Saturday, March 07, 2009

"a sublime madness in the soul"

"In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men [and women] who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with the malignant power and "spiritual wickedness in high places." The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done."

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932. p. 277.

For reflection: Given that Niebuhr wrote in the Great Depression, what lessons can we continue to learn from his economic and social thought? What illusions are we abandoning? What are the new illusions that are needed? What resources might lead us to a "sublime madness in the soul"? Where do you locate the spiritual wickedness in high places? And how is rationality, at times, the enemy of hope?


Blogger David said...

I received the most recent issue of The New York Review today and it contains and article on Reinhold Niebuhr, "A Great American Prophet." When I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the early 1990s, with a chapter on Niebuhr that was very positive, I got the feeling that many considered him old hat. He remains a provocative and insightful thinker, and the quote you offer is one example of that. It is psychologically and spiritually astute. We need a sense that we can change the world if we are to act, but we must guard against the pretension that only our plan to change the world matters. Thanks for sharing this, Ken.

7:09 PM  

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