Friday, November 16, 2007

Niebuhr: The Easy Conscience of Modern Man

The Gifford Lectures were given by Reinhold Niebuhr at The University of Edinburgh in 1938 & 1939, and later published in two volumes. Volume one, from which I quote was published by Scribner & Sons in 1941. (Broadsword: " Note that in 1938, Edinburgh invited Niebuhr, not Goebbels to speak".) Niebuhr's learned, astute observations on human nature still breathe. From chapter IV, The Easy Conscience of Modern Man:

"Our introductory analysis of modern views of human nature has established the complacent conscience of modern man as the one unifying force amidst a wide variety of anthropological conceptions. In the words of T.E. Hulme: 'All thought since the Renaissance, in spite of its apparent variety, forms one coherent whole...It all rests on the same conception of the nature of man and all exhibits the same inability to recognize the meaning of the dogma of original sin. (Broadsword- I can feel you wincing at the screen. Hark! More wincing approacheth!) In this period not only have its philosophy, its literature and its ethics been based upon this new conception of man as fundamentally good, as sufficient, as the measure of things; but a good case can be made out for regarding many of its characteristic economic features as springing entirely from this central abstract conception.' " (Hulme quote ends, Niebuhr continues.)

"The most surprising aspect of the modern man's good conscience is that he asserts and justifies it in terms of the most varied and even contradictory metaphysical theories and social philosophies. The idealist Hegel and he materialist Marx agree in their fundamental confidence in human virtue, disagreeing only in their conception of the period and the social circumstances in which and the method by which his essential good is, or is to be, realized. The romantic naturalist Rousseau agrees with the rationalistic naturalists of the French enlightenment, though in the one case the seat of virtue is found in natural impulse unspoiled by rational disciplines (Broadsword: such as the Breasts not Bombs topless activists), and in the other case it is reason which guarantees virtue....

The whole Christian drama of salvation is rejected ostensibly because of the incredible character of the myths of Creation, Fall, Atonement, etc., in which it is expressed. But the typical modern is actually more certain of the complete irrelevance of these doctrines than of their incredibly. (emphasis, Broadsword). He is naturally not inclined to take dubious religious myths seriously, since he finds no relation between the ethos which informs them and his own sense of security and complacency. The sense of guilt expressed in them is to him a mere vestigial remnant of primitive fears of higher powers, of which he is happily emancipated. The sense of sin is, in the phrase of a particularly vapid modern social scientist, 'a pscyopathic aspect of adolescent mentality.' "

(Broadsword: Today our 'secular, progressive, humanist, responsible for other peoples' feelings, superior moralists might say, "happily e-person-cipated"). Niebuhr continuing, comments upon the tyranny of the Marxists in Russia and notes other "Contemporary... manifestations of man's hysteria's and furies...evidences of his daemonic capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature and defy the prudent canons of rational restraint."

He then says:

"Yet no accumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man's good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupting institutions which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or of the confusions of ignorance which an adequate education is about to overcome. Yet he continues to regard himself as essentially harmless and virtuous. the question therefore arises how modern man arrived at, and by what means he maintains, as estimate of his virtue in such pathetic contradiction with the obvious facts of his history."

Broadsword: Doesn't the bold sentence perfectly describe the pathology of the Left?

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