Despite everything, why we can act

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.

– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

3PictureNiebuhrTimeCoverMargaret’s comment here yesterday, which includes the above quote, may trigger the objection that someone may legitimately choose not to act if the formidable opposition presented by a society’s philosophical foundation or zeitgeist dissuades him. And under Freire’s terms, this inaction would make one’s reflection “no true word.”

I think Reinhold Niebuhr meets every larger objection to action here:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

– Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (page 63)


  1. This really spoke to me when I read it this morning. Niebuhr’s words do answer the objections of my own weary soul, who has found that the “desire to transform the world” is all too rare, and having it can lead to a lot of sadness and loneliness in life.

    Interestingly Freire too points faith, hope and love, along with humility and trust, as essential to true dialogue. Tonight, I was inspired to start writing about it here.

    1. Ha! I found your post before you commented here.

      I’ve never read Niebuhr until this month. I loved his The Irony of American History so much that I started it over as soon as I had finished it. In it, he combines literary, spiritual, and political science outlooks — outlooks representing my three biggest passions. It may have been inevitable, then, that I’d love him. I do hope to write more about what he says and how he says it as time goes on.

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