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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893

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.

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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.

Modern conceptions of humankind combine the Romantic idea of humanity’s relation to nature with the Renaissance faith in reason and individuality, freedom of the human spirit as opposed to the Christian notion of humankind’s predestination. Modern people, Niebuhr concludes, cannot decide whether they control their destiny through their reason or are controlled by nature through their affinity with it. The power of the individual seems boundless, given technology and science, but the autonomy of the individual is lost in the very forces that culture has developed.

Niebuhr points out that the behavior of humans, even their destiny, is inescapably contingent on historical circumstances, and to think otherwise, to think that humans do not need divine guidance because they have the power of reason, is to commit the sin of pride. Too much faith in human reason leads to idolatry; too little faith in God leads to cynicism. Without Christian faith, humans are left with the feeling that life is meaningless. Niebuhr agrees with philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s thesis that humans suffer from inherent and inescapable anxiety caused by the dread of individual annihilation. Human history reveals a struggle for survival that pits humans against humans and disrupts the harmony of nature. Freedom allows humans to make choices, but these choices are tainted by self-interest, which leads to inequality, injustice, conflict,...

(The entire section contains 893 words.)

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