As part of its coverage leading up to today’s presidential inauguration, the New York Times ran an article yesterday about the books that have contributed the new president’s worldview.
“His appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion,” Michiko Kakutani argues, “they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.… He has tended to look to non-ideological histories and philosophical works that address complex problems without any easy solutions, like Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings, which emphasize the ambivalent nature of human beings and the dangers of willful innocence and infallibility.”
Indeed, as President Obama himself has noted, “Niebuhr is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”
So, in recognition of today’s swearing-in, we offer this excerpt from Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, Niebuhr’s masterpiece on the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality which is both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against the arrogance of virtue.