U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A house that Diggins helped build

It has been nearly two years since the prolific John Patrick Diggins died, thus leaving to a dozen intellectual historians the work that he used to do alone. Diggins played a role in fostering the US intellectual history conference, and the bar at which we will hold the celebration to inaugurate the S-USIH is the one that Diggins haunted with colleagues and students. We’ll have to toast Jack Diggins Thursday night.

I am writing a review of a couple of recent books on Reinhold Niebuhr, including the book Diggins wrote just before his death, “Why Niebuhr Now?” That question doesn’t really organize the book as much as acknowledge that Niebuhr’s insight (even wisdom?) has not yet grown stale. Diggins makes that case better than anybody I have yet read on the topic. Perhaps that is because Diggins, like Niebuhr, found sustenance in the mixing of intellectual history and theology; a potent antidote (if handled correctly) to the American pathological tendency toward self-deception. There was no beating history; and thus there was considerable honor in being a historian.
Therefore I look forward to hearing papers and panels and plenaries (especially the one that closes the conference on American exceptionalism) that cut across topics that Diggins almost without fail addressed one way or another in his work.
Near the end of his book on Niebuhr, Diggins points to one passage in “The Irony of American History” that he called beautiful. It is a passage that many have found worthy of being prayed. Those who knew Diggins might be able to say something about his reaction to it.
‘Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.’ (The Irony of American History, 63)

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray, I love the quote. Gives one reason to go on when scholarship can at times seem so trivial and inconsequential and our politics sound so abysmal. Thank you for the reminder. Looking forward to the Niebuhr panel and hopefully I can catch the one on American exceptionalism.

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