Reinhold Niebuhr – The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
Since bourgeois civilization, which came to birth in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, is now obviously in grave peril, if not actually in rigor mortis in the twentieth century, it must be obvious that democracy, in so far as it is a middle-class ideology, also faces its doom.
[E]vil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world.
According to the scripture “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”
The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical.
Catholic civilization had so compounded the eternal sanctities with the contingent and relative justice and injustice of an agrarian-feudal order, that the new and dynamic bourgeois social force was compelled to challenge not only the political-economic arrangements of the order but also the eternal sanctities which hallowed it.
But no school asks how it is that an essentially good man could have produced corrupting and tyrannical political organizations or exploiting economic organizations, or fanatical and superstitious religious organizations.
Man is the kind of animal who cannot merely live.
”The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interests should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order of society – that the interests of this order of society be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state. He should therefore be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed to the greater interests of the universe, to the interests of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director.”
And in the light of history Stalin will probably have the same relation to the early dreamers of the Marxist dreams which Napoleon has to the liberal dreamers of the eighteenth century.
The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove.
The Individual and the Community
[The democratic idealists of the 18th century] believed, in short, that men were essentially tame, cool and calculating and that individual egotism did not rise beyond the limits of nature’s impulse of self-preservation.
Every specialization of unique gifts in the life of the individual, every elaboration of special skills means that a larger community is required to support the individual.
The difference between bourgeois liberalism and Marxism leads the former to regard the world of competitive economic life as essentially tame or capable of being tamed; while the latter sees all the demonic fury of this struggle, and anticipates its final debacle. But Marxism expects men to be as tame and social on the other side of the revolution as Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham thought them to be tame and prudential on this side of the revolution.
But there is no basis for the Marxist hope that an “economy of abundance” will guarantee social peace; for men may fight as desperately for “power and glory” as for bread.
The Community and Property
[P]roperty, as every other form of power, cannot be limited to the defensive purpose. If it grows strong enough it becomes an instrument of aggression and usurpation
The modern factory is a great collective process. […] The “private” ownership of such a process is anachronistic and incongruous; and the individual control of such centralized power is an invitation to injustice.
Marxism does not understand that even universalized property may become the instrument of particular interests.
The management and manipulation of industrial process represents social power. Such power remains subordinate to the power of ownership in a capitalistic society, but it naturally grows in any society in which the rights of private ownership have been destroyed. The development of a managerial class in Russia, combining economic with political power, is an historic refutation of the Marxist theory.
For democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.
Democratic Toleration and the Groups of the Community
The American Constitution was designed to prevent the emergence of the very political parties without which it has become impossible to maintain our democratic processes.
Of the religious groups only the Independents and Levellers genuinely believed in religious toleration. The others finally accepted it as the only solution for the variety of religious and cultural movements which had developed and which could not be brought back into the pattern of cultural uniformity.
given a certain level of spiritual maturity, coerced uniformity is more decadent than freedom.
It is no more possible for a mature and highly elaborated community to return to the unity of its tribal simplicity than for a mature man to escape the perils of maturity by a return to childhood.
Racial prejudice, the contempt of the other group, is an inevitable concomitant of racial pride; and racial pride is an inevitable concomitant of the ethnic will to live. Wherever life becomes collectively integrated it generates a collective, as well as an individual, survival impulse.
[S]ome of the greatest perils to democracy arise from the fanaticism of moral idealists who are not conscious of the corruption of self-interest in their professed ideals.