In Human Nature, the first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr surveys human history from Plato to modern times, focusing on political, religious, and philosophical movements and theories, highlighting human beings’ efforts to understand themselves and to craft their own destiny. From ancient civilizations through the Renaissance and Romanticism up to modern culture, the intellectual leaders in each era defined human nature with a historical bias and sought to remedy social evils with limited insight. The ancient Greeks, principally Plato, held that each human consisted of a soul, body, and spirit. Human beings’ ability to reason, it was argued, distinguishes them from all other animals on earth. Humans are the only self-conscious animal, able to stand outside themselves or see themselves as objects in nature. They also can manipulate history, within certain limits, because they are able to choose how to act. As creatures who live in and are bound by time, people’s lives are a linear, measurable flow. Their spirits also give them a kind of perpendicular existence.
Through transcendence, humans can know God, whose image resides naturally in human nature, giving humans some idea as to the nature of God. A view of God’s relation to humans is contained in the ideas of religious and secular thinkers up to modern times and turns on the notion that humans have the power to transcend their finiteness either with their reason or with their faith in and relation to God. Religious and philosophical thought from the ancient Greeks to the modern theorists is concerned primarily with the relation of reason, spirit, and nature. The naturalistic view sees humans as creatures bound to nature, and therefore having vitalistic impulses, and bound to God through their spirits. Each of the major intellectual movements, classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and modern, emphasized one or the other of these conceptions of humankind or conceived a blend of both. Renaissance thinkers celebrated humankind’s mastery over nature through the powers of the human mind and emphasized the importance of science in humankind’s intellectual development.
(The entire section is 893 words.)