Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation explores the writings of the American public intellectual and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). My project is a unique contribution to Niebuhrian studies in that I approach these works from the perspective of a rhetorical theorist. My intention is to parse from Niebuhr’s editorial commentaries, his philosophical inquiries and lectures, his theological treatises, and his sermonic essays an specifically “Niebuhrian ethics of rhetoric.” In order to accomplish this task I investigate the rhetorical situation Niebuhr was embedded in and to which he was responding to at the turn of the twentieth century. Part of the analysis of his rhetorical situation places him in conversation with other thinkers writing at the turn of the century, such as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. From the rhetorical situation, the dissertation tackles Niebuhr’s thought in three categories: Niebuhr’s mythic—specifically Christian—approach to history, his dialectical approach to love, justice, grace and power, and finally, his rhetorical approach to the contemporary situations that call for judgment. I argue that Niebuhr’s ethics of rhetoric are specifically Christian, in that they provide, on the one hand, the necessary mythic and dialectical tools one needs to make judgments in tragic realm of contingency, and on the other hand, the hope and faith that is required to move beyond the tragic realm of rhetoric without despair or cynicism. Niebuhr’s characteristic “pragmatic Christian realism,” I argue, is a much-needed approach to the ethics of rhetoric, one that is important for us to understand in a globalized “electric age,” wherein the shared myths that found communities elude us, though we remain asked to make judgments that effect collectives we may never see face-to-face. Niebuhr’s ethics of rhetoric is a guiding light for a rhetorical approach that moves past the local community, fragmented since the industrial revolution and rationalized since the Enlightenment, to a broader sense of community that is neither Jewish nor Greek—neither, me might add, Muslim or Western. It is a rhetoric that moves us confidently, yet qualifiedly, into the future that is beyond tragedy.
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Rhodes, Joseph E., "Reinhold Niebuhr's ethics of rhetoric" (2012). LSU Doctoral Dissertations. 2951.