U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Political Philosophy of Limits

I was thinking back to our earlier discussion about Reinhold Niebuhr as a theo-philosopher of limits (Christian realist) when I picked up the May 2008 issue of Harper’s. It contains an article by Wendell Berry, whom some of you may know as a critic, writer, poet, and novelist. Berry has long been critical of what could be called the American way of life, but in this article he returns to the issue of limits that we were discussing earlier. Taking his cue from Christopher Marlow’s Faust, in which Mephistopheles says, “Hell hath no limits,” Berry notes that we have now arrived at a modern version of hell.

A few snippets from the article:
“Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine.

… It is this economy of community destruction that, wittingly or unwittingly, most scientists and technicians have served for the past two hundred years. These scientists and technicians have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served.

As a consequence, our great need now is for sciences and technologies of limits, of domesticity, of what Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has called “homecoming.” These would be specifically human sciences and technologies, working, as the best humans have always worked, within self-imposed limits. The limits would be the accepted contexts of places, communities, and neighborhoods, both natural and human.

… perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

… And so, in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.” Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.”

Here is my question. Is this something that a politician could ever say to the American electorate and still be elected? The last time a politician told the electorate that perhaps there were limits to American wealth and the American way of life, Jimmy Carter lost the election. Since then, politicians have followed Reagan, promising that it is always morning in America. If politicians cannot acknowledge limits, then what could Niebuhr’s relevance be for the present? And what could Obama be drawing upon? -DS

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. With both Obama claiming a debt to Niebuhr and McCain calling himself a realistic idealist (a label often used by Niebuhr), I believe that a philosophy or theology of limits underlies the more optimistic rhetoric of both politicians. The American political system owes its stable dynamism to the balance between the two. I think also relevant to our discussion of Niebuhr is George Cotkin’s recent essay in the _Journal of the History of Ideas_ entitled “History’s Moral Turn.” Perhaps the fact that both parties can appropriate Niebuhr indicates a strength rather than a weakness. Pragmatism, a philosophy to which Niebuhr was indebted, also shares this ambiguity, an ability to be appropriated by different interests. However, as Hilary Putnam, James Kloppenberg, and Richard Bernstein argue, pragmatism cannot be separated from the democratic tradition of open inquiry. The same may be said of Niebuhr’s theology.

  2. It is difficult for one American to say this to a fellow citizen. Which is to say that it is impossible for a politician to say anything that even verges on it. Berry’s vision harkens back to a Christian view of mankind as “stewards of the earth.” Americans moved one step away from this by calling this conservation and abandoned it completely by proclaiming environmentalism. Berry’s message has no meaning to the American electorate because he, like the New Humanists and the Agrarians, are, to borrow from Karl Mannheim, imagining a past that is dissolving. That this is not a recipe for electoral success in America should come as no surprise.

  3. Let me try to clarify my point. Berry is, at bottom, a polemicist, so it would be difficult for a politician to say what he saying, especially in the polemical manner in which he is saying it, to the American public. But Berry’s quasi-Christian notion of stewardship does not seem altogether out of bounds in the current political environment. That is the whole point of the Niebuhr discussion. Religion has moved back into politics. All the major candidates genuflect in the direction of their own faith commitments.

    What is interesting to me is that Reinhold Niebuhr built his Christian realism around a political philosophy of limits. Sin and human fallibility limited the ability of humans to realize their ambitions. What Wendell Berry is saying in this piece strikes me as completely in line with Christian realism. Yet since Carter I do not know of any political candidate who has, in any serious way, talked of limits.

    So given this political reality, how do we explain the fact that many people have been talking about Niebuhr, but no candidate would actually draw upon Christian realism to talk about the limits of their ability to effect change in office? My first hypothesis was that Niebuhr’s Christian realism was so shallow, so people could claim influence without it meaning anything. But then I read Berry and began thinking about the fact that the recognition of limits is about recognizing hard choices, unintended consequences, political and personal incapacity, and all that goes along with being human. That is actually profound, regardless of whether it is explicitly Christian, and seems to be an important part of Niebuhr’s political theology.

    So now my question is, is Niebuhr more profound that I had originally thought? In that case, he is merely being appropriated by politicians in a shallow political culture. Or is his shallow thought the perfect accompaniment for our shallow political culture. It seems to me it has to be one or the other.

    Notice that I’m still pretty convinced of the shallowness of our political culture and that this is a non-partisan argument. Reading Joan Didion’s _Political Fictions_ convinced me of that, but I’m eager to hear any arguments that our political culture is more thoughtful than I think it is.

  4. Interesting piece. Just a footnote, Paul Tsongas ran against Clinton in 92 on the idea that there need to be limits in America (recall his refrain, “I’m not Santa Claus”) but he failed.

  5. “Limits,” it seems to me, is such a broad concept that I would say that everyone in politics uses it in one form or another. The bulk of the American conservative tradition, for example, consists of warnings that the government’s power is too limited to change human nature: this is the basis of its opposition to social programs generally. On the other hand, the tradition also fears unchecked government power, and seeks to limit that as well, leading to positions opposing gun control and economic regulation. American conservatism, though recently complicated by its appeal to “cultural issues” and the rise of unilateralism under the Bush administration, owes a great deal to the notion of limits.

    Liberals also truck in the rhetoric of limits. During the last election, John Kerry stressed the need to limit the ability of the United States to act unilaterally in the foreign policy arena (what he called passing the “global test”). In calling for withdrawal from Iraq, both Obama and Clinton seem to be implicitly acknowledging the limitations of that particular exercise. And liberals certainly believe the government is limited in its wisdom and authority to deal with their cultural issues: abortion, immigration, etc.

    Any significant national debate, I would think, must implicitly involve some concept of limits: on the private economy or the government to provide health insurance for all, on the U.S. military to influence events in Iraq, on the ability of the state to intrude in intimate decisions such as marriage (or, alternatively, on the rights of gay people to pursue their own conception of happiness), etc.

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