The Irony of American History

David Bromwich writes:

‘Nations,’ wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, ‘will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough.’ The last six words crystallise the thought. Niebuhr’s political writings are an exhortation – part history, part criticism, part sermon – to hold nations as closely as possible to the individual standard; to make them recognise that even when they oppose a great evil, what they themselves embody still includes much evil. All of the good that a nation can do by violence is contingent; the evil is real and palpable. ‘Nothing is intrinsically good,’ Niebuhr remarks, ‘except goodwill.’ Hence the need for the discipline of prayer; a wish for the purity of heart to sustain the attention necessary for good will. ‘God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other’: Niebuhr’s own most famous prayer imagines a life of patience and fortitude in which a great many satisfying actions have been refrained from, and strength has been shown in a fight against many evils, not all of them external.

(LRB 23 October 2008)