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The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, first published in 1944, is considered one of the most profound and relevant works by the influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and certainly the fullest statement of his political philosophy. Written and first read during the prolonged, tragic world war between totalitarian and democratic forces, Niebuhr’s book took u The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, first published in 1944, is considered one of the most profound and relevant works by the influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and certainly the fullest statement of his political philosophy. Written and first read during the prolonged, tragic world war between totalitarian and democratic forces, Niebuhr’s book took up the timely question of how democracy as a political system could best be defended.s career.


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The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, first published in 1944, is considered one of the most profound and relevant works by the influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and certainly the fullest statement of his political philosophy. Written and first read during the prolonged, tragic world war between totalitarian and democratic forces, Niebuhr’s book took u The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, first published in 1944, is considered one of the most profound and relevant works by the influential theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and certainly the fullest statement of his political philosophy. Written and first read during the prolonged, tragic world war between totalitarian and democratic forces, Niebuhr’s book took up the timely question of how democracy as a political system could best be defended.s career.

30 review for The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense

  1. 5 out of 5

    robin friedman

    Niebuhr's Vindication Of Democracy Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -- 1971) was an American Protestant theologian and political thinker. His writings attracted great attention and controversy during his life and continue to be read. In recognition of his importance, the Library of America is publishing in April, 2015, a collection of Niebuhr's "Major Works on Religion and Politics" which has been offered to me for review. I began my reading of the LOA volume with this difficult book, "The Children of Ligh Niebuhr's Vindication Of Democracy Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -- 1971) was an American Protestant theologian and political thinker. His writings attracted great attention and controversy during his life and continue to be read. In recognition of his importance, the Library of America is publishing in April, 2015, a collection of Niebuhr's "Major Works on Religion and Politics" which has been offered to me for review. I began my reading of the LOA volume with this difficult book, "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense" published in 1944. The book originated as a series of lectures Niebuhr delivered at Stanford University. This book is an extraordinary combination of religious and political philosophy. The ongoing war against Nazism was central to the book's project. Niebuhr wanted to give a philosophical explanation of the nature and importance of democracy and to rescue democracy, so to speak, from its defenders. Niebuhr believed that traditional defenses, based on Lockean "bourgeoise" individualism were inadequate and unresponsive to contemporary life. He also took issue with what he saw as "secular" non-religious attempts to defend democracy. He relied a great deal on concepts of original sin. Many readers of Niebuhr try to read his insights into the fallible nature of humanity, prone to do evil, in a way not requiring a theological commitment. In a short space, the book covers a great deal of ground and shows broad learning. The writing is difficult but full of short, quotable, and memorable passages and aphorisms. Niebuhr proceeds by drawing and expounding a number of distinctions, the chief of which is indicated in the book's title. "The Children of Darkness" or "Children of this world", for Niebuhr are those "who know no law beyond their will and interest." For these, "children", right is power and authoritarianism. Niebuhr defines "children of light" as "those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law"; or, in a slightly expanded formulation, "those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good." Niebuhr believes that both Lockean liberalism and Marxism are in the camp of the "Children of Light". He finds that both these "children" share a common error and have a lesson to learn from the Children of Darkness: the power of self-interest and selfishness to overcome a naïve idealistic faith in reason. Put otherwise, the Children of Light underestimate the sinful human heart, whether individually or collectively, and its capacity to substitute personal interest for a search for what is right and good. Niebuhr writes: "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. It has an easy solution for the problem or anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the 'common good' may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor." The book is at its best when it is broadest in its opening chapter and in the second chapter which distinguishes between "the individual and the community" Democracy tries to give credence to the needs of both. While they are often viewed in opposition, Niebuhr recognizes that individual life requires strong ties to others and that communal life requires a degree of transcendence -- individuals must be free to change and expand beyond what may be arbitrary, time-bound limits. Niebuhr writes: "The ideal of individual self-sufficiency, so exalted in our liberal culture, is recognized in Christian thought as one form of the primal sin. For self-love, which is the root of all sin, takes two social forms. One of them is the domination of other life by the self. The second is the sin of isolationism. The self can be its true self only by continued transcendence over self. This self-transcendence either ends in mystic otherworldliness or it must be transmuted into indetermine realizations of the self in the life of others. By the responsibilities which men have to their family and community and to many common enterprises, they are drawn out of themselves to become their true selves. The indeterminate character of human freedom makes it impossible to set any limits of intensity or extent to this social responsibility." The remaining portions of the book tend to be slightly less general. Niebuhr develops his distinctions to show issues in individual versus communal conceptions of property, the treatment of minorities in democratic societies, and the expansion of national boundaries to embrace a world community and the difficulties and perils of so doing. On my initial reading, I found Niebuhr at his best when he remains a theologian, particularly when he discusses diverging religious beliefs and religious toleration in chapter four and elsewhere. Niebuhr's views were well on the liberal side of American politics and he wrote about them extensively. This book, however, is far different from a political tract. Niebuhr takes a serious, provocative, and nuanced look at democracy and its sources. His religious convictions, while important in their own right, may be restated by secular individuals who understand the nature of human fallibility and finitude. I was more comfortable with his treatment of religious questions than with other approaches which tend, wrongly in my view, to draw religion into public life. I learned a great deal from this book and was glad to have read it as my first sustained approach to Niebuhr. Robin Friedman

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    Here are the words I would use to describe Niebuhr, whom I've never directly read before: balanced, open-minded, wise, wordy. The last part is the only significant problem I had with the book. Luckily it was short because almost every sentence was a multifaceted workout that made you really focus. If you aren't at least somewhat used to dense philosophical writing then this might not be the book for you. But if you are interested in charting out a vital center liberalism (as I am) this is an ess Here are the words I would use to describe Niebuhr, whom I've never directly read before: balanced, open-minded, wise, wordy. The last part is the only significant problem I had with the book. Luckily it was short because almost every sentence was a multifaceted workout that made you really focus. If you aren't at least somewhat used to dense philosophical writing then this might not be the book for you. But if you are interested in charting out a vital center liberalism (as I am) this is an essential read. Niebuhr spells out two philosophical schools in this book. The children of light include most liberals, French Enlightenment figures, Marxists, and almost any idealist with an overly positive view of human nature. Their big mistake is that they underestimate or ignore the power of human partiality and selfishness in all systems and all historical periods. They believe that human beings can be bound in cooperation by a common recognition of what is right and by the best set of laws or incentives. the CoL also tend to ignore their own partiality and self-interest, believing that they are merely imparting a beautiful ideology unto the world. This can become dangerous as they tend to persist in believing that whatever they do to bring about a better world must be acceptable because they couldn't POSSIBLY be the bad guys. He says at one point, for example, that liberals like Wilson believe that the only reason there isn't a world government is that no one has thought up a good enough organizational scheme yet. The CoL's naivete leaves their ideas open for manipulation from the children of darkness. Fascists might be the main children of darkness he's talking about in 1944. The CoD have such a dark and corrupted view of human nature that they believe only tyranny and violence can hold human societies together. From the inside and outside, they take advantage of the "stupid" CoL and corrupt their systems toward partial ends. He gives the example of Lenin and Stalin corrupting the more humane doctrines of Marx (this is disputable btw) in order to seize power and create a tyranny never seen before in history. Another example might be Christian plutocrats using charitable giving as a screen or justification for otherwise rapacious economic practices. Niebuhr's main defense of democracy is not the overly sunny one of the CoL, although he's a little vague on the "traditional defense" of democracy. Rather, he says that democracies must be founded on an accurate conception of human nature, one that he finds in his liberal Protestantism. He argues that human beings are not so evil that we are incapable of justice, enlightened self-interest, cooperation, and charitableness, because these positive traits democracy and a civil society would be impossible. On the other hand, human beings are not so good that they can be trusted with each other's interests indefinitely, nor that they can live without a variety of restraints: legal, communal, moral, etc.. I think that this is a very balanced view of human beings that is a crucial philosophical basis for democracy. Niebuhr's best chapter relates to the regulation of the economy and property. Here he once again charts a brilliant course through the extremes. On one side is the free market capitalism of Smith and the physiocrats, who believe that economic interests will be held in balance by the mechanisms of the free market. They follow the Lockean understanding of property wherein if an individual puts his labor into something it becomes his property. Niebuhr says this understanding of property is hopelessly outdated in the modern industrial age, when so much power and property are concentrated in a small set of hands. He concedes to the socialists and Marxists that they correctly argue that property in the modern era must be understood in part in a communal sense: we are all so wrapped up in the policies and fate of the local factory, for example, that it is unfair to the community . This is why Niebuhr supported New Deal type political controls on capitalism and the unfettered wielding of property. It would be a wise doctrine for us to revive today: how many towns and small cities turned to Trump (however foolishly) in part because companies with no concern for the communities that relied on them mechanized jobs or took them overseas? Niebuhr rightfully conceives of capitalist property as an instrument of power, something that can be wielded in a way that can destroy democracy and community if not held in political check. Just before you think this guy is some kind of weird Marxist Protestant, he also says our understanding of property and the community should be far to the right of Marxist dogma. The thing the Marxists get wrong is that ownership of property is not the only way to wield property as an instrument of power. Marxists expect that when property ownership is dissolved the main reason for injustice in the world will also dissolve. Never mind the fact that injustice is rooted in our partial, flawed nature, not just in social relations. The bigger problem is that someone in any hierarchical system will still have to manage property even if they don't own it (I'm looking at you, dictatorship of the proletariat), which opens the door for them to wield it as an instrument of power and self promotion, but now without any checks on their authority. If these managers of property have a CoL sense of self-righteousness (as the Marxist-Leninists did), we have a recipe for disaster. Thus Niebuhr has many uses for capitalist competition and private ownership of property, albeit within restrictions set by an accurate reading of human nature. This is just really great stuff: Niebuhr is anti-dogmatic, and he pulls the good stuff out of two diametrically opposed traditions to create something that will work in practice. The only philosophical problem I found in this book was the plea for religious humility as an important way to sustain religious tolerance and liberty in a free society. He means that believers should recognize that their view of what God wants is a faint shadow of his true intentions, given how far off and awesome God is, so we should never go into a political or religious debate with confidence or close-mindedness or a sense that we're "doing God's work." Coming from my skeptical perspective, I can buy many people are capable of this, but I'd say they are a minority. Holy texts and most religious traditions don't exactly encourage doubt about their followers having chosen the one true path to salvation. Why, then, should their followers approach the rest of the world with humility? History seems to attest to the unrealistic nature of what Niebuhr is calling for here. I don't doubt that he is capable of this kind of humility, but I don't think that faith (belief without evidence) encourages this in the vast majority of believers who aren't also brilliant philosophers. Ultimately this book is a plea for humility in what one believes and knows. The possibility that you could be wrong is one basis of respecting the right of others to worship, think, and speak freely, as well as to challenge your own beliefs. This is something I'd say does not come naturally to human beings, but Niebuhr makes a strong case that working toward this is essential for sustaining democracy.

  3. 5 out of 5

    John

    This book has all the stern rationality I would expect from Niebuhr, but it's not especially coherent. Though the book is supposed to be a "vindication of democracy", it really only spends perhaps ten pages on that. The rest of the space is used to chart a course between naivety (light) and cynicism (darkness). The analysis, while always interestingly worded by Niebuhr, doesn't really add enough to my understanding of power politics or worldstatecraft to merit much attention. He limits himself t This book has all the stern rationality I would expect from Niebuhr, but it's not especially coherent. Though the book is supposed to be a "vindication of democracy", it really only spends perhaps ten pages on that. The rest of the space is used to chart a course between naivety (light) and cynicism (darkness). The analysis, while always interestingly worded by Niebuhr, doesn't really add enough to my understanding of power politics or worldstatecraft to merit much attention. He limits himself to what I could call a level 2 analysis. It goes like this: Locke said this, but he was too optimistic about individual freedom. Hobbes said this, but he was too cynical, thinking of individuals as thoroughly egoistic. The truth is in balancing the two. Fair enough, but saying that balance needs to be achieved isn't a very clear vision. Certainly there is much that could be helpful to us today, such as curtailing our optimism about creating progress/justice/etc. through government action alone, or of curtailing our current cynicism about humanity generally. The typical solution is to recover a spiritual, moral, and universal element in culture that can remind us of the balance of light and dark that humanity will always be. In fact, it sounded a lot like what you see in David Brooks's moderate conservatism, lauding the impact of community, culture, and other subgovernmental sources of unity. His offhand commentary is probably the best part of his work, in fact. It speaks the least to the topic at hand, but it gives you a clearer understanding of the author's views.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    The main analytic point here is one that Niebuhr makes so effectively, it's all but naturalized in American political life: There's a tradeoff between idealism and effectiveness. Moral cynics are likelier to recognize and use power than are actors driven by any sort of values, however pragmatically framed. The rest, after the first chapter, is basically boilerplate of purely historical interest—if you want Niebuhr at his best, try Moral Man and Immoral Society or Beyond Tragedy. The main analytic point here is one that Niebuhr makes so effectively, it's all but naturalized in American political life: There's a tradeoff between idealism and effectiveness. Moral cynics are likelier to recognize and use power than are actors driven by any sort of values, however pragmatically framed. The rest, after the first chapter, is basically boilerplate of purely historical interest—if you want Niebuhr at his best, try Moral Man and Immoral Society or Beyond Tragedy.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Paul D. Miller

    A primer on the promise and peril of great power and the importance of democracy. Not particularly well written. Many of the arguments made here are more eloquently made, for example, by J.S. Mill in On Liberty and by Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers--to whom, inexplicably, Niebuhr makes no reference. But Niebuhr adds a religious sensibility which is missing in the others and which makes this a valuable contribution. Full review: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/schaeffe... A primer on the promise and peril of great power and the importance of democracy. Not particularly well written. Many of the arguments made here are more eloquently made, for example, by J.S. Mill in On Liberty and by Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers--to whom, inexplicably, Niebuhr makes no reference. But Niebuhr adds a religious sensibility which is missing in the others and which makes this a valuable contribution. Full review: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/schaeffe...

  6. 5 out of 5

    Steve Greenleaf

    Niebuhr was an American theologian and political thinker active in public life from the 1920s to the 1960s. In a very helpful introduction to my edition of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Gary Dorrien (Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary, and Professor of Religion, Columbia University) provides a useful account of Niebuhr’s thinking over his long career. Dorrien also provides a succinct statement of some of Niebuhr’s most important themes a Niebuhr was an American theologian and political thinker active in public life from the 1920s to the 1960s. In a very helpful introduction to my edition of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Gary Dorrien (Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary, and Professor of Religion, Columbia University) provides a useful account of Niebuhr’s thinking over his long career. Dorrien also provides a succinct statement of some of Niebuhr’s most important themes and insights about politics and ethics: the problems of human “fallibility, sin, and ambiguity”; the understanding that human groups will always place self-interest first and foremost and therefore a struggle for power will ensue; occasionally individuals could overcome self-centeredness when motivated by love; and Jesus provides no direction with the issue of political ethics. This last proposition severs Niebuhr from the Social Gospel proponents with whom he once shared allegiance. In arguing that Jesus taught no political ethic, Niebuhr identified a central lacuna in the Gospels that later tradition sought to rectify. Thus, Niebuhr takes up issues that St. Augustine struggled with near the beginning of Christianity in Late Antiquity. Following the lead of Augustine, along with influences (theologically) from Luther and Calvin, Niebuhr develops a realist stance of Christian (and secular) ethics toward the political world. In his Introduction, Dorrien describes The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, as “written at midcareer as Niebuhr was coming fully into his own, is the most comprehensive statement of his political philosophy.” Niebuhr, Reinhold, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition (Introduction by Gary Dorrien). A careful consideration of this work suggests ways in which we can think about bridging the gap between individual ethics that require love and eschew violence against the realities of political power. In a quote that should rival Churchill’s for its pithy and ironic defense of democracy, Niebuhr wrote: “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Id. (Forward to the First Edition (1944)). Niebuhr identifies democracy with the rise of the bourgeois in Europe and then in America. It arose because individuals wanted to protect themselves and their property. So a new balance was struck, one in which freedom from constraint and arbitrary exercise of power became of the utmost importance. But Niebuhr also realized the larger issues of freedom and community that arise from this background. He writes: Democracy can therefore not be equated with freedom. An ideal democratic order seeks unity within the conditions of freedom; and maintains freedom within the framework of order. Man requires freedom in his social organization because he is “essentially” free, which is to say, that he has the capacity for indeterminate transcendence over the processes and limitations of nature. This freedom enables him to make history and to elaborate communal organizations in boundless variety and in endless breadth and extent. But he also requires community because he is by nature social. He cannot fulfill his life within himself but only in responsible and mutual relations with his fellows. Id. (pp. 3-4) Niebuhr is not a simple cheerleader for bourgeois democracy; to the contrary, he is a sharp critic of it and of capitalism as a social and economic system. He states: Bourgeois individualism may be excessive and it may destroy the individual's organic relation to the community; but it was not intended to destroy either the national or the international order. On the contrary the social idealism which informs our democratic civilization had a touching faith in the possibility of achieving a simple harmony between self-interest and the general welfare on every level. Id. (p. 7) But it is this faith that Niebuhr spurns, the belief in progress and the inevitability of social improvement endorsed by those he terms “the children of light”. Niebuhr describes the children of light: Those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law could then be termed “the children of light.” This is no mere arbitrary device; for evil 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. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature “whole” such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind. The “children of light” may thus be defined as those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good. Id. (pp. 9-10) He then describes the “children of darkness”: “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.” Id. (p. 10). Where the children of light are naïve, the children of darkness are knowing. Niebuhr argues that for the children of light to succeed in bringing about a better world, they must learn the ways of their cynical counterparts. And in what may shock some contemporary readers, Niebuhr includes Marxists (at least some) among the children of light: idealistic in believing self-will and conflict can be finally resolved. He writes: The Marxists, too, are children of light. Their provisional cynicism does not even save them from the usual stupidity, nor from the fate, of other stupid children of light. That fate is to have their creed become the vehicle and instrument of the children of darkness. A new oligarchy is arising in Russia, the spiritual characteristics of which can hardly be distinguished from those of the American “go-getters” of the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 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. Id. (pp. 32-33) Note that Niebuhr wrote this during the war, when Stalin led one of our allies in a great titanic struggle and when Roosevelt believed he could woo Stalin into joining a liberal post-war world. While Niebuhr’s equivalence of American “go-getters” with the leaders of the Kremlin seems far-fetched, his comparison of Stalin to Napoleon and crushed dreams is prescient. Niebuhr sums up his brief for the children of light: The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community. Id. (pp. 40-41). Niebuhr recognized the modern nation-state as the primary actor in international politics. About it, he writes: “The morally autonomous modern national state does indeed arise; and it acknowledges no law beyond its interests. The actual behaviour of the nations is cynical. But the creed of liberal civilization is sentimental.” Id. (p. 33). Thus a conflict, especially open and obvious (and continuing) in American history between the idealists (Wilsonians we may say) and the moral realists (of whom Niebuhr is perhaps the most articulate). This dichotomy in American practice runs all through American history in the 20th century. Our most “Machiavellian” president[i], Richard Nixon, admired Wilson and saw himself carrying on the Wilson legacy while he proved himself a master of geopolitical realism in the American interest. President Obama, who cited Niebuhr as his “favorite philosopher”, walks a fine line between brutal realism, Niebuhr-like caution, and American idealism, sentimentality, and nationalism. Lest one think Niebuhr too pessimistic, we should note that he supports efforts to limit conflict and build institutions: “The problem of overcoming this chaos and of extending the principle of community to worldwide terms has become the most urgent of all the issues which face our epoch.” Id. (p. 153). In fact, that we may think of a “world community has two important sources that allow such a concept to enjoy any reality. The first source is religion. Niebuhr writes: While the religions of the east [earlier referring to the Confucian and Daoist traditions of China and the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of India] were generally too mystic and otherworldly to give historic potency to universal ideals, their emerging universal perspectives must be counted as added evidence of the fact that there has been a general development in human culture toward the culmination of religions and philosophies in which the meaning of life and its obligations were interpreted above and beyond the limits of any particular community.[ii] Id. (pp. 156-157). Niebuhr identifies the developments in the technical realm as the other impetus toward a world community. Taken together, the reality of a single world community is more than a liberal pipe dream. Yet, against this, Niebuhr identifies the centrifugal force and predicts that “international politics of the coming decades will be dominated by great powers who will be able to prevent recalcitrance among the smaller nations, but who will have difficulty in keeping peace between each other because they will not have any authority above their own powerful enough to bend or deflect their wills.” Id. (p. 171). In making these observations, Niebuhr criticizes realism in international relations almost as harshly as liberal institutionalism: It is indicative of the spiritual problem of mankind that these realistic approaches [to international relations] are often as close to the abyss of cynicism as the idealistic approaches are to the fog of sentimentality. The realistic school of international thought believes that world politics cannot rise higher than the balance-of-power principle. The balance-of-power theory of world politics, seeing no possibility of a genuine unity of the nations, seeks to construct the most adequate possible mechanism for equilibrating power on a world scale. Such a policy, which holds all factors in the world situation in the most perfect possible equipoise, can undoubtedly mitigate anarchy. A balance of power is in fact a kind of managed anarchy. But it is a system in which anarchy invariably overcomes the management in the end. Despite its defects the policy of the balance of power is not as iniquitous as idealists would have us believe. For even the most perfectly organized society must seek for a decent equilibrium of the vitalities and forces under its organization. If this is not done, strong disproportions of power develop; and wherever power is inordinate, injustice results. But an equilibrium of power without the organizing and equilibrating force of government, is potential anarchy which becomes actual anarchy in the long run. The balance-of-power system may, despite its defects, become the actual consequence of present policies. The peace of the world may be maintained perilously and tentatively, for some decades, by an uneasy equilibrium between the three great powers, America, Russia and Britain. [iii] Id. (pp. 173-175) Niebuhr goes on to consider the histories and practices of particular nations: the U.S., Britain, Russia, and China, and how they will relate the new order in the post-war world, displaying prophetic insight through his observations. He also notes (again) the tension between individual morality and political realities that create tensions: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics. But they do not arise where no effort is made to bring the power impulse of politics under the control of conscience. The pretension that it has been brought completely under control is thus the hypocritical by-product of the moral endeavour.” Id. (pp. 184-185). He sums up the quandary with this pronouncement: “The field of politics is not helpfully tilled by pure moralists; and the realm of international politics is particularly filled with complexities which do not yield to the approach of a too simple idealism. Id. (p. 186). In the end, Niebuhr concludes that we must strive for the impossible: community where none is fully realized peace where it is never final. This book seems to me less fundamental and comprehensive than Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, but both works give us guidance as far as guidance can be found. As with Buddhism, we have to conclude that we have no definitive standards for conducting political life from the founders. The Christian tradition has built theories (often conflicting), but none can fairly claim to have arisen directly out of the Gospels or the New Testament. And we cannot turn to Niebuhr for rules of ethics: he provides none. He opposed Roosevelt’s arms build-up before Munich, and then he rallied in support of the fight against Fascism. In the early 60’s he supported the U.S. effort in Vietnam, but he later became a vocal critic of the war. Niebuhr’s thought is marked by ambiguity, irony, and equivocation. One shouldn’t turn to it if you are looking for the answer to whether a particular policy or course of political conduct meets a given test of morality or ethics. There are no easy answers. For instance, should the U.S. use drones on known Islamic terrorists plotting the death of Americans when we know that innocents will be killed? Should we arm rebels and bomb when American are murdered, even though the “collateral damage” (so Orwellian) will claim innocent lives? The litany of tough practical and moral choices could continue indefinitely. There is no existing answer book unless one takes a position of absolutism.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jan Goericke

    "Since freedom and community are partially contradictory and partially complementary values in human life, there is, however, no perfect solution for the relation of the two values to each other. This means that the debate on how much or how little the economic process should be brought under political control is a never-ending one." R. Niebuhr Reading Paul Tillich brought me to reading Reinhold Niebuhr "The Children of the Light and the Children of the Darkness: a Vindication of Democracy and a "Since freedom and community are partially contradictory and partially complementary values in human life, there is, however, no perfect solution for the relation of the two values to each other. This means that the debate on how much or how little the economic process should be brought under political control is a never-ending one." R. Niebuhr Reading Paul Tillich brought me to reading Reinhold Niebuhr "The Children of the Light and the Children of the Darkness: a Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense." Niebuhr was more difficult to read than Paul Tillich. Coincidentally, Reinhold Niebuhr is the favorite theologian of Obama according to the introduction to the book. Reinhold Niebuhr explains the progressive and regressive forces in a democracy, their mutual dependency on each others existence and the balance between these forces for a functioning society. Niebuhr focuses on the Children of the light and their failures and faults due to a staunch idealism. The lack of religious foundation in today's societies was brought up very sparingly for a theologian which made the read more enjoyable and the argumentation more accessible. Niebuhr explains his view of the role of religion, and Christianity in particular, in today's (1950s) technological societies. Coincidentally, I read Niebuhr right after a book on 'the virtues of nationalism.' Niebuhr made the case of a universal human society, but outlined the difficulties that such endeavors inevitable faces, making it an ultimate, almost unattainable, but necessary goal. The overlay between the previous nationalistic book and Niebuhr was very interesting. Much of our international cooperation is driven by idealistic systems, such as the United Nations. Set up as 'universal government' by the victors of WWII, it as supported the division of the word in spheres of influence for the imperialistic superpowers, rather than as a unifying universal guide to prevent international anarchy. Niebuhr reduced the cause for this (in expectation at his time) to the neglected human strive of power, individualism, and preserving historical values and traditions. This book is an interesting short read. If you are interested in the intersect between political science, theology and a hint of psychology, this book is recommended. No prerequisite reading required.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Long Hei

    The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness is written by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is a non-fiction. The book was recommended by my economic teacher, Ms Stevick. This book talks about democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal. The main theme of the book is democracy and justice. If you are interested in political science, feel free to read this book. In the book, you will know how democracy and justice is connected The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness is written by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is a non-fiction. The book was recommended by my economic teacher, Ms Stevick. This book talks about democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal. The main theme of the book is democracy and justice. If you are interested in political science, feel free to read this book. In the book, you will know how democracy and justice is connected in the society. Justice makes democracy possible and necessary. The book also talks about how different systems affect democracy. I think that this book is crucial to the world as democracy and justice are the essential values that all the people in the world should embrace.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    In these very troubled times, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offers food for thought on how people treat each other. He points out how the dark side of human character and how those who work for the forces of peace and justice underestimate those who will do anything for their own self interest. If you have never read Niebuhr this is a good place to start.

  10. 4 out of 5

    James

    Incredible how true his thoughts still ribg true today. Helped me think through the state of politics and society today. I need to think more about his assertions that one needs religion as a foundation for any true moral guidance.

  11. 4 out of 5

    William MacPhee

    Though often repetitive, a very interesting investigation of democracy from Niebuhr's perspective controlled by despair in the brokenness of humanity and hope that good may come. In my view, has quite an interesting apologetic bend in the end. Though often repetitive, a very interesting investigation of democracy from Niebuhr's perspective controlled by despair in the brokenness of humanity and hope that good may come. In my view, has quite an interesting apologetic bend in the end.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    What I think Niebuhr is trying to do in this book is to point to the importance and the challenge we have to find balanced thinking in our understanding of the forces which control the powers in our communities and our nations. This includes social as well as political forces. It's well done. What I think Niebuhr is trying to do in this book is to point to the importance and the challenge we have to find balanced thinking in our understanding of the forces which control the powers in our communities and our nations. This includes social as well as political forces. It's well done.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Noselli

    I feel Chomsky's critique is too reductionist but, at the same time, I feel that Niebuhr's style was outmoded and that he was lauded for inordinately and became something of a fetish for progressive liberals, even into the 1980s. I feel Chomsky's critique is too reductionist but, at the same time, I feel that Niebuhr's style was outmoded and that he was lauded for inordinately and became something of a fetish for progressive liberals, even into the 1980s.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joe Natali

    Fascinating and likely accurate thesis, but somewhat repetitive

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mike Joyce

    Really incredible

  16. 5 out of 5

    Durelle Rabe

    A fascinating look at how systems are subverted by self-interest. This struggle, between ideals and self-interest play out economically, religiously, and politically.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nina

    Reinhold Niebuhr was the 20th centuries most profound theologian/philosopher. "Man's capacity for justice mskes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. He is Calvinist in his insistence on the depravity of the human race. It is this problem we face in trying to establish universal harmony. We all work primarily for self interest, but as institutions grow, corruption and amorality do also.There is a tension between creative freedom and the restraints on i Reinhold Niebuhr was the 20th centuries most profound theologian/philosopher. "Man's capacity for justice mskes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. He is Calvinist in his insistence on the depravity of the human race. It is this problem we face in trying to establish universal harmony. We all work primarily for self interest, but as institutions grow, corruption and amorality do also.There is a tension between creative freedom and the restraints on it. Tryanny is an ever present possibility. The children of darkness act out of pure self interest and are realistic about human tendencies. Children of light feel people are good and all we need is the right system and everything will harmonize. Neibuhr alternately calls them foolish and stupid, not because they don't have noble intentions, but because they ignore human inclinations and their programs ultimately fail and are corrupted as it is impossible to avoid the pitfall of self interest. Neibuhr offers no solution, because there is none. It is a constant give and take and reaccessing where we are in this continuum and making adjustments. This requires a certain wisdom and humility that is hard to come by. In the end, he gives Christianity as the only real hope. l

  18. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Niebuhr posits that the virtues of democracy require more justification (and more work) than is typically assumed by democratic idealists. He casts his discussion in terms of the children of light, who naively assume that good intentions are enough and that there is an "invisible hand" of progress pushing human civilization toward a structure of global democracy, and the children of darkness, who display a crafty ability to leverage the naivete of the children of light to fulfill their own aims Niebuhr posits that the virtues of democracy require more justification (and more work) than is typically assumed by democratic idealists. He casts his discussion in terms of the children of light, who naively assume that good intentions are enough and that there is an "invisible hand" of progress pushing human civilization toward a structure of global democracy, and the children of darkness, who display a crafty ability to leverage the naivete of the children of light to fulfill their own aims and desires. Woven throughout the book, Niebuhr emphasizes his overarching theme that conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of particular communities and groups colors ALL issues of politics and justice. This is a complicated and nuanced reading of the issues of justice and democracy that ultimately concludes that a real worldwide democracy is an example of impossible possibility; its implementation requires the radical love of God through Jesus Christ to overcome the particularities of human interests, foibles, and frailties.

  19. 4 out of 5

    David

    A 1944 collection of lectures at Stanford University -- apparently out of print now, but still very timely today*. Concerned with how to make democracy work in a very imperfect world. A mixture of religion and economics. An important bunch of ideas! P. 118: ". . . democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems." p. 124: "One of the greatest problems of democratic civilization is how to integrate the life of its various subordinate ethnic, religious, and economic groups A 1944 collection of lectures at Stanford University -- apparently out of print now, but still very timely today*. Concerned with how to make democracy work in a very imperfect world. A mixture of religion and economics. An important bunch of ideas! P. 118: ". . . democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems." p. 124: "One of the greatest problems of democratic civilization is how to integrate the life of its various subordinate ethnic, religious, and economic groups in the community in such a way that the richness and harmony of the whole community will be enhanced and not destroyed by them." P. 130 (quoting G.K. Chesterton): "Tolerance is the virtue of people who do not believe in anything." Update 7/27/21: *Wow -- that was 2008 when I wrote that. How much MORE timely today, in the light of the leftist assault on American's historic values!?!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    The first chapter should be required reading in any international relations course. Indeed, this book used to be required reading in international relations, but has since fallen out of favor. Now that it's back in print, perhaps we can rectify this. For better or worse, we have become wedded to the notion that Machiavelli is a model for realism. What makes this book important is that it shows how realism is a whole other animal than Machiavelli's reason of state; true realists take morality ser The first chapter should be required reading in any international relations course. Indeed, this book used to be required reading in international relations, but has since fallen out of favor. Now that it's back in print, perhaps we can rectify this. For better or worse, we have become wedded to the notion that Machiavelli is a model for realism. What makes this book important is that it shows how realism is a whole other animal than Machiavelli's reason of state; true realists take morality seriously. They are "Children of Light" that pursue admirable ends, but recognize that they lack the cunning of Machiavelli and other "Children of Darkness" who have no scruples. Becoming a realist is to, first, acknowledge this tragic circumstance, and to take measured steps to rectify it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Maughn Gregory

    "The field of politics is not helpfully tilled by pure moralists ...." (186). Even though I came to Niebuhr through one of his students (Myles Horton) and one of his theoretical protege (Barack Obama), I feared this book of his political philosophy would be too moralistic. Far from it: I was surprised by his realism and his readiness to criticize both Christianity and American policy. Here is a treatise for those needing a philosophical grounding to the "social gospel" movement in Christianity, "The field of politics is not helpfully tilled by pure moralists ...." (186). Even though I came to Niebuhr through one of his students (Myles Horton) and one of his theoretical protege (Barack Obama), I feared this book of his political philosophy would be too moralistic. Far from it: I was surprised by his realism and his readiness to criticize both Christianity and American policy. Here is a treatise for those needing a philosophical grounding to the "social gospel" movement in Christianity, and leftist politics in general. My only disappointment was Niebuhr's seeming recourse to divine intervention, in the last two pages.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Hands

    Originally published in 1944, this book offers profound insights into the current state of national and international politics. Niebuhr speaks about the excesses of bourgeois individualism as if he were watching the latest "Tea Party" protest. An example quote about "laissez faire capitalism": "A dogma which was intended to guarantee the economic freedom of the individual became the 'ideology' of vast corporate structures of a later period of capitalism, used by them, and still used, to prevent Originally published in 1944, this book offers profound insights into the current state of national and international politics. Niebuhr speaks about the excesses of bourgeois individualism as if he were watching the latest "Tea Party" protest. An example quote about "laissez faire capitalism": "A dogma which was intended to guarantee the economic freedom of the individual became the 'ideology' of vast corporate structures of a later period of capitalism, used by them, and still used, to prevent a proper political control of their power." The Citizen's United case must have him spinning like a top.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Rich Bergmann

    I wouldn't dare presume that I am qualified to review Reinhold Niebuhr but it is amazing how what he wrote some 70 years ago remains relevant today. A must read if you are at all interested in how humans behave as individuals, as a group, and with governments. I wouldn't dare presume that I am qualified to review Reinhold Niebuhr but it is amazing how what he wrote some 70 years ago remains relevant today. A must read if you are at all interested in how humans behave as individuals, as a group, and with governments.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Joyce

    About politics and it was interesting. Not much has truly changed.. Makes the middle class more clear !

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sean Cox-marcellin

    Pretty good overall. Really good discussion of the tensions between general and particular interests. A little too preachy: Niebuhr insists that Christian humility is necessary to inform policy.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Serrano

    Seriously, you all just have to read this book. Read anything by Reinhold Niebuhr. His theology is so relevant for today.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dogsandbooks

    Seminal work on the defense of democracy. OWU assigned reading and reread at least once after that. Illuminating or quaint now?

  28. 4 out of 5

    James Pat Smith

  29. 4 out of 5

    Darren Tanner

  30. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Gibbs

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