The Nature and Destiny of Man

by Reinhold Niebuhr

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What is Niebuhr's stance on Plato's contributions in the book The Nature and Destiny of Man?

In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebur's stance on Plato is that his arguments are central to Neibur's book. Plato is the founder of the "rationalist" tradition, which sees the human mind as good and the human body as evil. However, he is also the original proponent of the idea that the human condition is one of internal contradiction. This latter point is central to Niebuhr's whole argument.

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In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr argues that a Christian conception of the human person is best because it avoids the dichotomies with which Western philosophical reflections on this subject have been plagued for centuries. "Man" is not inherently good (the idealist position) or evil (the nihilist position).

"He" is neither a pure mind brought down and sullied by the necessities of the body (the rationalist position) nor a body whose good and natural impulses are stifled by the repression meted out through the ideological obfuscations of the dominant culture (the romantic position). "He" is, in "his" mind and in "his" body in equal measure, both created good and capable of great evil, a contradiction that cannot be resolved simply by focusing on one or another aspect of "his" character.

Niebuhr acknowledges two key debts to Plato in developing this account. First, Plato stands at the head of the "rationalist" tradition. He it is who equates reason with "man's" spirit and capacity for creativity. In this regard, Niebuhr treats him primarily as an opponent to be argued with, since, for Plato,

The possibility of spiritual destructiveness cannot be envisaged because spirit as reason is regarded as the very principle of order (28).

The Christian rejoinder to Plato is that "man" is damaged not only in "his" body but also in "his" soul. Reason itself is subject to sin. Plato, however, also plays a constructive role for Niebuhr. To Plato, Niebuhr owes the insight that "man alone, among all animals, stands in contradiction to himself" (30). As mentioned above, the idea the human condition is characterized by contradiction is basic to Niebuhr's argument. Plato's only problem is that, by assigning this contradiction to a duality between body and soul, Plato is not allowing it to go far enough.

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