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Reinhold Niebuhr

“There is no simple congruity between the ideals of sensitive individuals and the moral mediocrity of even the best society. The liberal hope of a harmonious ‘adjustment’ between the individual and the community is a more vapid and less dangerous hope than the communist confidence in a frictionless society in which all individual hopes and ideals are perfectly fulfilled. The simple fact is that an individual rises indeterminately above every community of which he is a part…

There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature’s caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.

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.”


From the conclusion of chapter III (“Happiness, Prosperity, and Virtue”) of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History.

There’s a suggestive moment in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America during which the high-strung Louis Ironson is airing a breathless litany of complaints to the serene but naive Joe Pitt. “You believe the world is perfectible,” Pitt interrupts, “so you find it unsatisfying. You have to reconcile yourself to the world’s unperfectibility. Be in the world, not of the world.”

A thank you to reader Brenton Dickieson for recommending Irony to me (via Twitter, no less). It had been on my radar since I first heard it quoted at length by Chris Hedges in a debate a few years ago, but I wouldn’t have gotten to it so soon unless it had blipped once again on my screen. That last paragraph, with its measured repetitions and corresponding, collective incitements, is among the ten or so that I’d include in a collection on human striving and ambition. Our unyielding desire to cling to the teleological — or the belief that there is some idealized future for which present sacrifices or sins may be justified — gets us into so much trouble, as Niebuhr nods to in his initial mentioning of communism. This fact can lead you in a host of alternate directions, from nihilism to resignation to denial, but Niebuhr effortlessly dispenses with such jerks of the philosophical knee. Don’t forgo personal ambition, the great theologian reminds us; don’t give up on striving for the good society, and don’t relent on living a virtuous life. But make sure you realize and keep in mind that each of these goals has its limit — its temporal, spatial, and interpersonal limit — and that forgiveness is ultimately what redeems both the injustices of others and the inadequacies of oneself.