Chapters 1-3 of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

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In reading chapters 1-3 of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), I was immediately struck by Niebuhr’s discussion of his notions of “the children of light” and the “children of darkness” as, I would argue, respectively liberal and radical forms of democratic theory. What particularly interested me about Niebuhr’s articulation of these notions is his relation to how such notions can be theoretically construed through German romanticism. However, more accurately, I would extend that Niebuhr is really focusing on German Idealism, since Fichte and Hegel chiefly function as German Idealists.

The reason why I make this small distinction is to place Niebuhr’s discussion of Fichte’s and Hegel’s theory of “democracy” as theories specifically created in response to Kant. It is, of course, very important to understand that both Fichte and Hegel arise in a post-Kantian period, reacting to what I would call Kant’s universalist approach to perception: the idea that all of us perceive an object of understanding the same way. I only say this to argue that this “universalist” approach to perception is essentially what Fichte and Hegel disagree with as they begin to wrestle with the idea that experience plays a vital role in how any individual perceives any object of understanding. That is, experience becomes the means by which individuals shape meaning from what they perceive. For Fichte and Hegel, experience is woven into their sense of “democracy” and how a “democracy” is an experiential extrapolation of the individual perceived of within their community as much as it is of the community perceived of as a collection of individuals.

From this, I would contend that any notion Kant may have had about “democracy” was rather general and broad. I would even go so far to say that “democracy” was not in Kant’s vocabulary, which is, perhaps, much of the reason why Niebuhr avoids any theoretical connection of Kant to Fichte and Hegel all together. Instead, since Niebuhr focuses exclusively on Fichte and Hegel, I would suggest that Niebuhr is very much aware that Kant was much more concerned with “ethics” as an object of understanding that is simply a “thing-in-itself” to all that perceive it as such. In other words, beliefs in “justice,” “equality,” and “rights” are “things-in-themselves” rather than objects of understanding construed to subjectivity and meaning. Obviously, the Kantian concept of ethics does not work very well with the concept of democracy that Fichte and Hegel theorized. But, Kant’s concept of ethics becomes the ideological framework upon which Fichte and Hegel develop their own ethics –Fichte and Hegel push back against Kant’s simplicity in order to conceive of “ethics” not only as a complicated dialectic between the community and the individual, but as an object of understanding that is relative to subjectivity and individualized meaning.

Niebuhr attests to this with his notions of the “children of light” and the “children of darkness,” which seem to draw upon two experiential distinctions of the same object of understanding: democracy. Niebuhr’s “children of light” and “children of darkness” embody opposing views of what “community” is and what an “individual” is. In effect, by Niebuhr invoking both Fichtean and Hegelian notions of “democracy”  as two perspectives in understanding the development of the relationship between community and the individual, I find that Niebuhr understands, then, that there is a community-individual dialectic that is always at work in a democracy. This dialectic is what Fichte and Hegel focus on in terms of what they both call “The Right” –while Fichte discusses “The Right” in his Foundations of Natural Right, Hegel examines “The Right” in his Philosophy of Right. As Niebuhr would likely agree, Fichte and Hegel consider “The Right” as an object of understanding that has epistemological and aesthetic value in it: an idea that is relative to conception, subjectivity, and meaning. It is with this encounter with “The Right” that makes community, the individual, and democracy possible as three social constructions relative to theory and practice.

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