REASON, NATURE, AND FREEDOM: AN ANALYSIS OF THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR (NATURAL LAW, PROTESTANT, THOUGHT)

ROBERT PAUL HUNT, Fordham University

Abstract

Over the course of more than five decades, Reinhold Niebuhr attempted to develop a moral and political philosophy that eschewed what he perceived to be the rigidity of natural law theory and the extreme relativism of much secular theory. Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian, recognized that the Protestant faith had been notoriously weak in promoting a political ethic that was anti-utopian, discriminating, and organic in nature. Much of the Protestant wavering between sentimentality and despair, Niebuhr believed, could be traced back to what he described as Luther's nominalistic errors by which God was raised to such omnipotent heights and man correspondingly lowered to such depths that man was unable to discern any permanent moral and political norms.^ An analysis of the concepts of reason, nature, and freedom employed in Niebuhr's works reveals, however, that Niebuhr commits many of the same errors which he recognizes to exist in the thought of other Protestant thinkers. Niebuhr attempts to avoid extreme nominalism and voluntarism by positing an essential and created nature of man for which there is only one absolute norm--the ideal of love. But his ontological emphasis on the deracination of human reason and the indeterminacy of human freedom makes the ideal of love little more than a principle of formal intention--that is, that we must possess "moral goodwill" toward other human beings. It becomes apparent that the structure of human nature is a structure of open-ended freedom--a capacity to create realms of harmony and order that transcend both the limitations of nature and reason's pursuit of formal consistency.^ Niebuhr exalts a liberal, pragmatic political order which appreciates the limitations of human knowledge and the virtue of humility as the best possible political order under conditions of sin. He raises the desirable--a universal, politics-less, property-less society--to such a level of transcendence, and lowers the possible to such depths that he severs the relationship between the ideal and the possible. In fine, Niebuhr's alternative to modern relativism commits many of the same errors because of its nominalistic emphasis on will rather than intellect, on freedom rather than reason. ^

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

HUNT, ROBERT PAUL, "REASON, NATURE, AND FREEDOM: AN ANALYSIS OF THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR (NATURAL LAW, PROTESTANT, THOUGHT)" (1984). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8506334.
http://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8506334

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