, p.16.

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