Schlesinger’s Syllabus

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Like William James, Niebuhr was a relativist and a pluralist who scorned monists and absolutists. Like Lincoln, he was especially critical of those whose vainglory leads them to suppose they grasp the purposes of the Almighty. By irony Niebuhr meant the situation that arises when the consequences of an action are contrary to the intentions of the actors because of weaknesses inherent in the actors themselves. This concept informed his reading of American history. Americans, Niebuhr felt, are too much inclined to believe in their own innocence and righteousness and too reluctant to recognize the self-regard in their own souls. He deplored the national inability “to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history.”

Niebuhr’s interpretation of the American past is wise and chastening, and it is deep in the American tradition. His conception of democracy is akin to that of the men who made the Constitution. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” he wrote in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness , “but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”