Reinhold Niebuhr Was A Cockeyed Optimist

     Why are you here, Gentle Reader? I don’t ask that question in the metaphysical sense that demands a discussion of theistic cosmogony and the alternatives to it, but rather in the immediate and supremely practical sense. Why are you here, at Liberty’s Torch? What has brought you here, and – should you decide to bookmark us for further enjoyment – what have you found here that makes us worth the precious seconds of your ever-dwindling life?

     Some questions are best confronted by excluding impossible and absurd answers. This may be one such. Let’s try it out:

  1. You’re not here for the recipes;
  2. You’re not here for the free money;
  3. You’re not here for the celebrity nudes;
  4. You’re not here for the scandal-mongering;
  5. You’re not here for the comforting platitudes.

     Shout that last one. Platitudes definitely aren’t “our thing.” We prefer the essential if uncomfortable truths. For many, their greatest need, even if unacknowledged or deliberately suppressed, is to hear plain and unambiguous statements about what is rather than dreamy fantasies about what might be. I and my Co-Conspirators labor here for that reason above all others.

     And we make no apologies for “harshing your mellow.”


     “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

     There are a lot of people who know no prayers but that one. Contemplate it for a moment. Does it stand apart from all other considerations, irrefutable and immutable? Or might there be some aspects to it that deserve intelligent exploration and discussion?

     The “Serenity Prayer” is so named for the first of the emotional attitudes it cites. Yet it’s not about serenity in the extended sense. The full text of the prayer clarifies Niebuhr’s intention:

     God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
     Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.

     If we leave aside the embedded assertions, it’s about discerning God’s will and learning to conform to it without resistance. But discerning God’s will is a rather difficult endeavor. He seldom deigns to explain Himself in layman’s terms. Moreover, there are innumerable theologians and pretenders who’d like to persuade you that: 1) they’ve “cracked the code;” and 2) you really ought to stop asking questions and accept their interpretation. The guru business has room for a lot of contenders.


     It’s time to ask some critical questions – critical in the bifurcated sense. First, they’re critical because the answers to them are fundamental to making objective progress of any sort. Second, they’re critical because they compel us to be critical of our own thinking and our own actions. However, I don’t mean to suggest here that the questions I’m about to pose are the only critical questions. These are important, especially considering how seldom they’re addressed, but they’re not alone in their importance.

     Those questions are the reality that lies beneath the platitudinous sentiments of the Serenity Prayer:

  1. What can be changed by men’s decisions and actions;
  2. How can we tell?

     A mighty mind once gave forth a mighty statement whose truth has never been much liked by persons in politics:

     Nevertheless, in the inexplicable universal votings and debatings of these Ages, an idea or rather a dumb presumption to the contrary has gone idly abroad, and at this day, over extensive tracts of the world, poor human beings are to be found, whose practical belief it is that if we “vote” this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be…. Practically men have come to imagine that the Laws of this Universe, like the laws of constitutional countries, are decided by voting…. It is an idle fancy. The Laws of this Universe, of which if the Laws of England are not an exact transcript, they should passionately study to become, are fixed by the everlasting congruity of things, and are not fixable or changeable by voting! — Thomas Carlyle

     We might call this the Anti-Political Theorem. It refutes the overwhelmingly greater part of what governments attempt. It demands respect for what cannot be changed. It requires that we concede that there are limits to our power…and if there’s anything politicians and their hangers-on absolutely hate to admit, it’s the limits to their power.

     Some of what cannot be changed is essentially self-evident: the nature of Man; the laws of physics; the requirements for the perpetuation of life; and so on. However, some things that cannot be changed only reveal that characteristic through repeated unsuccessful attempts to change them.

     Admitting to inherent incapacity has never been favored by governments. Thomas Sowell, in talking about the War on Drugs, cited a quote from W. C. Fields: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” Governments, which possess the privilege of doing to us things that would be illegal, often horrifyingly so, if they were done by private parties, seldom respect reality’s negative verdicts on their power. But on the personal level, what each of us can change involves another debate.

     One thing only is clear about the limits of personal change: Smith cannot change Jones, for any and all values of Smith and Jones.


     If you’ve been wondering what the hell I’m circling around this morning, these thoughts were kicked off by this story at the Independent Sentinel:

     The Boston Globe reported that advanced math students were primarily White and Asian, while lower-level courses mostly had Black and Hispanic students. Cambridge Public Schools noticed this trend before, but things only worsened due to the pandemic. This led to all four middle schools in the district axing Algebra I.
     Instead of providing extra help to the minority children and their families so they can do the work, the WOKE schools decided to drag down all the children based on the color of their skin.

     Those two paragraphs are packed with import. The intent of the schools’ decision is plain: We can’t raise black and Hispanic students’ math performance, but we don’t want to admit that, so we’ll conceal the evidence. But the conclusion of the school boards is at odds with the prevailing assumption that what it takes to raise black and Hispanic students’ performance is knowable and doable. Writer Maura Dowling, whom I admire and respect, appears to share that assumption. What evidence is there for its soundness? Are other, similar stories relevant? Are there enough of them to reach a conclusion? If not, why not?

     Decide for yourselves. You know my opinion already.


     Reflect on the above, please. Don’t think yourself immune to its import. Stop imagining that you, or “we,” can change what cannot be changed. There’s enough evidence to that effect as regards several quasi-Utopian propositions:

  • Socialism;
  • Human equality;
  • Innate sexual properties;
  • The elimination of vice by law;
  • The corrupting influence of power over others.

     There are surely others, but the margins of this Website are too small to include them. Therefore, allow me to close with a quote from one of Orson Scott Card’s best novels:

     “Reality is the most perfect vision of God’s will. It’s discovering God’s will in advance that causes all the trouble.”

     …and a quote from one of the most neglected, least well understood lay philosophers of the Twentieth Century:

     “There’s only one way to improve society: present it with a single improved unit: yourself.” – Albert Jay Nock.

     And with that, I’m off to Mass. Have a nice day.


    • June J on August 21, 2023 at 12:31 PM

    I’m here for the nude recipes…..

    But seriously, this site has enabled my brain to make some order out of the things I see and hear.

    TINVOWOOT…but I’m voting Trump as a FYTW to those who wish me dead.

    • David on August 21, 2023 at 12:53 PM

    An example of political corruption, the Governor Whitmer assassination plot that wasn’t.


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