Realism is just an excuse for pessimism

When Niebuhr's realism moves into the White House

Reinhold Niebuhr at a lecture for the Union Theological Seminary in New York (1952). [© Getty images / Laura Ronchi]

In an interview with David Brooks, one of the New York Times' best-known conservative political commentators, the new US President Barack Obama recently named Reinhold Niebuhr one of his favorite authors1.
The Protestant theologian, little known in Italy, taught social ethics at Columbia University in New York and had a great influence on the political culture of North America from 1932 - the year Moral man and immoral society was published - until his death in 1971. His political realism was as much a point of reference for intellectuals as it was for politicians, both in the conservative and in the liberal camp.
Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan, the best-known conservative liberals of the immediate post-war period, who had worked out the ideas that were to become the intellectual point of reference for many Americans during the Cold War - the confrontation with the Soviet bloc - were clearly different from Niebuhr and his political ones Realism shaped 2.
But even Martin Luther King - anything but a conservative - was receptive to the criticism that Niebuhr exercised of the optimism of liberal culture and the idea that justice comes about through moral regulations: he knew that he owed Niebuhr the knowledge How deeply evil is anchored in people's lives 3.
In the interview with Brooks, Obama said he owed Niebuhr “the irrefutable thought” that “there is really evil, hardship and pain in the world. We should be humble and humble in the belief that we can erase these things - but this must not become an excuse that justifies cynicism and inaction. "
In a few words, some fundamental aspects of Niebuhr’s thinking are highlighted. The thought that “the really bad, the hardship and the pain” in the world cannot be erased refers to Niebuhr's criticism of optimism, which he regarded as a characteristic of religious and social thought in America. And the thought that the politician who fights against injustice and evil in the world must also be “humble” shows the awareness that it is not possible to erase evil from history; yes, that it would be a dangerous illusion to believe such a thing.
The persistent persistence of evil should not be an excuse for “cynicism and inaction.” Both “naive idealism” and “bitter realism” (or, as Niebuhr calls it: sentimentalism and cynicism) should be avoided.
How is this perspective defined in Niebuhr's works, what are his historical and cultural points of reference?
Luigi Giussani had already recognized the importance of Niebuhr’s realism in theological thinking and, more generally, in American culture in Italy at the end of the 1960s.
Giussani pointed out that the formation of the Protestant pastor was certainly shaped by European theological existentialism and that "Niebuhr's work, inspiration and main tendencies are rooted in the experience he had as pastor of the Lutheran Bethel Evangelical Church of Detroit" 4.

The newly elected US President Barack Obama with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha on stage in Chicago's Grant Park on the night of November 4, 2008. [© Getty images / Laura Ronchi]

When he was young, Niebuhr was a pastor in a small community in Detroit. It was the years of the Ford dealership boom and World War I, between 1915 and 1928. The pastor, who had received a liberal education, experienced the inappropriateness of anthropological optimism and its social expression - the social gospel movement - there where the question of the persistence of individual evil and injustice was discussed. It was the years of self-criticism of liberal and optimistic beliefs. In view of the hope of the moralization of society through the proclamation of religion, he was able to state in a note from 1927 that “a city that was built on a production process and only incidentally pays attention to its own problems is actually a kind of hell” 5 . This self-criticism is particularly evident in the book Moral man and immoral society. As Giussani writes, “the inescapable reality of evil is opposed to that optimism […] which fails to see the existential impossibility of transition from the knowledge of the good - which every individual has - to its implementation; an impossibility that emerges above all in the sphere of the collective ”6. The book was written in 1932, in those years when Niebuhr was under the influence of Marxism. In the United States of the 1930s it was perhaps the clearest criticism of optimism and moralism on the one hand, and indifference and cynicism on the other, which characterized American society after World War I. The short span of time from 1917 (the year America entered the war) to 1919 (the time of peace negotiations where the defeated nations were harshly judged) marked the end of the idealism of the progressive camp and President Wilson's. The moral motivations given by Wilson and many other progressive intellectuals to explain America's entry into the war have been belied by the exaggerated realism of the peace treaties. Treaties that unmistakably showed the new balance of power between the winners and the vanquished.
In America in the 1920s, perhaps as a reaction to Wilson's “idealistic” crusades, the desire for a return to normality was felt. This was also reflected in the election of President Warren Harding, who was inspired by precisely this wish in his election campaign.
In truth, American society experienced an unprecedented soaring in those years, a boom in the economy, the advertising industry and mass consumption, but also a strong polarization between rich and poor.
It was a society that, in the eyes of an attentive observer like Niebuhr, appeared to be denial, a kind of reduction of any form of moralism to mere rhetoric - a society that left more and more room for cynicism and disenchantment.
is produced by moral or religious regulations, but by concrete historical and political initiatives which, as such, would have to face less edifying situations.
Niebuhr had turned his back on Detroit in 1928 to teach at Columbia University in New York. He knew only too well that his teaching activity had prompted him to study Augustine more intensively. In an interview in 1956 he said: “Looking back, I am surprised to see how late I actually began to deal with Augustine: and it is all the more surprising when you consider that the thinking of this theologian many for me I was able to answer unanswered questions and finally free myself from the idea that the Christian faith was in some way identical with the moral idealism of the past century ”7.

Augustine on a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

Augustine was central to both understanding the reasons that distinguish faith from idealism and overcoming some of the paradoxes Niebuhr had advocated in the early years of his reflection.
Christianity seemed to the young Niebuhr to be shaped by one aspect - that of absolute gratuitousness - that goes beyond any human attempt to implement ethical ideals. Man can work with great sincerity to create spheres of coexistence that are characterized by what Niebuhr calls “mutual love”, a love based on mutuality: Christ, on the other hand, is a witness of a different kind of love, the so-called “sacrificial love”. In 1935, Niebuhr clearly referred to this radical difference in his work An Interpretation of Christian Ethics and wrote: “The ethical requirements set by Jesus cannot be met in the current human life […]. Anything less than perfect love is destructive to life. Disaster threatens every human life because it does not live according to the law of love ”8.
In 1940, taking up some of these reflections and applying them to the political arena, he had argued that a conception which "has made the ideal of perfection of the gospel a simple historical possibility in a simplistic and sentimental way" is a "bad religion" and bad politics ”; a religion that stands in contrast to the essential fact of the Christian faith and an unrealistic policy that has noticeably weakened democratic nations9.
On the other hand, despite his criticism of the sentimentalism and optimism of liberal culture, he was able to state the inextinguishable certainty of the meaning of existence, of its positivity, which is a characteristic of a healthy existence. This certainty, as he writes, “is not something that emerges from a careful analysis of the forces and facts involved in human experience. It is something that is recognized in any healthy life […]. People may not be able to define the meaning of life, but they can still be certain, through faith, that it does have a purpose ”10.
The work that summarizes these differing views, The Nature and Destiny of Man, was published in two volumes (1941-1943). It reads: "According to the biblical conception, man is a created and finite being, both in body and in spirit" 11.
The key to understanding human nature lies on the one hand in the recognition of creation: the fundamental optimism that characterizes a healthy existence is tied to the idea of ​​being created and willed by God. On the other hand, in human freedom, which - as a sign that God has placed in people's hearts, as a possibility to affirm or reject this intuition - attains absolute centrality. Man can (“inevitably”, as Niebuhr seems to say) seek satisfaction in created things and not in God. Evil arises when man attaches absolute value to a certain good: it is the abuse of freedom - sin - that creates evil, not sensitivity or materiality.
The “presence” of Augustine in this work, which can be described as the most important and systematic work of Niebuhr, is evident and constant: the realistic conception of human nature proposed by Niebuhr refers clearly to the biblical conception and to the texts of Augustine.
In a 1953 essay, Augustine's Political Realism, published in the volume Christian Realism and Political Problems, published that same year, Niebuhr admits how much he owed Augustine and specifies in what sense the saint was the first great realist of the Western world Thinking and why his perspective seems so topical to him.
In a 1953 essay, Augustine's Political Realism, published in the volume Christian Realism and Political Problems published that year, Niebuhr admits how much he owed Augustine and specifies in what sense the saint was the first great realist of Western thought must apply and why his perspective seems so topical to him.
Niebuhr begins this essay with a schematic definition of the term “realism”: it “means the willingness to consider all factors that offer resistance to the established norms in a political and social situation, especially those that are related to personal interest and of power. ”On the contrary, idealism for its followers is“ shaped by loyalty to ideals and moral norms, and less by self-interest ”; for his critics of “a willingness to ignore or view with indifference the forces that can oppose ideals and universal norms” 12. Niebuhr specifies that idealism and realism in politics are more a state of mind than theories. In other words, even the greatest idealist must inevitably face the facts, the power of what is; Even the greatest realist has to face the tendency of people to be inspired in their actions by ideal values, by what should be 13. In Niebuhr's opinion, Augustine was “the first great, universally recognized realist in the history of the West. He deserves this recognition because the picture he paints for his Civitas Dei of social reality provides a realistic picture of the social forces, tensions and competitive behavior that - as we know - exist almost everywhere at every level of the community “14. For the Protestant theologian, Augustine's realism was tied to his conception of human nature, especially to his assessment of the presence of evil in history. Indeed, for Augustine, “the source of evil” is “more self-love than any remaining natural impulse that the mind is not yet under control.” So evil does not stem from either sensibility or materiality that the spiritual does not are opposite. Making a final purpose out of one's own material or ideal interests is a human characteristic that has to do with freedom and makes itself felt at every level of human and collective existence, from the family to the nation to the hypothetical world community.

Reinhold Niebuhr in his office on a photo from 1955. [© Getty images / Laura Ronchi]

Augustine's realism also provides an answer to the criticism that liberals directed at those who advocate a non-optimistic conception of human nature: that criticism of viewing and consequently approving every kind of power in the same way. “Pessimistic realism,” writes Niebuhr, “induced both Hobbes and Luther to an unjustified recognition of power; but only because they weren't realistic enough. They saw the danger of anarchy in the egoism of the citizens, but made the mistake of seeing the danger of tyrannical rule in the egoism of the rulers ”15.
In other words, Augustine's realism does not bow to the cynicism and indifference of power, for “while egoism is 'natural' in the sense that it is universal, it is again unnatural in that it is not of the nature of Human beings. ”Indeed,“ a realism becomes morally cynical or nihilistic when it assumes that a universal characteristic of human behavior must also be regarded as the norm. The biblical description of human behavior on which Augustine based his thought can avoid both illusion and cynicism because it recognizes that the degeneracy of human freedom can make a model of behavior universal without becoming normative ”16.
The idea of ​​a realism capable of avoiding indifference, cynicism and the unconditional recognition of any form of power, as well as things like sentimentalism, idealism and the illusions of politics and human existence, clearly emerges from this New reading of Augustine suggested by Niebuhr: Obama seems to be referring to this perspective, which, as Niebuhr emphasized, is more of an attitude than a theory.

1 C. Blake, Obama and Niebuhr, in The New Republic, May 3, 2007.
2 See R.C. Good, The National Interest and Political Realism: Niebuhr’s "Debate" with Morgenthau and Kennan, in The Journal of Politics, No. 4, 1960, pp. 597-619.
3 C. Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African-American Social Gospel, in Paul E. Johnson (ed.), African American Christianity, University of California Press, Berkeley 1994, pp. 168-170.
4 L. Giussani, Grandi linee della teologia protestante americana. Profilo storico dalle origini agli anni Cinquanta, Jaca Book, Milan 1988 (first edition 1969), p. 131.
5 R. Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland 1957 (first edition 1929), p. 169.
6 L. Giussani, Teologia protestante americana, quoted, p. 132.
7 R. Niebuhr, it. Transl., Una teologia per la prassi, Queriniana, Brescia 1977, p. 55.
8 R. Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Scribner’s, New York 1935, p. 67.
9 R. Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, Scribner’s, New York 1952 (first edition 1940), pp. IX-X.
10ebd., P. 178.
11 R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man. A Christian Interpretation, Volume I, Human Nature, Scribner’s, New York 1964 (first edition 1941), p. 12.
12 R. Niebuhr, it. Transl., Il realismo politico di Agostino, in G. Dessì, Niebuhr. Antropologia cristiana e democrazia, Studium, Rome 1993, pp. 77-78.
13 I use this terminology from Alessandro Ferrara, La forza dell’esempio. Il paradigma del giudizio, Feltrinelli, Milan 2008, pp. 17-33. A third great power, the subject of the book, is "that which is as it should be."
14 R. Niebuhr, it. Transl., Il realismo politico di Agostino, quoted, p. 79.
15ebd., P. 85.
16ebd., P. 88.