restricted access Tragedy and History in Reinhold Niebuhr's Thought
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Tragedy and History in Reinhold Niebuhr's Thought

I. Introduction

Reinhold Niebuhr begins an essay he wrote for The Nation in 1938 by noting that "one of the recurring motifs of Greek tragedy is the hero's deeper involvement in his own fate through his very efforts to extricate himself from it."1 Niebuhr calls this "abundant proof of the profound insight [of the Greek dramatists] into human tragedy" and suggests that "they were [in fact] not writing melodrama but were interpreting history."2 The essay was occasioned by Niebuhr's deep distaste for the unwillingness of democratic nations of the West to challenge the increasingly aggressive posturing of the axis powers in the years leading up to the second World War. The war they seek to avoid, Niebuhr (as it turns out, correctly) pointed out, will be thrust on them as a direct consequence of their inability to act. "The history of our era seems to move in tragic circles," says Niebuhr with more than a hint of irony, "strangely analogous to those presented symbolically in Greek tragedy."3

In hindsight, it would appear that Niebuhr saw himself as a spectator of world events tragically unfolding before him much like an ancient Greek spectator of Oedipus's futile attempts to avoid killing his father by acting precisely in such a manner as to cause his father's death. The tragic point of view is always that of a spectator. Tragedy comes not from the plot in and of itself but rather is a function of the spectators' knowledge, or more correctly fore-knowledge, that the protagonist's actions are from the beginning inevitably and fatally flawed. What gives Greek tragedy its special and unmistakable poignancy is the spectator's identification with the inescapable nature of the hero's fate. The hero qua hero is doomed to fail; there is no possibility of escape.

Niebuhr is often assailed by his critics for being a relentless pessimist. Such criticism, though sometimes needlessly acerbic, is not entirely unwarranted. Niebuhr himself would probably have preferred being called a realist, or a [End Page 147] pragmatist. But a thoroughgoing pessimism about the possibilities and limitations of human existence is certainly a part of his realistic appraisal of the human condition. Viewed from the proper perspective, such existence is ineluctably tragic. For Niebuhr, we are all "heroes" in the tragedy of human history. Niebuhr believes that Greek tragedy symbolically illustrates a paradox that is applicable not merely to the politics of his day but that lies at the heart of the human condition itself. History is revealed as paradoxical when it is viewed from, and against, the normative vantage point which gives history its meaning. This is what Niebuhr means when he calls Greek tragedy not melodrama but an interpretation of history. Taking full account of the tragic aspects of human history is critical for properly understanding Niebuhr's religious and political realism.

II. History, Sin, and Freedom

History is the ongoing process of the development of human individuals and society through the mechanism of human action. The "ineluctable tragedy" of the human condition is fundamentally related to the inherently bifurcated nature of the subject who acts in history: "The essential nature of man contains two elements; and there are correspondingly two elements in the original perfection of man. To the essential nature belong, on the one hand, all his natural endowments, and determinations, his physical and social impulses, his sexual and racial differentiations, in short his character as a creature embedded in the natural order. On the other hand, his essential nature also includes the freedom of spirit, his transcendence over natural processes and finally his self-transcendence."4

Man is simultaneously both creature and creator.5 His materiality makes him a creature bound not only by the physical laws of nature but also limited by his situatedness; to be finite is always already also to be located particularly with respect to place, time, and perspective. To say that man is a creature is therefore to posit finitude with regard to man's knowledge as well as the determination of his circumstance (both physical and otherwise) by the laws of [End...