Saturday, February 20, 2010

Perhaps the real difficulty in both the communist and the liberal dreams of a "rationally ordered" historic process is that the modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management. It is a drama in which fragmentary meanings can be discerned within a penumbra of mystery; and in which specific duties and responsibilities can be undertaken within a vast web of relations which are beyond our powers. [Reinhold Niebuhr, from The Irony of American History, p. 88]
Both communism and liberalism, Niebuhr says, reject any conception of original sin and consider human limitations and social ills able to be ameliorated through scientific social engineering. Both are intensely Messianic and consider the modern age to be unlike any previous period in history. By sloughing off the traditional order of society we may be able to procure happiness for all mankind and, through technological advancement, avoid any unintended consequences. For the communist and the liberal, the trajectory of history is something that can be understood and, like a ship, be steered one direction or another.

Contrast this modern Messianism with the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes who says that there is nothing new under the sun and, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." The original language here being something like "mist" or "smoke" or "vapor", the implication is obvious: our human existence is largely inscrutable and certainly cannot be manipulated. To steer history is like trying to shepherd the wind.


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