chapter  14
16 Pages

The virtues of the social critic

WithJeremy Sabella

This chapter probes Reinhold Niebuhr’s life and thought for insight into the virtues of the social critic. It begins with an overview of Niebuhr’s emergence as a critic of note, then explores the outlook and dispositions that shaped his critical voice. To delineate the mean between dangerous extremes, Niebuhr invoked the Homeric imagery of Scylla and Charybdis. Niebuhr models the technique in his classic work on democratic theory, the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, published in 1944. Niebuhr’s subsequent forays into social criticism frequently followed this pattern: he would concede the good intentions of his subject only to use that concession as a basis for inducing his readers to critical self-reflection. For Niebuhr, the good critic is generous in assessing others’ motives and aware of how personal struggles shape one’s critical sensibilities. This hints at a key element in Niebuhr’s worldview: a commitment to a non-Manichean approach to social issues.