Niebuhr on the Will to Live and the Will to Power

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Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you, that a rich man will enter the kingdom of heaven with difficulty.
Again I say to you that it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this they were very surprised and said:
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked up and said to them: “With human beings this is impossible,
but with God all things are possible.”

Matthew 19: 23-6

At the heart of Brother Ryken’s conversion is the experience of being “put in one’s place.” Today’s reading from Ezechiel reminds us that it is part of our ordinary consciousness to see ourselves “as gods.”

Though you are a man, and not a god, you consider yourself the equal of God.

Ez. 28: 2

A teacher of mind frequently used to say: “What kind of a creature is it that has to keep reminding itself “For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours”? We are possessed of an ego that is constantly seeking “affirmation”. At our pre-spiritual or pre-transcendent level of personality, we are an unquenchable thirst for recognition and possession. Because our sense of lack is difficult and even painful for us, we are always attempting to fill it.

In the Jewish tradition, as reflected in Deuteronomy and other places, wealth and possessions were a result of obedience to God. This remains a very powerful strain in the American prosperity gospel. Thus, Jesus is saying something quite radical, and yet profoundly spiritually and psychologically true. Our need to “establish ourselves” and to become as gods in our own lives is an obstacle to knowing and living from our true place. James L. Kugel, a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, writes of his experience of being diagnosed with what was considered a terminal cancer. He describes his experience as that of a profound silence in which the “background music” of everyday life ceased. By the background music he means all of the thoughts and concerns that occupy so much of our consciousness. And the result of this silencing of all of those concerns that constitute our everyday reality, he says, is that we come to realize how small we are. This, he says, is the smallness that all the great personages of the scriptures understood. When we know our place in God’s world we realize that we are but a small participant in a much greater life, and that our identity lies in that participation, not in our sense of separate and “outstanding” identity.

“The ego in its essence is frustration” because we can never achieve by its efforts the power and recognition we desire. For that power is not ours to have. In this sense, the practices of poverty and humility are not “virtues,” but rather the living out of the reality of who we are. We are poor and small. Our significance lies in participation and responsibility, not power and self- assertion.

The social implications of this inherent human conflict are forever being played out. In the following passage, Reinhold Niebuhr discusses this tension in light of the often unrealistic optimism in the liberal democratic project, or for that matter the community project. (As the text predates current consciousness, its language is exclusive.)

Man is the kind of animal who cannot merely live. If he lives at all he is bound to seek the realization of his true nature; and to his true nature belongs his fulfillment in the lives of others. The will to live is thus transmuted into the will to self-realization; and self- realization involves self-giving in relations to others. When this desire for self-realization is fully explored it becomes apparent that it is subject to the paradox that the highest form of self-realization is the consequence of self-giving, but that it cannot be the intended consequence without being prematurely limited. Thus the will to live is finally transmuted into its opposite in the sense that only in self-giving can the self be fulfilled, for: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 10:39).

On the other hand the will-to-live is also spiritually transmuted into the will-to-power or into the desire for “power and glory.” Man, being more than a natural creature, is not interested merely in physical survival but in prestige and social approval. Having the intelligence to anticipate the perils in which he stands in nature and history, he invariably seeks to gain security against these perils by enhancing his power, individually and collectively. Possessing a darkly unconscious sense of his insignificance in the total scheme of things, he seeks to compensate for his insignificance by pretensions of pride. The conflicts between men are thus never simple conflicts between competing survival impulses. They are conflicts in which each man or group seeks to guard its power and prestige agains the very peril of competing expressions of power and pride. Since the very possession of power and prestige always involves some encroachment on the power and prestige of others, this conflict is by its very nature a more stubborn and difficult one than the mere competition between various survival impulses in nature. It remains to be added that this conflict expresses itself even more cruelly in collective than in individual terms. Human behavior being less individualistic than secular liberalism assumed, the struggle between classes, races and other groups in human society is not as easily resolved by the expedient of dissolving the groups as liberal democratic idealists assumed.

Since the survival impulse in nature is transmuted into two different and contradictory spiritualized forms, which we may briefly designate as the will-to-live-truly and the will-to-power, man is at variance with himself. The power of the second impulse places him more fundamentally in conflict with his fellowman than democratic liberalism realizes. The fact he cannot realize himself, except in organic relation with others, makes the community more important than bourgeois individualism understands. The fact that the two impulses, though standing in contradiction to each other, are also mixed and compounded with each other on every level of human life, makes the simple distinctions between good and evil, between selfishness and altruism, with which liberal idealism has tried to estimate moral and political facts, invalid. The fact that the will-to-power inevitably justifies itself in terms of the morally more acceptable will to realize man’s true nature means that the egoistic corruption of universal ideals is a much more persistent fact in human conduct than any moralistic creed is inclined to admit.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness 

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