The Intellectual and Moral Dilemma of History

by Hans J. Morgenthau

Hans J. Morgenthau was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His articles have appeared in many journals and he is the author of Politics in the Twentieth Century.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, February 8, 1960. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Nowhere, except in the contemplation of his suffering and hope, is man more triumphantly aware of his kinship with the Creator than in his cognitive and manipulative relations with nature. In the world of nature, which he faces ready-made and which he leaves as he finds it, man proves himself a master of understanding, imitation and control. The moral dilemmas of history, like its intellectual counterpart, are existential. They can be mitigated but not resolved.

It is a great paradox that nature is much more unambiguously susceptible to human understanding than is society past and present. That which man has not created and which it is beyond his power to create—the macrocosm of the stars and the microcosm of the cells and atoms—man can understand with an adequacy that points to the common source of both. How else explain the affinity between the cognitive qualities of the human mind and the laws by which the universe moves? Not only is man able to retrace and project into the future the movements of the natural bodies, but by virtue of that ability he is capable of recreating the forces of nature and harnessing them to his will. Nowhere, except in the contemplation of his suffering and hope, is man more triumphantly aware of his kinship with the Creator than in his cognitive and manipulative relations with nature.

In the world of nature, which he faces ready-made and which he leaves as he finds it, man proves himself a master of understanding, imitation and control. How different, how frustrating and humiliating is the role he plays in understanding and controlling the social world, a world that is properly his own, which would not exist if he had not created it, and which exists the way it does only because he has given it the imprint of his nature. Of this social world man can at best have but a partial and corrupted understanding and but a partial and ultimately illusory control. For the social world being but a projection of human nature onto the collective plane, being but man writ large, man can understand and maintain control of society no more than he can of himself. Thus the very intimacy of his involvement impedes both understanding and control.

The awareness of this paradox is, if I understand its intent correctly, the moving force of Reinhold Niebuhr’s new book, The Structure of Nations and Empires. It is the mega thaumazein, the "great wonderment," the shock of incongruity, that according to Aristotle is at the beginning of all philosophy. That shock feeds on two basic experiences— one intellectual, the other moral—and both cast doubt on man’s ability to find the truth about society. The intellectual experience is doubt about the meaning of history. What is unique and ephemeral in history and what is constantly revealing a repetitive pattern that lends itself to generalization about the past and future? there any consistency, any perennial pattern or permanent force in man’s search for community? Is there a permanent pattern in the anatomy of community which may be discerned in such diverse communities as the tribe, the city-state, or the ancient or modern empire?

The moral experience is doubt about man’s ability to grasp what meaning there is in history, given the involvement of his pride and aspirations in the historic process.

The intellectual difficulty that stands in the way of a theoretical inquiry into the meaning of history results from the ambiguity of the material with which the observer has to deal. The events he must try to understand are, on the one hand, unique occurrences. They happened in this way only once and never before or since. On the other hand they are similar, for they are manifestations of social forces. Social forces are the product of human nature in action. Therefore, under similar conditions, they will manifest themselves in a similar manner. But where is the line to be drawn between the similar and the unique?

This ambiguity of the events to be understood by a theory of history—it may be pointed out in passing—is but a special instance of a general impediment of human understanding.

"As no event and no shape," observes Montaigne, "is entirely like another, so also is there none entirely different from another: an ingenious mixture on the part of Nature. If there were no similarity in our faces, we could not distinguish man from beast; if there were no dissimilarity, we could not distinguish one man from another. All things hold together by some similarity; every example is halting, and the comparison that is derived from experience is always defective and imperfect. And yet one links up the comparisons at some corner. And so do laws become serviceable and adapt themselves to every one of our affairs by some wrested, forced, and biased interpretation."

It is against such "wrested, forced and biased interpretation" of historic events that a theory of history must be continuously on guard.

Nor are the untoward results of this dilemma of having to distinguish between what is typical and perennial and what is unique and ephemeral in history limited to the interpretation of past events. That dilemma affects gravely, and sometimes absurdly, forecasts of and planning for the future. In 1776, Washington declared that "the Fate of our Country depends in all human probability, on the Exertion of a Few Weeks." Yet it was not until seven years later that the War of Independence came to an end.

In February 1792, British Prime Minister Pitt justified the reduction of military expenditures and held out hope for more reductions to come by declaring: "Unquestionably there never was a time in the history of this country when from the situation of Europe we might more reasonably expect fifteen years of peace than at the present moment. Only two months later the continent of Europe was engulfed in war. Less than a year later Great Britain was involved. Thus was initiated a period of almost continuous warfare that lasted nearly a quarter of a century.

When Lord Granville became British Foreign Secretary in 1870, he was informed by the Permanent Undersecretary that "he had never, during his long experience, known so great a lull in foreign affairs, and that he was not aware of any important question that he (Lord Granville) should have to deal with." On that same day Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen accepted the Crown of Spain, an event that three weeks later led to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.

The day before World War I broke out, the British Ambassador to Germany disparaged the possibility of war in a report to his Government. Franklin D. Roosevelt thought toward the end of his life that the great political issue with which the postwar world would have to deal would be Anglo-Russian rivalry, with the United States playing the role of mediator.

These difficulties, inherent in the nature of things, have been magnified since the eighteenth century by a philosophic tendency to identify a particular historic phenomenon with a particular social situation and to draw from this identification the conclusion that by doing away with the social situation one could eliminate an undesirable historic phenomenon. Conversely, by generalizing the social situation one could generalize a desirable historic phenomenon as well. Thus the conviction arose that war was a by-product of either the autocratic or the capitalistic organization of society. Therefore the destruction of autocracy or capitalism would of necessity usher in the abolition of war; conversely, the universal triumph of democracy or of communism would usher in universal peace.

Similarly and more particularly, imperialism has been identified, and by no means only by Marxists, with capitalism, from which identification the logical conclusion was drawn, that the end of capitalism would signify the end of imperialism as well. The very existence of power relations, the inequality of the strong and the weak, the mastery of the former over the latter, the differentiation between ruler and ruled was attributed by nineteenth century liberals to autocratic government and is attributed by contemporary Marxists to the class structure of society.

All these identifications have one fallacy in common: The confusion between the perennial and the ephemeral, the typical and the unique in history. Our society in particular, with its underdeveloped sense of historic continuity and its penchant for social innovation, finds it hard to accept the underlying regularity and typicality of the historic process. If you accept these qualities of history, you must submit to its laws and try to learn from them; you are foreclosed from treating each new historic situation de novo, as a unique occurrence to be disposed of by one radical action similarly unique. On the other hand, if you do not accept these qualities of history and are free to transcend the limitations of tradition and disregard the counsels of ancient wisdom, your social inventiveness is limited, if it is limited at all, by nothing but elemental common sense and common prudence.

Philosophy, tradition and individual experience have predisposed us for the latter attitude. The great problems of history with which we must come to terms tend to appear to us not as members of a chain organically tied to the past and growing into the future, but as cataclysmic interruptions of the normalcy of peace and harmony, occasioned by evil men and evil institutions. Let us do away with those men and institutions, and we will have solved not only this particular historic problem but the problem of history itself. We are, as it were, in flight from history, and whenever history catches up with us, as it did intermittently before World War II and has done continuously since, we endeavor to gain our freedom from it by obliterating in one great effort the issue that blocks our way.

The vanity of these endeavors is attested to by their consistent failures. It is one of the great contributions of Professor Niebuhr’s book to demonstrate through the analysis of historic phenomena the fallacy of this approach to historic understanding and political action. The demonstration is made by fitting the imperialism, universalism and utopianism of communism—the overriding historic phenomenon of the age—into a pattern of empire that was not established by communism but of which communism is but the latest manifestation.

The roots of that pattern reach back to ancient Persia and Babylon. The pattern is clearly visible in the character and claims of the Roman and Chinese empires and fully developed in the two Christian and the Islamic empires of the Middle Ages. The articulation of both the similarities and dissimilarities—but particularly the former—between the great empires of the past and the imperial structure and claims of communism illuminates both. the historic and contemporary scene.

The tendency to disparage the perennial and typical in history and to dissolve the historic process into a series of disconnected disturbances, unique and ephemeral, disarms contemporary man in the face of a phenomenon that is truly unique: The ability for universal destruction that man has received from nuclear power. This ability has introduced into the relations among nations a radically novel factor. Qualitatively speaking, it is the only structural change that has occurred in international relations since the beginning of history. For nuclear power has radically altered the relations that have existed since the beginning of history between the ends of foreign policy and violence as a means to these ends.

These relations have traditionally been by and large of a rational nature. That is to say: The risks run and the liabilities incurred through the use of violent means were generally not out of proportion to the ends sought. A nation calculating these risks and liabilities could rationally conclude that even if it should lose, its losses would be tolerable in view of the ends sought. A nation acted very much like a gambler who could afford to risk a certain portion of his assets and was willing to risk them in view of the chances for gain provided by taking the risk.

This rational relationship between the means of violence and the ends of foreign policy has been destroyed by the availability of nuclear power as a means to these ends. For the possibility of universal destruction obliterates the means-end relationship itself by threatening the nations and their ends with total destruction. No such radical qualitative transformation of the structure of international relations has ever occurred in history, and the radical nature of the transformation calls for correspondingly radical innovations in the sphere of policy.

Yet, paradoxically enough, a civilization that likes to see novelty in history where there is none, by dint of its distorted historic perspective seems to perceive but dimly the genuine novelty with which nuclear power confronts it. A society that is almost enamored by social innovation for innovation’s sake faces in virtual helplessness a situation that requires—not for the sake of a traditional national interest but for the survival of civilization, if not of mankind itself—an extreme effort of bold, innovating imagination. Thus history threatens to avenge itself for having been misunderstood in thought and abused in action.

Faced with this mortal threat to their survival, both the United States and the Soviet Union have fallen back upon a time-honored yet thus far ineffectual remedy: Disarmament. Are the chances for disarmament better now than they were in the past? The answer to that question depends again upon what one considers the perennial and ephemeral factors in history to be.

One school of thought holds that the possibility of disarmament is predicated upon the preceding or at least simultaneous settlement of outstanding political issues that have given rise to the armaments race in the first place, and that the threat of nuclear war has not materially affected this perennial functional dependence of disarmament upon a political settlement. Another school of thought assumes that the threat of nuclear war has radically altered this traditional relationship, which was perennial only in appearance but was in fact dependent upon certain ephemeral factors no longer present today. It also assumes that the desire to avoid nuclear destruction provides today an incentive for disarmament that invalidates the conditions upon which disarmament was predicated in the past. The question whether or not the novelty of the nuclear threat has actually reduced what seemed to be a perennial principle of statecraft to an ephemeral configuration poses again the dilemma that casts doubt upon our understanding of history and renders hazardous our political action.

The other great dilemma upon which Professor Niebuhr’s book centers is the moral dilemma in which history involves man. That moral dilemma results from the ineradicable tendency of man to claim for his position in history more in terms of moral dignity than he is entitled to and to grant his fellows less than is their due. Hamlet implores the Queen in vain:

¼ Mother, for love of grace,

Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,

That not your trespass, but my madness


For the position of the actor on the political scene is of necessity morally ambivalent, and that ambivalence, in conjunction with the logic inherent in the political act, inevitably corrupts his moral judgment.

The political actor seeks power, that is to say, he seeks to reduce his fellow man to a means for his ends. By doing so, he violates a basic tenet of Western morality: To respect man as an end in himself and not to use him as a means to an end. Both the contradiction between the political act and morality and the logic of the power relation itself compel the political actor to make it appear as though his striving for power and the exercise of it, far from violating morality, were actually its consummation. That appearance is achieved by clothing him and his act with a moral dignity they do not deserve and by depriving the object of the political act of at least some of the moral dignity he deserves.

Politics and morality are reconciled by the latter being bent to the requirements of the former. The political actor now can proceed with a good conscience, being assured of his moral superiority and the moral inferiority of the object of his power. He can also proceed with a determination maximizing his chances for political success; for he will find it hard to convince himself that, in view of the difference in moral qualities between himself and the object of his power, he has not only a moral right but also a moral duty to rule. As Tolstoy put it in the epilogue to War and Peace:

When a man acts alone, he always carries within him a certain series of considerations that have, as he supposes, directed his past conduct and serve to justify to him his present action and to lead him to make projects for his future activity.

Assemblies of men act in the same way, only leaving to those who do not take direct part in the action to invent consideration, justifications and projects concerning their combined activity.

For causes, known or unknown to us, the French begin to chop and hack at each other. And to match the event, it is accompanied by its justification in the expressed wills of certain men who declare it essential for the good of France, for the cause of freedom, of equality. Men cease slaughtering one another, and that event is accompanied by the justification of the necessity of centralization of power, of resistance to Europe, and so on. Men march from west to east, killing their fellow-creatures, and this event is accomplished by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History teaches us that those justifications for the event are devoid of all common sense, that they are inconsistent with one another, as, for instance, the murder of a man as a result of the declaration of his rights, and the murder of millions in Russia for the abasement of England. But those justifications have an incontestable value in their own day.

They remove moral responsibility from those men who produce the events. At the time they do the work of brooms, that go in front to clear the rails for the train: they clear the path of men’s moral responsibility. Apart from those justifications, no solution could be found for the most obvious question that occurs to one at once on examining any historical event; that is, How did millions of men combine to commit crimes, murders, wars, and so on?

Professor Niebuhr lays bare the mechanism by which morality clothes politics with undeserved dignity and politics transforms morality into an instrument of political domination. It is particularly fascinating to observe how this mechanism operates in the relations between the great imperial and religious structures. The religious structures become imperial in performance and the imperial structures become religious in pretense. Typically, it is politics and imperium as its more dynamic manifestation that transform and corrupt morality and religion, and it is much rarer for morality and religion to reform and spiritualize politics and imperium.

The moral dilemma of history, like its intellectual counterpart, is existential. They can be mitigated but not resolved. Both grow out of the nature of man and of history as man’s creation. In history man meets himself, and in his encounter with history he encounters again, magnified into superhuman proportions, the fallibility of his intellectual understanding and moral judgment that prevents him from completely understanding and adequately judging both history and himself.