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The Wisdom of the Serpent and the Harmlessness of the Dove (Jeremy Sabella)


Niebuhr’s choice of title for The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (CLCD) is something of an outlier. The titles for his other major works follow a straightforward formula: they describe the structuring motif of the work in question, which Niebuhr then proceeds to fill in with characteristic insight and originality. The title, then, typically acts as a hermeneutical key: it gives the reader a sense of where Niebuhr’s thought is headed amid its forays into theology, philosophy, political theory, or whatever other discipline he brings to bear on a particular line of inquiry. Moral Man and Immoral Society, Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Beyond Tragedy, The Nature and Destiny of Man, and The Irony of American History all follow this general pattern. The title of CLCD, by contrast, evokes the very framework that Niebuhr proceeds to deconstruct.

As various commentators have noted, at first glance CLCD’s title seems Manichean. It appears to use the binaries of light and darkness to sort human beings into clear categories of good and evil. One could hardly blame Niebuhr’s audience for presuming that such a sorting was obvious, and perhaps even necessary. The book, after all, was published in August of 1944. While at the time it was starting to become clear that the Allies would prevail over the Axis Powers, the Second World War was far from over (for reference: VE Day was on May 8, 1945, and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings took place in August of 1945). With millions dead and the world order in shambles, the distinction between the children of light and the children of darkness could appear painfully stark.

Yet from the first chapter, Niebuhr undermines the binary logic embedded in the title. He explains that he drew the inspiration for the title from the biblical verse, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” Interestingly, he labels the “children of this world” as the “children of darkness,” thereby setting up a duality between light and darkness arguably absent in the verse itself (361). He goes on to identify the children of darkness as the “moral cynics, who know no law beyond their will and interest,” and the children of light as those who “believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law” (361).

Given the way he twists the language of the verse to establish the contrast between the children of light and the children of darkness, one might reasonably wonder why Niebuhr bothered to reference the verse at all. Yet the value of the verse to Niebuhr’s argument is not in the light/dark binary, as the title suggests, but in its attribution of wisdom to the children of this world. Niebuhr notes that the children of darkness are “wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest” and praises them for their “shrewd assessment of the power of self-interest, individual and national, among the children of light.” (362). By contrast, the children of light are foolish—not only for underestimating the power of self-interest in the children of darkness, but also the power of self-interest among themselves. In the space of a few paragraphs, Niebuhr has played with scriptural language to create a Manichean contrast between good and evil, then turned that contrast on its head by criticizing those labeled “good” and praising those labeled “evil.” Niebuhr has exposed the apparent clarity of the contrast between the children of light and the children of darkness as illusory. The reader is left to wonder what, exactly, Niebuhr plans to do with this motif after undercutting it so sharply.


Which brings us to the matter of the work’s subtitle: “A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defence [sic].” For Niebuhr, the vindication of democracy in a mid-twentieth century context was very much contingent on assimilating his critique. The genius of democracy lies in its ability to hold in tension the needs and rights of individuals on the one hand and the requirements of functional modern societies on the other. For most of history, forms of government that established social order at the expense of individual rights had been relatively successful, largely because social change was gradual, and thus, a good deal more manageable. Yet advances in technology from the European enlightenment onward introduced a dynamism to societies that both made them more difficult to manage and made it easier for individuals to assert their rights. This dynamism introduced the instability that contributed to the violence and chaos of the early 20th century.

Democracy, Niebuhr maintains, is much better suited to dynamic modern societies. Its system of checks and balances provides a mechanism of government flexible enough to accommodate the shifts in boundaries between individual rights and group rights that rapid social change brings about, while providing the structure necessary to maintain social order. Yet precisely because democracy places so much responsibility on the individual, it is vital for democracies to calibrate and manage these checks and balances in a way that fits human nature. The Enlightenment era theorists of democracy were by and large foolish children of light who had been too sanguine in their estimate of the powers of reason and too dismissive in their estimate of the destructive power of self-interest. Put in more theological terms: they were Pelagian in their confidence in the human ability to overcome evil. Consequently, the societies they helped build were vulnerable to exploitation from those who did understand the power of self-interest: namely, the children of darkness. The children of light had either proven inept at countering the cynical manipulation of the children of darkness, or had been seduced by the Manichean clarity that the children of darkness offered. The children of light would build more stable democracies once they had more accurately understood the intractability and destructiveness of self-interest. Only then would they be equipped to “beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community” (378). But to thus acquire the “wisdom of the children of darkness without succumbing to their malice,” it wasn’t sufficient for the children of light to simply tweak their theories (378). They would need to learn to think of good and evil and how it applied to human affairs in an entirely different way. To resist the Manichean children of darkness effectively, they would have to leave the Pelagian moral universe behind.

The figure on which Niebuhr draws to articulate this non-Manichean, non-Pelagian understanding of good and evil is, of course, Augustine. Against the Manichean view that the material world was inherently evil, Augustine argued that evil had no substance of its own. Rather, evil was a distortion of the proper function of that which God created inherently good. Original sin described the defect in the will that caused human beings to relate to God, the self, and the other in a distorted way. For Augustine, then, evil was a relational category, not an ontological one as it was for the Manicheans.

Against the Pelagian view that human beings were capable of subduing their own sinful tendencies, Augustine argued that the mechanisms whereby humans perceive and act morally—the capacities for reason and prudence, a sense of right and wrong, etc.—are inextricably tied to the defective will. Thus, moral judgments and actions are as subject to the distortive effect of sin as any other aspect of the will. In positing the human capacity to subdue sin, Pelagians set up a false dichotomy between the capacities of the will on the one hand and the sinfulness of the will on the other. This in turn gives them a false assurance in their ability to label certain human beings as righteous and others as evil.

Following Augustine, Niebuhr defines good and evil in relational terms. He writes, “evil is always the assertion of self-interest without regard to the whole,” whereas good is “always the harmony of the whole on various levels” (361). Evil, then, is the distortion of the properly ordered relations that constitute the harmony of the whole. Within this relational conception of good and evil Niebuhr continues to deploy the motif of the children of light and the children of darkness in decidedly non-Manichean terms, as evident in the staggering disproportion between those who Niebuhr classifies as naïve children of light versus those who he sees as children of darkness. Among theorists, the “Children of Light” includes those we might expect, such Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and John Locke. Yet it also includes Hegel, whose dialectic drives an optimistic vision of history; German Romantics such as Fichte, whose work helped anchor the rise of German nationalism; and Karl Marx, who remained convinced that abolishing private property would pave the way for utopia. In fact, the litany of children of light is so ideologically expansive that one may reasonably infer that there is no group of people that Niebuhr sees as belonging to the children of darkness. Niebuhr is willing to single out the occasional individual for the way that they distorted ideologies articulated by children of light, such as Napoleon and Stalin (374), and clearly implicates Hitler at various points. Napoleon cynically manipulated Enlightenment liberalism; Stalin twisted Marxism; and Hitler distorted German Romanticism. Given Niebuhr’s definition of the children of darkness as those who know no law beyond their own self-interest, it is reasonable to infer that these three fit the bill. Yet it is clear that, for Niebuhr, the overwhelming majority of human beings are children of light. Those who truly merit being labeled children of darkness are few and far between.


If the sheer rarity of a child of darkness calls the viability of Manichean divisions between human beings into question, Niebuhr’s insistence that the children of light must glean the wisdom of the children of darkness undercuts these distinctions completely. It is telling that for Niebuhr depicts the children of darkness as derivative. Much as the foolish children of light are blind to the depths of self-interest, the cynical children of darkness are blind to the heights of human creativity. Thus, the machinations of the children of darkness are parasitic on the ingenuity of the children of light. The ability of the aforementioned children of darkness to harness the energies of the children of light for their own self-interested purposes was predicated on the way that they channeled the Pelagian sensibilities of the children of light into Manichean categories. They flattered the children of light into thinking that they were inherently good and played to their fears to convince them that large swaths of humanity were hopelessly embedded in evil. They used their powers of rhetoric and argument to made their Manichean accounts of the world sound reasonable, and convinced legions of children of light to sacrifice blood and treasure to pursue the aims of the children of darkness. Yet in so doing, the children of darkness unwittingly revealed their own particular genius: a shrewd understanding of the power of self-interest. In insisting that the children of light must glean the wisdom of the children of darkness, Niebuhr pushes the children of light to follow Agustinian logic to its non-Manichean conclusion. Distorted though the aims of the children of darkness may be, their insight into the depths of self-interest is true wisdom, and thus, a genuine good. If even the children of darkness have redeeming qualities—can we definitively say that anyone is beyond redemption? And if their wisdom exposes the distortive power of self-interest in the best of us—can we call anyone fully good? Appropriating the wisdom of the children of darkness thus unravels the logic of both Pelagian and Manichean binaries. This pushes the children of light toward an understanding of human nature and the moral universe that is structurally incompatible with the worldview of the children of darkness, rendering them far less susceptible to their malice. Constructing and managing the checks and balances of a democratic society in terms of this non-Manichean worldview enables democratic societies to beguile, harness, and restrain self-interest, while allowing space for the creativity of the children of light to flourish. Only on these terms can democratic civilization be said to exhibit the “wisdom of the serpent” as well as the “harmlessness of the dove” (378).

Niebuhr’s choice of title, then, doesn’t simply alert us to his central theme; it is integral to his whole rhetorical strategy. It evokes precisely the sort of Manichean and Pelagian binaries that he deconstructs and reconfigures within an Augustinian moral universe. For Niebuhr, these insights are not only applicable to democratic theory; they also shape how we think of world community. Part Two will examine Niebuhr’s thoughts on world community as well as examine the implications of Niebuhr’s argument in CLCD for our own time.

Jeremy Sabella teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He completed his Ph.D at Boston College with a dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr in 2013 and has written the article “Establishment Radical: Assessing the Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr’s *Reflections on the End of an Era*” forthcoming in the journal Political Theology.

4 thoughts on “The Wisdom of the Serpent and the Harmlessness of the Dove (Jeremy Sabella)

  1. Excellent reflection on this topic.Lots to chew on here.

    Interestingly, I think you have to wonder at the end of the day whether even Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler belong in the Children of Darkness camp. To get them there, you have to read their activities as entirely cynical.

    Much more plausible, it seems to me, is the work of someone like Ayn Rand, who is explicitly egoistic. Which raises more serious questions about our own engagement with contemporary libertarianism.

    Thanks again for a wonderful article.

    1. Thank you very much for these comments. They touch on an issue that puzzles me even after having read through CLCD several times: who (or what) does the category of the “Children of Darkness” designate? Is it an abstraction—an ideal type that some approximate more than others but no fully one inhabits? Or are the “children of darkness” identifiable actors in human

      Where I’m currently at in my thinking:

      I find the notion of the Child of Darkness as an ideal type intellectually attractive, as this would preclude the very possibility of Manichean distinctions between human beings. Some of us may relate to the world in such a distorted way that the good we still possess is virtually unrecognizable; but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. This strikes me as an elegant solution to the Manichean problem.

      Yet Niebuhr has a penchant for muddying elegant intellectual distinctions, and this is no exception. He describes certain people in terms that strongly imply they are children of darkness even if he doesn’t name them so explicitly. In other words: the notion of the child of darkness seems to be
      a live category for Niebuhr and not merely an ideal type. Even if no one is a pure child of darkness, some people may be so consumed by self-interest that they merit being labeled as such.

      Which raises the question: who merits the label? Niebuhr is—perhaps deliberately—ambiguous on this point. He does say that the children of darkness know no law beyond self-interest, although I’m not convinced this precludes them from articulating and striving after certain ideals. In this I’ve been influenced by Robin Lovin’s observation that “Some of these children of darkness may be dewy-eyed idealists, but every ideal in the end refers back to the interests and power of the group where these interests are centered” (Reinhold Niebuhr, Abingdon, 2007, p.38). It’s not that the children of darkness can’t have ideals; it’s that they leverage these ideals for their benefit, and thus, force ideals to serve the law of self-interest.

      Might we, then, label theorists who develop rationales for elevating self-interest over any form of ideal as children of darkness—someone like Ayn Rand? Perhaps. But in her particular case, I fear this might give her too much credit. Part of why the Stalins and the Hitlers were so catastrophically
      successful is that they twisted genuinely creative thought systems in ways that entire societies found compelling. I’m not sure that the thought world of Ayn Rand has that kind of power to compel. I wonder if the more damning critique of Ayn Rand is that she can’t be a true child of darkness because she lacks their wisdom. Her naïve faith in the existence of a symbiotic relationship between reason and egotism reveals her to be a foolish child of light.

      I’m curious to get your thoughts on this—am I being too glib in my assessment of Rand? Is there a wisdom to her particular brand of cynicism that I’m not seeing?

      Thanks again—this has helped me put to words some things I’ve been struggling to articulate for some time.

      1. I too am tempted by Robin’s note about faux idealism.

        However, there may be another relevant concept at play here. In your article, you do an excellent job of tying Niebuhr’s thought here to Augustine in thinking of sin as pride. But Augustine also thinks of evil as privation. So it might make sense that the nearer we come to actual evil actors, the fewer we find. In order to actually be effective in bringing about substantial results, evil needs to be parasitic upon a relatively valid account of the good. So the most idealistic systems ironically allow for the success of the most egoistic (even bordering on nihilistic) actors.

        But this brings me back to my interest in libertarianism. As you suggest, Niebuhr credits the unique situation of technology and culture for the possibility of modern democracy. But we are now moving out of the period of culture and technology that Niebuhr was familiar with. Simultaneous globalization and individualization have shifted the power balance between individuals, states, ideologies, etc. So that, when Niebuhr lived it might have been that idolatrous ideologies might have been the greatest danger, where idolatrous individualism might be our greatest problem.

        Thanks for the discussion. Very good work here!

        1. Thanks for this– both of these points compelling, and really helpful as I think through part II of this post.

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